It’s not just fraternity brothers who are guzzling one beer too many. Women and high school girls are equally likely to drink too much.
According to the latest survey from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 14 million U.S. women binge drink about three times a month, downing about six beverages per binge. The survey defined binge drinking as consuming five or more drinks in one sitting for men and four or more for women.
It’s not unusual for young women ages 18 to 34, as well as high schoolers, to overindulge; 1 in 8 women and 1 in 5 high school girls report drinking to excess. But binge drinking accounts for about 23,000 deaths among women and girls in the U.S. each year.
Long bouts of drinking typical of binges can lead to unpleasant, not to mention potentially dangerous, consequences for both men and women. In her award-winning photography project “Keg Stand Queens,” photographer Amanda Berg documented her friends’ drinking habits during parties at the Rochester Institute of Technology. The collection includes images of underage girls in sexually compromising positions, passed out on lawns and leaning over toilet seats.
“The project began a conversation for me on things that I was guilty of, perhaps uncomfortable with, but would still do,” says Berg. “I think there is something inherent about the community [binge drinking] builds, and the way it lubricates an individuals’ social interactions. While I was doing the project, my social life changed because I wasn’t participating while I was taking photos, and it really made me separate from everyone else.”
According to the latest CDC report, women who binge-drink may be putting themselves at increased risk for breast cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, heart disease and unintended pregnancy. Pregnant women who binge-drink expose their unborn child to a high risk of fetal-alcohol spectrum disorders and sudden-infant-death syndrome.
“If it is true there really is a modern increase [in female binge drinking], then I think there are specific things that women have to consider and people need to talk about, but I don’t think that [only] women should be blamed for the negative side effects of it. But [those risks] should be on the table. There is almost a social taboo of bringing it up, and it is a little controversial, but I think people should get comfortable talking about it.”
In describing her work, Berg argues that the danger of binge drinking among women is that women’s bodies, which are typically smaller than men’s, cannot handle the same amounts of alcohol, so attempting to keep up can be dangerous. And when the worst does happen, she writes in her blog post about the project, there is a tendency to try to justify it:
After a night of excessive drinking sexual assault can be redefined as a “hook up.” The loss of memory due to inebriation can proudly be termed “blacking out.” Words like “apparently” preface the stories told of the prior night. With this, women abdicate responsibility and give themselves permission to repeat the same behavior.
Although the CDC report does not speculate why women are binge drinking, Dr. David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, says that female-friendly alcohol-marketing strategies that emerged 10 years ago — including flavored vodkas, alcopops, Smirnoff Ice, Barcardi Silver and Mike’s Hard Lemonade — may be playing a role.
“All of these were clearly oriented to women. The data showed these products were most popular among females of every age group and were most popular among young drinkers. Those of us involved in alcohol prevention called alcopops ‘beer with training wheels,’” says Jernigan. “Women traditionally drank less than men — and still do — but there has been a very intentional effort to increase it, and this has started exposing young women to products and marketing at high rates. The numbers are not surprising to us and are of great concern.”
The CDC researchers, however, are hopeful that the trend will reverse. “The good news is that the same scientifically proven strategies for communities and clinical settings that we know can prevent binge drinking in the overall population can also work to prevent binge drinking among women and girls,” Dr. Robert Brewer of the alcohol program at CDC said in a statement.
Jernigan says tighter standards on alcohol marketing, higher alcohol taxes and reduced availability are some potential ways to decrease binge drinking. “There ought to be places the [alcohol] industry agrees not to advertise. They are very active in the digital space, and it’s easy to gain access if you’re underage. You might have to do some math to put in a birth date, but otherwise all you have to do to get in a website is click yes or no. It’s not an effective deterrent,” says Jernigan.
While the CDC researchers recognize that binge drinking is a problem for both genders, highlighting the growing problem among women may lead to more targeted strategies and put pressure on targeted marketing campaigns. “It is a big service that the CDC is now presenting alcohol abuse as a woman’s issue. We only wish that it had come sooner, because the marketing is 10 years ahead of it,” says Jernigan.