We hear the word “unique” used so often, and in so many contexts, that the meaning has really become diluted. As a Michigan DUI lawyer, I echo just about every other lawyer when I say that every case is unique. While it is true that lots of women wind up charged with a drinking and driving offense, there is still a certain uniqueness about the whole gender thing that makes the experience different when a woman is dealing with it, as opposed to a man. The key difference is one of perception, both in terms of the way each gender perceives the experience of going through a DUI from within, and the way each is perceived (and feels perceive) from without. You would be mistaken to just assume that a DUI charge is experienced the same by both men and women. The differences begin from the moment of first police contact and last through the end of the case and beyond. To be clear, I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on women’s issues; however, the simple fact that I even recognize that there can be gender differences in how women experience and deal with a drunk driving case is at least a starting point for a discussion and some understanding.
My recognition of this side of things began as part of my clinical education in addiction studies. Having been a DUI lawyer for more than 2 decades before I began my post-graduate education in alcohol and addiction issues, the very idea that a woman’s experience and perceptions going through something like a drunk driving case could be very different from a man’s had never occurred to me, as it probably doesn’t occur to most men, and maybe even not some women, either. Now, I wonder how I could have been so blind, not only about gender differences, but also about differences that cover the whole spectrum of cultures and groups.
Had you asked me, say about 5 years ago, if I knew anything about the different experiences men and women might have in what appears to be the same DUI circumstance, I would have thought so and answered “yes.” After all, I’ve been with and married to the same wonderful girl for 30 years, and our only child is a daughter; she attends an all-girls high school that emphasizes the empowerment of women. My pet parrot is the only “guy” contact I have at home. Because of that, I’d have probably told you that I was darn near an expert. Even though neither gender can actually do it, the old adage that you don’t really know until you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes holds every bit as true for men’s and women’s experiences as is does for anything else. The fact is that a woman facing a DUI will experience it differently – maybe not entirely differently, but differently enough – than a man. I’m not suggesting that there is some magic solution, or even some kind of specific “women’s approach” to dealing with a DUI, but I do believe that it is helpful to be cognizant of some of the considerations that may be unique to women in a drinking and driving case.
For example, the term used to describe how people don’t see or understand these things in a racial context, is called “the invisible veil,” and it means that we have been so accustomed to the way things are that we think of that state of affairs as “normal.” Here is an easy way to illustrate my point: There is a good chance (about 8 out of 10) that the person reading this article is white. As a white person, my experience is that just about everywhere I go, I look around and see people who look like me. I can turn on the TV and don’t think anything of the fact that most of the people I see are my same color. Seldom have I ever been the only one of my kind (in this example, white) in a room full of people, and to the extent I am, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to being rather conscious of that fact when it happens. Yet that’s exactly what black people experience just about every day, and in most situations. In the same room, doing the same things, our perceptions are different.
Why would a white person think about that? Until the concept is brought to your attention, you simply go through life with the idea that that’s the way the world “is.” To return to the topic at hand, let’s take a look at the legal system. Back in the 70’s (1974 through 1978) there was a popular TV show called “Police Woman.” It was, not surprisingly, about a police woman, and the premise was that in that capacity (being a woman), she was somewhat unusual. Today, while maybe not in equal shares, woman work in all kinds of police capacities, including command positions. Not that long ago, a female physician might have been described as a “lady doctor.” When I began practicing law, there were some female Judges; today, they are commonplace, and I can think of several courts that are entirely or most female-run. The experiences of these women was likely very different than their male counterparts in going to law school, taking the bar, working in what was then a male-dominated profession and then climbing up to a power position.
Let’s jump way ahead for another example: If a Judge orders a middle-aged white male to attend AA for several months, it is entirely probable that when he goes, and whether he likes the AA program or not, the man will be primarily surrounded by other middle-aged white males. He will not feel out of place or experience any awareness of his being male, white, or middle-aged. Unfortunately, many Judges, including female Judges (who you might think would know better, but are, in reality, blinded by the “invisible veil”) will not even think twice about ordering a woman, even a 20-something year old young women, to go to those same AA meetings to get “help.” You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that forcing a young woman into that environment is extremely unlikely to be of any help. She will likely feel frustration like an African-American person picking up a box of “skin colored” Band-Aids to find that the skin color is Caucasian.
So what does all of this mean? If you’re female and reading this because you, or a woman you know is facing a DUI, then it is important to recognize that there is may be an element of self-perceived shame, or humiliation that will not be felt quite the same way by a man in this situation. That’s not to say that both aren’t ashamed, but the well-known double standard that a man with many lovers is “seen as worldly” whereas a woman with the same experience may be seen as “loose” has application here. Whereas a woman may wonder about her abilities as a wife and/or mother when she contemplates a DUI, a male is much more able to shrug it off as having made a bad decision (“boys will be boys”) and getting caught. Remember, here we’re talking about how the person facing the DUI perceives things, and how that person thinks of others thinking about them. It doesn’t really matter that, in many cases, no one will think much of, or much differently about a woman versus a man getting picked up for DUI. What really matters is how the person facing the DUI feels about it.
In terms of sentencing, a woman who is ordered by a Judge to perform community service may have serious concerns about scheduling that around her job and her child-care responsibilities. A man is less likely to have to worry about the child-care end of things. We’ve already taken a look at how differently a woman (albeit a young woman, as used in the example) may experience being ordered to attend AA meetings than her male counterpart. What about counseling? For most men, it typically makes little difference if the counselor he sees is male or female; that can be different, for a lot of reasons, when a woman is the client.
My goal in this article isn’t to make any dramatic or final announcements on these issues, but to point out that they exist, and that many of us, women included, may not even be particularly conscious of them. While the general kind of DUI clients I represent generally tend to be more cerebral and more well read in, at least in terms of how they express it to me, my typical female client will tend to internalize and stress out over a DUI, probably somewhat more than my typical male client. Thus, it is really a worthless gesture for me to just smile and give a female client a generic “it will be alright” reassurance. She may be more interested in discussing about her concerns regarding things like her employment, ability to take her kids to school and/or care for them and clarifying exactly what she is facing.
It is ironic that in an attempt to treat everyone the same, we wind up doing things that have a different and unequal impact on one group over another. In a sense, it is ignorant to the point of almost insulting to pretend that men and women facing a DUI are the “same.” That’s not to say that there is an easy way to equalize things, but rather that it is foolish to not recognize these issues up front. If we are oblivious to them, then we can’t do anything about the implications they have. At least by acknowledging they exist, we can be mindful of any special considerations (think single mom here) that a woman facing a DUI may have that makes her situation unique, and therefore different than a man in the same position.