The pressure on young people in college, particularly on young men, to indulge in excessive alcohol consumption is in the spotlight today as rarely before, after the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged drunken behavior in high school and college and former friends and classmates have come forward with more stories and evidence of the same. President Trump's Supreme Court nominee has even admitted to behavior that makes him “cringe,” though he denied the worst of the allegations.
Still, what hasn’t been fully explored is the power of male pressure and male silence that goes hand in hand with a drinking culture that endures to this day — and the peer pressure inherent in much of it that makes us do things we regret, never discussing it with each other.
According to a 2016 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an estimated 38.4 percent of young adults aged 18 to 25 were binge alcohol users in the past month. That number hasn't changed much in the last 25 years — though it's down from 43 percent in 1991 — despite a variety of what colleges have dubbed "social norming" campaigns to try to convince students that their peers don't drink as much as stereotypes would suggest. Further statistics suggest that, every year, nearly 2,000 college students die of alcohol-related unintended injuries, nearly 700,000 students are assaulted by other students who are drinking, and 25 percent of college students have alcohol-related academic problems.
What the statistics don’t tell you is that there is nonetheless an overwhelming pressure among young men to drink, and those who don't become the objects of scorn. You are expected to drink, often to excess, in almost every possible social situation.
It's hard to resist the social pressure to partake, even if you don't like alcohol that much. I’m not in a frat, let alone a member of a society bent on “100 Kegs or Bust.” I’m a Dean’s List student, an active member of my community, a member of the Mormon church. But I've still let drinking and its role in masculine culture guide my behavior.
For instance, after a Target run with my mom and my roommate Shaun during move-in week, with a fresh store of pots, pans, silverware and groceries in tow, we left the store, but I knew we were lacking one more essential. The liquor store was right across the street.
As we waited at the traffic light outside, I could feel Shaun’s eyes boring into me from the backseat and I blurted out, “Mom, do you think you could buy us some alcohol?”
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Before the light even turned, I was cringing. My family is Mormon, and alcohol is definitively forbidden. But at that moment, Shaun’s silent expectation felt more important than any values I was brought up to believe.
My mother looked at me in a way I’d not seen until that point, but understood: Head slightly cocked, mouth agape, eyes narrow. She was completely stunned.
What the statistics don’t tell you is that there is nonetheless an overwhelming pressure among young men to drink, and those who don't become the objects of scorn.
“The store’s right here,” I said, as if it made it any less uncomfortable.
“Okay,” she said. She looked away from me, but we stopped at the store and made the purchase.
Would I have so blatantly disregarded the feelings of my mother had I were not entrenched in a culture in which binge drinking is as normal as sleeping in on a weekend? I am not sure that I even know what would have happened if I had just told Shaun, “I couldn’t ask then, dude. I know it’s a pain to go back, but I’m not putting my mom in that kind of bind.”
My regret over using my mother to appease my friends made me sicker than alcohol ever could and, days later, I dialed her number. I felt the shame rising in my throat as the phone rang.
“Mom,” I choked out after she picked up.
“I want to apologize for how I treated you when you visited. At this point, you may not think much of it, but using you for buying the alcohol.” I swallowed. “It just wasn’t right. It didn’t feel right then and it certainly doesn’t feel right now.”
There was a brief pause and then she said, “I don’t want to tell you how to live your life, but having your roommate in the car certainly didn’t make it easy for me. I was completely caught in the middle.”
I hadn't thought about how pressured she might have felt to conform to the norm of other parents, or to help me fit in; it made me feel even worse.
She continued: “I love you. There is nothing you could do to change that.”
We talked a little more, and said our goodbyes.
I can’t say that I’ll never succumb to pressure again. But, I can tell you that I know how it feels to let peer pressure determine your actions. And that the first step toward resolving those uncomfortable feelings is vocally taking responsibility for your actions and the people they harmed.
Men don’t discuss the role that they play in perpetuating drinking culture, just as they often don’t take responsibility for mistakes they make while immersed in it. Instead, there’s a silent, pervasive understanding that men have an obligation to their tribe first over the general welfare. This has to change.
Young men feel a great deal of pressure from group norms of masculinity, and are deeply influenced by the risk of being ridiculed or feeling emasculated. It gives us a powerful instinct to conform to this influence. But there is danger in obedience without conscience.
If I can understand this reality while I’m living in that culture, I don’t understand why men from the highest echelons of our society can’t come to the same conclusion.