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Gender Bender

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“We were skeptical because people of different ages may have different perspectives of their history,” he says. “Younger people may overreport their problems, and older people may forget.” In order to correct for this, Grucza and his team looked at surveys conducted in 1991 to 1992 and in 2001 to 2002, which allowed them to compare how same-age groups responded ten years apart. Their results, published in August in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, revealed something peculiar: The American attraction to alcohol is growing more potent—but primarily in one gender. “By putting the two surveys together, we found that for men, this epidemic, the tendency for young people to have higher levels of alcohol dependence, disappeared.”

This was not the case for women. “We saw an increase in the number of women who drink, and among women who drink, we saw an increase in dependence.”

For the bulk of history, women have skewed toward the teetotaler end of the spectrum; not until the middle of the last century did a burgeoning relationship with alcohol coincide with Second Wave feminism and a general impulse to close the gender gap across the board. “As women ‘immigrated’ into the culture that was once unique to men,” says Grucza, “they picked up a lot of the same mores and attitudes and behaviors and ideas about what is socially acceptable that men had previously held. We call this acculturation—people adopt the drinking attitude and behaviors of the dominant culture.” Which explains why researchers have found that women in the demographic closest to being dominant (young, white, middle-class, educated) are leading the charge in terms of increased alcohol consumption. The trend is so pronounced that in Britain, home to the Bridget Joneses of the world, public-health officials launched an ad campaign picturing a grizzled man in drag (or a very mannish woman) with the caption: “If you drink like a man, you might end up looking like one.” But no public-service announcement is likely to turn back this tide, especially among the very young. In the 12-to-17-year-old demographic, there is no gender gap at all. These girls are drinking as early and as often and as much as the boys.

A woman exerting her power by making herself incapacitated does not read as a disjunction. Control—and the decision of when and how to lose it—is the point.

I’m out drinking one Wednesday night when I run into Gail and Melanie, two women in their early twenties who are well on their way to what my grandmother would call “past precious.” It’s their third bar of the evening, or rather they were here earlier, they left to go to a beer garden a few blocks away, and now, at 2 a.m., they are back. Both are tall and slender, both wear red dresses with their dark hair pulled up, and the bartender has been slipping both of them freebies here and there throughout the night when they weren’t being offered drinks by other eager men.

“They were like, ‘Oh. You want another beer?’ ” Mel says, rolling her eyes about a group of guys who tried to get their attention earlier.

Gail laughs. “They totally admitted they were going to be outdrank by us.”

“He was like, ‘I didn’t drink until I was 21,’ ” Mel continues.

Gail arches her eyebrows in disbelief. “This is how we grew up,” she says, nodding in the direction of her drink. “I’ve been drinking since I was 13, you know? We went into my friend’s liquor cabinet and mixed everything together, whiskey, vodka, rum. I remember after that being like, ‘Alcohol is really fun. I want to do it again.’ ”

Mel agrees. “I started drinking at a house party when I was going into eighth grade. I ended up throwing up Doritos in the bathroom. Not that that was fun, but from there, I was like, ‘I’m curious.’ ”

One-third of all women in the U.S. have their first alcoholic sip before they enter high school. Almost half of high-school girls drink, and more than a quarter binge drink. Then throw in college. For many women, heavy drinking might be only a blip on the radar, a youthful folly, if it weren’t for higher education. The transition from high school to college marks the greatest increase in substance abuse among women, and the more educated a woman is, the more likely she will be to drink throughout her life. “College campuses are the place where drinking norms are set for educated individuals,” says Jon Morgenstern, a professor of psychiatry and vice-president at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. “The rate of drinking is astronomical. College is really a training ground for becoming an alcoholic.” And these days, the gender gap on campus is reversed: Fifty-five percent of college students who meet the clinical criteria for alcohol abuse are female.


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