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What Are You, Drunk?

A new study on binge drinking from the Harvard School of Public Health slides off the stool, falls down, and admits that it really didn’t know what it was talking about earlier, with all that “research” business.

Graduate schools produce studies. Studies get them mentioned on The Today Show, improve their US News and World Report rankings, and attract students from wealthy families who will one day transfer funds from the Caymans to put their name on a plaque outside the Math department. It’s not a bad system.

The easiest subjects of study for grad schools are, of course, students. And campuses are lousy with them. Using the same rationale, I based nearly all my high school research papers on my parents’ coffee table books. I penned reports on the Birds of New England, Art Treasures of the Vatican, and The Living Wonders of Glacier National Park, to name three.

Every few years, the Harvard School of Public Health publishes a study on campus binge drinking. The most recent results have grabbed nervous headlines and have even been used to justify the tightening of University alcohol policies. Just a few weeks ago, in fact, the University of Oregon, famous as the campus where Animal House was filmed, banned alcohol from its fraternities and sororities in exchange for Education Department incentives directed at reducing binge drinking as described in the Harvard research. Like my 1986 report on ‘The Decorative Doors of County Galway,’ however, the Harvard team’s methodology is suspect.

First, Harvard defines binge drinking as five or more drinks at one sitting for men and four or more drinks per sitting for women. [ source ] Looking back at my college years, I remember a lot of drinking, but not so much sitting. I drank standing on the hood of a car, straddling a sixth-story window sill, and dancing on the back of a garage-sale couch to ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ by The Communards.

Writing in the APA Journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, the authors of the Harvard studies acknowledge that the term ‘binge drinker’ historically refers to ‘a person in the chronic stage of alcoholism’ who engages in ‘a prolonged period of intoxication or excessive heavy drinking that can last for days or weeks.’ In a curious effort to equate the average college student with Mayberry’s Otis Campbell (picture Mickey Rourke in Barfly with a Sallie Mae coupon book) they adopted the term, then arbitrarily redefined it as five drinks in a row because that standard ‘is extensively used in population-based research, making results comparable across studies.’

Binging is in the eye of the grant-holder, it seems.

Despite the hysterical media reaction to the survey, the results are surprisingly unsurprising. Forty-four percent of college students engaged in ‘binge drinking’ in the two weeks prior to the survey. That sounds about right to me. Four or five beers on either of two successive Friday nights? That’s probably fewer than one per party, a statistical anomaly explained by the fact that you set your cup down on the stereo and after you finished peeing off the balcony you couldn’t remember which one was yours.

Here’s another well-short-of-astonishing discovery: ‘Compared to non-binge drinkers, a higher percentage of binge drinkers had experienced alcohol-related problems since the beginning of the school year.’ Thanks for that. And compared to non-car owners, a higher percentage of car owners had experienced parking tickets.

The study is filled with similar facts, usually highlighted with scary italics like the ones found on Ed Wood movie posters: ‘Frequent binge drinkers were 10 times more likely than non-binge drinkers to have driven after drinking alcohol.’ Okay, but I’d also bet that frequent binge drinkers were at least 100 times more likely to tell you they love you. Man.

The researchers also claim that frequent binge drinkers were more likely to have engaged in ‘unplanned sexual activity.’ Disregarding the fact that 19-year old boys ‘plan’ to have sex the way pools of tire store workers ‘plan’ to win Lotto, isn’t virtually all sex the unplanned kind? Who ‘plans’ their sexual activity except for married couples trying to conceive a child and Catholic couples trying not to? Why not refer to the high percentage of binge drinkers who engage in unscheduled Ultimate Frisbee on the muddy quad?

The serious charge they desperately want to make (but never quite do) is that the kind of drinking practiced by almost half of all college students leads to rape. Now certainly it’s true that drunk men commit rape and that drunk women are sometimes coerced into sex. I’m sure it happens every day and that is a horrifying thought. But if the survey actually showed that five beers turn good men into sexual predators and four beers turn intelligent women into helpless victims, it would have said exactly that. At the very least, it would have said that the students were more likely to engage in sexual activity they regretted. Why doesn’t it?

I won’t suggest they had some hidden, teetotolitarian agenda. However, it could be that the researchers were actually shocked by what they discovered, which means these white-coats put the you-know-what in ‘Harvard Square.’ Supporting this theory are actual quotes from anonymous students in the margins of the report. Except for an anecdote in which a woman claims her roommate went to a frat party and was given a beer ‘laced with LSD’ (sorry fellas but I first heard that one on my Urban Legends See ‘N Say) the following is typical:

‘My roommate and I went to a party, and she got drunk. She hooked up with this guy from the fraternity and had sex with him that night. I couldn’t have stopped her because she would have gotten mad. The next day we found out that the guy is seeing someone else and is known all around campus for taking advantage of girls when they’re drunk.’

Over 17,000 interviews and this is the best drunk story they came back with? Certainly the guy is an asshole, but the friend was angry he had a girlfriend, not regretful of their boozy sex. This is betrayal, not alcoholism. Didn’t even one survey respondent spew chunks off the roof of the music building, ruining the Dean’s new gown? Wasn’t anyone so smashed for Moot Court that she referred nine times to the precedent set in ‘Woe vs. Raid?’ Didn’t anyone eat three dozen powdered donuts on a dare and discover the next morning that his lips and tongue had turned the color and consistency of steaming blacktop?

There are many college students who are alcoholics. There are also many students who are capable of having five beers or, hell, getting piss drunk on a Saturday night and not touching the stuff again all week. Lumping them together isn’t going to save the former from himself and it’s not going to keep the latter from playing pantsless roller hockey in the faculty parking lot. One thing for certain the two groups have in common is that they are adults, and adults have a right to act like idiots. Even Cambridge researchers, I suppose. Oddly enough, they’re not even a little bit curious how half of all Harvard students came to be binge drinkers, even while nine-out-of-ten still maintained an A average last semester.

Our Universities don’t need meaningless studies that arbitrarily turn student partying into pathology with pseudo-science and tortured prose. They need to be rescued from the federally mandated absurdity that makes it illegal for two-thirds of the campus to sip a Bloody Mary in the parking lot before kickoff. I sympathize with college administrators. For most of them, the ‘loco’ of ‘in loco parentis’ translates better from Spanish than Latin. Unfortunately, the days when they could assume their students were grown-ups—and treat them that way—are long past.

Here’s an idea. Move both the drinking age and the driving age to 18. Honestly, who are you more afraid of on a Friday night—the college sophomore with the lime and Corona, or the high school sophomore in his mother’s Corolla?

College Alcohol Study Survey Reports
Binge Drinking on Campus: Results of a National Study