A convergence between the alcohol consumption habits of American men and women is occurring, and nowhere is this more evident than on college campuses. A nationwide trend of increased drinking emerged in the 1990s and has carried forward. With changing attitudes about the role of women in society, signs of alcoholism in the female population have grown during this time period. These behaviors carry over into the post-college period as estimates indicate that about 18 percent of women ages 18 to 44 engage in regular binge drinking behavior. While college men report drinking significantly more alcohol by unit, a number of factors make heavy drinking, even in smaller amounts, riskier for college women.
What Has Changed
Gender norms tied to women drinking have shifted dramatically in recent decades. Where excessive drinking by women was once heavily frowned upon, societal views have softened. Female respondents in surveys frequently report drinking behaviors that are more peer-driven with the perception that friends drink frequently, creating an environment of normalcy. Women frequently overestimate the expectation of drinking that their friends, dating partners and other peers have of them. Such misconceptions can be amplified by the fact that women in heavy drinking peer groups tend to cluster, leading to a social bubble effect. Same-sex friend effects are by far the strongest predictors that a woman will display signs of alcohol use disorder.
Another concerning trend is what has come to be referred to as drunkorexia. Anorexic behaviors, such as excessive exercising and skipping of meals, are often co-morbid with signs of alcoholism. A lack of food in the digestive system can significantly amplify the effects of alcohol consumption. College athletes are especially prone to this type of behavior. Students showing indications of drunkorexia also tend to have greater difficulty coping with alcohol problems and seeking help.
An NIH study tracking the habits of college students showed that women were more likely than men to exceed weekly consumption guidelines that the federal government publishes. For men, these guidelines indicate a limit of 14 drinks per week. Women are encouraged to stay at or below seven drinks a week, and this installs a lower threshold for problem drinking among female college students.
As the role of women in society has shifted significantly in the past half-century, alcohol consumption may have increased as a demonstration of empowerment. College women could see heavy drinking as a usurpation of traditional gender norms. The arrival of more women in college in recent decades has also tilted the frame of reference for binge drinking. When colleges were seen as predominantly male spheres, binge drinking was perceived as a male activity. Colleges are now frequently seen as co-ed settings, and the perception of binge drinking as a feminized activity has followed.
This has also been accompanied by marketing efforts that have feminized drinking as a normal activity, such as the marketing trend of selling wine to young mothers. As drinking has become a promoted behavior among females who are seen as archetypal responsible women, it likewise has become accepted as a behavior to be pursued by all women. Among the entire female population, the rate of binge drinking has increased at seven times the rate displayed by male counterparts over the last decade. A general sense that moderate drinking is beneficial has also been promoted, although many consumers seem to be unaware of what this actually entails.
Young women are beginning to drink at earlier ages. Many start consuming alcohol as early as 10th grade, and this behavior frequently carries over into college.
It’s hard to overstate the negative consequence of binge drinking among college women. Excessive drinking can lead to an array of health problems, including liver damage. For women, there is also an increased concern about damage to reproductive health as women who binge drink are more likely to experience lasting infertility effects. Increases in miscarriages, premature deliveries and stillbirths have also been noted. Female drinkers are also at greater risk of experiencing cardiomyopathy and myopathy that can be seen as signs of alcohol use disorder. Women may expect to see increased risks of oral, throat, esophageal, liver, colon and breast cancer if they drink to excess. Vomiting caused by alcohol is common, and this can exacerbate the existing risks associated with it. Dehydration is another very common symptom, and it frequently leads to what is considered a hangover.
A number of problems specifically tied to the college environment appear, too. For example, female social obligations typically entail a requirement to baby-sit drunken friends, creating a burden on individuals who don’t exhibit signs of alcohol use disorder. Hundreds of thousands of instances of sexual and physical assault are connected each year to alcohol consumption. Negative effects can carry over into the following days, leading to reduced academic performance. Long-term brain damage can also occur. Body temperature regulation issues, including both hypothermia and hyperthermia, can occur, and this can create specific challenges for students who attend schools in extremely cold or hot regions.
Alcohol is easily one of the most commonly misused substances among college students. The NIH reports that 60 percent of students engaged in alcohol consumption in the last month. Within that group, about two-thirds reported binge drinking in the same period. The behavior is thoroughly ritualized, making aggressive alcohol consumption something that’s often considered an integral element of the college experience. Around 1,800 college students die annually due to alcohol-induced injuries, such as vehicle accidents.
The beginning of a student’s time at college is a particularly vulnerable period. Freshmen were especially likely to report an instance of social pressure to drink at the beginning of academic periods. Binge drinking behavior is also more common among individuals who display signs of neuroticism, emotional instability or social anxiety. This can make the initial acclimation to the college setting uniquely challenging. The combination of alcohol and apparent social support from peers who are drinking may prove to be a strong temptation.
The role that Greek organizations, such as sororities and fraternities, play is notable. Women who reside at sororities are more likely to binge drink, and those who attend parties at fraternities also do. Given the importance of peer support in encouraging individuals to seek counseling and rehabilitative assistance, this can create an obstacle as social support for recovery is likely to be lower.
Dismissing occurrences while drunk may also have a compounding effect. In the emerging hookup culture, drinking is often expected. It can, however, lead to the dismissal of negative effects, including sexual assault incidents, as simply part of playing the game. Women who binge drink are more likely to engage in unprotected sex, and they are less likely to be involved in supportive relationships. Repeatedly going through this kind of cycle may also reduce an individual’s sense of self-respect, an especially problematic occurrence given the self-esteem issues that are commonly documented among young women. A decline in respect from friends who might form a support mechanism can have an additive effect, reducing the chances that an individual will seek help.
Lowered self-esteem and a sense of victimization are often tied to increases in binge drinking behavior. This means that a bad night of drinking that leads to something worse may itself become an added risk factor, leading to a cycle of drinking and bad incidents. Women are also at greater risk of continuing to have problems after they stop drinking than men. This can lead to long-term mental and physical health concerns, including drug use and anti-social behavior, that carry well into adulthood.
One of the biggest challenges that face college-age women who exhibit signs of alcoholism is seeking help. Those who avoid drinking in the first place and ones who seek help tend to do so at the prompting of family members. By its very nature, the college experience tends to disconnect students from the support that their families might otherwise offer. Similarly, by imposing a quarantine of binge drinking to college environs, students are often able to hide the worst effects of their situations from other family members, fostering a sense that everything is alright or that heavy drinking is specific to the academic setting.
Especially concerning is the fact that non-specific treatment programs are commonly less successful in helping women than men. Males also tend to respond better to pharmacological treatments than women. For women seeking treatment, this means it may be wise to consider looking at a recovery program that’s uniquely tailored to their needs. It’s also troubling to note that early interventions are more likely to occur among adolescent boys, so it’s more likely that girls will enter college with undiagnosed and untreated signs of alcoholism or exacerbating mental health problems.
Personality is also in flux during this time in a student’s life. Moving out of high school and into college makes it especially difficult to find an anchor within a peer group. This lack of social support can be particularly damaging to college women who may see alcohol-related activities as ways to obtain friends. Identity issues can compound the problem as women often report that college drinking activities are considered fun and sexy. Some even consider heavy drinking as an opportunity to see men at their worst and that this somehow prepares them better for marriage.
There’s also a sense, particularly emergent among the younger generations who are putting off marriage for longer periods, that it’s important to seek out excitement in the meantime. This can reduce the chances that a woman with signs of alcohol use disorder will be in a supportive relationship. Consequently, available emotional support for recovery efforts may be lessened.
The most important goal in the initial move toward recovery is to provide a grounded social support group that can keep an individual focused. Simply unplugging from the environment can yield benefits. A person in recovery needs time to abstain from alcohol, and women often take longer to start exhibiting signs of improvement without alcohol.
Given that going without alcohol can be lethal to individuals who have developed high tolerances, it’s typically wise to have medical support close at hand during this process. This can make a treatment center an especially appealing option, and women may particularly want to look at one due to the larger number of health effects they suffer from alcohol consumption. Some excessive consumers of alcohol indulge in the use of illicit drugs. It may be prudent for those individuals to look into programs that offer support for multiple issues since there are dangers, including death, that may arise from mismanaging pharmacological solutions for different drugs and alcohol.
Ultimately, getting assistance as early as possible can help those who misuse alcohol escape a cycle of binge drinking and risky behavior.