Alcohol & Pop Culture Ep 2 – Whiskey Dick & Party Culture
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We’re on part two of a four-part series on the interaction between alcohol and pop culture. During this episode we will examine factors that contribute to the high rates of alcohol abuse and the problematic fallout of this influence. Throughout the episode we will feature interview clips with a drug researcher, Dr. Olivier George.
Why Do People Drink? [1:12]
Alcohol has nested itself in our lives. From celebration to heartbreak, from promotions to unemployment, from good days to bad. It’s used as a social lubricant, an emotional crutch, stress relief, and even a simple way to wind down from a long day. With such widespread application, it’s no wonder alcohol-related complications are so prominent.
The question of why we as a society drink to the extent that we do is an important differentiating factor from other substances of abuse. Why is alcohol more widely abused than, say, benzodiazepines (legal by prescription anti-anxiety medications)?
“If you have to rank the drugs in the harm that it causes- to the individual, to the family, to the society- alcohol would be [at] the top.”
Both are legal substances that have powerful depressant effects and equally dangerous withdrawal periods, yet the percentage of people who have used benzodiazepines non-medically is consistently lower than the percentage that are current drinkers (9). In 2014, less than 1% of the 12 and older population had tried benzos non-medically in the last year, compared to the 52.7% of the population that drank in the past month (9).
Alcohol is used and abused at higher rates than all illicit drugs combined, with almost 12% of current drinkers reporting heavy use (9)! Does alcohol’s non-prescription availability explain the abuse discrepancy between it and other substances, or is there something else at play? To answer these questions, we have to consider factors underlying our current state of alcohol understanding.
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Social Acceptability [3:32]
Drinking has become a staple ingredient in the sociable lifestyle. Peer influence has been shown to have a very powerful effect on drinking habits. In fact, both a person’s perception of their friends’ approval of drinking as well as their description of their friends’ actual drinking habits have a significant effect on a person’s own drinking behaviors (17, 18). This is especially true if the peer is considered a best friend (19).
Associating with friends that drink is positively associated with alcohol use among adolescents. Interestingly enough, peer pressure seems to have a minor gender-skewed effect (20, 21), with males more likely than females to engage in risky drinking practices that they perceive to be normal or “cool” (20, 22, 23).
College is an environment that is particularly rampant with misperceptions about alcohol. College students tend to vastly overestimate the drinking tendencies of their peers (24, 25, 26), leading to alterations in their own drinking habits to fit in with what they believe to be normative alcohol consumption on campus (24, 27). This perceived social acceptability may incite dangerous binge drinking patterns, which can be especially risky as students transition into adulthood and begin to refine their beliefs and habits around alcohol use.
Overarching these powerful effects of peer perception lies the simple fact that alcohol is a legal substance in the United States that enjoys extensive marketing. It is widely available in many different forms to appeal to as many drinkers as possible- beer, wine, whiskey, vodka, tequila, gin, moonshine, rum—the list goes on and on, with almost endless variations within each type.
“This perceived social acceptability may incite dangerous binge drinking patterns, which can be especially risky as students transition into adulthood and begin to refine their beliefs and habits around alcohol use.”
Its legal status, at least for individuals 21 years and older, affords alcohol an especially loose leash when it comes to abuse. Obtaining it is easy—most states sell beer in grocery stores, and many even sell hard liquor. Even in the strictest states a person simply has to drive to a liquor store to get whatever alcohol they desire. Easy consumption begets easy abuse, but alcohol’s legality isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
On the other hand, alcohol companies have taken advantage of this legal permissibility: beer companies sponsor sporting events, hard liquor ads litter commercial breaks, alcohol ad placements smear countless popular TV shows and movies—it seems impossible to escape the message that drinking alcohol is the cool thing to do. Advertising promotes and justifies the ideation of alcohol as a crazy, sexy, cool substance to consume.
All-in-all, inaccurate peer perceptions, legality, and advertisements all contribute to the impression that alcohol is a harmless, socially acceptable pastime.
Beliefs and Expectations about Alcohol [9:00]
The glamorization of drinking has led to increased positive expectancies regarding alcohol’s effects. These positive expectations have been found to contribute to problematic drinking behaviors (28, 29, 30). Optimistic drinking beliefs often include thoughts such as, “When I drink I feel more confident and attractive,” “when I drink, I feel less inhibited with sex,” and, “when I drink I’m more sociable, fun, and outgoing.” But here’s the catch: whether or not these are true, your health could suffer the repercussions.
The effects of alcohol are similar to other psychoactive substances in that they vary by situation, expectations, and the state that the drinker is in when they begin to drink. While at a party in an exciting and stimulating environment, alcohol’s energetic effects may feel the most obvious, especially if the drinker has a boisterous personality to begin with or expects that alcohol will make them feel lively and outgoing. In a quiet environment, however, the sedating and drowsy effects may be the most apparent.
This powerful impact of expectation on the subjective effects of alcohol carries over into sexual expectations as well. There is a widely held belief that alcohol increases a person’s sexual interest and arousal, but these effects are largely culturally driven (31).
In fact, alcohol mainly serves to decrease physical signs of sexual arousal for both men and women, even at very low doses (32). Men may struggle to maintain an erection, otherwise known by its descriptive name “whiskey dick”, women may struggle with self-lubrication (maybe we should call this “whiskey clit”?), and both often have a difficult time reaching orgasm. Alcohol may increase the subjective sense of desire, but it dampens ability.
“There is a widely held belief that alcohol increases a person’s sexual interest and arousal, but these effects are largely culturally driven.”
There’s also a commonly held belief that different types of alcohol will affect drinkers in different ways. Maybe you’ve heard the phrases: whiskey makes you frisky, brandy makes you randy, gin makes you thin, tequila makes you crazy, and wine makes you, well, whine. Or was it “mine”? Either way, these catchy idioms stick in your brain like a thorn.
The truth is there are no scientific data supporting the idea that we react differently to different alcoholic drinks. Beer before liquor does not actually make you sicker. Ethanol is ethanol, and the concentration of your drink will have a larger impact on how you behave than the drink itself. So when you drink a lot of beer, you may not fully realize the amount of ethanol that you’ve ingested before taking shots, leading to a rapid spike in already-elevated blood alcohol content and a nasty hangover.
“Ethanol is ethanol, and the concentration of your drink will have a larger impact on how you behave than the drink itself.”
Alcohol undeniably loosens inhibitions. Problems arise when people begin to rely on it for social and personal attainment. Many drinkers believe that alcohol will make them a more interesting, fun, attractive, and outgoing person, but these very beliefs can be their own downfall, leading to extreme binge drinking and far-reaching medical consequences, not to mention next-morning regrets.
While many drink simply for the fun of it, alcohol is also frequently used as an emotional crutch. Psychological issues and disorders are highly associated with alcohol abuse and dependence problems, even in young adults (33, 34). While this association rings true for all genders, mood disorders and alcohol use tend to have a stronger correlation among women (33, 35), perhaps due to the higher rates of depression among women in general (36, 37, 38).
Some people use alcohol as a way to self-medicate certain underlying conditions. Because of its depressant and relaxing effects, many people drink to alleviate symptoms of:
- Insomnia (39).
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (40).
- Mood disorders (depression, dysthymia, Bipolar, etc.) (41, 42).
- Anxiety disorders (43, 44).
Many of these people are not even fully aware that this is their motivation for drinking.
Drinking to self-treat psychological problems has been associated with higher rates of developing alcohol dependence (43). Self-medicating with alcohol is a dangerous and risky way to try to cope with serious problems that can be addressed without substance use, and it may even serve to worsen a person’s condition.
“We now have evidence that binge drinking dramatically increases the risk of alcoholism, and by doing binge drinking you build up tolerance to alcohol so you’re able to take more and more alcohol- your system adapts to it.”
Stress is another often-reported motivation for alcohol use and abuse. Stressful life events, especially legal and job-related ones, are strongly associated with episodes of heavy binge drinking (45, 46). Using alcohol, which has depressant, relaxing effects, may temporarily alleviate feelings of stress and anxiety, but it is a detrimental practice in the long run, potentially leading to countless health issues that may even escalate the original symptoms.
We can see this emotional influence glamourized in pop culture as well: how many post-breakup rituals have involved getting blackout drunk? How many bad days at work end with a bottle of wine? These models of alcohol-fueled coping romanticize the idea of drinking in excess, making these binge habits seem cool, if not normal.
Alcohol’s effects may seem desirable to someone looking to escape a problem or issue, mainly because they work… temporarily. They may appeal to the extraverted socialite wanting to connect with strangers, the quiet wallflower looking to loosen up, the deadline-burdened blue collar worker hoping to escape the stress, or even the person who drinks simply because that’s what they’ve always done. But here’s the thing: alcohol doesn’t care what your motivation is.
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Why Is This a Problem? [17:53]
Drinking to excess may reflect an underlying wont for human connection that feels unsatisfied for whatever reason—disorders, stress, or even a simple lack of confidence. Using alcohol to address these issues is a major concern for not only public safety, but personal health and wellbeing as well.
Drinking can wreak havoc on a person’s system, especially when consumed in a binge drinking pattern. It seems like enjoying a couple drinks on the weekend without any weekday drinking would be easier on the body than having one drink every day, but it turns out this is not the case.
This problematic pattern of drinking exacts its consequences on both the mind and body. In addition to the physical effects—heart and circulation problems, liver damage, cancer, etc.—the drinker’s psychological functioning may experience a decline, including the very real possibility of developing dependence over time.
People who binge drink are more likely to experience negative health consequences of alcohol well beyond the basic next-day hangover, and this risk increases as the frequency of binge drinking increases (47, 48, 49). Nearly 18% of U.S. adults report binge drinking habits (50), and this number jumps to almost 50% among college students (51)! Many of these people are not physically dependent on alcohol (50), yet the damage incurred by their drinking habits will accrue.
Binge drinking has so many negative consequences, it’s sort of a wonder that it has become such a central part of our current culture. Drinking in a binge pattern has been associated with psychiatric disorders, behavioral problems, and alcohol dependence (52). On top of this, the physical consequences are vast: cardiovascular problems, liver damage, and even cancer (15). The worst bodily damage seems to be related more to the total amount and chronicity of alcohol consumed rather than the length of time that it took to consume it, meaning it doesn’t matter how the drinks are spread out over time—the damage will be the same regardless of how quickly they are consumed (53, 54). In other words, an individual drinking five standard drinks in one hour will suffer the same amount of damage as someone consuming five standard drinks over the course of three hours.
“People who binge drink are more likely to experience negative health consequences of alcohol well beyond the basic next-day hangover, and this risk increases as the frequency of binge drinking increases.”
Binge drinking behaviors have a number of negative associations:
- Less positive mood. (55)
- Lower cognitive performance. (55)
- Poor impulse control. (56)
- Lower health-related quality of life. (57)
- Increased mental distress (stress, depression, and emotional problems). (57)
- Deficits in verbal declarative memory. (58)
On top of the basic personal consequences we have the high societal cost of alcohol’s popularization. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that alcohol consumption in the U.S. costs us over $200 billion every year (50). These costs include job productivity losses, health care expenses, legal and judiciary expenses, and vehicular accident costs.
Not to mention the psychological toll if anyone were to get hurt because of an intoxicated driver. In fact, impaired driving accidents that involve a fatality actually kill the drunk driver only 65% of the time (59). 16% of these impaired accidents involved the death of passengers in the car with the drunk driver, and 20% resulted in the death of people not in the car with the intoxicated driver (59). This means that 20% of fatal driving accidents result in the untimely, gruesome death of pedestrians and other drivers on the road that had no say in that drunk person’s decision to get behind the wheel of a car after drinking, which is simply unacceptable.
Facts like these are difficult to swallow, but they emphasize the need for a better understanding of how these common drinking habits are influenced—by pop culture, by peers, by parents, and by practice. The more we understand about what is supporting this culture of dangerous drinking habits, the better equipped we are to address it. ?
Next Time on Let’s Talk Drugs…
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