Women and Heroin Addiction in China’s Changing Society
Author: Huan Gao
New York: Routledge, 2011. 201p.
Reviewer: Dina Perrone | May 2012
The author must be commended on completing a research project about a hidden population – heroin addicted women in China. Through this work, the author has given a voice to women who are often silenced.
Women and Heroin Addiction in China’s Changing Society illuminates the lives of 131 heroin-addicted women in China (90 of whom were followed from 2005-2008). The lives and drug experiences of these women are situated within the context of a country in flux. The book provides an informative overview of the history of China and China’s economy. It also describes in depth how shifts in education, economic, and family policies and norms have altered the social position of women in China. This discussion provides the foundation for the author’s account of the history of drug use, drug trafficking, and heroin production around China. While it is questionable if China in fact “eradicate[d]” (p.11) illicit drug use – history indicates that this is unlikely – this book fills a significant gap in the literature on global experiences with drug use and trafficking.
Gao’s book chronicles the life histories of heroin-addicted women, and describes the factors that have affected onset, persistence and desistence of heroin use. The author gained unique access to these hidden women, and provides many suggestions for those who would embark on similar qualitative research projects. For example, when conducting interviews, the author provided cigarettes to the women both as an incentive and to make them comfortable. These tips are valuable for qualitative researchers.
One of the most significant findings of this book is that drug initiation, continuation, and cessation is a process. Often, users are pictured as becoming problem users instantaneously. Gao’s work provides a more accurate depiction of the drug use trajectory. The author shows that drug use among these women is a gradual and dynamic process: “women’s immersion into the world of heroin did not occur overnight” (p. 71). Rather, these women’s changing social relations provided them with both opportunities and reasons to use (p. 2).
Most of the criticisms that might be made of this revealing book revolve around its lack of theoretical implications. While the author revisits Goffman’s and Lindesmith’s classic works on identity creation and change throughout the drug using process, the author does not really develop other theories that might have emanated from the women’s interviews. For example, although not expanded upon, the author hints at, through her use of interview excerpts, how access to capital shaped desistence, and how the lack of capital and poor treatment modalities provoked persistence. These findings very much mirror the literature on drug cessation throughout the globe.
Through the interviews, the author also implies that the patriarchical structure of Chinese culture, male-female power relations, social constructions and expectations of femininity and westernized ideas of beauty negatively affect these women’s lives, their drug use trajectory, and their involvement in the sex trade. While these themes surface throughout the book, the reader may find him/herself seeking more elaboration on these points and, perhaps, more connections to feminist theories.
Given these heroin-addicted women live in China, one of about five official communist nations, readers may be seeking some application of Marxist or other critical criminological theories (i.e., theories on globalization and materialism). The author provides some analysis of macro-level economic forces that shape the women’s needs, desires, and drug using trajectories, but Marxist and other critical criminological theories are absent.
The author suggests that these women’s decisions to use drugs are embedded in hedonistic ideals and a desire to self-medicate. One significant criticism of much of the scholarly discourse of drug use is that it is void of any consideration of how drug use is simply pleasurable and fun. The author, while she discussed the pleasure of using heroin in a few parts of the book, also neglected to elaborate on these women’s decisions to use heroin just to feel good.
Throughout the book, the author refers to the harms of heroin use, and often states “how bad it is” (e.g., p. 79). The author describes how these women experienced health-related negative effects including HIV infection, the loss of family relationships and unemployment. Most of these consequences are linked to problem substance use more generally. However, the majority of the women in this study had been using heroin for fifteen or more years, and none died. And, most of the health-consequences these women experienced could have been prevented with safe drug use practices through education and needle exchange programs. However, a discussion of needle exchange programs or other harm reduction programs is omitted from the discussion of policy implications.
Despite these criticisms, the reader is much better informed about life in China and the possible experiences of being female and heroin-addicted living in China after reading Women and Heroin Addiction in China’s Changing Society. The book is a relatively easy read that is accessible to both undergraduate students and academics and that leaves readers wanting more. The author only gives a taste of the various areas of the women’s lives, and how macro forces greatly shape drug use. Readers can also only imagine the author’s experience in conducting this research project. Given the conditions under which the author worked, a reflexivity piece on her experience as a researcher in that setting would be invaluable to both novice and seasoned qualitative researchers.
Dina Perrone, Associate Professor Criminal Justice, California State University, Long Beach