Drinking’s Double Standards
When we all get equally as wasted together, why do women get judged and men get high-fives?
“Drunk boys keep in pace with the paedophiles / Drunk girls are boringly wild" – LCD Soundsystem, ‘Drunk Girls’
In 2016, there is an inebriation double standard that exists in our drinking culture that polices the behavior and sexuality of drunk women in public spaces, while letting guys off the hook. Social attitudes differ, depending on whether it’s a man or a woman whose drunk - men seem to actively gain more respect from their male mates when they’re on one (big drinkers become ‘legends), while women in the same position lose respect in the eyes of men, often getting talked about behind their backs in male social circles in less than favourable terms. The drinking double standard directly predicates a sexual double standard, reinforced by our casual hook-up culture, where sexually independent women are ridiculed behind their backs (‘slut’) while men are praised (‘lord’).
A trusted male friend introduced Tess*, a 32 year-old from Perth, to me on a Monday morning, with the following words: “Hey, this is Tess. She’s either hung AF right now or still on one.” Tess is what Today Tonight would call ‘a female binge drinker’, and what the rest of us would probably call, ‘mate’. All of Tess’ mates drink and do dumb shit every now and then, like the time two of her close mates, mid-drunken rampage, bought flights to Sydney from Perth, and had a very hungover, very unplanned weekend on the east coast. But according to Tess, it’s only her male mates that get away with it: “I think if there was a group of boys and they got drunk and danced on tables, people would be amused. If it was girls dancing on the tables, they would be perceived as sloppy. Girls who party are also judged on other factors, such as our clothing choices.”
We keep stoking the fires on this drinking double standard, judging women when they act out with booze, because society thinks it’s important to keep excessive female drinking under control; due to the risks involved for women who lose control (sexual assault, or worse). This drinking double standard very much forms the lived experience of many young women in our nightlife economy; many of whom feel too scared to completely let go and enjoy themselves when they’re drinking. Their personal freedom – a basic civil liberty we should all enjoy to the full – is restricted. Women are not as free to go a little crazy on their own terms as men are, because there are risks and consequences for women who go wild – types of risks and consequences that (for the most part) just don’t exist for men.
Women Can’t Handle Their Liquor?
Poet Dorothy Parker, a friend of Ernest Hemingway (a gentleman who loved his liquor if ever there was one), once said she couldn’t handle more than two martinis - “after three I’m under the table!” quipped Parker. Chances are, her drinking buddy Hemingway would still be on his stool though. Biologically, gender matters when it comes to drinking - women get wasted quicker than men. Compared to a man the same size, womens’ bodies have more fat (which retains alcohol) and less water (which dilutes it). A few years back, scientists also had another breakthrough in this area, discovering that males have more of a particular enzyme - alcohol dehydrogenase - in their stomachs, that breaks down alcohol before it enters the bloodstream.
Says TIME Magazine, in their article Why Men Can Outdrink Women, “the enzyme is crucial in curbing intoxication. When a shot of vodka or a beer is swallowed, it travels to the stomach and then to the intestine, where it passes through the organ’s wall into the bloodstream. Once there it circulates to the brain, where it finally exerts its inebriating effect. Alcohol dehydrogenase breaks down spirits in the stomach, reducing the amount of pure alcohol that enters the bloodstream to about 20%; the rest is eventually metabolized by similar enzymes in the liver.” So, chicks can’t produce that fancy enzyme that magically evaporates booze in your stomach, and unfortunately this has resulted in a drinking double standard: ‘Men can handle it, women can’t.’ In the same TIME article, Dr. Jack Mendelson, of Harvard Medical School in the States, stresses that, “Men can tolerate alcohol in slightly higher doses than women, but that's about it. So this should not be taken in any sexist way - that is, ‘Men can handle it, women can’t.’ There are other factors that might mitigate this difference, for example, how one behaves when drunk.”
Lads Get Praised, Ladies Get Eyebrows' Raised
Dr. Antonia Lyons is an Australian psychology professor whose devoted her life to studying drinking culture and gender - in her essay Alcohol Consumption, Gender Identities and Women’s Changing Social Positions, she studied eight friendship groups of women and men aged between 20-29 – all of whom viewed binge/heavy drinking as a regular weekend routine. In their results, the study groups said they would label females drinking heavily with terms like ‘disgusting’ ‘embarrassing’, and ‘slutty’, while publicly drunken men are likely to be regarded by both sexes as ‘amusing’ or a ‘joke’. Her study gives us concrete proof, beyond anecdotal evidence, that young peoples’ attitudes change, depending on whether it is a man or a woman they see getting drunk in public.
To dive into that femininity discourse further - traditional views of women position them as caregivers, who look after others, and who usually exercise control - over both themselves (looking ‘together’ or ‘well-presented’) and the situation. Every time a woman goes in for another Cocksucking Cowboy, there’s this idea that they’re somehow ‘deviants’, breaking the moral codes governed by these traditional versions of femininity, that are still deeply rooted in our culture (albeit now much more diluted than was the social situation in the ‘60s). Excessive alcohol consumption is seen as particularly damaging, as it demonstrates a perceived lack of feminine control and restraint. Think about UK shows like Ladette To Lady, which implies that a girl that drinks loads isn’t ‘ladylike’. Pretty much every female featured on that show likes to drink, smoke, swears and have sex, and this is judged harshly, and put forward as a situation needing to be remedied. To the inverse – men who drink are rewarded by their peers with praise. We’ve surely all witnessed clubs and backyards transform into places where guys act out their masculinity through drinking. A guy necks his pint and he gets several pats on the back. He makes it to the end of a funnel and the room erupts in applause.
If you’re a man, drinking is equated with strength, respect and masculinity, often acted out in a ‘boys’ club’ type situation, where women are made to feel uncomfortable, or unwanted. Tess also alludes to feeling uncomfortable amongst large groups of drinking males when they ‘engage’: “I’ve never been excluded from a ‘boys’ type thing on purpose, but I find I sometimes exclude myself. I can't skull like the boys and I don’t do shots. So I often stand back and watch.”
A Sexual Double Standard
There’s a sexual double standard that’s fed by the drinking double standard: sexuality continues to be intertwined with respectability, and the more freely sexual you are, the less respect society is willing to afford you. If a guy goes out, gets drunk and pulls chicks, it’s celebrated amongst his peer circle as an achievement. If a woman does literally exactly the same thing, she’s perceived as ‘slutty’, and loses respect. Once again, culture carves out terms to reinforce our conditioning: why else has ‘good time girl’ become a derogatory euphemism for a ‘slut’ or prostitute?
Jeremy*, 22, runs a popular Perth club-night, and witnesses a lot of girls cop a lot of flack for their drunken actions: “It really does suck that women getting smashed and sleeping around is viewed differently from men doing it. There’s this girl I know, whose openly referred to in my friendship group as being one of our scene’s most notorious ‘sluts’. I had a big chat with her the other week where she asked me why can’t she just be free to do what she wants? We talked about how guys can go out and fuck five girls in a night then go home and high five all their boys. And a girl gets policed for exercising the same sexual freedoms… There’s a lot of… chat… that goes on. People in my social circles use the antics of drunk girls, or girls who sleep with heaps of guys, as topics of conversation - people like to talk shit, and spark controversy. It’s all ‘just a laugh’ to us, but I can see how all this talk behind girls’ backs just feeds drunk girls being perceived negatively as ‘sluts’. People have to stop giving a fuck about what other people are doing so much.”
Getting ‘White Girl Wasted’ – A Cultural Cringe
Not only do men get more praise the more smashed they get – there’s also no restrictions on partying or drinking for men. I have male friends who will work their way to a drunken oblivion with a razor-sharp focus and sense of efficiency, like it’s a job to get done. It’s easy to get jealous of how free they are – to party, to get smashed, to pull down their pants on the dancefloor, to take their shirt off and fuck whoever they want without fear of being subject to cruel gossip and condemnation following a blowout. Society is OK with women getting a little loose, but it won’t let them completely let go.
“If women were just as free as men to go a little crazy on their own terms, things would fall apart,” says author Jaclyn Friedman in her incredible book In Defence of Going Wild, where she argues that society instills a fear in women of completely letting go: “So… is this society again keeping a tight hold on women’s sexuality? You fucking bet. If women were allowed from day one to get wild at parties what would become of Girls Gone Wild? It would be normal. By teaching women that we need to inhibit our “wild side” and not teaching men the same thing, we are putting men’s pleasure above women’s - yet again.”
If a girl drinks more than a couple of glasses of wine on a night out we casually shame these girls, refer to them as as ‘that kind of girl’ with one eyebrow raised (‘Boringly wild’ as per LCD Soundsystem, above). Any element of ‘amusement’ is not positive, but demeaning – how else to explain why we’ve made a mockery of it, incorporating the phrase ‘white girl drunk’ into popular culture vocabulary as a term for getting embarrassingly smashed?
Society Teaches Us A Lesson
So this all begs the question… why? Why does our society persist with reinforcing this inebriation double standard that is less than respectful to women? Well, the answer is thus: it’s society’s fucked-up, regressive way of preventing sexual assault. Nobody can sign a consent form when they’re shitfaced. But society doesn’t want women getting in that Uber with that drunk guy. So, we’re taught that girl drunkenness is something that we should be collectively embarrassed by. That skirt riding up, that vomit out the front, the girl walking down the street the morning after with mascara under her eyes and her heels in her hand... It’s ‘un-ladylike’. Who could forget the Perth story/video that went viral late last year about the trashed ladies bathroom at Botanica Bar? The woman pictured dancing with a toilet bin over her head, has told press her life is ruined – she’s received death threats, and considered legal action for defamation. We publicly shamed her. As we do thousands of young women, every single weekend. We hold back our young women from going wild and letting loose - as a cautionary thing. We judge them hard for drinking hard.
So why, mostly, do men get a free pass to go HAM when they’re drunk? Simple. For men, losing control doesn’t leave them vulnerable to sexual assault. Neither is rape a risk inherent in unregulated partying or sexual behavior for men (there are of course exceptions to the rule; inb4 #notallmen). Friedman makes another keen observation in In Defence of Going Wild: “I’ve never met a straight man who worried about being raped as he contemplated a night of debauchery. Vomiting in public? Yes. Getting rejected by sexual prospects? Sure. Getting in a fight? Maybe. Getting raped? Come on.”
Ditch The Double Standard - Debauchery For All
We need to create an environment where our women don’t feel as if they need to inhibit their lives/partying behaviours/pleasures in order to minimise their risk of being shamed for out-of-control behaviour, or worse, sexual assault. There’s lots of fantastic ladies out there who work very hard, and deserve to unwind over a couple (or many) drinks, just as their male counterparts do, without fear of losing the respect of their peers. As one male friend who read this article put it: “Can I just say if the outcome of this article is more lady drinking champions, I’m all over that like a warm flannel.” Women should be able to stack it down the stairs on a drunken rampage once in a while and have someone help them up, and laugh with them about it later. Not be subject to the kind of cruel backchat in mens’ social circles that Jeremy discusses above.
So what do you do if you’re a woman and you get the vibe that people are talking about your drinking or associated party and sexual behaviours? Start by working out who your real friends are – having a supportive network (whether they’re your drinking buddies or not) who will help you remedy any drunken damages in the days following a blowout is key. They’ll also be able to help you emotionally debrief anything uncharacteristic that you might have done or said whilst out of control, and help you put these actions into context relative to your sober personality.
Secondly, don’t let this double standard shit fly! You might remember our Pilerats’ article about being a good human, that we put up last International Women's Day. There was some great advice in that that could apply in remedying this drinking/sexual double standard. In it, we suggested that we all ought to take more of a stand against dudes being ‘shit blokes’, and ‘bandying around words like ‘sluts’: “Don’t accept treating others like shit as ‘funny’ or just ‘how the boyz roll’… If you’ve got a friend using abusive language towards a girl - laughing or otherwise - call him out.” Confronting people about their behavior (straight out asking them why they’d talk about you like that?) can also be helpful to get a clear picture of the situation and dispel any paranoia that might be lurking about your head. Or find someone who will advocate for you, and help shut the situation down.
If you’re not into speaking up, and people are making fun or bitching about something you did or said while drunk, it’s in your power to simply choose not to care - is this the hill you really want to die on? Distance yourself from those people (remember that Dr. Suess quote from your childhood? “Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind?” He was onto something there). Maddie*, a 22-year-old musician from Perth, thinks people who judge others for their drunken actions, turning them into the subject of gossip, may have their own issues: “You get some guys who are all for women getting too loose but you also get women who judge other women for getting too loose. My guy mates love it when I’m a loose cannon, but if I ever was in the situation where people were judging me? I wouldn't give two shits. They’re probably just jealous – perhaps they’re not comfortable with letting themselves go, and being vulnerable in front of other people.”
Things can, and do, go wrong in party world. But when you force women to choose safety over pleasure in ways men have never had to (and when you shame them for ‘letting go’ once in a while) you teach women that their good time is not as important as a guys’ good time. And that really sucks if you’re a girl who loves drinking and having a good time, but doesn’t want to be forever known as the ‘good time girl’.
While the above article deals in having a few drinks and a good time - if your drinking is harming yourself or others, this is something your local doctor GP is versed in, and can talk about with you over an appointment. Alternatively, the Alcohol and Drug Support Line is a confidential, non-judgmental telephone counselling and information service for anyone seeking help for their own or another person’s alcohol use. The service is available 24/7 (08) 9442 5000 or Regional: 1800 198 024.