Here’s a sobering fact: The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, from 2006-2010, an average of around 88,000 people died from alcohol related causes each year. Strikingly, 62,000 of these deaths were men. Unfortunately, the number of alcohol related fatalities has only increased in recent years. Furthermore, on average, college students drink more than other groups. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, when compared to other groups of the same age, college students reported that they had consumed alcohol in the past month 50.6% more, binged (defined as drinking five drinks or more on one occasion) in the past month 33.4% more, and engaged in heavy drinking habits (having binged at least five times in the past month) at a rate 9.3% higher than the others of the same age.
Reckless drinking habits have had no small effect on the lives of college students. According to a study by Ralph Hingson, Wenxing Zha, and Elissa Weitzman 1,825 students aged 18-24 died from alcohol related injury in 2005 alone. According to another study authored by the same researchers, an estimated 9,700 students of the same age group were victims of alcohol related sexual assault and 696,000 were victims of general assault in which alcohol was a factor annually by 2001. Furthermore, the results of a study by Carlos Blanco Et. Al. revealed that 20% of college students met the criteria for alcohol use disorder.
But the patterns in drinking habits tell us more than just the tendency of young people to binge drink.
There are also significant differences in drinking habits between men and women in binge drinking habits. A study from the U.K. published in BMC Medicine with 59,397 participants illustrated that men of all ages consistently consumed alcohol more frequently than their female peers. This difference was most pronounced during young adulthood. For example, men who were 25 years old consumed an average of 13 drinks a week while women of the same age only consumed around three drinks a week. Clearly, there is something that drives binge drinking in men more than women.
An obvious contributing factor to the phenomenon of higher rates of drinking among men is how the media constructs drinking as a quintessentially masculine activity. In a pair of studies published in 1982 by Donald Strickland, Andrew Finn, and M. Dow Lambert, 700 commercials for alcohol as well as 3,000 advertisements for alcohol in magazines were analyzed and found to have been saturated with masculine themes and imagery. Male actors and models were showcased in these ads far more often than female ones and frequently performed in roles that are traditionally “manly,” such as physical labor or competitive sporting. While the Strickland study was conducted in the 30 years ago, it is not difficult to find more recent examples that affirm that drinking is still portrayed as an overtly masculine activity in the media. Take, for example, the Dos Equis commercials that feature the rugged “most interesting man in the world,” or the several different occasions that suave James Bond indulges in considerable drinking during the recent movie Spectre. This construction of drinking as a masculine activity likely originates from pervasive ideals that assert men should not be afraid of taking risks.
Young adults, and especially young men, growing up receive a clear message that describes drinking as inextricably tied with an individual’s masculine identity. Thus, these ads construct an image where young adults feel pressured to consume alcohol excessively. This means that in male dominated settings, young men fear that they will be seen as “less of a man” by their peers. As a result, this attitude is what makes drinking settings, such as sports bars and frat parties, especially risky.
As the statistics tell us, the pressure to perform beyond what one is comfortable with in these scenarios can, and often does, have devastating consequences. Besides the risk of binging and dying as was highlighted earlier, alcohol use often also leads to instances of sexual assault which can ruin the lives of those victimized. Additionally, over 1000 college students die each year as a result of alcohol poisoning as well as drunk driving accidents. To a lesser extreme than death, alcohol use also often interferes with student academic performance and thus prevents them from achieving their goals and ambitions. This problem is apparently very common as a study published by the Journal of American College Health found that one in four students experienced academic consequences as a result of drinking.
This problem, however, can exist outside of alcohol. Any community or culture based around activities that are risky have a similar potential to place the same masculine pressure on boys and men who then do things that may be hazardous to their health or the health of others. One longitudinal study of 1,673 men of 15-23 years of age showed that in addition to alcohol use, identifying strongly with masculine ideals was also predictive of higher rates of drug use, cigarette use, and risky sexual activity. It’s hard to argue that illegal drug use isn’t already being constructed as a masculine rite of passage in certain contexts when looking at recent developments in the popular hip hop and EDM music scenes. Artists like Future and LoudPvck clearly glamorize excessive drug use (the latter more so on social media rather than in the music itself) and help to make it look cool and masculine in the eyes of many young people. As such, we should be similarly critical of how these activities continue to be portrayed in popular media and people, guys in particular, who engage in these activities need to be prepared to assert themselves against peer pressure.
There are a few of routes that can be taken to combat reckless drinking habits. There are organizations which seek to encourage positive peer pressure against excess and attempt to pressure Greek life organizations to not condone binge drinking at their events. People should speak out and campaign against the glamorization of drinking in the entertainment and advertising industries. But perhaps the most important place where we, as college students, can speak and act in opposition to dangerous alcohol consumption (or other risky activities) is when we are present in spaces where these behaviors are taking place. This means resisting pressure to drink more than we are comfortable with to fit in. This means suggesting to someone who’s drinking too much that they ought to slow down. This means, maybe with the help of others, stopping drunk people from getting behind the wheel of a car. Your disruptive presence might make you look “uncool,” but it could also save lives.