Refusing recovery, living a ‘wayward life’: A feminist analysis of women’s drug use

Dennis, Fay and Pienaar, Kiran. 2023. Refusing recovery, living a ‘wayward life’: A feminist analysis of women’s drug use. The Sociological Review, 71(4), pp. 781-800. ISSN 0038-0261 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

Drawing on cultural historian Saidiya Hartman’s (2019) book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, this essay reads one woman’s life with drugs and resistance to drug treatment as a feminist act of refusal, a ‘wayward life’ in Hartman’s terms. Wayward lives are those that refuse dominant forms of servitude and push open alternative ways of being. Although living in a different time and location to the young black women in Hartman’s book struggling to survive after emancipation in the United States, we see the woman (Kim) in our study in contemporary London, United Kingdom, employing similar acts of cramped resistance in a world that treats her as ‘pathological’ and ‘criminal’. We explore the ways in which Kim resists the law, the tropes of pathology that profess to know her, and the abstinence-based treatment systems that seek to change her. Importantly in following Hartman, we are not dismissing her struggles or romanticising her drug use, but rather looking to assemble a picture of her life that captures its admixture of daily trials and challenges, fleeting triumphs, pleasures and acts of resistance. Here we are making room for the kind of embodied and intimate political work that often gets left out of discussions of more formal anti-prohibitionist activism and organisation.

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The research that underpins this article was funded by a Wellcome Trust Research Fellowship in Social Science and Bioethics, awarded to Fay Dennis.


addiction biography, case study, feminist analysis, recovery discourse, women’s drug use

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Sociology > Centre for Invention and Social Process (CISP) [2016-]


21 April 2023Accepted
1 August 2023Published Online

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Date Deposited:

08 Aug 2023 10:32

Last Modified:

08 Aug 2023 10:37

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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