Seven deadly sins: Myths of bingeing

Recent studies on the prevalence of binge drinking among college students tar all college tipplers with the same hyperbolic brush

Published November 11, 1998 1:52PM (EST)

College students drink too much. I was hung over for three days after
my 21st birthday. In college, two weeks did not go by when I didn't
have, at least once, four drinks in a single night. My name is Sarah
Rose, and I was among the 39 percent of college women who qualify as
binge drinkers.

A new report from researchers at Harvard shows that the problem of binge
drinking on campuses isn't becoming any less of a problem. While
indignant 19-year-olds insist the drinking itself isn't an issue (to
this day I don't regret the exotic dancer and her Hong Kong triad
boyfriend who treated me to my three days of shame), all admit that the
resultant behavior from drinking is. I didn't get behind a wheel, force
anyone to have sex, flunk classes or, as one freshman at MIT did this fall, die from alcohol poisoning. But with the geometric way in which bad decisions get worse under the influence, I could have. That's what keeps college administrators up at night.

Binge drinking is considered by those whose job it is to consider these things to be the single greatest public health hazard on campuses today. By serving
up big numbers, researchers scare the public: 50 percent of students are
bingeing. Half! But what proportion go well beyond the four drinks for
women, five for men, to drink themselves doggy-eyed and sleep on the
fraternity cat? Every alcohol poisoning case involves binge drinking,
but not all binge drinkers get alcohol poisoning. (Otherwise, we'd have a lot more dead college students out there.) My guess is that when
you isolate the extreme cases -- say, the girls who drink
seven and boys who tip back eight -- you find the frightening and expected
correlation with the excesses: the deaths, the rapes, the abused
property. There are essentially two communities being talked
about, the functional bingers and the fearsome ones. Couldn't a study
separate the two? And if it could, wouldn't smaller and more telling numbers lessen the attention binge drinking gets?

When I binged, I had my two gin and tonics and two beers, maybe
every other week. Thursday night at a sports bar, a scorpion bowl and
that Cantonese dive with the year-round Christmas lights. But I
suffered when I was sloppy drunk, and I restricted it to that most holy and singular of holidays, my 21st birthday.

I had a roommate once who spent all weekend howling at the toilet. We
collected phone calls informing us of her past evening's derring-do:
topless on the bar, tongue-deep in a blond, exhausting the
expense account of some hapless stranger. She never had an inkling the next day. There simply is a difference between my discrete every-other weakness
and her appointment with the bottle. The study, as reported in the New
York Times, does nothing to distinguish between our very different behavior. She has no degree, but
like the large majority of college students, I graduated. Pathological
bingers need professional help, but there are many easy solutions for
the more moderate deviants.

Higher-ups whose job it is to maintain the university's institutional
memory furrow their brows, swallow the findings whole and take a
paternal, almost punitive approach, instituting three-strikes policies, printing birth dates on student IDs and giving endless orientation lectures about the consequences. The message is "Don't," but rarely do we hear the
proactive "Manage your drinking responsibly when you do ... as you
inevitably will."

Carleton, a remote Midwestern liberal arts school, tried the more moderate approach of offering free cups -- typical of those used at beer parties -- printed with slogans aimed against the connection between drink and violence against women: "100 percent of the rapes on this campus occurred under the influence of alcohol"; "Only yes means yes."

Plainly policies that address the compos mentis of almost-adults will
work better than severe loco parentis. But having to comply with state
liquor laws binds the wrists of understanding administrators who would
like to make the campus a safe haven for experiments in adulthood.

But the best strategy against destructive boozing is probably a campus culture (and therefore a student culture) that puts a premium on intellectual endeavors. At the University of Chicago, a "grind
school" where I'm getting my master's degree, there are few
whoop-banging binge bashes because the workload and emphasis on
performance is so high. Let students police themselves by encouraging
excellence. If we were smart enough to get in, we're smart enough to
figure out what our maximum tolerance-to-performance ratio is.

At my alma mater, an estimated half of the students performed some sort
of community service. One in two of us were coordinating after-school
activities for kids or tutoring illiterates, and it wasn't long before
the realities of alcohol abuse became undeniably clear. Opening up
the campus to the outside world rather than cloaking it in a comfy haze
of institutional security expanded our consciousness of consequences.

Some drink for lack of anything better to do; colleges are often miles
from the real world or so big they constitute a world unto themselves.
Break the boredom-barroom link with university-sponsored alternative
Friday and Saturday nights, alcohol-free concerts and performances,
anything at all interesting enough to keep people out of the dorms and
away from the kegs.

What about peer pressure? Well, what about peer counseling? Trained
students supervised by professionals can staff phone lines and drop-in
centers to buttress the flagging resolve of a tender young party goer.

Most of all, it would be nice if someone looked at the sum of the
collegiate experience and asked why drinking is so very much, in the
Freudian sense, a cigar.

By Sarah Rose

Sarah Rose is working toward her M.A. from the University of Chicago in social thought

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Academia Alcoholism Books College Harvard The New York Times