Risk With No Reward: Women, Gender Dynamics, and Alcohol


“The real struggle is about you: you, a person who has to learn to live in the real world, to inhabit her own skin, to know her own heart, to stop waiting for life to begin.”

- Caroline Knapp, author of Drinking: A Love Story

Last month, part one of this two-part series on alcohol and gender issues encouraged campuses to have thoughtful and honest conversations about the challenges that alcohol holds for women. Happy Hour and Harassment focused specifically on the role of alcohol as a potential contributing factor to gender-based harassment. In this month’s follow-up, colleges and universities will once again be asked to consider the personal implications for women in environments where drinking is normalized and even encouraged. This article will focus on the impact that such environments have in creating a subtle form of gender discrimination that young women must navigate with little to no understanding of the long-term implications.

Health Consequences

No matter how progressive our society becomes in terms of narrowing the gender gap, it works against women when it comes to drinking. The fact that women process alcohol differently is about more than just how quickly they become intoxicated. Although men are more likely to drink, and in larger amounts, the well-understood differences in body structure and chemistry mean that the immediate effects of alcohol occur more quickly and last longer in women than men.

Importantly, these differences make it more likely that drinking will cause long-term health problems in women than men. Liver, brain disease, cancer, and heart disease all occur for both men and women. However, these are accelerated in women, causing them to surpass men in the number of problems that result from their drinking. This includes alcohol dependence, with women advancing from their first drink to alcohol-related problems and the need for treatment more quickly than men.

The Role of Stress

More college men meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder than women, but women constitute more than half of alcohol abusers among college students. This may be due in large part to the link between stress-induced craving and anxiety that has been found for women, but not men. Additionally, women who tend to drink more heavily are most often those that believe alcohol reduces tension. If the reason for over-drinking is to relieve stress, it should be pointed out that alcohol actually makes one less capable of managing stress, resulting in increased anxiety and, in return, increased drinking. Administrators have long recognized the need to help students identify alternatives for relieving stress. The research noted here makes it clear that this is an even more crucial exercise for women.

On a college campus, tension and stress can be a direct result of academic pressure, but more often, it is interpersonal pressures that drive alcohol abuse. An analysis of AlcoholEdu data revealed that one of the top reasons women engage in the dangerous practice of pregaming (excessive drinking prior to attending a social event) is to relax and feel more comfortable socializing at whatever event they are planning to attend later in the evening. Compare this to one of college men’s top reasons, which is to make it easier hook up at the event. While not specific to pregaming, that reasoning persists beyond college as well. Men who have strong expectations that drinking will lead to social and physical pleasure and to sexual enhancement tend to drink more heavily. There is no clearer illustration of how gender differences have the potential to play out in some very unhealthy ways for both men and women.

The Inequality of Drinking

All of these issues, while significant, underlie a greater problem that looms large for young women; a problem often wrongly identified as an indicator of women having finally achieved gender equality. Heavy drinking by women, once frowned-upon, is now very much accepted, particularly by other women. Popular culture often depicts alcohol as reward (think, “work hard, play hard”), and as a symbol of female empowerment, even equality.

Alcohol companies and their greatest promotional tool, social media, have done their part to perpetuate this view. If there is any doubt, consider the example noted in a 2016 Washington Post article on how heavy drinking by women has been normalized. The Post describes how Amy Schumer - an oft-touted feminist role model for young women - “guzzled [a certain brand of] boxed wine” in one of her first breakout movie roles. The producers of the wine used in the movie “promoted the scene on social media and young women responded with photos of themselves chugging what came to be known as ‘binge in a box.’” The increased social media attention was followed closely by a 22 percent increase in sales. It seems a unlikely that Susan B. Anthony or Gloria Steinem were fighting for this type of equality. Even their contemporaries leading the #MeToo movement are not likely to endorse alcohol use as a way to empower women, particularly because alcohol often precipitates the sexual abuse and harassment they are fighting so hard to end (see: Happy Hour and Harassment).

Moving Forward

Opportunities to empower women on college campuses often take the form of programs and conversations intended to guide women in identifying attributes of healthy relationships, romantic and otherwise. We hold workshops on values clarification in an effort to encourage women to consider the importance of qualities like mutual respect, communication, and shared goals. On how many of those occasions are we also asking women to consider their relationship with alcohol? Is there mutual respect? Does alcohol share the same goals? The answer to both is likely “No.” Encouraging women to understand that alcohol does indeed discriminate, not only physiologically, but in a multitude of other ways, must also be part of the conversation. In the book Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, author Sara Hepola identifies the challenge this way, "Like many women, I felt like I had value when I could throw back drinks and keep up with the boys."

In what ways do we encourage women on our campus to find their value beyond “keeping up with the boys?” What environments exist on campus that enable women to explore their value without feeling that they need to “throw back” several drinks in order to feel equal? We don’t set out to make women question their capabilities. Nor do we plan for young women to leave our campuses feeling that alcohol is the only answer to survive the inequities that are inevitably a part of life. But, when schools perpetuate environments that simultaneously promote high-risk drinking while failing to challenge the use of alcohol as a solution to manage those inequities, alcohol can become the mechanism to effectively quell feelings of inadequacy for not doing enough while trying to do everything. We need to examine to what extent this plays out on our own campuses. Only when we have answered these questions can we be assured that we have done all we can to encourage the long-term health and safety of our female students. What we do today can help reverse the emotional and physical costs of alcohol in women’s lives.

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