Human Wreckage

The sociology of crime, deviance, and substance abuse

Drunk Support

Harm Reduction in the College Drinking Scene

The college drinking scene is a matrix of fun and looming crisis. Students share laughter, adventure, and emergent affection when they drink together. And they also face a variety of risks, including injury, sexual victimization, acute toxicity, and death. Based on a large body of scholarly research, we know that heavy drinking in college is linked to a host of negative outcomes. If so many negative consequences can and do occur in the drinking scene, then why do some college students continue to chase dangerous levels of intoxication? This question inspired my eight-year study of college drinking. I surveyed 469 students, conducted 25 intensive interviews, and spent countless hours observing the college drinking scene in student bars, house parties, and at street festivals. My study was sociological in that I sought to see intoxication—and the troubles it produced—as a collective effort. I wanted to see how students worked together to accomplish collective intoxication and how they worked together to manage its effects.

My student informants were usually eager to talk to me about the drinking scene and graciously shared their insights. As a result, I was able to see college partying in a brand new way. Past researchers have tended to focus on the negative effects of college drinking, giving only scant attention to the variety of social and emotional payoffs that draw the College Drinker to the scene. My respondents felt that there were many social benefits associated with collective intoxication (e.g., it reduced shyness, it gave them the temporary confidence to “hook up” with love interests, and it created a world of adventure where “anything can happen”). These findings should not be surprising to anyone who ever partied with friends in college. But what about the negative effects of heavy drinking? Why do they persist in an activity that carries such potential for injury, sickness, and emotional distress? According to my analysis, part of the answer to this question is the use of “drunk support.”

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Drunk support refers to the delivery of emotional and/or instrumental provisions delivered from one person to an intoxicated other. This includes: attending to a drunksick friend while they are vomiting, consoling an emotionally distraught co-drinker who is upset about a relationship or feeling aggrieved by the actions of other drinkers, and providing physical reinforcement when one’s friend gets into a fistfight. Drunk support turns negative events into mutually beneficial, bonding experiences. Social support feels rewarding to both the giver and to the receiver. When negative events occur in the college drinking culture, then, co-drinkers mobilize to help one another in ways that turn the negative experience into a positive one. Thus, my data suggest that heavy drinkers continue to drink in spite of these noxious outcomes and they continue to drink, in part, because these negative events bring them closer together, because the experiences allow them to demonstrate the depth and quality of their character, and because these events become “war stories” that will become an important part of their friendship narratives. Even severe hangovers are recast by college drinkers as mutually supportive bonding experiences that are “part of the fun.” And when college drinkers are feeling shameful about embarrassing drunken performances, their friends and codrinkers bail them out by saying, “Don’t worry about it, you were hilarious last night!”

Drunk support may actually perpetuate risky drinking because it gives drinkers a sense that they will be taken care of when the party train goes off the rails. On the other hand, drunk support can be positive if it prevents tragedy or reduces victimization. My respondents reported that they were vigilant, for example, about looking out for their friends if they felt that they were vulnerable to sexual victimization. Students escort their intoxicated friends home from bars and intervene when they see their inebriated female friends leaving a bar or house party with an unknown male. The informal support located within the drinking scene suggests policy implications.

College administrators could find ways to encourage and facilitate drunk support to reduce the potential harms in the college drinking scene. First, college drinkers are already looking out for one another when they drink together. Let’s use programming to make them more confident, more effective bystanders. Bystander intervention training could include encouraging students to intervene before their cohorts get dangerously intoxicated and could teach them to recognize the signs of acute toxicity. Moreover, universities could enact amnesty policies that allow students to call for help without worrying that they or their endangered drinking partner would be sanctioned for underage drinking or for violating other university policies. At the same time, schools could require students to be conscientious bystanders as part of a mandatory code of conduct. Students who do not help those in need, that is, should be held accountable for their negligence. Finally, universities can create and train student support teams that patrol the drinking scene looking for signs of disorder and distress. These support units—like the “Green Team” at Dartmouth College—would provide an extra institutionalized layer of support and harm reduction to the drinking scene. After decades of education and prevention programming at American universities, rates of risky drinking have not changed much. It is time that we involve our students more directly in harm reduction strategies and that we encourage students to develop new ideas to make the drinking scene a safer place.

Thomas Vander Ven, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Ohio University.

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