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The alarming rise in binge drinking among young women

A new film launches a national campaign focused on young women and alcohol


 
A typical girls night out of bringing starts with "pre-drinking" and dancing. (John Tran/White Pine Pictures)

A typical girls night out of bringing starts with “pre-drinking” and dancing. (John Tran/White Pine Pictures)

In a dingy basement apartment, Taylor and Molly, both 21-year-old students at an unnamed Canadian university, discuss their evening plans. More specifically, they discuss the availability of alcohol. “They’ll have a couple kegs,” promises Taylor, a biology major, “and mixed drinks like vodka crans, whisky sours, rum and cokes.” Unconvinced that will be enough, Molly pops three tallboys into her purse. Taylor fills a Gatorade bottle with white wine from a box.

It’s the beginning of a wild night in the new documentary Girls’ Night Out, airing this month on CBC, that zooms in on young women’s drinking habits—from their perspective. “It’s an uncomfortable topic for a lot of people,” says director Phyllis Ellis, herself a mother of a 22-year-old girl. “But I’m not going to make it softer. I’m just going to deal with the truth that they give me.”

The truth is that binge-drinking—defined by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health as consuming five or more standard drinks (four for women) on a single occasion—is an epidemic: 18 per cent of high school students admitted they binged at least once last month; 32 per cent of Canadians aged 20 to 34 binged 12 times in the past year; and, proving this isn’t a freshman-specific problem, 19 per cent of Canadians aged 35 to 44—almost one in five—did the same.

That people sometimes drink to get drunk is nothing new. What is new is that binge drinking among women has increased at a rate seven times that of men, according to the American Public Health Association. While men still consume more alcohol, women metabolize it differently—the effects occurring faster and lasting longer—and are more vulnerable to long-term health effects. The risk of liver cirrhosis, brain damage and heart disease due to alcohol are all greater in women than men.

At the same time, the way young women drink is different. “A binge is bigger than it used to be,” says Ann Dowsett Johnston, author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, which inspired the film. “He’s drinking beer while she’s drinking shots. She’s two-thirds his size and probably didn’t eat dinner. Women live with more alcohol [than men], they pre-drink, they have a habit of purging and starting again.”

To Johnston, it’s no coincidence this generation of women is hitting the bottle harder than ever before; it’s the first generation to grow up with what she calls “Big Alcohol.” To target the underperforming young female market, which was too calorie-conscious for beer and not sophisticated enough for wine, the spirit industry invented the “alcopop” (e.g. Smirnoff Ice, Bacardi Breezer, Mike’s Hard Lemonade) and advertised it aggressively throughout the mid-’90s. In the same moment, Bridget Jones got adorably trashed alone in her apartment and Carrie Bradshaw made the cosmopolitan her go-to cocktail. “A whole generation of young women were taught that to be sophisticated, you drink vodka. They skipped the rest and started with hard liquor,” says Johnston. A more recent iteration may be what Punch, an online magazine devoted to intelligent writing about booze and drinking, calls the “whisky woman”—tough, “bro girl” types out of a Gillian Flynn novel with a penchant for downing Maker’s Mark who have become recurring features in men’s magazines.

Most of the young women who follow this drinking model are not alcoholics. A better term may be “almost alcoholic,” a new descriptor for people with alcohol-related problems that don’t officially “qualify” as alcoholic. “It’s a spectrum,” says Joe Nowinski, author of the 2012 book Almost Alcoholic. “There’s this middle zone of problem drinking with a mild to moderate problem, and there are a lot of people there.” In 2014, the National Survey of Drug Use and Health reported 90 per cent of excessive drinkers don’t meet the definition of alcoholism. In fact, because no general consensus can define it, even the word “alcoholism” was replaced in medical texts with “alcohol use disorder” in 2013.

“I didn’t day-drink, I didn’t need a drink in the morning; I could go a week or two without booze,” says 36-year-old Jen McNeely, a Toronto-based blogger. At 19, a guidance counsellor directed her to Alcoholics Anonymous. “I didn’t see anyone like me there, so I didn’t stick around,” she says. She drank hard for a dozen more years—professionally, almost, since she’s the brains behind the girl-about-town website She Does the City—before admitting she had a problem. “I wasn’t sure then if I was an alcoholic. I was a binge drinker.”

Now sober, McNeely appears in the film, spliced alongside younger versions of herself: “I’ll drink just to get drunk and I think that’s what most people do,” says Victoria, 21. “We all feel like it’s the normal thing to do,” says Taylor. It takes Molly eight drinks to “go from here to not here. Like the lights are on but no one’s home.”

That’s the blackout, the hallmark of the binge drinker, when the blood alcohol reaches a saturation point and shuts down the hippocampus, the part of the brain where long-term memories are made. People in blackouts are not passed out, but can walk, tell jokes, have sex and drive cars. They can appear normal and functional to others. The majority of people never experience a blackout, but they’re not uncommon among drinkers. A 2002 study from Duke University found 51 per cent of drinkers had blacked out before; the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse’s 2009 survey of 4,500 students found 12 per cent had blacked out within the past two weeks.

Since a blackout is defined by its nothingness, few accounts exist to offer insight into the experience. In the film, Sarah Hepola, author of Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, describes a moment, “when the curtain lifts again” and she finds herself “on top of a guy I’ve never seen before, and we’re having sex.” It was neither the first time she suspected she had a problem, nor the rock-bottom moment that would inspire her to quit: “My rock bottom lasted for five years,” she says.

Hepola’s story isn’t rare either; in fact, it’s commonplace for the women in Girls’ Night Out. Adriana, 25, recounts waking up beside a man she met the night before and discovering a pair of handprint-shaped bruises on her hips, though she had no memory of having had sex. In an era where consent is paramount in the culture—however it may play out in the courts—it’s a troubling and confusing storyline. “I never considered that assault because I know how I behaved when I was out and I knew the person I was,” she says, noting her partner was intoxicated too and perhaps equally incapable of giving consent. “The fact that I don’t remember it is my fault.”

Navigating this issue was particularly challenging while making the film, says Ellis. “Rape is rape, and it doesn’t matter what you wear or do,” she says. “But there is another part to this conversation we need to be having. Even if it’s uncomfortable, even if it pisses people off, even if we’re wrong.”

Hepola too doesn’t consider her own blackout-sex story an assault. “Some people are of the opinion that any sex in a blackout is rape,” she says. “I’m not of that opinion.” Hepola is clear that to differentiate passed out (where a woman is unconscious or physically incapacitated due to alcohol) from blacked out, but she believes there is a complicated grey zone, where a woman appears to outsiders to be functioning or even normal. In Hepola’s case, alcohol obliterated her shyness and insecurity and offered a temporary out-of-character sexual confidence that was gone by daylight. Hepola believes it’s vital that this grey zone be part of the discussion about women and binge drinking, which often brings women in her particular position regret, shame and fear when their decision-making abilities are impaired by alcohol. “Many yeses on Friday night would be noes on Saturday morning,” she says.

The women in the film suggest that binge drinking can evolve into alcoholism—or scale back to moderation. Hepola ended up identifying as an alcoholic and has been sober for six years. Jen McNeely has been clean for five years. But others have managed to embrace moderation. “I decided I actually wasn’t an alcoholic,” says Adriana, now a nutritionist, who can easily enjoy a single glass of wine. “It was the environment I had put myself in and the people I was surrounding myself with.” That said, she believes the distinction is oddly arbitrary: “They say you’re a full-blown alcoholic when you need a drink in the morning, but girls like me need three bottles of wine before they go to the bar. What’s the difference?”

To steer university students toward lower-risk drinking, a new year-long campaign is launching across Canada. Developed by Girls’ Night Out producers with the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse, #RethinkTheDrink will pick up where Ellis’s film ends, with dramatic webisodes, resource lists and on-campus screenings during always-boozy frosh week. They’ll be promoting #GirlsNightIn and an introspective Tumblr series called “Letters to 18-year-old me.” The goal is online engagement, open dialogue and, hopefully, some kind of change. “It’s going to take more than a village,” says the campaign’s spearhead, Deborah Day. “A lot of us have our heads in the sand.”


 

The alarming rise in binge drinking among young women

  1. They fail to mention the pregnancies as a result of this behavior.

  2. Ja, some girls want to get drunk and then breed!

  3. Ja, some girls want to get drunk and then breed!

  4. Well when the bubble wrap comes off and young people are let out into the wild what one expect. Without having any self controls in place to begin with once the actual big bad scary world is front and centre; the slide down the hill of excess drinking to the safe-space of drunkenness seems to make sense.

    Also: For the the caption of the photo I feel the author intended ‘binging’ rather then ‘bringing’; please look about 7 words in.

  5. There are problems with the conclusions the author reaches based on the stats cited. Sure, 1/3 of women aged 20-35 report drinking 4 or possible more drinks about once a month. Yet there is not mentions of stats to back up their characterization that these women same women are small, drinking shots and not eating dinner. With contraception and the delaying of starting a family being more prevalent, certainly a few more women under 35 years old are free to get tipsy on a monthly basis. Despite the possible health consequences over the long term, I wouldn’t consider consuming 4 drinks to be very problematic for an average woman who eats an average amout of food, and certainly the time taken to concume these drinks should be a factor as well, once could consume 4 drinks over the course of an evening without even exceeding the legal limit to drive. Certainly that is not enough to result in the acute consequences discussed in this article, blackout sex and other risky behaviours. The stat of 12% blackout in the past two weeks was actually reported for male students only, with women about 8%, However, if you look more deeply, you will see that this “2009 survey” was actually a publication referrinf to the Harvard alcohol study which collected data about drinking from 1993-2001. So this is about drinking 20 years ago not anything new. This is sensationalist garbage, bent on shaming women for their own freedoms. Get over it.

    • (Aplogies for the typos, it appears I am unable to edit or delete and re-post the comment. )

    • *The stat of 12 percent blackout refers to a survey of American College Freshmen (mostly 18 y. olds) and was collected about ten years ago, and asked specifically about drinking patterns during the last two weeks of the summer before their first semester of college. The stat reported was also the figure of blackout for male not female drinkers, although the rates were comparable.* …Just bad reporting to insinuate this is the rate among young adult women.

  6. An edited version: There are problems with the conclusions the author reaches based on the stats cited. Sure, 1/3 of women aged 20-35 report drinking 4 or possibly more drinks about once a month. Yet there is no mention of any stats to back up the characterization that these same women are small, drinking shots and not eating dinner. So how prevalent is this, actually? With contraception and the delaying of starting a family being more common, certainly a few more women under 35 years old are free to get tipsy on a monthly basis than in generations past. Not surprising or concerning to me. Despite the possible health consequences over the long term, I wouldn’t consider the occasional consumption of 4 drinks to be very problematic for an average woman who eats an average amout of food, and certainly the time taken to consume these drinks should be a factor as well. One could consume 4 drinks over the course of an evening without even exceeding the legal limit to drive. Certainly that is not enough to result in the acute consequences discussed in this article, blackout sex and other risky behaviours. While the stat of 12% blackout in the past two weeks is concerning, it was actually reported for male students only, with women about 11%. However, if you look more deeply, you will see that this “2009 survey” is referring to a 2009 publication by White and Swartzwelder, which asked 18 year old college freshman specifically about their drinking in the two weeks at the start of there first ever semester at college, aka Frosh Week. Not exactly representative of normal drinking patterns, and hardly generalizable. This is sensationalist garbage, bent on shaming women for their freedom. Get over it. I was able to track down the primary research here for those interested: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arcr352/201-218.htm

  7. Monkey see monkey do. It’s hard to break from the herd and say I’m not doing this anymore.

    It’s sad that kids are binge drinking at a younger age too. Parents need to take control.

  8. I still remember sitting back in a hospital bed at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto in the 90’s talking with a group of high school students about why I was in the hospital with a scar on my face. They were being escorted around the hospital by the P.A.R.T.Y. (Prevent Alcohol and Risk-Related Trauma in Youth) Program to be able to see real life results of trauma. I did not think much of this encounter but years later I heard from a friend that he knew a girl who was in that group. She told him that they went back to school that day and spoke in depth, especially about me and my story of almost being killed by a drunk driver. My accident was preventable the night I was almost killed in 1991 in Muskoka but because we were all drunk, no one thought to thoroughly check out to see if our driver who came to escort us home was okay. I believe that everyone should learn to take responsible choices in life and realize that the consequences of irresponsible behaviour affects way more people than just yourself. ~Samantha, author of The Beauty of My Shadow: A Story of Strength

  9. Trudeau said he was legalizing cannabis. When is that happening. He is running parliament so get it done. It is far less harmful than alcohol. He ran on this promise and won. Maybe these young girls would stop the binge drinking and take a few hoots instead. Maybe the First Nations people would switch over as well.

    • I’m sure you’re right that it is the social stigma associated with using illegal pot that is driving the youth and FN folk to drink instead. Trudeau should legalize everything and cure drunkenness forever.

  10. THE HEALTH OFFICIALS in Cultures that Drinking Alcohol is socially accepted need to have a “Frank Discussion” with the Citizens about the “Myth Of The Benefits Of Drinking Alcohol”.

    Alcohol found in Alcoholic Beverages from Beer to Wine to Hard Liquor is, “ETHANOL”, which is a “Toxic Agent”.

    AND as such is only accurately described by the Words/Expressions of “Intoxicated OR What Is Your Poison”!???

    IT affects ALL Biological Organisms from the Brain Cells to Hair, Nails and Skin and the Damage is Cumulative.

    THERE ARE “NO SCEINTIFICALLY KNOWN BENEFITS OF DRINKING ALCOHOL”; BUT DRINKING 2 OR 3 DRINKS PER DAY WILL NOT HAVE MATERIAL IMPACT ON THE HEALTH OF “MOST ADULTS”.

    THE Awareness Campaign Must Challenge The Conventional Wisdom, Similar To Tobacco, Which Was Being Celebrated By The Industry That: “IT Helps Digesting Your Food After Each Meal” in the 1950s!???

  11. Insightful article but CBC TV’s new show launching a national campaign and this report to a degree strike me as sensationalizing an issue for readership and television ratings. The choice of a slick stylized headline photo in this article and from what I can tell from what’s out there — CBC’s online trailer, promotional materials and messaging — all depict only a group of carefully cast overly attractive stylized and sexualized fashion model types of women that the TV program chose to follow. Why?

    Could director Phyllis Ellis and the CBC not have chosen representation that’s more real to life, truthful, and depicts 20 something women such as myself and friends who are not as glam, or catwalk fashion dressed, theatrical, or overtly sexually done up as the young women in the TV episode’s scenes and images.

    And while the television show’s producers and the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse’s outreach campaign mentioned in the article are a noble effort — the interview excerpts are compelling — most of us can only hope the program does not perpetuate misrepresentation of real young women through it’s use of only over glamorized and stylized promo images, clips, and posters like those currently presented online in their #RethinkTheDrink program. Outreach marketing that is as manipulative as the “Big Alcohol” marketing successes that Ellis’s and CBC’s show criticizes. How do they expect to reach an authentic range of brains and a wide range of women and all Canadians with that short sighted advertising approach?

    While binge drinking is a societal issue across all age groups and this article is alarming all appears from the TV show’s makers presentation to be like a pop music video, short on depth, light and journalistic, instead of a real and honest documentary about issues.

  12. It’s good somebody is talking about how women can consent to sex drunk, regret it later and take responsibility rather than just blame the man and call it sexually assaulted.

    I’m a guy and I’ve regretted who I slept with after the fact because I was drunk but I’d get laughed at if I called it rape, women should be no different.

    It’s refreshing to see that the rape activists haven’t gotten their way, that any man becomes a rapist if he has sex with a woman with four or more drinks in her because she’s incapable of consent.

    • We don’t consider a drunk person to be incapable of knowing to not drive, so I don’t see how we could consider a drunk person to be incapable of knowing to not have sex.

      Plus, as mentioned, if both parties were drunk, then both would be both victim and perp – which would be ludicrous.

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