Gender and Booze

Research suggests value of designing alcohol programs based on differences in how male and female students drink -- and think.
March 22, 2006

Ever hear the phrase "bitch beer"?

It's a term some students are using to describe the fruity liquor drinks popular with women on campus. And the term conveys both the sexism and sex roles that are an important part of understanding the way students use and abuse alcohol, according to experts from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, which is currently conducting an Education Department-funded study on how gender considerations can go into alcohol-education programs.

The Wilmington team presented an overview of the project and some of the early results Tuesday in Indianapolis, at the annual meeting of ACPA: College Student Educators International. A few others in the audience said that their institutions were also retooling alcohol education to place more emphasis on gender, and several others expressed hope that the approach might make more headway than numerous failed attempts at their institutions to minimize binge drinking.

Early results from the Wilmington study are finding that a gender-based approach to alcohol education has an impact (in what colleges would consider the right direction) on both the frequency of binge drinking and the average number of drinks per session. And in a particularly encouraging sign, the Wilmington researchers found that students who went through their programs were much less likely than other students to agree with statements like "I'm more fun when I'm drunk."

The research was presented by Rebecca Caldwell and Aimee Hourigan, who work in Wilmington's Crossroads program to discourage alcohol abuse.

They opened their presentation by engaging the audience -- most of which consisted of student affairs officers who work on health, counseling, substance abuse or Greek affairs -- in a discussion of what they knew about differences between the ways men and women drink in college. Citing both data and anecdotes, the audience saw similarities: Men and women who are drunk are more emotional, for instance, and more likely to engage in various risky behaviors. But the audience focused on differences, agreeing that these differences were well known and yet play little role in most campus programming on alcohol:

  • What they drink. To quote the title of the presentation, "men drink beer, women drink liquor." Participants agreed that this was true and had many implications, some of them negative for women. For example, a male student who knows he has a self-imposed limit of some number of beers can keep track (if he wants). There is much more variation in the potency of mixed drinks and a woman may not really have a good sense of whether she's exceeded what she can safely consume. In addition, audience members reported that women on their campuses, when attending a party where only beer will be served, may drink by themselves or with other women before the party, so they can have non-beer booze, and as a result are drunk even before the men at the party.
  • Where they get sick and whether they get help. When women drink excessively, to the point where they are likely to throw up or pass out, they manage to get themselves inside, to a dorm room or bathroom. Many male students think nothing of collapsing outdoors. Someone inside is more likely to get help. And generally, audience members said, a woman's female friends will intervene and help a woman or take her to the hospital. Male friends of male students are more likely to assume everything will be fine or that their friend would be embarrassed by getting help.
  • What being drunk enables them to do. Some of the things being drunk allows men to do don't pose much of a danger. For instance, audience members reported that many of their male students say that they will only dance with their girlfriends after a buzz and will only share deeply emotional feelings that way. In contrast, many female students report that being drunk allows them to feel comfortable having sex with people they don't know well -- something they might not do sober and that may involve risks or unsafe behavior.

Ultimately, Caldwell said, "the key is that there are different drinking cultures" for male and female students.

And that's what creates an opening for creative programs. Wilmington's efforts aren't anything dramatic -- lectures, group discussions, films, role playing exercises. But there is a dramatic difference from the university's previous efforts. "We're talking about gender much more than we're talking about drinking," Hourigan said. "It's like we're sneaking the alcohol [topic] in."

In fact, Caldwell and Hourigan said that students -- male and female alike -- who wouldn't ever think of attending a seminar or program on alcohol education will attend programs about gender.

The programs themselves are sometimes in single-sex groups and sometimes mixed. But the subject matter is more likely to be focused on an issue tied to drinking, not drinking itself. For example, programs with women have examined local bars' marketing practices (letting women skip a cover charge, or letting women in skirts do so) and what those practices suggest. From there, discussions with women might focus on the "good girl/bad girl" dichotomy where female students feel pressure to achieve academically during the day, but want to let loose at night, and feel helped by booze.

The idea isn't to lecture about alcohol, but to talk about the various reasons men and women drink -- and to examine what those reasons say about the individuals involved and society.

Some of the advice that transpires, Caldwell and Hourigan acknowledged, might not appear conventional. For instance, they might talk with women about why they should feel comfortable with their sexuality sober, not just drunk. And the Wilmington program does not preach abstinence from alcohol either. Peer educators who are involved must agree to use moderation, but there is no attempt to convince students that any drink is a terrible thing.

In this, the Wilmington program is very much in the "social norms" school of thought on fighting alcohol abuse. In contrast to more absolutist approaches, which tend to emphasize the dangers of drinking, "social norms" accepts that students drink and believes that sharing information about how much they drink can encourage moderation.

One of the next efforts planned in Wilmington applies this approach to the idea that gender differences must be recognized. So survey data is being collected that Wilmington officials believe will help them produce posters for men, noting that high percentages of Wilmington women don't consider extremely drunk men to be sexy. When men get that message, the officials hope that for many male students, there may be desires stronger than getting that next beer.


Back to Top