Is It Socially Acceptable Behavior or Deviant Behavior?

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Addictive behaviors — from drinking to gambling to sex — can range from socially acceptable behavior to socially deviant behavior. Here's why.

Are All Addicts Social Deviants?

The stereotype of someone with an addiction is a social deviant — someone who breaks the accepted norms of human behavior. But this isn't always the case.

Behavior that is perceived as socially deviant is highly stigmatized, which often causes as many or more problems for the person engaging in the behavior than the addiction itself — if there even is an addiction.

There is also a large gray area between socially deviant behavior and socially accepted or "sanctioned" behavior, although sub-groups of people with addictions have their own prescribed behaviors and social sanctions that keep addicts feeling like they belong.

Certainly, some addictive behaviors are considered socially unacceptable, and therefore the person doing them can be considered a social deviant. Heroin use, for example, would be considered quite shocking in most social circumstances. However, in communities and sub-cultures where heroin use is common, it's not really socially deviant to take heroin. In fact, if your parents, friends, and neighbors all take it, taking heroin helps you to fit in with those around you.

On the other hand, many addictive behaviors are considered acceptable by mainstream society and are even encouraged. Alcohol is arguably one of the most harmful drugs in use, but its consumption by adults is accepted and encouraged in every strata of society, including the highest classes.

Furthermore, you can actually ostracize yourself by not drinking alcohol in some social situations where it's expected.

The Continuum of Social Acceptability

The table below shows some examples of common addictive behaviors, which illustrate the continuum from socially deviant to socially problematic to socially acceptable behaviors in mainstream Western cultures.

These are not meant to be rigid categorizations, but simply examples of how behaviors tend to be perceived — for example, illegal activities such as underage drinking are classed as "deviant," whereas in reality, this is quite common and often accepted by youth and adults.

Some behaviors have shifted position in recent decades, for example, smoking cigarettes is socially problematic, but not yet socially deviant, while it was socially acceptable 30 years ago.

Social Acceptability
Addictive BehaviorSocially Deviant BehaviorSocially Problematic BehaviorSocially Acceptable Behavior
AlcoholismBinge drinkingOccasional/social drinking
Underage drinkingPublic drunkenness 
 Drinking at the wrong time/placeDrinking in "drinking establishments"
Illegal drug useMethadone maintenance 
 Medical marijuana 
 Painkiller overuseAppropriate painkiller use
 Cigarette smoking 
 Binge eatingModerate eating
Excessive gamblingLosing a lot of money in a gambling bingeBingo, lotteries, trips to Las Vegas
Sexual abusePromiscuitySex within a relationship
Exploitative sexSex work 
 Hardcore pornography 
 Sexual harassment 


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