Going for bloke: Gambling as a men’s health issue

Wednesday, March 24th, 2021 |

Gambling, especially problem gambling, is more common in men than women. 45% of men and 40% of women gambled in some way in 2020, according to Gambling Commission data. There is a much bigger sex gap when it comes to problem gambling – 0.6% of men are defined as ‘problem’ gamblers (those ‘who experience negative consequences and a possible loss of control’) compared to a statistically insignificant proportion of women. Twice as many men as women (1.3% vs 0.6%) are ‘moderate risk’ gamblers (those who ‘experience a moderate level of problems leading to some negative consequences’).

Over three quarters (78%) of active online betting accounts are held by men and the online betting sector derives an estimated 94% of its revenue from men; among the highest spending accounts (where £5,000 or more was spent over the year), over 95% were held by men, typically in their 40s. 70% of callers to the National Gambling Helpline are male.

Why is this? Much of the explanation lies in male socialisation. Men often feel the need to demonstrate their masculinity through acts that are sensation-seeking and risk-taking. Gambling, especially high stakes gambling, may provide men with the opportunity to show how skilled and fearless they can be, traits often considered desirable in men. Men who engage in ‘strategic’ forms of gambling – such as casino table games – have been found to display higher levels of conformity to masculine norms.

More than women, men are attracted to gambling because of impulsiveness, the excitement of the activity, the chance to win rewards, and the search for immediate satisfaction.  Men can get drawn into more serious addiction by a need to escape negative emotions generated by the game (e.g. money loss, debt, conflict, lies to family members and close people). The behaviour is therefore maintained by a pattern of negative reinforcement.

Male problem gamblers are significantly more likely than females to boast about winning to others and to swear at or be rude towards staff in gambling venues. Female problem gamblers, on the other hand, are much more likely to cry. Men are more frequently angry, more likely to hit gaming machines, and to play aggressively. Male problem gamblers are also more likely to groan aloud or blame the venue or machine when they lose, and to drink while gambling. Men can also act territorially and try to scare away other customers from gaming machines they have ‘claimed’ for themselves.

The greater prevalence of gambling problems in men does not of course mean that women’s gambling problems should be overlooked. Gambling is certainly not just a men’s health issue. In fact, there is good evidence that women’s gambling has been under-researched, become more common in recent years, and causes more problems than is generally recognised.

Higher levels of mental distress and more suicidal behaviour has been reported in female problem gamblers than male. Women can also be significantly affected by men’s problem gambling, not least when it impacts on family income and causes relationship difficulties.

What matters more than which sex has a higher proportion of problem gamblers is whether sex and gender are taken into account in understanding why problem gambling occurs and how it should be addressed. The benefits of a ‘gendered’ approach are now increasingly well-recognised in other areas of public health.

Tighter controls on gambling – such as stake caps, affordability checks, bans on gambling advertising and sponsorship, and an end to VIP schemes – would no doubt help to limit both male and female participation. Prohibiting gambling advertising in sport, particularly football, could be particularly helpful for men – it has been suggested that gambling logos are on screen for 70% of the time during Match of the Day. Including gambling in the health education curriculum in schools should also make a difference.

Greater investment in mental health interventions targeted at men would be beneficial as would increasing men’s awareness of the impact of traditional notions of masculinity on health behaviours and of the benefits of adopting different ways of being male. The major changes in men’s role as fathers over the past 50 years suggest that ‘traditional’ masculinity is by no means unmalleable.

Destigmatising male help-seeking for problem gambling could be helped by the use of case-studies of other men who have benefitted from support services, harnessing the voices of male role models, providing support that is anonymised and confidential, and locating face-to-face services in ‘male-friendly’ venues (such as sports stadia, providing of course they are gambling-free zones).

The current Gambling Act review must take a gender-responsive approach to ensure that both men and women are protected from unnecessary harm. The Department of Health and Social Care recently announced that it will consult on a women’s health strategy for England. This is much-needed, and so too is a complementary strategy for men that addresses all aspects of their unnecessarily poor health outcomes, including as a result of problem gambling.

This blog was first published by the Royal Society of Public Health on 23 March 2021.

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