Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Binging on Prohibition

Photo by Flickr user kspoddar, used under a Creative Commons license.

A legal drinking age of 21 prevents high-risk drinking among college students, right?

Umm ... not so fast. Over 100 college presidents have signed onto the Amethyst Initiative, a petition calling for a national conversation on rethinking the drinking age.

Already there's a predictable counterreaction, as the Columbus Dispatch reports:
... Mothers Against Drunk Driving says that lowering the drinking age would lead to more fatal car crashes and urges parents to think carefully about the safety of colleges whose presidents have signed on.

"It's very clear the 21-year-old drinking age will not be enforced at those campuses," said Laura Dean-Mooney, MADD's national president.

Joining with MADD is Nationwide, which released a survey last week indicating 72 percent of adults think lowering the drinking age would make alcohol more accessible to minors, and nearly half think it would increase binge drinking among teens.
But here's the thing: Unlike the general public, college presidents have a close-up view of underage drinking. A lot of them apparently realize that neo-prohibition has failed miserably on their campuses. Students engage in binge drinking partly because they have to do it on the sly. So they front-load their evenings, drinking heavily behind closed doors, before they mosey out to the bars or parties where they might not be served.

I have an even closer view of the issue because my students have talked to me frankly about it. A year ago, I took an informal in-class poll of who had gotten in trouble for alcohol violations. At least a third of my students in two different sections of 40 raised their hands. That makes roughly 25 students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, whose college careers were threatened with derailment. Those who raised their hands are only the ones who got caught and were willing to admit to it in public; the true number is probably somewhat higher. Even those who'd never been caught - including most of the teetotalers - saw the system as capricious and unfair.

The result? Diligent, responsible students are threatened with suspension if they get caught twice with alcohol in their dorm rooms. They don't need to be drinking themselves, they merely need to be in the same room as friends who are imbibing. I've written letters imploring student judiciaries to go easy on students who've been swept up in this trap. Alcohol infractions clog the judiciary system, crowding out plagiarism cases and diverting attention from much more serious violations of policy.

Not least, as long as drinking is criminalized, students are much less likely to report sexual assault. Alcohol is almost always in the mix when college students experience unwanted sexual contact. The Kyle Payne case is only an especially infamous and egregious instance of this. Every sexual assault case that I know about first-hand involved alcohol. But the current approach - "just don't drink and you'll be safe" - is a failure.

I'm not naive enough to think that irresponsible drinking will disappear if alcohol becomes legal on campus. I was an RA for two years in college. I was also a student, fer goodness sake. I did enough stupid things to have a permanent aversion to tequila.

But because I was an RA in the dark ages (1984-86), I also know that things can be different. We RAs bought the alcohol for dorm parties. (Okay, I know that won't fly anymore! You'd get your butt sued.) With social life centered in the residences, we could easily keep tabs on our charges. Sure, people still regularly overindulged. But we knew who was overdoing it, and we made sure they were cared for.

As far as I know, no one was ever sexually assaulted on my watch. It might have happened without my knowing; that's in the nature of acquaintance rape. Certainly in the mid-1980s, "date rape" - as it was then called - was such a new concept, few women would have applied it to nonconsensual sex.

Still, we had a safety net, composed not just of RAs but of friends and dorm-mates and resident faculty. I'm positive that this averted lots of potentially ugly situations. Often, I was part of that net. On more than one occasion, I was the person it protected.

I'd love to bring back that net. Although Gordon Gee of Ohio State has signed the Amethyst petition, the president of my university has not, and I'm sure he won't. My university has a reputation as a party school. Signing the petition could create a short-term PR problem. But in the long run, bringing alcohol use out of the shadows is the first step toward fostering a more responsible drinking culture.


hesperia said...

Darn, I wrote to you at some length here and then lost the comment. Oh well. Major point is, the drinking age in Ontario, where I live, has been 19 for a long time. Drinking rules are pretty "civilized" on campus at U of Toronto. Check this out for instance:

Though alcohol abuse is always a problem, my kids did their underage drinking in high school. It wasn't fun, but it was over with by the time they headed off to university. We have a graded system for acquiring drivers' licenses and one drink while driving, that's ONE drink, and you lose that license.

Habladora said...

I'm just not sure this problem is going to be fixed one way or the other. We have a problem with binge drinking among young people now, and we'll have it if we lower the age limit. Its a cultural problem - we glamorize not just drinking, but being 'wasted.'

I spent much of my childhood in other countries, so when I returned to the States for high school and college, I was already trained to think that over-drinking was rather classless. Not that there aren't drunks in Europe and Latin America, there are. But the young people who are already loud and trashed by 11 at night, the ones who seem to think its great to be falling over or puking - usually American tourists. What happened to the notion that 'holding your liquor' was good and being drunk was bad in the US, I'm not sure. But I don't think that RA's are in a position to protect kids who have grown up in a culture that promotes irresponsible drinking, nor would I want to put kids in a position of such responsibility.

I like the one drink while driving and a high schooler loses the license rule, though...

Sungold said...

Hesperia: Since college are no longer in loco parentis, it is up to the parents to make sure their kids don't see alcohol as the forbidden fruit and - ideally - learn to handle it somewhat responsibly before they leave home. But that would be another post.

Habladora: No, of course there's no easy fix. The best we can hope for in terms of university policy is a modest reduction in harm. Changing cultural attitudes will take much longer.

My German husband describes a much less binge-y culture. It sounds much like your experiences.

But it wasn't just the RAs in that position - we also had resident faculty, so there were actual grown-ups on the premises whenever there was a party, and most other times, too.

I have a friend who used to be the head of residence life at a major midwestern university (one of those with circa 50,000 students) and she too would support decriminalization - not as a panacea, but as better than what we've now got.

Carla said...

A little off the subject here, but I've never understood why our military accepts kids right out of high school, yet expects them to march to the front lines before they've earned drinking privileges. If you're old enough to "kill for your country," then you should be old enough to sip a glass of chardonnay.

I noticed in the news just this week that my state (N.C.) officials are also revisiting the issue. Our current legal drinking age is 21.

BTW, sungold I was there with you during the dark days (82-86). When I entered college the legal drinking age was 18, then the next year they upped it to 19 (so I was "illegal" again for 2 months between my 18th and 19th b-day).Two years later, they upped it to 21. I don't remember any discussion in the media of why the state was doing it. I don't even think the term "binge drinking" was invented yet.

Sungold said...

Yeah, that's the same logic that underpinned the right to vote at age 18. And I think it still holds true.

When I was in college, the drinking age was 21 in my state, but that didn't make any difference whatsoever. I think we had more leeway because I went to a private college. As for "binge drinking," I think I first heard the term in the '90s. The behavior definitely predates that, probably by decades or centuries!