Alcohol abuse among young women on US campuses quadrupled

There is an essay in this month’s The Atlantic called “The Hazards of Duke: A now infamous PowerPoint presentation exposes a lot about men, women, sex, and alcohol—and about how universities are letting their female students down” by Caitlin Flanagan, likely of interest to feminist philosophers.

There a few themes in the article but one of them is the increased rates of drinking among college aged women. I haven’t heard much about this before and I’m interested to know what blog readers make of the article. Flanagan cites Girls on the Edge, by a physician and psychologist named Leonard Sax, which is said to offer “astonishing and troubling new insight into the role and consequences of binge drinking in so many girls’ lives.” It’s Sax who gives the data on men’s drinking remaining constant over the past 40 years, while women’s on campus drinking has roughly quadrupled. Sax also claims that among college students who meet the clinical criteria for alcohol abuse, women now outnumber men, and drinking affects the women “in a different and more pernicious way than it does men.” According to Sax, alcohol is more dangerous to young women than it is to young men, even after adjusting for differences in height and weight. He writes that alcohol abuse appears to damage girls’ brains differently and more severely than the same degree of alcohol abuse affects same-age boys.

Flanagan’s article also describes young women as “liberated from the curfews and parietals that were once the bane of co-eds, but one in which they have also shaken off the general suspicion of male sexuality that was the hallmark of Andrea Dworkin–style campus activism; they prefer bikini waxes and spray tans to overalls and invective. So they have ended up with the protections of neither the patriarchy nor those old-school, man-hating radical feminists.”

Does this sound right to you?

25 thoughts on “Alcohol abuse among young women on US campuses quadrupled

  1. Oh, great. More vague, sentimentalized longing for “simpler times” before this nasty feminism business from Ms. Flanagan. I count four exhortations to the reader to “imagine” how Ms. Owen must have felt at various moments. What a coincidence that she always felt just as Flanagan would have!

  2. I wish I knew. I was a total country-bumpkin nerd when I was young, and now that I am old (61) I have no way of finding out except by the pictures I see on Facebook pages of relatives and students. I see a lot of alcohol being drunk out of red plastic cups and beer out of bottles at parties, weddings and sports events.

    I teach ethics and the alcohol worries me a lot. America tried prohibition for a while and then repealed it, and that makes people think that alcohol is OK. I think it needs to be discussed along with the drugs that were prohibited and remain illegal.

    All these “substances” together are a major problem for our social ethics. As John Dewey said, all ethics are social. And as William James said, there are no non-moral “goods” or “bads”. (Did I mention that I am a new convert to Pragmatism?)

    And I do worry especially about the girls because they seem to end up more often bearing the responsibility of bad decisions. I can get away with being sexist and paternal on this issue because I am an old man.

    I teach a unit in the ethics class beginning with William James on “Habits” and go into addictions. I show the movie “28 Days” with Sandra Bullock and ask them to write about it. I think it helps them.

    I also play the song “Lets Get It Started” by the Black Eyed Peas:
    “We got five minutes for us to disconnect, from all intellect collect the rhythm effect. …
    Lose control, of body and soul.
    Don’t move too fast, people, just take it slow.
    Don’t get ahead, just jump into it.
    Ya’ll here a body, two pieces to it.
    Get stutted, get stupid.”

    Their theme is to disconnect the intellect and get stupid. Mine is to connect the intellect, get smart and take control of body and soul.

  3. BTW I don’t really care about Duke or the students’ sexual behavior there or here. I think sex is actually pretty trivial and boring. The alcohol kills people and destroys society.

  4. I can’t get past the author’s condescending tone towards Karen Owen. The idea that the power point in question reveals a fraction of what Flannagan claims it does is, in my view, unbelievable (e.g., “But in the sheer amount of anecdotal detail, and in particular in her relentless descriptions of the anatomical shortcomings of various partners, she reveals that the thesis is motivated by the same force that has prompted women through the ages to describe with savage precision their liaisons with men who discarded them: revenge” ???).

  5. Well, like the commentator above I pretty much read past all the conservative stuff about women and sex. An increase in women’s sexual agency seems to me to be a good thing even if it leads to some cringe-worthy power point presentations. I was more interested in the claims about women and alcohol abuse. Are the claims about the increase in women’s alcohol consumption correct? Are the claims about the greater impact of alcohol on women right? Helpful to know more about the source, jj. There is very little research about the effects of alcohol on women’s health. For example, almost all of the studies showing some beneficial effect have been done only on men. I was surprised and interested to read the claim that the abuse of alcohol does more damage to women than men. I may take his book out of the library and have a look!

  6. redeyedtreefrog: I do recall recently reading a newsmagazine’s report of a study that seemed to find a very close link between female alcohol abuse and cancer, particularly breast cancer IIRC, that does not really translate across to males. I’ll try to dig it up and find the study(ies) it was referencing.

    As far as Owen’s list goes, from what I recall, it was created and (crucially) *circulated* without the consent of those involved, and I think we can agree that’s problematic. From what I understand, such lists are commonplace among American male frats, and that’s despicable (indeed, when or if they come to light, the public and feminist reaction is one of justifiable outrage). But that doesn’t make Owen’s list any less problematic.

  7. I didn’t think publishing the list was okay. Clearly, that was wrong. I just wasn’t prepared to make judgements about her exploits which formed the basis for the presentation or to make generalizations about the wild sexual lives of today’s college women on the basis of them. That’s all.

  8. redeyedtreefrog: I just wanted to clarify that the portion of my comment about Owen’s list was not addressed to you specifically. It was just generally addressed, since it seemed to be one of the topics floating around.

    I don’t think you even mentioned it, actually, so I hope you didn’t feel targeted or that you needed to defend yourself.

    FWIW, I haven’t checked back on the article I mentioned yet, although I’m pretty sure it came from Maclean’s.

  9. Over here (UK), we’re always being told that women’s drinking has increased, particularly young women’s drinking. We’re also told that alcohol has worse effects on women – I think that is partly because women have a higher fat content in their bodies, so if they drink the same amount per weight as men, they will have a higher concentration of alcohol in their blood. For reasons unknown to me at least, there is also research that shows women drinkers are at a higher risk of liver problems than men. Not sure if that is to do with the fat content thing too. There’s a fairly comprehensive factsheet about UK women drinkers here.

  10. I second jj’s caution. Leonard Sax has long devoted himself to the project of persuading folks that human males and females are radically heterogeneous. This leads to his normative project of lobbying for separate educational methods and institutions for boys and girls. It’s just Rousseau dressed up in contemporary science, except that Sax doesn’t do as much empirical work as the descriptor “physician and psychologist Leonard Sax” might suggest. On his official website (, he writes that “In 2008, I retired from medical practice in order to devote myself to being a better husband and a better father, and also in order to have more time to visit schools, to learn more about gender differences, to lead professional development workshops, and to help run The Montgomery Center for Research in Child & Adolescent Development (MCRCAD), d/b/a the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE) , which I founded in 2002. In 2010, I am scheduled to lead at least 50 (fifty) days of professional development for teachers – not only in the United States but also in Australia, Bermuda, Canada, and New Zealand. There’s no way I could be doing that AND still be a family doctor in Maryland. You can’t be in two places at once.” Of course, all of this could be consistent with his conclusions this time around being sound, and nobody wants to engage in ad hominem argumentation. Just be sure to carefully scrutinize his methodology and data (neither of which I’ve had time to do yet) before putting too much confidence in his conclusion.

  11. Oh, and while I’m engaging in ad hominems… Google Flanagan and see what turns up. She and Sax, it seems, are sympatico.

  12. Kira,

    Not only does Flanagan imagine that Owen would feel just as Flanagan would, but Flanagan also selectively edited the quotes provided by Owen to make Owen’s views reflect what Flanagan wanted them to.

    The original interviewer has an article about the selective editing at Jezebel</a?.

    ore vague, sentimentalized longing for “simpler times” before this nasty feminism business from Ms. Flanagan. I count four exhortations to the reader to “imagine” how Ms. Owen must have felt at various moments. What a coincidence that she always felt just as Flanagan would have!

  13. I don’t know much about women’s bodies and nothing about their minds, and I sure don’t know alcohol affects them physically different from men.

    However I think it is clear that when they are in groups where men and women are drinking they are the ones who get beat up, manipulated into to doing risky dangerous situations, who get overpowered by stronger people, and end up taking care of unplanned and un-prepared-for children. Or having to flee unbearable homes and start life over with nothing but responsibilities.

    I don’t know anybody whose life was improved by alcohol, and many whose lives were wrecked by it. I hope that feminism does not apply its efforts toward encouraging or defending women to drink because men do.

    I am quite willing to accept that Dr. Sax and Ms. Flanagan are reprehensible opportunists, but I don’t think that has anything to do with the issue which was the title of the post.

  14. The thing is, if Sax and Flanagan are reprehensible opportunists, shouldn’t we examine their claims very carefully. And having tried to do so for a couple of hours, I have to say that I’d be very reluctant to believe them. Here’s why:
    1. I found two news reports based on claims from the National Center for Addiction and Drug Abuse at Columbia University. The first was in 1994, and it did have the % of female heavy drinkers on campus increasing by 200% over the former 20 years. So that looks good, except I found another news report that said the center reported an increase of 16% over approximately the next 10 years. So a 400% increase is looking strange at least. But there’s another stramge thing: it is odd that a 200% increase is followed by a 16% increase. That can happen, but if we got that sort of shift with AIDS, it would count as good news, not bad.
    2. And then I found the report here. I don’t know this organization; it’s dedicated to protecting consumer choice against the food police, etc. That might be another conservative group that really just wants to end government testing,etc. However, it made two good points, besides asserting that the Center’s claims were highly unreliable and drawn on campus say-so as opposed to solid research.
    a. The center has published no peer reviewed work on this data.
    b. organizations like the center are highly motivated to mislead in order to get funding. People want to fund in crises, so centers report crises.
    I’ve heard so many scientists claim the latter, and I have seen completely outrageous examples of scientists grossly exaggerating what they can do if funded.

    The claim that this data is not peer reviewed is so serious that I hoped over to the web of science. Yikes! Zillions of articles on “alcohol, college, gender.” Oddly, I could find nothing on national data about college drinking. Of course, I had to narrow the search by restricting it and so it may well be there, but I did look at a lot of abstracts for some hint of data about the national situation.

    Finally, here’s what Bitch magazine (July 1, 2010) had to say about Sax’s book:

    In one chapter. Sax asserts that girls explore lesbian and bisexual identities because they can’t fmd boys interested in building relationships; elsewhere, he presents data reinforcing the notion that sex is for boys’ enjoyment while girls just long to be held. Girls on the Edge is most detestable when Sax, in disscussing girls and alcohol, resorts to outright victim blaming, warning that young women must abstain from alcohol to prevent drunk boys from raping them.

  15. I should add: I focused on the Center since that’s what kept turning up ien googl searches for comparable data.

  16. I am really getting tired of this, but the website “debunking” the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse as a fraudulent front for retro-prohibitionists is put up by the “Center for Consumer Freedom”, and:

    “The Center for Consumer Freedom is supported by restaurants, food companies and thousands of individual consumers. From farm to fork, from urban to rural, our friends and supporters include businesses, their employees, and their customers.”

    In other words a trade group for restaurants, bars and alcohol distillers.They are all in favor of your drinking alcohol as well as eating plenty of sugar and fat.

    We are getting into a war of interest groups here. My only point here is that common sense says that drinking is a bad idea for anybody, it is dangerous, destructive and hurts children and other innocent bystanders. If young women are drinking more by 400% or 5% its still bad and nobody should be trying to ignore it or make it more normal or acceptable. And I hate smoking too.

  17. pragmatic realist: do note that I noted the possibility that they were some sort of “get gov’t out” group and I checked their claim that the research had not been peer reviewed. I also searched the web of science for the center; it has few publications in respectable journals, but it does have some.

    Whether or not the data is correct is important to the topic of the post.

  18. “My only point here is that common sense says that drinking is a bad idea for anybody…”

    Well, no. At least not without drawing a firm distinction between drinking and alcohol abuse, which I imagine just about any study tries to do. I imagine just about anyone who isn’t a prohibitionist recognizes that a small amount of drinking is fine. As I understand it, there is no universally accepted definition of ‘alcohol abuse’ beyond essentially “problematic drinking”. So, my guess is that some of the thorniness in the literature concerns the number of drinks that actually constitutes a problem. If one study says something like “more than 6 drinks in one sitting” and another says “more than 4 in 2 hours”, you’ll probably get wildly varying results as to the percentage of folks who are problem drinkers. I knew plenty of people in the undergrad days who would have roughly 8-10 beers in a 5 or 6 hour period. Such a person could show up anywhere from perfectly normal to in need of serious counseling, depending on the standard a study is using.

  19. I am far from a prohibitionist. I think that opium, cocaine, marijuana, amphetamines, etc. should all be as freely available as alcohol and nicotine. There is really no medical reason to make a distinction among them, only a social reason.

    If a small amount of alcohol is fine, a small amount of cocaine is fine too, as long as it is being “used” and not “abused”. But given the amount of potential harms in the use of these things, I think that it is clearly a bad idea to use them. And I would advise anybody to steer clear of them.

  20. There’s interesting new research that is showing up in the NY Times (Tues past), CNN and surely other places. It suggests that exercising leads to increased alcohol consumption. Someone in comments in the Times suggested that this might be why moderate drinkers live longer than teetotalers. In any case, the statistics are definitely on the side of moderate use of alcohol.

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