The role of alcohol in American society and culture has always been rather ambivalent (since the Colonial Period, at least). For quite a long time, alcohol consumption was considered a masculine activity. When Alcoholics Anonymous was first established in the mid-1930s, it was developed as an organization open only to men. As time went on, however, and as more and more women came forward with alcohol-related disorders, it became widely accepted that alcohol posed a threat to everyone – not just to men. However, rates of alcohol use disorders amongst men have always been higher. It seems as though, despite the fact that society has widely accepted alcoholism as a disease unrelated to sex, it may have more to do with cultural gender roles than we may think. This is especially true in the collegiate setting, where nearly 1 in every 4 students engages in binge drinking behavior on a regular basis (at least once per week).
Why Men Traditionally Drink More
In 1953, researchers Straus and Bacon studied the antics of more than 17,000 college students from across the nation, finding that overall, collegiate males drank significantly more than collegiate females. In 1977, researchers Blane and Hewitt analyzed and examined 22 in-depth surveys that presented gender-specific data for collegians. Nearly all of these surveys found that college-aged males drink significantly more than their female counterparts. In 1983, researches Barnes and Welte studied gender differences in drinking patterns at 22 college campuses throughout New York, and drew the same conclusions. Innumerable studies have been conducted on the very same subject for years and years, and the same conclusion is essentially always drawn – that men drink more than women, especially in a college setting.
Long-Standing Gender Roles
Several reasons have been presented for the differential drinking patterns for men and women, most having to do with long-standing cultural implications. Some researchers suggest that drinking differences are based (in large part) on the expectation that female sex roles revolve around conventionality and piousness. This sex role thesis explores the subordinate role that women have long-since played in American society, and suggests that, traditionally, women tended to be economically dependent on their husbands, which lead to more restricted drinking privileges. Of course, gender-related differences throughout the collegiate drinking scene cannot be entirely based on this outdated system of inequality. But, as we all know, some long-standing preconceptions trickle down through the decades, no matter how adamantly we protest – no matter how progressive we, as a society, feel we have become.
Many view collegiate drinking as normal and temporary; a right of passage for those who enter into establishments of higher learning. However, it has been estimated that somewhere around 20 percent of all college students will graduate (or drop out, as the case may be) with a severe and steadily worsening alcohol use disorder. Peer pressure plays a major role in the exacerbation of alcohol abuse, especially for young men who decide to rush fraternities during their freshman year. Peer pressure (or direct or indirect encouragement to engage in potentially morally compromising behaviors), is one of the most significant factors in the development of self-destructive and risk-taking behaviors. When men rush fraternities, they are being introduced to, provided with, and pressured into consuming large quantities of alcohol over short periods of time (binge drinking). They learn from their peers that excessive alcohol use is not only socially acceptable, but positive. Of course, when we get caught up in the emotional high of social acceptance, we often overlook any negative consequences that may arise from our risky behavior. The leading cause of death amongst adolescents aged 17 to 20 years is alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents, for example. Additionally, over 400,000 college students admitted to engaging in unprotected sex while intoxicated – and nearly one-fourth of that group could not even remember whether or not they consented (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2011).
The Social-Identity Theory
Now, here is where things get really interesting. The social identity theory suggests that a major portion of an individual’s self-concept is formulated by the actions and belief-systems of his or her peer groups. In the college environment, it is crucial for individuals to develop strong bonds with members of in-groups – an in-group being a collection of individuals who are widely socially accepted, viewed a normative and well-liked by their peers. Fraternities are typically in-groups, and many men will attempt to adapt to the college lifestyle and gain social acceptance by actively participating in Greek culture. Of course, sororities are similar in that they allow female students to assimilate into an in-group and experience a successful transition into the social constructs of college life. However, female students (namely sorority members) are far less likely to fall victim to peer pressure than male students (namely fraternity members). Why?
Men and Self-Concept
The social-identity theory is based on the idea that individuals inherently lack a solid sense of self-identity. Yet if this theory was entirely accurate (and not gender-specific), then it would make sense for men and women to succumb to peer pressure equally. Yet men are more effected by the encouragement of their peers; more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors and neglect potential consequences in order to fit in. This could be because men are taught, from an early age, to actively deny their own emotions. It may seem like a stretch, but it often is the case. Cultural and societal norms pertaining to masculinity often prevent men from getting deeply in touch with their true selves, leading to a lack of emotional and personal identity in adolescence and adulthood. There are, of course, many contributing factors to the gender disparities in collegiate drinking – but this is a significant one, and one that is often overlooked. By stuffing their emotions and burying any past traumatic experiences, men fail to develop a sense of who they authentically are. Because of this, they are more inclined to attempt to fit in by whatever means necessary. Men also have higher rates of substance abuse across the board because of this fact – the trend is not merely limited to institutions of higher learning.
We at Next Chapter work hard to put our male patients in touch with their authentic selves, breaking through any long-standing emotional barriers and developing a sense of personal identity. Our comprehensive, male-exclusive clinical program focuses on addiction through the lens of trauma and attachment. For more information on our program of recovery, please feel free to contact us today.