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Why College Men Drink: Alcohol, Adventure, and the	Paradox of Masculinity

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With the increase in the drinking age from 18 to 21 years and increased awareness of the dangers of alcohol abuse, colleges now "typically have policies which promote responsible drinking" and attempt the "management of student  drinking and  its  consequences" (Hoekema, 1994, p. 84-88). My own informal observations are that liability case law, awareness of the negative impact of alcohol on the achievement of educational mission, and enrollment management concerns for retention have also encouraged colleges to be more vigilant about the role of alcohol in campus cultures.



The posting below offers some useful insights on the use of alcohol by college men.  It is from CHAPTER 13, Why College Men Drink: Alcohol, Adventure, and the Paradox of Masculinity, by Rocco L. Capraro, in the book, College Men and Masculinities, Theory, Research, and Implications for Practice, Shaun R. Harper and Frank Harris III, editors. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint, 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA Copyright © 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Academia

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Why College Men Drink: Alcohol, Adventure, and the Paradox of Masculinity

College Drinking


What happens when we look at college men? College students, mostly men, are among the heavy drinkers in Rorabaugh's (1981) history of drinking in early American society. Contemporary college men drink more than they did in high school and more heavily than their non-college counterparts, and the gap is widening (Perkins, 1992; Maddox, 1970; Bacon & Strauss, 1953; Johnston, Bachman, & O'Malley, 1996). Men have been the primary public purveyors of alcohol to the college campus. All of the differences in drinking behavior for men and women generally hold true for college men and women (Perkins, 1992; Berkowitz & Perkins, 1987).

Given today's college students' preference for alcohol, one could not really imagine most colleges void of alcohol (Levine &  Cureton, 1998).  However, given the great variety of colleges and universities, the diversity of today's student populations, and the sweeping nature of the concerns I express in this chapter, most of what follows must necessarily speak primarily to an ideal type, represented for me by the relatively small, residential liberal arts college, occupied by a mostly traditionally aged student population (Daedalus, 1999). In the following pages, I shall discuss critical aspects of college that seem to define college men's experience and help explain much of the presence of alcohol on college campuses: adventure, adult development, and permissiveness.

College as Adventure

Green (1993) conceptualizes adventure as a domain of transgression. For Green, adventure takes shape around the themes of "eros" and "potestas"-love and power. Following Bataille, Green asks us to think about civil society "as based on the purposes and values of work, which means the denial of all activities hostile to work, such as both the ecstasies of eroticism and those of violence." Adventure lies in the conceptual space where heroes, "men acting with power," break free of ordinary restraints and "sample the repressed pleasures of sex and violence" (Adams & Nagoshi, 1999, p. 17).

Although Green (1993) makes no reference to drinking in his essays on adventure, we can easily recognize that the terrain of adventure is the same terrain as that of alcohol: "a boy's first drink, first prolonged drinking experience, and first intoxication tend to occur with other boys away from home" (Lemle & Mishkind, 1989, p. 214). Sports and the military are contexts for both adventure and drinking. Drinking games "are an important factor in the socialization of new students into heavy use," particularly for men (Adams & Nagoshi, 1999, p. 105). Drinking, in general, can be an adventure, insofar as it takes men through a "breach" of the social contract and into the realms of violence, sex, and other adventure motifs.

In what way might college be conceptualized as an adventure? College is not literally, or predominantly, a scene of eras and potestas. It is, however, a time and place of an imaginative assertion of manhood outside of civil society, away from home and family, where a kind of heroism is possible. By analogy, we can observe that student life in 19th-century American colleges developed outside of the civil society represented by the faculty and administration in what I would regard as the realm of adventure. Horowitz (1987) argues that what we think of as student life was actually "born in revolt" (p. 23) against the faculty and administration. It is a "world made by the undergraduates," she says (p. 3).

Levine and Cureton (1998) find that colleges today are occupied by a transitional generation that reflects the changing demographics of contemporary American society. Horowitz's history, however, employs a simple tripartite typology of college students that is still largely applicable as a model for understanding students on many campuses in more recent times. That typology deeply resonates with my own many years of experience in student affairs: (a) college men-affluent men in revolt against the faculty and administration who created campus life as "the culture of the college man" (p. 32); (b) outsiders-hardworking men who identify with the faculty (p. 14); and (c) rebels-creative, modernist, and expressive men who conform neither to campus life nor to the faculty (p. 15). Horowitz (1987) observes that these three student types were distinctly male when they first made their appearance, but their female counterparts eventually found their place alongside the men.

Nuwer (1999) argues that there are historical links between traditional male undergraduate life and danger, a key adventure motif. Social interactions initiating students into various campus communities have continuously subjected college men to high risk. Acceptance by their peers is granted in exchange for successfully undertaking the risk involved. A variety of college rituals and traditions often mix danger and alcohol (Nuwer, 1999). Alcohol, itself, is associated with risk in men's lives (Lemle & Mishkind, 1989). Seen this way, college and campus life become an adventure-scape, where young men (college men) imagine their manhood in a developmental moment that is socially dominated by alcohol.

Green (1993) identifies a number of arenas or institutions of adventure: manhood before marriage, hunting, battle, travel, sports, and politics, to name a few. Although there may be feminine variants, Green links adventure to masculinity because society gives men the freedom to "apply force to the world to assert power and identity." Adventure is an act of assertion by which men "imagine themselves" in "a breach of the social contract" (p. 19).

Colleges as a Male Developmental Moment

Beyond seeing the sociology of college and student life organized as adventure, we must also consider the role of individual developmental psychology in the college environment. Paradoxically, just at the moment the great adventure begins, college men feel the most vulnerable. Rotundo (1993) observes that in the 19th-century, "male youth culture" made its appearance in men's development as the vehicle for the transition from boyhood to manhood. Boys' principal developmental task was disengagement from home, which created conflict between the imperatives of worldly ambition and young men's psychological needs for attachment. Young men of Rotundo's period gathered in business districts and colleges. Wherever they gathered, a "special culture" developed to support them in a time of need (p. 56-62).

Lyman (1987) carries us forward from Rotundo's (1993) historical analysis to the present. In his essay on male bonding in fraternities, he locates college as a developmental time and place between the authority of home and family (in the high school years), and that of work and family (after graduation). He identifies college men's anger, their "latent anger about the discipline that middle-class  male  roles  impose  upon them, both marriage rules and work rules" (p. 157). Their great fear is loss of control and powerlessness. Lyman concludes that joking relationships (banter, sexual humor, etc.) among men allow a needed connection without being self-disclosive or emotionally intimate, that is, with little vulnerability. Recent research on first-year college men has characterized their transition to college as often involving separation anxiety and loss, followed by grieving. Among the significant responses that may manifest some college men's grief, we find self-destructive behaviors,  including alcohol use  (Gold, Neururer, & Miller, 2000).

Shame theory advises that to avoid shame, boys need to distance themselves from their mothers because of the "considerable discomfort with dependency needs at the level of the peer group" (Krugman, 1995, p. 107). College men in groups, such as Lyman's fraternity men, perceive homosexuality and intimate emotional relationships with women to be a threat to their homosocial world. Thus, men are encouraged to treat women as sexual objects, which confirms their heterosexuality, but prevents true intimacy with women.

Alcohol plays a role in men's emotional management under these conditions. Drinking remains a "socially acceptable way for men to satisfy their dependency needs while they maintain a social image of independence" (Burda, Tushup, & Hackman, 1992, p. 187) even as it masks those needs. For example, recent research on drinking games suggests they are actually an environmental context for drinking where a variety of students' social and psychological needs come into play (Johnson, Hamilton, & Sheets, 1999). When men (and women) give reasons for playing drinking games, they are likely to be "tapping into more general motives for drinking" (p. 286). Alcohol may be an effective way to cope in the short term, but it is ultimately "self-destructive" (Burda, Tushup, & Hackman, 1992, p. 191).

For Nuwer (1999), as was true for Horowitz (1987), fraternities are the quintessential emblems of traditional college life. They provide a "feeling of belonging" for students who "crave relationships and acceptance" in their college years (p. 38). They are also the riskiest environments for heavy and problem drinking (Berkowitz & Perkins, 1987). Nationally, just over 80% of fraternity residents binge drink, whereas just over 40% of all college students binge (Wechsler, Dowdall, Maener, Gledhill-Hoyt, & Lee, 1998). Drinking in fraternities is perhaps best understood as an extreme on a continuum of college men's drinking, dramatizing what may be going on to a lesser extent in traditional student life among a range of men. From the point of view of men's needs assessments, we have much to learn from the psychology of brotherhood.

Permissiveness - Real and Imagined

Alcohol is "one of the oldest traditions in the American college," and alcohol-related problems have also been a benchmark of campus life. Until very recently, though, college administrations have been permissive about alcohol, voicing "official condemnation tempered by tacit toleration" (Hoekema, 1994, p. 81-83). Myers (1990) provides a model for "institutional (organizational) denial" of the presence (or extent) of alcohol abuse that could easily apply to college campuses nationally (p. 43). In 1995, Wechsler was explicit about the widespread denial about alcohol on college campuses.

With the increase in the drinking age from 18 to 21 years and increased awareness of the dangers of alcohol abuse, colleges now "typically have policies which promote responsible drinking" and attempt the "management of student  drinking and  its  consequences" (Hoekema, 1994, p. 84-88). My own informal observations are that liability case law, awareness of the negative impact of alcohol on the achievement of educational mission, and enrollment management concerns for retention have also encouraged colleges to be more vigilant about the role of alcohol in campus cultures.

But among students, permissiveness persists, both in drinking behavior and in attitudes toward drinking. Permissiveness itself is, in part, the result of students' own misperceptions of campus norms for alcohol behavior and attitudes (Rorabaugh, 1981; Perkins, 1991). With reference to the consumption of alcohol and the acceptability of intoxication, students generally perceive themselves to be in a permissive environment. In reality, the environment is not as permissive as they think. Misperceiving the norm leads students who are inclined to drink to consume more  alcohol than they otherwise would drink were they to perceive the norm correctly (Perkins & Wechsler, 1996). This social norms research indicates that correcting the misperception through public information campaigns can reduce both problem drinking and binge drinking on college campuses (Fabiano, McKinney, Hyun, Mertz, Rhoads, & Lifestyles, 1998; Haines, 1993).

How well do social norms approaches work with college men who are heavy drinkers? How are masculinity, permissive attitudes about drinking, and misperceptions of the norm related? How accurately do college men perceive their campus norms? For social norms theory and research, the heaviest drinking results from the interaction of the most permissive personal attitudes toward alcohol and the greatest misperception of the norm as more permissive than it actually is. Men as a group are the heaviest drinkers on campus. We might conclude that the heaviest drinking men have the most permissive attitudes about drinking and that they misperceive the norm at the greatest rates. But, theoretically, they should also be most susceptible to the benefits of social norms approaches.

However, in one study, the heaviest drinking college men proved to be the least susceptible to social norms interventions. From 1995 to 1998 Western Washington University implemented a campus-wide social norms approach. Although most students on the campus changed their patterns of drinking in positive ways, the "students reporting they had seven or more drinks on peak occasions [the most consumed at one time in the past month] remained virtually unchanged [at about 35%]." The most recalcitrant students at Western Washington were underage men: "nearly two thirds of the underage men still reported having seven or more drinks on a peak occasion. Only one third of the underage women reporting the same" (Fabiano, McKinney, Hyun, Mertz, Rhoads, & Lifestyles, 1998, p. 3) level of consumption.

In view of the significance of personal attitudes toward alcohol (Perkins & Wechsler, 1996), permissive personal attitudes about alcohol in the group of recalcitrant underage men might have been so robust that they simply overwhelmed any other perceptions of the environment. Prentice and Miller (1993) found that men and women in their study did respond differently to corrections of misperceptions. Perhaps, in the case of at least some college men, personal attitudes about drinking and misperception of the campus norm are so inextricably linked that research and prevention work that addresses the one (personal attitudes) must necessarily be done in conjunction with the same kind of work on the other (misperception of the norm).

Perkins (1992) once characterized "the perceived male stereotype of heavy use as a misperception to which males do not need to conform" (p. 6). Some college men's misperceptions of their campus alcohol norms may be "contained" in their personal attitudes about drinking. Baer found that differences in the perception of campus drinking norms among students in different housing situations on one campus "already existed prior to college enrollment" (Adams & Nagoshi, (1999, p. 98) [emphasis mine]. Certainly, if "the impact of public behavior and conversation" on campus can generate misperceptions of the norm (Perkins, 1991, p. 17) a lifetime of powerful messages about the connection between alcohol and manhood would produce great distortions of its own.

Social norms theory, research, and strategies would be enhanced by a closer look at gender in the creation of drinking attitudes and behaviors, in possible differences in the misperception of norms, and in the social mechanisms that lie behind the actual norms. Social norms research surveys should include measures of traditional masculine role strain and should look for correlations between attitudes and perceptions of the norm and actual drinking behavior.

In addition, surveys should replace the generic "college student" with "male student" or "female student" when asking college students about how much students are drinking and asking about their attitudes toward drinking. So, for example, we should ask, "How many drinks does a male [or female] student typically have at a party on this campus?" instead of "do students typically have" or "Is it acceptable for men [or women] to drink with occasional intoxication as long as it does not interfere with other responsibilities?" (Perkins, 1991, p. 15)

The results would have implications for norms-based prevention programs. It would make sense if, in fact, masculinity were found to predispose men to misperceive the norm because assumptions and attitudes about drinking and how drinking relates to manhood are built into masculinity. It would also make sense that the actual and perceived social norms be gender specific.


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