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Women Drink More Today

By Carrie L. Zinaman

With greater social acceptance of drinking by women, female students imbibe more alcohol now than they ever have in the past. It is no longer just the social aspect of drinking that appeals to women--more drink in order to get drunk. Studies done at the School of Public Health indicate that, on campus...

According to health educators and experts, changing times mean that an increasing number of female students are waking up with hangovers.

Dr. Henry Wechsler, a lecturer at the School of Public Health and author of a previous study on alcohol abuse, is presently conducting a study at Harvard on drinking among students.

In 1989, in a study of New England school, Wechsler found that the proportion of women who drink to get drunk was significantly greater than it was 12 years before.

"The norms have changed," Wechsler said last week. "It is less unacceptable for women to drink heavily than it used to be."

In his previous study, Wechsler also found that while fewer women than men are heavy drinkers, the proportion of women who imbibe in order to get drunk is similar to that of men.

Gail L. Gramarossa, manager of the Office of Health Education, cited studies done at the School of Public Health that have found increases in binge drinking among female students. Gramarossa attributed the increases to the greater social accept ability of drinking by women.

She said, "I often wonder about the effect of the media and advertising on any behavior like that... There is a student concern that alcohol and abuse of alcohol are a big part of social activity. This could be a part of the social need to fit in."

However, while many university health official agree with the theory of greater social acceptability, some feel that the number of women drinking has not increased as a result of it. Instead, more female drinkers have been identified.

"My personal theory is that women have always had alcohol and drug problems" said Maura D. Valle, a health educator at University Health Services, who has recently seen more female students coming forward with alcohol problems than ever before. "But now it's more socially acceptable for women to drink publicly and get drunk with guys."

"Women were more in the closet 20 or 30 years ago," Valle said. "They also may have been misdiagnosed instead of being treated for an alcohol problem." Valle cited the increasing percentages of women in programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which is now about 40 percent female.

Charles P. Ducey, director of the Bureau of Study Counsel, would not support making what he called "impressionistic generalizations" about women and drinking. He said. "I don't see any particular reason why drinking among college-age women has gone up. I haven't noticed any change here."

Ducey did, however, agree with Valle in saying that drinking among women is a major problem. He said that men's drinking gets more attention because it often goes together with violent behavior.

"Women's drinking is less likely to manifest itself in that way," he said. "I doubt that it means that women's drinking is less problematic."

Ducey's point is supported by the trend in recent administrative Board cases. According to Virginia L. Mackay-Smith '78, assistant dean of the College for coeducation and secretary to the Ad Board, the amount to alcohol related cases has increased this year as more students drink and as the college becomes "More comfortable" with the new alcohol policy, which makes it illegal for people under 21 to possess alcohol.

But although a significant number of women have been involved in cases of infraction of that policy, Mackay-Smith said a majority of the cases brought before the Ad Board have involved men.

She said, "generally, the impression I have is that drinking is an increasing problem in the student body. I don't have the impression that more women are drinking."

However L. Fred Jewett '57, dean of the college, said he has not recently perceived an unusual rise in drinking among the student body. "For the past several years, many major disciplinary problems have been related to alcohol abuse," he said.

Jewett also said women are equally involved in AD Board cases relating to alcohol abuse.

Recent scientific research has found that women have physiological disadvantages when it comes to drinking.

According to Dr. Grace Chang assistant professor of psychiatry at the Medical School, women get intoxicated much faster than men.

"Recent research suggests that women metabolize alcohol differently than men and are more sensitive to smaller amounts of alcohol," she said. Chang cites smaller body mass and different alcohol absorption processes in women as the causes of this.

Why many college women drink has a lot to do with social issues, said counselors and students.

"There are broader societal pressures woman might feel in general such as what they're supposed to look like and be like in terms of parenting and that whole realm," said Christina S. Griffith, assistant dean of first year students.

"Obviously women and alcohol have the added factor of risk of date rape and other sexual abuse," Griffith said.

According to Ducey, both college women and men are affected by similar personal and environmental factors in their decision to drink. "it is their first time away from home," he said. "They associate alcohol with freedom, loosening inhibitions, being more social and exploring sexuality."

But Ducey asserted that this type of drinking isn't necessarily problem drinking. He said that instance of misusing alcohol have many sources. "[W]Omen's problem drinking is traced to the break-up of romantic relation ships more frequently than problem drinking in men," he said.

One senior, who asked not to be identified, said that she has been drinking at least two or three times a week since ninth grade to lighten up the atmosphere and to loosen her inhibitions.

"I think it's perfectly socially acceptable for women to drink. I don't remember ever feeling what it was less socially acceptable," she said.

Eva F. Ho '94 drinks a few beers with her male friends about twice a week "just for fun." She said that women at Harvard seem either to drinks a lot or not at all.

However, a large number of female students claimed not to drink excessive amounts of alcohol.

Although Melissa A. Rosato '97 was surprised to see so much drinking when she got to Harvard, she has never found the need to drink to have a good time. "I figure I'm better off if I don't get into the habit," she said.

Vanessa W. Liu '96 only drinks champagne when she goes out to eat. "I don't like the taste of beer," she said.

Liu also said that drinking depends more on personality than on gender. "Some people come from backgrounds where drinking was in and it's their outlet," she said.

Harvard has provided students with several outlets for counseling, but has yet to deal with what many experts feel to be the increasing drinking problem on campus. There are currently no counseling groups dedicated towards treatment of student drinkers and there are no programs specifically designed for women.

According to Dr. Randolph Catlin, chief of Mental Health Services at UHS, treatment is more on an individual basis. I have found that usually undergraduates don't take to groups well," he said.

Catlin also said that there is no group activity specially for women at the moment. "We don't have anything exclusively for women but it could be that this is something that we should be thinking about," he said. "There have been no investigations yet and we haven't gotten data that indicates that there would be a need for [all female group therapy]."

According to Mackay-Smith. Harvard presently has no groups devoted to treating alcohol problems because students often feel more comfortable using outside resources such as Cambridge Hospital.

The absence of counseling groups does not mean that the University does not have resources for dealing with alcohol abuse-- according to Catlin there are a few ways that UHS deals with drinking problems.

He said the staff of the mental health services have experience in threating people with problems of alcohol abuse. Most often Catlin said, alcohol related problems come to the notice of health official in under some other guise.

The Health Education Department too has programs for undergraduates in the houses or the dorms which include presenting skits and distributing brochures.

According to Gramarossa, the office of Health Education has a peer undergraduate group called project ADD, an education group for alcohol and drug dialogue. This group which it jointly runs with the Bureau of Study Counsel, is planning activities over March 13 to 18 to commemorate alcohol awareness week.

The activities will address the issue of how alcohol relates to risky acts like unprotected sex and date rape situations. Project ADD is also planning a joint program with the Calling it Rape group to help students deal with the aftermath a alcohol abuse.

The Office of Health Education is presently working on forming a psycho educational group for students who are identified through the Ad Board health services and advisors as at risk for alcohol problems.

Gramarossa said the issue of having a group for women has come up in discussion and that her office is exploring the possibilities of starting one.

"I think there's some concern about whether or not a women's group would allow women to talk about issues specific for them," Gramarossa said.

The office is also looking into an on campus group counseling program for both men and women. "We're looking to try and have programs be available on campus that is missing on campus now," she said.

The office is presently applying for a grant from the federal department of education to try to get more information, undertake more training and develop alternative social activities for students who don't want to use alcohol or drugs.

Another initiative taken by UHS is an attempt to get students who come to Stillman Infirmary at night with alcohol-related problems to see their primary care physician or someone at Mental Health Services before they leave.

According to Catlin, this program has not had much success as yet, but he has hope for the future.

"We help people to see that they must be thinking about what they're doing with alcohol," Catlin said.

Catlin did express the need to gain an awareness of whether or not female drinking is becoming a serious problem.

Ducey said there are presently University efforts underway to establish more programs for student drinkers. "Now, I think there has been a growing sense that students should have access to resources right here," he said.

"Already, the University has resources for dealing with students who are concerned about their drinking," he said. "We are also working together to develop the possibility of groups to discuss the issues of alcohol and behavioral problems."

The Freshman Dean's office is also making the effort to dean more effectively with students' alcohol problems.

Griffith said the FDO has looked for more creative ways to talk to proctors about alcohol. In monthly yard meetings to assistant deans talk with the proctors about cases that have come up and how effective the responses were.

"The Dean of the College is not interested in turning proctors or tutors into disciplinary cops, but the new policy makes it harder to talk to students about alcohol," Griffith said.

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