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The Complications of Gender and Booze: Men Drink Much More Than Women, But Still Enjoy Sexist Privileges

It’s a sexist culture that wrings its collective hands over female “bad behavior” and uses the specter of sexual assault to keep women fearful

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The link between alcohol and sexual assault is well-established, with drinking involved in about  half of assaults. But the takeaway from that statistic is often misguided, with women told to avoid drinking in order to avoid rape. In fact, it’s sexual assault that often leads to problem drinking: Dowsett Johnston points out that the No. 1 indicator of whether a person will begin drinking at a young age — a major predictor of alcoholism — is a history of sexual abuse or trauma. She quotes one researcher as saying that “sexual abuse accounts for twenty percent of binge drinking, and sexual harassment for fifty percent. If we want to get a handle on problematic drinking in adolescence, we have to focus on violence in our society.”

I’d rephrase that slightly: If we want to get a handle on problematic drinking in adolescence, we have to focus on gendered violence in our society.

Another alcohol treatment counselor for young people tells Dowsett Johnston she sees young women who have survived “a lot of sexual trauma, whether they were sober or under the influence. They think if they were drunk, it doesn’t really count because it was their fault. A lot of rape. Certainly, a lot of PTSD. And we can see a rise in substance use right after the event.”

In other words, for a lot of women, sexual assault didn’t happen because they were drinking heavily. They were drinking heavily as a reaction to sexual assault. Lecturing women about how drinking will get you raped doesn’t seem to have convinced women to give up drinking en masse, but it has added another level of shame and self-blame for women who are sexually assaulted after drinking.

About half of men who commit sexual assault were under the influence of alcohol, often drinking with their victim. The overwhelming majority of men aren’t rapists and don’t use alcohol as an excuse for violence, but the small number who do tend to also hold  regressive views about women (for example, that men should initiate sexual activity and women should resist it) and stereotypes about women who drink (that they’re sexually available, that they’re promiscuous, that they have poor moral character). The men who commit sexual assault and rape also tend to respond aggressively and angrily when they feel they’ve been sexually led on by a woman attempting to establish her sexual boundaries.

An aggressive, hyper-masculine drinking culture coupled with stereotypes about women, drinking and sex and the blame heaped on women who are assaulted while intoxicated gives those small number of rapists license to operate. Dowsett Johnston points to that disordered drinking culture as well, noting that women feel they have to go drink for drink with frat boy antics of downing shots of cheap liquor and pounding beers. It’s a fundamental part of a sexist culture to denigrate things that read as “feminine” and therefore weak, and so few women want to be the girl who can’t keep up with the boys. Most men and women drink responsibly. But in certain arenas — college campuses, fraternities, Wall Street — heavy drinking is a cornerstone of the bro culture.

Even outside of those enclaves of bro-dom, the values carry over. It’s about drinking to get drunk, yes. But over-consumption and valuing having more over having better is hardly unique to boozing. Call it the Olive Garden-ization of drinking: taking pleasure in the ability to drink a lot for cheap, the same way we enjoy unlimited breadsticks of questionable nutritional value and taste mostly because they’re cheap and there are a lot of them. Our pasta comes in huge bowls, covered with processed cheese and factory-farmed antibiotic-laden meat. Martini glasses come in enormous sizes, full of artificially flavored spirits. It’s certainly not uniquely American, but the way Americans eat is a particular cultural trait (and one that we’re rapidly exporting). That our drinking reflects that same valuing of low-cost high-volume consumption shouldn’t be a surprise.

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