Ladies' Night

Equal rights, equal pay, equally drunk

No one kept track. It started out at the wedding shower in the early evening, where nine women -- some still attending college at Michigan State University and others recent graduates -- were celebrating Julie's imminent wedding with presents and beer and wine. But it was the limousine, really, that made it easy to just kick back and have fun. No one had to think about driving home drunk. So they barhopped, to five or six different local bars, where they played pool and darts -- and drank. They drank beer, wine, gin and tonics, rum and Cokes, not to mention the beer in the cooler they brought.

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"Hey, she's the first of our friends to go. So we thought, Let's cut loose," says Connie Russell, a 24-year-old who works for a marketing firm and who helped plan the evening.

"On Fridays we'll go to happy hour and have a few beers, then maybe go out dancing," says Amy Donner, a 25-year-old sales rep and part-time bartender who also helped plan Julie's bachelorette party. "We don't drink to get drunk. We know how to balance our jobs and social lives."

 
Stereotypically, binge drinking (five drinks at one sitting) has been thought of as a particularly masculine endeavor: the stuff of fraternity hazing rituals and tailgate parties. But some researchers say that college women's drinking is increasing. What's more, women seem to be getting drunk for some of the same reasons men do. Subject to the pressures that come from taking part in a social culture that used to belong exclusively to men, women aren't just drinking more, they're drinking more deliberately. They drink to loosen sexual inhibitions, to fit in, and to forget. What women may not know is that drinking like a man doesn't mean that alcohol will affect them the same as it does men. In fact, researchers are beginning to find that alcohol takes a heavier toll on women than on men.

According to the Core Institute Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Studies at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, 55 percent of college sorority leaders binge drink. Many women, however, do not see drinking five drinks as excessive, especially if they are drinking with dinner, or over the course of a very long evening. "Four or five drinks gets me a pretty good buzz," Russell says. "But it really depends on whether I've eaten or what the situation is."

Russell's observation that four or five drinks mean a different buzz at different times is more accurate than she might know. Oral contraceptives, dieting, and even PMS all conspire to create fluctuations in how much alcohol a woman's body can absorb. At the same time, the effects of alcohol on all women can be more deadly. Physiologically, drinking puts a woman at greater risk for alcohol-related liver damage than it does a man; alcohol also compromises her immune system and is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. Less concrete but equally disturbing are correlations between drinking and a woman's risk of having unprotected sex, contracting HIV, and being sexually assaulted.

"Until recently, most studies concerning the adverse effects of alcohol focused mainly on men," says Charles Lieber, chief of Bronx Veterans Administration Medical Center's Alcohol Research and Treatment Center. "However, evidence is accumulating that women may be more affected than men by the same dosage of alcohol." Lieber and other researchers have found that women are not as well equipped as men to break down alcohol, because they have less of the enzyme produced in the stomach needed to do so. This means more of the alcohol is absorbed, and, because women retain less water in their bodies than men do, whatever alcohol they drink is more highly concentrated in the blood. Additionally, women form rigid drinking patterns earlier than men, and these methodical habits are hard to break.

These findings, coupled with the rise in women's drinking, worry the medical community. As Lieber declared in a study on gender and alcohol: "It is now clear that an alcohol intake that may be considered moderate and innocuous in men is not necessarily so in women."

Women are not unaware of alcohol's effects on their bodies. Somewhat troubling, however, is the effect on which their attentions appear to be focused. "The No. 1 question I get from the girls," says Michigan State's dietitian, Ronda Bokram, who gives seminars to women in dorms and sororities, "is, 'Which alcoholic drink [has] the least amount of calories?'"

Michigan State has 40,000 students and the largest dorm system of any university in the country. Its sprawling East Lansing campus is one of beautiful brick buildings and an emphasis on sports that reaches near-mania at certain times of the year. It's also often cold and overcast; as any veteran of a Midwestern college can tell you, come winter in a small town, there's not much to do outside of drinking dollar beers at local bars or dorm keg parties. The numbers bear out this lack of options: The 1997 Core survey found that 77 percent of MSU students drank at least once in the month before the survey, and 45 percent binge drank during the two weeks before.

The centrality of alcohol to MSU's social life was made disturbingly clear last May, when students having a party showed up at the home of the university's president to protest the administration's attempts to curb student drinking at tailgating parties. The gathering devolved into a riot, complete with thrown bottles and police.

In response to chronic heavy drinking and the resulting health and violence issues, MSU has cut the so-called welcome week -- the week before fall classes begin, when students move into the dorms -- down to just a few days. Welcome week has long been one of the busiest at the local hospital and sexual assault centers, because, as one administrator says, the freshmen "go bananas."

"Young women come to college, they are looking for friends, they want to meet new people," says Diane Windischman, sexual assault crisis and safety education program coordinator at MSU. "They don't usually view other students as potential perpetrators."

Windischman knows that drinking plays a significant part in many sexual assault cases: Of the sexual assault cases at her center, well more than half involve alcohol use by either the man or the woman. What's less well documented is how some women knowingly use alcohol to help smooth out their self- consciousness and sexual inhibitions.

"As a society, we don't do a good job of talking to women about their sexuality," says Dennis P. Martell, a health educator at MSU's Olin Health Center. "It has become traditional for women to use alcohol as a 'disinhibitor' to meeting people." Martell cites a widely repeated but informal statistic: Seventy-four percent of sexually active women at MSU would not have had sex if they had not been drinking at the time. It almost doesn't matter that this study is not readily found in the university's records; it seems to confirm something experience can only suggest.

"I don't know if the pressure is real or imagined," says Jacque, then a senior. "But drinking is used as an excuse. If you wake up next to someone you're not attracted to, you can always say you were drunk."

As it turns out, there is scientific evidence to support these suspicions. University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences professors Sharon C. Wilsnack and her husband Richard W. Wilsnack have been studying the reasons for and consequences of women's drinking for almost 20 years. Repeatedly, women say they drink because "alcohol [is] useful for loosening up sexually." Sharon Wilsnack has found a pattern of women "using alcohol deliberately to disinhibit" themselves, and get into "a party mood."

"The first couple of years in college, I drank to get drunk," says Meg Carne, a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of California-Berkeley. Gazing around the crowded college bar this evening, however, she stresses that getting drunk is no longer an end in itself: "Is drinking the point of my going out? No." But Carne admits that some of the same motivations still apply. Alcohol, she says, "loosens your inhibitions, and a lot [of] being a woman is about being self-conscious all the time." When you're drinking, "you think less about who you are. You are bolder."

Indeed, research by Sharon Wilsnack and others shows that almost two-thirds of women who had used alcohol in the past 30 days drank to make it easier to have sex.

But some point out that alcohol's ability to make physical intimacy easier makes real intimacy that much more difficult: "One of the motivations for drinking is that it is a way of not dealing," says Paige, a recovering alcoholic. "You don't give yourself any room to grow. [Relationships are just] boozy conversation and drunk sex."

After she graduated from a state university in California, Paige regarded her drinking as simply another aspect of modern urban life. "I would sleep late, get up with a hangover, drink coffee, smoke a cigarette...come home, start cooking, start drinking," she says. "You never have to acknowledge the things that are difficult."

Many female alcoholics are, like Paige (who is now a successful high-tech project manager), "high-functioning," meaning that they have careers and hide their drinking well, but have unstable relationships. A telling joke among some high-functioning alcoholics in recovery is that only one's inability to change the cat litter could provide a clue to the hidden mess behind the facade of normalcy. "It's sort of amazing to think that I would stay out 'til 4, then go to a meeting at 8 a.m.," says Paige. "I knew I was walking a fine line. I knew I had to stop."

The divide between social drinking and alcoholism is a gray area that researchers and therapists are still unable to navigate with ease. "That's the $1,000 question: What causes alcoholism?" says Marsha R. Wright, a counselor at the Hazelden Foundation, a respected substance abuse treatment center in Minnesota. Addiction, she says, is "physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual." But, she adds, some people are simply wired for addiction and others are not. "Some [women] drank to get drunk from the first drink."

Recent studies suggest that women who work in more traditionally female-dominated fields such as nursing or education have fewer drinking problems than women in traditionally male fields such as banking and finance. The disparity implies that women may be drinking in patterns similar to men's because they now must face the same professional and social pressures. "Women used to be solitary drinkers, but those boundaries are breaking down," says Abigail, an information specialist at the San Francisco office for Alcoholics Anonymous. "When I was a single mother, I drank alone at home, but then, I did everything alone."

Wright says that some women reach a point where they realize that drinking excessively in social settings could jeopardize their professional images, so they turn to "closet" drinking, hoping that experience will help them feel more "capable" in social situations.

The bachelorette party eventually met up with the groom's bachelor party at a local nightclub, stumbling home around 3 a.m. How much did they drink? "I couldn't really say," Russell says carefully. She adds with a laugh, "It was an exceptional night."

Her co-planner Donner agrees. Not every night is a bachelorette party. But "most of the things we do involve drinking," she says. "It is always there, whether you go bowling or to a picnic or whatever."