For the women of America, 2013 will be a year defined by a lot of fuzzy memories. What the hell happened? We were all just so wasted. At least, that's what I can gather from reviewing all of the stories published this year -- in Slate, CNN, the Daily Mail, the New York Times, TIME, the Wall Street Journal, and NPR -- as well as two new books that warned of the ill effects of an uptick in young women boozing. Women, we were told, are drinking more alcohol, doing it more frequently and putting themselves at risk for a lot of hurt -- disease, sexual assault and just plain sadness -- by throwing 'em back like the boys.
Except that there is little evidence that binge drinking among young women is on the rise. This month, Rebecca Goldin, a mathematical science professor at George Mason University, crunched the numbers from a constellation of national surveys and found that many of them actually show a slight decrease in female binge drinking over the past decade (http://bit.ly/1c2V9jO). According to the Youth Risk Behavioral Survey, 34 percent of female seniors in high school reported that they binge drank at least once in the past month; in 2011, 27 percent did. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health finds that rates of binge drinking among women ages 12-20 decreased from 16.5 percent in 2003 to 14 percent in 2012. And a University of Michigan survey found that in 2003, 21.2 percent of 12th grade girls had binged in the previous month; in 2011, 19.7 did. If problem drinking among women is an epidemic, it's not any more of one than it used to be. In her book "Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol," Ann Dowsett Johntson cites the work of Columbia University epidemiology professor Katherine Keyes, who surveyed over 30 international studies on alcohol use and found that women born after World War II are more likely to binge drink and suffer from alcoholism than women born before the Second World War. As far as trends go, this one is stale as a can of Victory Garden preserves.
What we really have here is an epidemic in trend stories about women drinking. Many of these stories, as Goldin explains, are built on faulty comparisons between studies that use different samples and methods, creating the illusion of an increase in female binging. From there, they plug in a few cultural examples (Vodka Samm, Lindsay Lohan), then make sweeping claims -- like "The New Face of Risky Drinking Is Female" -- that are based more on the strength of previous trend stories than hard numbers. "You see a highly feminized drinking culture," Dowsett Johntson told NPR. "Wines called MommyJuice and Girl's Night Out and Happy Bitch and berry-flavored vodka. These aren't pitched at men." In an advertising landscape where most alcohol is implicitly marketed to men, three brands that target women constitute a "highly feminized drinking culture." It is not: The YRBS found that in 2011, 35.7 percent of male 12th graders copped to binging in the past, compared to 27 percent of girls. And although drunk driving incidents have risen among women, as Irin Carmon noted in The New York Times last month, the CDC reports that "four out of five drunken driving incidents still involve men."
Of course, female binge drinking doesn't need to be a hot new trend to constitute a crisis. But the terms of this debate encourage us to ignore America's most dedicated over-indulgers (men) while focusing the conversation not on the failure of American society in general to curb drinking, but the failure of feminism to keep women away. Many of these stories imply that female binge drinking is a problematic side effect of equality for women. "As gender role traditionality decreased, the gender gap in substance abuse decreased as well," Keyes told Dowsett Johntson. "In the West at least, women have largely got what we wanted: equality enshrined in law, power and influence where it matters. The question is: has it made us happy?" Sarah Vine wrote in the Daily Mail this fall. "Could it be that equality, while desirable, has actually done women more harm than good?" The fact that we are actually having this conversation shows that men and women are not yet on equal footing where drinking is concerned: When men drink, they don't also risk calling their civil rights into question. It's ludicrous to expect feminism to solve all of society's problems. If we really hope to curb binge drinking in the United States, we'll have to start seeing it not as a female problem or a male problem, but as a human problem.
Amanda Hess, a writer and editor in Los Angeles, wrote this for Slate.