Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Blurred Lines: How Gendered Descriptions of Drinking Hurt Campus Safety

Imagine a young man and woman, both heavily intoxicated, stumbling around a college party. What would their friends say? Would they perceive the man and the woman in the same way? And if they didn't, what might be the consequences?

According to a new study, college students are likely to describe the man as heavily intoxicated --- wasted, tanked, trashed. But they'll probably describe the woman as only moderately intoxicated -- maybe just tipsy or buzzed.[1] This is true even when the man and woman are equally intoxicated.

The Problems of Misperception

It may not seem like a big deal, but students' misperceptions about how drunk someone is carry serious consequences.

For example, the study notes that misperceptions could normalize heavy drinking. If a male student boasts that everyone was wasted at a party -- even if everyone wasn't -- other men may be encouraged to drink more when they hear how fun the party was.

These misperceptions could also lead college women to underestimate the risks associated with intoxication. For example, a young woman who thinks she's just "tipsy" may also believe she's fine to drive home, even when she's not.

Another potentially more troubling issue, however, surrounds alcohol and consent to sexual activities. Alcohol abuse and sexual violence are intimately connected. Consider these findings:

  • Half of all sexual assaults are committed by men who have been drinking.
  • Half of all sexual assault victims report that they had been drinking when they were assaulted.[2]
  • 72% of college women who were raped were intoxicated at the time of the attack.[3]
  • Each year more than 97,000 students between 18 and 24 suffer alcohol-related sexual assault or rape.[4] 

Though research suggests that campus sexual assaults are rarely just drunken misunderstandings,[5] alcohol does play a role in most campus sexual assaults. If a man thinks a severely intoxicated woman is only "tipsy," he may misjudge her ability to consent. Similarly, friends and bystanders may underestimate the risk of a situation, and let a friend do something (or have something done to her) that puts her at risk.

Researchers also speculate that men may use alcohol to justify sexual coercion.[6] By labeling himself and his friends as "wasted" or "tanked," a man absolves them of any responsibility for their actions and implicitly condones coercive behaviors that are seen as part of being drunk.

Ways Forward

Although it's not clear what causes these differences in perceptions, the researchers hypothesize that while women are encouraged to drink as much as men, they must also navigate the negative stereotypes applied to women who drink heavily. "This double standard," the researchers explain, "may lead women to apply moderate intoxication terms to themselves and to other women to downplay their level of intoxication and not violate perceived social and gender norms" (Levitt et al. 2013, 5).

For men, meanwhile, heavy drinking constitutes an important part of what it means to be a "man" in college. Thus, they want to be seen as heavy drinkers and describe themselves as such.

The study only reinforces the importance of drinking cultures on campuses. It's not just alcohol, but students' perceptions about alcohol that are problematic.

In response, student affairs specialist should consider dedicating some of their time to helping students become more aware of how they describe each other's drinking behaviors and encouraging students to discuss the relationship between drinking and gender stereotypes.

Works Cited

[1] Levitt, A., Schlauch, R.C., Barholow, B.D., Sher, K.J. (2013). Gender Differences in Natural Language Factors of Subjective Intoxication in College Students: An Experimental Vignette Study. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. DOI: 10.1111. <accessed 20 July 2013>. See also the earlier study Levitt, A. Sher, K.J., Bartholow, B.D. (2009). The Language of Intoxication: Preliminary Investigations. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 33, 448-454.

[2] Abbey, A., Zawacki, T., Buck, P.O., Clinton, A.M., McAuslan, P. Alcohol and Sexual Assault. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. <Accessed 26th July 2013>. Abbey, A. (2002) Alcohol-Related Sexual Assault: A Common Problem among College Students. Journal of Studies on Alcohol Supplement, 14. Available on College Drinking. <Accessed 8th July 2013>.

[3] Mohler-Kuo, M., Dowdall, G.W., Koss, M.P., Wechlser, H. (2004). Correlates of Rape while Intoxicated in a National Sample of College Women. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 65,37-45.

[4] College Drinking. National Institue on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Web. <Accessed 8th July 2013>.

[5] See for instance Lisak, D., Miller, P. (2002). Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending among Undetected Rapists. Violence and Victims, 1, 73-84.

[6] Abbey, A., Zawacki, T., Buck, P., Clinton, A.M., McAuslan, P.. (2004). Sexual assault and alcohol consumption: what do we know about their relationship and what types of research are still needed. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 9, 271-303.

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