Consider the slots gender gap

October 03, 2007|By Pamela Haag

I enjoy the serenity of rare agnosticism on the matter of legalized gambling. I can turn the debate this way or that and see both sides. To learn more and perhaps claim a side, I drove to Dover Downs on a lovely spring day last year to see if it would serve up a cautionary tale or a fairy tale for Maryland.

It took a few minutes to habituate myself to the cacophony created by 2,500 slot machines whistling, clanking and whirring at the same time. After that, the first thing that struck me seemed so obvious that I could not imagine I had not heard it before. The slots casino was almost exclusively a woman's world, dominated by seniors and middle-aged women, with a smattering of men and younger women.

Nationwide, slot machine gambling is very much a woman's thing - and slots addiction even more so. Women are a majority of slots gamblers, and 70 percent of female gamblers report having a problem with slots.

This gambling gender gap, hidden in plain view, has potentially important social and policy implications. But it is, to my knowledge, almost entirely missing in the slots debate, which tends instead to serve up familiar arguments from both sides. They are being heard again now that Gov. Martin O'Malley has proposed slots as part of his budget-balancing plan.

Although the study of gambling addiction is in its infancy, research finds that men and women are not equal opportunity gamblers. They gamble, and become problem gamblers, in different ways and out of different motivations and impulses.

Yale University researcher Marc Potenza, who studies the psychiatric basis of addiction, explains that slots appeal to the predominantly female "escape gamblers," whereas blackjack, poker and the racetrack appeal to predominantly male "action gamblers." In general, action gamblers seek the thrill of strategy - horse racing, for example - while slots gamblers seek escape through repetitive, nonstrategic experiences.

Henry Lesieur, editor of the Journal of Gambling Studies, coined the term "escape gambler" in 1992 to describe these machine gamers who "gamble for time away from their problems. ... And they get involved in all sorts of financial problems because of it."

What does this gambling gender gap mean for Maryland?

Slot machines might present different social challenges and problems than the more familiar ones of the male action gambler. For starters, Dr. Potenza has found that female escape gamblers who play slots seem to develop gambling addictions faster than men. Second, we might wonder if Maryland has the social infrastructure or counseling support networks in place to deal specifically with a predominantly female population of escape gamblers, who have different pathologies and underlying problems than their male peers around whom gambling-recovery programs were primarily designed. Finally, it makes sense that the loss of women to slots gambling might affect those communities differently than the loss of men to gambling addictions.

The gambling gender gap is a hidden but potentially critical part of the slots puzzle. It raises questions that we should be thinking about before the state makes a decision.

Pamela Haag lives in Baltimore and has published two books and several recent essays.

Thomas Sowell's column will return soon.

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