By Jane St. Clair
In what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has termed “an alarming trend” among young people ages 12 to 22 years old, the percentage of girls who drink alcohol is increasing at a much faster rate than is the rate among boys.
According to a July 8, 2004, article by Elizabeth Armstrong and Christina McCarroll of the Christian Science Monitor, girls first passed boys in terms of alcohol consumption around 2002:
The group Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free … cites 2002 research showing that 38.5 percent of ninth-grade girls reported drinking in the past month, versus 34 percent of boys. Some 21 percent of girls and 19 percent of boys reported binge drinking. Until that year, girls had reported consuming alcohol at rates less than or nearly equal to boys.
The prevalence (and effects) of drinking among girls and young women is detailed in a number of other studies and statistics:
• Colleges are reporting an increase in females being concerned about how much they drink. In one study, Armstrong and McCarroll reported, it was discovered that 16,000 men requested alcoholic screening at some 400 clinics on college campuses, while 19,000 women had requested the same screening.
• Colleges like Syracuse University are reporting that twice as many women than men are going to hospital emergency rooms for treatment for alcohol-related crises.
• The University of Vermont, Stanford University, and Georgetown University have done surveys that show female students are drinking more than ever, and regretting sexual encounters and other incidents that occurred while they were drunk.
• A survey of women’s colleges found a 125 percent increase in campus drinking, and a 300 percent increase among those who said they got drunk on ten or more occasions every month.
Reasons for the Increase
According to experts who study adolescent girls, part of the reason girls are drinking more is that they are daughters of women who grew up in the middle of a new wave of feminism. In an April 21, 2002, editorial in Time magazine, noted feminist scholar Barbara Ehrenrich compared this generation to the flappers who were the daughters of the suffragists.
“We’ve been working hard to get girls to the point of saying — yes, you can do math. Yes, you can play football. Now they are saying — yes, we can drink,” Lee Saltz, a coordinator of alcohol and drug prevention programs for the Los Angeles school system, said in Armstrong and McCarroll’s CSM article.
Another reason for the increase in drinking among girls and young women is that many girls now take pride in the amounts they can drink, and anticipate the day when they will be in the business world and drinking with male colleagues. As one senior at Syracuse University put it, “I’ve had boys comment how impressed they are at the amount of alcohol I consume. It’s a badge of honor, a feminism thing.”
Other experts, however, cite more negative influences behind the increase in alcohol consumption among girls and young women:
• Many studies suggest that girls’ stress levels are much higher than the boys, and this may contribute to their drinking.
• Many high school and college students are also under pressure to be sexy and to indulge in casual sexual encounters. “One reason girls are drinking so much is that it is pretty hard to have these kinds of relationships sober,” said Professor Jean Kilborne of the Wellesley Center for Women. “It’s easier to have meaningless sex when you’re drunk.”
The Influence of the Alcohol Industry
Liquor companies are well aware of this trend of increased alcohol consumption among young women, and they are marketing special products just for female consumers. These products include sweet drinks such Hooper’s Hooch Lemon Brew and “alcopops” or candies that contain alcohol.
In a study by the American Medical Association, one in four teenaged girls told researchers they had tried these products. Another study found that underaged girls see 40 percent more liquor advertisements than boys do. The ads, appearing in magazines such as Vogue and Cosmopolitan, reinforce the idea that drinking is cool and boys like girls who drink. For example, one ad for Cuervo rum reads, “Bad girls are good company,” and a cognac ad includes the direction, “Be at least capable of bad.”
Parents worry about their sons and daughters drinking too much. However, daughters can be of particular concern because they face risks boys don’t:
• Eleven percent of girls who participated in the same study said they had engaged in unprotected sex after consuming alcohol.
• An American study of sexual assaults revealed that half of the assaults occurred after the female victim had been drinking.
Alcohol’s Impact on Female Drinkers
Girls metabolize alcohol differently than boys and get drunk more quickly. They experience deeper impairments of cognitive function and more severe hangovers. They lose more brain tissue than boys do, even when they drink less. They are more likely to experience memory problems, become unable to solve puzzles, and to understand complex ideas after a night of drinking.
Girls who drink too much are more likely to develop eating disorders, cirrhosis, menstrual problems, and cancer of the breast, mouth and esophagus. If they start drinking in their mid-teens, and that is the latest trend, they are much more likely to become alcoholics when they are adults.
Drinking in excess may be a new form of equality, but girls are not equal when it comes to the risks of alcohol.
“Girls have a whole constellation of medical problems surrounding alcohol,” Dr. Duncan Clark of the Pittsburg Adolescent Alcohol Research Center said in an April 1, 2002, Time magazine article. “We anticipate rates of alcohol abuse will ultimately equalize between adult men and women. That is a perverse kind of equality.”