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Smashed! The Many Meanings of Drunkenness and Intoxications - contents

Chapter 4

Young people, men and women and Indigenous Australians:
Different understandings of intoxication and drunkenness


In this chapter we examine the various understandings and meanings of intoxication and drunkenness as these relate to different populations. In this discussion we draw on the ways in which media commentary represents the problem of intoxication and drunkenness in relation to young people, Indigenous communities in Australia, and men and women. These accounts are located alongside, and in contrast to, the ways in which the psychological, scientific and sociological research literature understands intoxication and drunkenness in relation to these populations.

Our discussion suggests that the population that attracts the greater focus in all of these accounts is young people. Media commentary tends to be sensationalised and reinforces stereotypes but even here there are differences in reporting, with some journalists taking a more balanced view. There are some attempts in this reporting to define intoxication and drunkenness but on the whole, the meanings of these terms are often taken for granted and meaning is to be inferred by the context of the reporting. What is clear, however, is that there are different norms around intoxication and drunkenness amongst different groups, and that these norms are strongly mediated by both geography and culture. The story that emerges from the media commentary that we examine here is about how people drink; therefore, what drunkenness ‘is’ consists largely of stories about the drinking cultures of different groups within a society. So, in this case, we encounter stories about Indigenous people, young people and women, and the problems that stem from ‘their’ drinking. This commentary often paints broad pictures of the drinking cultures of these groups as a way of contrasting the dominant drinking culture with those ‘problem drinkers’ on the margins of society.

The research literature also, often sees certain populations as posing particular problems in terms of intoxication and drunkenness. What our discussion suggests, however, is that there are a number of attempts to explore, discuss and understand these issues in ways that can account for the symbolic, social and cultural meanings that drinking, intoxication and drunkenness may have for individuals in these groups. This research points to the shifting, and often contested, meanings that individuals attach to drinking, intoxication and drunkenness.

Young people and the problem of intoxication and drunkenness: Media commentary and the popular imagination

The dominant theme in media commentary on the drinking cultures of young people – drinking cultures often characterised in terms of binge drinking – is that it poses a problem that demands government intervention. This theme of youth binge drinking, however, also considers the role that parents play in facilitating young people’s drinking, and the crime that is perceived to result from binge drinking. The characterisation of young people’s binge drinking is not, however, consistent. Much of the news media seems content to reproduce the stereotype of the binge drinking youth, such as those who attend spring break in the United States (Warren 2007), and university ‘O-Week’ (Roginski 2006), or schoolies week in Australia. For the Melbourne Herald Sun, schoolies is a ‘holiday from hell for many, with sexual assault, stabbings, hundreds of fines and arrests, drug and alcohol binges, sexually transmitted infections and even death’ (Ford 2008; see also Halliday 2007; Haywood 2005; Wilson 2002). These sorts of characterisations are considered unhelpful by some, and they earned the media a rebuke from Professor Rod Morgan, the British Government’s chief advisor on youth crime, who ‘pleaded with politicians and the media to stop calling children “yobs”. [He] said young people were getting mixed messages: on the one hand, they were the country’s future; on the other, they were thugs in hoods’ (Button 2005). Young drinkers themselves also want to resist being reduced to such stereotypes in the media, with one girl telling The Age: ‘I don’t like it when adults depict teenagers as if they don’t have any idea of the world, that we’re not responsible about drinking or drugs or our own personal health. I have my own limits. I know when to stop’ (Farouque 2007).

Indeed, some newspapers do attempt to question the link between youth and problem drinking. For instance, in a report on the Victorian State Government’s new alcohol policies, which it claims are driven by ‘alarming trends’ in ‘the increase in extremely drunk young people turning up at hospitals to be treated for accidents or acute intoxication’, The Sunday Age (Bachelard 2008) points out that the figures that led the Government to this conclusion are complex, and that ‘anecdotal evidence’ from police suggests that alcohol-related assaults were falling. And so while much commentary does not doubt that there is a problem with young people binge drinking, many others seek to highlight when the figures do not coincide with official claims about youth drinking.

Moreover, although they are rare, the media also runs stories that depict youth in a more flattering light. Claire Halliday (2007) notes that while schoolies week is notorious for the binge drinking of school leavers, ‘the majority of young people are more behaved than belligerent’, and that ‘most of them make good choices and have their own safety strategies in place’. Likewise, Jessica Shepherd (2008) is critical of the media’s portrayal of students as hard-drinking hedonists, which she argues is no longer appropriate at a time when ‘sober is becoming cool’. Shepherd’s research is based on figures drawn from the National Health Service (NHS), rather than from the British media’s usual source, the Home Office. These findings contrast with the dominant depiction of youth drinkers in the press. She suggests that for many university students, ‘it’s becoming more socially acceptable not to drink huge amounts – or at all’. The NHS figures would appear to confirm this view. According to the figures that are referenced the number of teetotallers aged between 16 and 24 is rising; the proportion of both men and women who are (binge) drinking more than 21 units and 14 units of alcohol per week respectively fell markedly between 2000 and 2005; and the number of teetotallers aged between 11 and 17 rose from 36 per cent to 46 per cent in the decade from 1996 to 2006 (Shepherd 2008). The same rise in teetotal youth has been observed in Melbourne (Bachelard 2008), contradicting the media ‘rhetoric [that] suggests that the problem [of binge drinking] is suddenly escalating’. However, The Age also notes that an international study has shown that ‘young Australians are outstripping their American counterparts in drinking’ (Farouque 2007). This is evidence of what Shepherd calls a ‘polarisation’ in youth drinking cultures. On the one hand there are a group that might be called the ‘abstainers’ who are very often overlooked by the press. The media more often focuses on ‘heavy drinkers’ who drink more often, and ‘consume stronger brands of beer, cider, lager and spirits’ (Shepherd 2008). The Australian identifies this same polarisation in the drinking habits of individual drinkers, writing that young drinkers often have ‘a relatively teetotal working week, followed by one or more binge sessions on the weekend when… “all hell breaks loose”’ (Nogrady 2008).

Ultimately, Shepherd (2008) takes an optimistic view of youth drinking, suggesting that ‘the 2000s could be characterised as the calm after the storm, in terms of young people’s drinking. By and large, the millennium has seen the turning of the tide in terms of the practices and preferences of intoxication’. The same trend has been observed by the Otago Daily Times (2004b) in a story that argues that university students in Dunedin, New Zealand, are not stupid, ‘but they act stupid sometimes. The result of intoxication is that their common sense goes out the window and they do unnecessarily stupid acts’.

Another story in the New Zealand Herald (2003b) seeks to position the issue of young people’s intoxication and drunkenness as a historical problem, and one which is shaped by generational relations between parents and children/young people:

The images of alcohol we see most often are still the extremes – the good times of beer commercials or the shocking drink-driving ads. Ambivalence remains. And with our new liberalism comes new problems… The fallout of that has been that alcohol is more readily available and well within the reach of young people who have more mobility and disposable income.

The article continues: ‘More than half the alcohol underage drinkers consume comes directly from their parents… Teenagers today, mimicking their parents – and, unknowingly, the pioneers of 150 years ago – still see binge-drinking as a badge of adulthood and a cure for boredom’. This commentary appears to draw on familiar discourses of ‘rites of passage’ and bored and disaffected youth.

Discussions of young people and alcohol are almost universally framed in terms of a paternalistic concern for young people who, it is presumed, cannot take care of themselves. But, as David Bruce (2003) writes in the Otago Daily Times, the reason for a crackdown on young drinkers by politicians has less to do with any inherent concern for the health and safety of young people, and more to do with their ‘disgust’ at the ‘state of the main street the morning after the night before’.

Young people are often depicted by the press as living risky lives, and binge drinking is but one part of that risky lifestyle, along with, writes Nicci Gerrard (2004), ‘drugs, sex, deafening music, outbreaks of violence’. Writing in The Guardian, Emine Saner (2006) provides a typical narrative of the problems that face young people who binge drink. According to this narrative, the consequences progress from the mere embarrassment of ‘doing things you wish you hadn't’, to dependency, to the risk of causing long-term damage to the brain, to coma, and finally to death. Yet, other sections of the media suggest that deaths from alcohol poisoning are rare – in 2002, nine teenagers died in Britain – but alcohol plays a significant part in teenage deaths due to accidents, violence and suicide. Thirteen teenagers a day are hospitalised as a result of drinking – either for alcohol poisoning or from injuring themselves when drunk. In this story it is claimed that by the age of 13, more teenagers drink than those who do not and that the amount consumed has doubled since 1990.

While this narrative is repeated often in the media, different aspects of it are emphasised in different stories in different spaces. Thus, when there was a sudden jump in ‘alcohol-related admissions to hospital for children aged 10 to 14’ in New Zealand, the New Zealand Herald (2007c) used it as a basis for calling for government intervention – ‘to reform our boozing behaviour’ – by raising the legal drinking age to 20. But the paper remains sceptical as to whether any government-led campaign can work if it does not address the drinking habits of adults, whose ‘tolerance and acceptability of drunkenness as a social norm’ it blames for fostering drunkenness amongst young people. Writing in the New Zealand Herald, Doesburg (2004) admits that for many adults, getting drunk is ‘a rite of passage’, with many adult New Zealanders engaging in something akin to binge drinking. Indeed, Doesburg suggests that ‘some of the worst stories of drunkenness… have come from today’s middle aged parents about their own youthful exploits’ (see also Lisante 2001). Accounts in The New York Times (Kilgannon 2002) and The Age (Farouque 2007) agree that ‘it is hard to address drinking among children and not among parents’ since ‘parents set the example at home, and a well-stocked liquor cabinet is a message, a temptation and an easy source’. Likewise, Doesburg (2004) writes that for most New Zealanders, ‘there’s a general belief that it is okay to be drunk’. He explains ‘85 per cent of us drink alcohol, half of us think drunkenness is socially acceptable, and an estimated more than a quarter of a million were aiming to end up in that state when they last drank’.

In many of these stories there is often a scepticism related to relying on parents to discipline their teenage children since many commentators often regard parental indifference as contributing to teenagers’ binge drinking in the first place. As one New York social worker suggests: ‘many teens in these towns have permissive parents, so they have to try harder and go further to shock them – what better way to rebel and separate from your parents than showing up drunk at homecoming?’ (Kilgannon 2002). One story in The Age (Farouque 2007) also argues that permissive parents are largely responsible for the binge drinking of their children. It is claimed that this sort of permissiveness results in incidents such as the drunken brawl involving an estimated 100 to 150 students from a secondary school in the affluent eastern suburbs of Sydney (Hutchinson 2003). In New Zealand a story in the Otago Daily Times (2006c) argued that one of the problems with trying to regulate young people’s drinking is that it can inadvertently turn intoxication into a ‘badge of defiance’, giving young people an incentive to drink excessively. Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald Kang (2006) argues that the problems of youth drinking can only be addressed if we ‘stop celebrating drunkenness and hangovers as though they are trophies to be won to gain social status’. The same concerns are raised by Ellen Moorhouse, the president of a US-based not-for-profit organisation that seeks to reduce alcohol and drug abuse: ‘There is more of a tendency among some affluent parents to say, “My child works hard all week, so as long as they get straight A’s, why can’t they blow off some steam too on the weekends?”’ In this story the narrative suggested that some parents’ concept of severe punishment amounts to taking away their child’s mobile phone or depriving them of some other luxury item, and that some parents’ main concern after hearing that their child has been caught drinking is that it might affect their college acceptances (Kilgannon 2002).

In contrast to the scepticism that accompanies discussions in the media about the capacity for government intervention to reform the drinking habits of young people, a story in The New York Times broadly supports programs set up by young people to help other young people who find themselves in trouble because of alcohol. This account details the damage young people do to themselves as a result of drinking, such as the incident when a star high school football player died at an after-school beer party ‘after getting punched and hitting his head on a patio’; or when 200 students showed up to their homecoming dance drunk, many of whom ‘wound up passing out or vomiting into trash cans’ (Kilgannon 2002). And like their counterparts in Britain and New Zealand, young Americans readily admit that ‘alcohol – often binge drinking – dominates their social life… They say young people are experimenting with alcohol at younger ages, and the overall goal of many teenage drinkers is to get “totally wasted”, or falling-down drunk’ (Kilgannon 2002). This story claims that any ‘intervention’ must be led by young people themselves, not from adults and governments whose paternalistic view of youth drinking is a barrier to understanding their drinking culture. The journalist cites the example of Safe Rides, an organisation based in Westchester, New York, a community ‘plagued by underage drinking and the dangers, image-tarnishing and reckonings’ it causes. Safe Rides is ‘a high school volunteer group that offers rides home to their classmates who have spent the evening drinking’ (Kilgannon 2002). In another story The Washington Post also cites favourably the example of Duke University, where groups of student paramedics patrol large parties on campus, ‘on the lookout for anyone drunk enough to need medical attention or a trip to the emergency room’ (Okie 2002; see also Gruley 2003; Stowe 2005; Lewin 2005). Writing in The Washington Post, Steinberg (2002) does acknowledge that relying on students to regulate the behaviour of other students is not ideal, since ‘older students are reluctant to write up their 18-year-old brethren for alcohol violations’. Nevertheless, having students police other students is still regarded as a better option than relying on government, police forces and parents to intervene into young people’s lives.

In these narratives, age is the defining characteristic of the problems and meanings associated with intoxication and drunkenness. It is young people’s drunkenness that needs to be understood. However, much commentary also touches on issues such as social class, ethnicity, geography and gender as influences on young people’s intoxication and drunkenness. While patterns of alcohol use and abuse ‘cut across economic lines’ – while ‘bingeing is classless’, as Mary Riddell writes (2003) – sometimes it is suggested that ‘affluence is a factor in underage drinking’ for the simple reason that teenagers from wealthy families ‘have more access to money and liquor is as close as the refrigerator, the liquor cabinet or the rec room bar’. Likewise, teenagers from wealthy families ‘have the money to get a fake ID and to go to the clubs’. The 17-year-old president of Safe Rides sums up the situation by stating simply: ‘The kids have plenty of money and time and nothing to do, so they drink’ (Kilgannon 2002). Riddell (2003) concludes that ‘from Sir Toby Belch, via Euan Blair, to Prince Harry and his polo-trash friends, getting hammered is the province of the affluent’. However, while there is plenty of evidence in the media to support this view about the ways in which affluence shapes young people’s drunkenness, there is also more than enough evidence to suggest that the less affluent are able to access alcohol and get ‘hammered’ as well, something that Riddell acknowledges but then does not discuss.

Young people and drunkenness: Different stories in different countries

The European School Survey Project on Alcohol and other Drugs (ESPAD) is an ongoing survey which started in 1995 and is conducted every four years. According to a number of analyses ESPAD has found ‘considerable inter-country variation… in drinking patterns… For example, in Cyprus, only 6% of drinking episodes were reported to result in intoxication, whereas in Iceland, the figure was 88%, and the overall mean (SD) was 39% (22%)’ (Kypri et al. 2005, 447). The 1999 report argues that ‘children in the UK… have the highest rates of drunkenness, binge drinking and alcohol consumption in Europe’ (cited in Weinberg and Wyatt 2006, 774). In this report, as Weinberg and Wyatt (2006, 774) indicate, intoxication and drunkenness are measured as different terms, although these terms are not explicitly defined. For example, the report explains, ‘On average, half of the ESPAD students have been intoxicated at least once during their lifetime, to the point of staggering when walking, having slurred speech or throwing up’. This particular claim is followed by a somewhat contradictory claim that: ‘Another way of measuring drunkenness has been to ask how often the students had been consuming five drinks or more per occasion. This measure of “heavy episodic drinking” shows to some extent a different pattern than the question about intoxication’. It appears as if these terms have not been clearly defined, but used for different questions in the questionnaire. How they are being defined by the participants themselves is also unclear.

Demant and Järvinen (2006, 589) also draw on the ESPAD surveys (and other sources) to cite the commonly claimed finding that ‘Danish teenagers hold the European record for drinking alcohol. They drink more, very often and with a clearer focus on drunkenness than young people in most other European countries’. The authors look closely at this claim to find that for young people, alcohol consumption in linked to popularity, that is, ‘the teenagers who reported the highest alcohol consumption were regarded by their peers as the most prestigious ones to hang out with’.

Järvinen and Gundelach (2007, 56) conducted a study in Denmark with quantitative and qualitative components. The quantitative data is from a survey with a representative, random sample of 2000 teenagers aged 15–16 (all respondents were born in 1989), with a 72 per cent response rate. They describe their qualitative methods as follows:

The qualitative data is of 28 focus group interviews with teenagers in the eighth and ninth grades in different parts of Denmark. The teenagers were interviewed twice. First, 14 groups of classmates or friends were interviewed in focus groups when the participants were 14–15 years old. One year later, the same youths were re-interviewed in order to gather information about the development of their drinking habits, and attitudes towards alcohol. Some of the groups consisted of girls, others of boys, and others again were gender-mixed. In all, 117 teenagers participated in the focus group interviews: 63 girls and 54 boys.

In their study Järvinen and Gundelach (2007, 60) claimed that Danish teenagers had ‘an intoxication debut at age 14–15’ followed by a social life incorporating ‘partying now and then’. The authors suggest that for these participants ‘it is “natural” to drink alcohol when you are 14–15 years old, while 12 year olds who are heavy drinkers are frowned upon in many interviews (even by those who had their own drunkenness debut when they were 12)’. Since drinking alcohol as a teenager is so ‘natural’, ‘non-drinking and avoidance of drunkenness is obviously not an easy lifestyle choice for Danish 15–16 year olds’. Drinking goes together with friendship networks, popularity and ‘maturity’: ‘If you do not follow the culturally prescribed pattern of drinking to intoxication at this age, you may find yourself excluded from a very important arena of teenage life, the arena of parties, friendships and alcohol-related status negotiations’ (Järvinen and Gundelach 2007, 68; see also Bogren 2006).

The effects of alcohol use on young people are considered in a Norwegian survey conducted in 1997, and reported in Hoel et al. (2004, 362–366). This study examined the psychological effects of intoxication and drunkenness habits on young people. The data was based on a cross-sectional survey of 828 tertiary school students (46 per cent of the students were female; 54 per cent were male). The majority of the students were aged 15–17 and were drawn from three vocational and one academic school in Førde. The questions asked covered health, psychosocial environment, demographics, attitudes and lifestyle matters, were mainly multiple choice, and were based on a WHO cross-national survey Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC). This survey found that: ‘Excessive drinking, characterized by a high frequency of intoxication, is already established by age 15–17 among both genders’; and, that ‘alcohol use and intoxication are established elements of mid-teenage behaviour for both sexes’. This study also found that ‘emotional and psychosomatic problems increase the greater the level of alcohol consumption’. This research suggests that alcohol consumption is significantly related to several aspects of social integration although ‘moderate to heavy consumers report greater problems in their relations with school and parents, especially in early adolescence’. The authors suggest that ‘more than any other age group, young people report the positive effects of alcohol’. In addition, ‘Drunkenness may be the release necessary for the shy teenager to perform socially and thus increase the number of positive and important relationships’.

In Finland, ‘drunkenness-oriented drinking’ and drinking patterns leading to drunkenness have been found to be widespread among young adolescents, especially in comparison to their counterparts in other European countries (Lintonen and Konu 2004). This study on the misperceptions of the social norms of drunkenness suggested that adolescents in Finland do indeed assume others have a heavier drinking practice, leading to drunkenness (though drunkenness here is undefined).

Cultural differences in alcohol use are also discussed by Schmid et al. (2003, 651) who argue that frequency of alcohol use and the use of spirits influence drunkenness. They explain that ‘across countries one may expect a considerable variation in the number of occasions in which drunkenness occurs… and a high variation in the extent to which drunkenness is determined by a specific beverage’. Their research asks the question: ‘Does the number of adolescent drunkenness occasions differ between countries?’ Focusing on 15-year-olds in 22 countries they examine the relationship between ‘alcohol consumption characteristics and drunkenness in male and female students separately’. They suggest that alcohol use and drunkenness among young people varies between countries, with results which are consistent with other large inter-cultural surveys, such as the ESPAD. Geographic location, for example, was related to drunkenness: ‘Southern European countries showed moderate associations [between alcohol use and drunkenness], whereas strong associations were found in Scandinavia, the Baltic countries and Russia’. In addition, types of drinks seemed to influence drunkenness: ‘The frequency of alcohol intake and the extent to which intake is from spirits relate to drunkenness. It is more likely for students to have been drunk when the frequency of alcohol intake was high and when the alcohol intake was largely in the form of spirits’ (Schmid et al. 2003, 659).

Understandings of intoxication and drunkenness among different groups of young people

In this section we explore the meanings, definitions and understandings of intoxication and drunkenness for different populations of young people. These terms are understood differently both for different age groups as well as different social and cultural groups. Following on from our earlier discussion we start by exploring young people’s ideas about intoxication and drunkenness, and also how researchers and experts conceptualise young people’s drinking. We examine young people’s intoxication and drunkenness in the context of socio-economic status, types of drinks on the market, as well as the role of advertising.

As we have already seen, the research literature on young people and alcohol use is primarily concerned with the health and well-being consequences (short and longer term) of what is often referred to as young people’s binge drinking (Miller et al. 2007; Schmid et al. 2003). Much of the research literature related to young people’s use of alcohol often does not define its use of the term ‘intoxication’ but uses it in relation to the term ‘acute’ and with reference to young people’s vulnerability, and the hazardous consequences of intoxication (Miles et al. 2001). Likewise, many researchers find that ‘the consumption of large quantities of alcohol in a short time’ results in intoxication which poses ‘an immediate risk to health and safety’ (Polizzotto et al. 2007, 469). Lintonen and Rimpelä (2001, 145), for example, suggest that ‘the two main methods for measuring drunkenness in adolescent population surveys are related to the concepts of being drunk and binge drinking’. As they indicate, the ‘first method relies on the subjective perceptions of the state of drunkenness’, while the ‘second deduces that ingestion of a certain amount of ethanol, usually corresponding to five “standard drinks”… within a short period of time results in drunkenness’.

Sociological perspectives on young people and intoxication and drunkenness, such as those of Lintonen et al. (2000, 261–269), consider alcohol consumption in the context of broader social changes. These authors report on the effects of societal level changes on the increased drunkenness of 14-year-olds in Finland based on biannual nationally representative survey data. In this study, drunkenness was measured with the question: ‘How often do you use alcohol to the extent that you become really drunk?’ Respondents were asked to pick from the following: ‘once a week or more often’, ‘once or twice a month’, ‘less frequently’ or ‘never’. Their study’s findings suggest a relationship between social factors such as income availability, or level of disposable income and drunkenness.

In another study Weinberg and Wyatt (2006, 774–775) conducted observational research over a period of 18 months in the emergency department of the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro, Cornwall (UK), which investigated young people who presented with acute alcohol intoxication. Acute intoxication was measured by blood alcohol levels (BALs):

Sixty two children (31 boys) presented with acute alcohol intoxication proved by BALs. All patients were admitted to hospital. The mean age was 14.5 years (standard deviation (SD) 1.54). Twenty (32%) children were aged <14 years. No significant difference was seen between BAL among boys and girls (p=0.76). Forty five (73%) children were brought to the emergency department by the ambulance services, the remainder by their parents or guardians. The most common type of alcohol consumed was spirits, in the form of whisky, gin, vodka and tequila (50%). Other types included cider (8%), wine (4%) and beer (3%), with 35% not specified or unknown. The mean BAL was 203 mg/dl (SD 80.7; range 27.6–418.6). As a point of reference, 56 (90%) children had BAL above the UK legal driving limit of 80 mg/dl.

Alcohol intoxication is sometimes defined as a loss of consciousness. One Australian study found that people at high risk of this effect of intoxication are tertiary students who play drinking games. The study found that ‘75% of respondent tertiary students had participated in a drinking game at some time. Nearly all of these (89%) reported being present when someone had lost consciousness from alcohol intoxication, and had often been left alone to “sleep it off”’ (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2004, 5).

In a UK study Best et al. (2006, 1427–1432) examined what they identified as ‘excessive drinking’ in 2078 young people aged 14–16 in London. In their research, ‘excessive drinking’ was defined as ‘drinking at a level of consumption that could be expected to produce intoxication with significant impairment of thinking, judgement and behaviour’. They operationalised this definition when consumption was ‘more than 10 standard units [where a unit is 8 g] of alcohol on any drinking occasion’. One in three young people reported at least one episode of excessive drinking, with one in ten having done so more than five times. Best et al. (2006) link excessive drinking to intoxication, which, while not defined, is linked to impaired cognition, judgment and behaviour. Further, excessive alcohol consumption by young people is seen to be linked to a ‘broader pattern of substance misuse behaviours’, ‘delinquent acts’ such as theft and shoplifting, fighting, truancy, driving while intoxicated, and ‘coexisting mental health problems’.

While these sorts of research data and findings reveal important trends in the consequences of young people’s alcohol consumption, there is a disconnection from how young people themselves have been found to interpret and use information such as this. In their study of drinking games, Polizzotto et al. (2007, 474) found that young players associated intoxication with risks of injury, argument or violence, but instead of dissuading them from becoming intoxicated, ‘many of the participants were proud of their extreme intoxication and regarded many negative outcomes, such as losing consciousness or vomiting, as “badges of honour”’.

Psychological research has also indicated that not only do social and cultural expectancies influence drunken comportment, but personality plays a large role in individual responses to consumption (Westmaas et al. 2007). For example, a survey completed by 239 students in the US claimed that individuals with impulsive personalities are more likely to become more emotionally labile when intoxicated. Using personality attributes, Westmass et al. (2007) claim that they can predict positive and/or negative outcomes for intoxication. They identified/named three main groups of intoxicated behaviours: intoxicated sociability, anti-social behaviour and emotional lability. Unsurprisingly, research indicates that college-aged students rate sociability of intoxication high on the scale of reported behavioural outcomes. That is, flirting, dancing, telling jokes and laughter were most often reported as outcomes of intoxication. Demant (2009, 37) covers similar ground in a study that examined the relationship between alcohol use and flirtation for young people in Denmark: ‘In all 37 focus group interviews from the study, both boys and girls discussed intoxication in relation to being able to think of each other sexually at parties and engage in romantic or sexual relations’.

A number of researchers have considered the connection between income inequality, and young people’s health outcomes in the context of other sociological factors. Wells et al. (2009, 5), for example, claim that: ‘It is no longer a marginal phenomenon to be found among subcultures of poor or troubled youth’; rather, ‘determined drunkenness seems to be a mainstream phenomenon, occurring in all social classes, in larger cities as well as in the countryside, among girls as well as boys’.

The interest in possible relationships between socio-economic status and young people’s alcohol use also informed research conducted by Elgar et al. (2005, 245–247) who studied the contextual effects of income inequality on drinking behaviour among 11-, 13- and 15-year-olds in 34 industrialised countries. The study used self-report data that was collected from 162,305 adolescents in the 2001–2002 WHO’s HBSC study. Like other studies, this one used a single item in the questionnaire to measure drunkenness:

How often do you drink anything alcoholic, such as beer, wine or spirits?’ (1 = never, 2 = less than once a week, 3 = once a week, 4 = 2–4 days a week, 5 = 5–6 days a week, 6 = once a day, 7 = more than once a day). Episodes of drunkenness were measured with the item ‘Have you ever had so much alcohol that you were really drunk?’ (1 = never, 2 = once, 3 = 2–3 times, 4 = 4–10 times, 5 = more than 10 times).

Elgar et al.’s (2005) analysis suggested that income inequality was associated with drunkenness only for the 11-year-olds and not the older adolescents.

Using the same data set Richter et al. (2006, 9) reported similar results:

Socio-economic circumstances of the family had only a limited effect on repeated drunkenness in adolescence. For girls only in one out of 28 countries a significant association between family affluence and repeated drunkenness was observed, while boys from low and/or medium affluent families in nine countries faced a lower risk of drunkenness than boys from more affluent families. Regarding parental occupation, significant differences in episodes of drunkenness were found in nine countries for boys and in six countries for girls. Compared to family affluence, which was positively related to risk of drunkenness, a decreasing occupational status predicted an increasing risk of drunkenness. This pattern was identified within a number of countries, most noticeably for boys.

The authors concluded that socio-economic status was only of limited influence ‘for the development of excessive alcohol use in early adolescence’ and that parental occupation may play a larger role (Richter et al. 2006, 9).

The possible relationships between social class, ethnic background and young people’s alcohol use was the object of interest in research undertaken by Stewart and Power (2003, 582) in the US. In their study the authors measured frequency/quantity; motivation or reasons for consumption; situational factors such as when, where, with whom they drank and how the alcohol was obtained; and the consequences of drinking: ‘Frequency and quantity of drinking were assessed with eight questions about the frequency of drinking in the past year and month, frequency of intoxication, typical quantity of consumption, and frequency of consumption of large quantities. Students responded to the questions on 6- to 10-point Likert-type scales’. Two of their claims/findings are of interest here. In the first instance Stewart and Power (2003, 578) argue that:

Both European American adolescents and adolescents from higher social classes… report high levels of drinking frequency. Because European Americans are more likely than members of ethnic minorities to come from higher social class backgrounds, the often-reported higher levels of drinking among European American adolescents may be due to their social class.

In addition Stewart and Power (2003, 592) suggest that:

ethnicity was a much more powerful predictor of adolescent drinking patterns than was social class, and that most of the ethnic differences in adolescent drinking were not simply the result of ethnic differences in the frequency and quantity of alcohol consumption. That is, in the analyses where the independent effects of ethnicity and social class were examined, many more ethnic than social class differences were found (i.e., 22 significant differences for ethnicity versus 5 for social class).

Significantly, Stewart and Power (2003, 592) conclude that ‘social class and ethnicity are not causal factors in themselves – they are simply marker or “social address” variables that are correlated with a wide range of underlying variables, including adolescent opportunities, beliefs, attitudes, and values’. Intoxication and drunkenness are only casually referred to in this research. However, this study is instructive in its theoretical approach to class and ethnicity, in that causal links are not attempted. Rather, these sorts of variables are examined in ways that aim to better map or understand the social, cultural and economic landscape which shapes the ways that young people engage with and use alcohol.

These sorts of relationships were also examined in a Danish study that drew on data from a multi-item survey completed by 4824 respondents. Andersen et al. (2007, 22–30) tried to identify what they called Family Socio-Economic Position (SEP). They identified and measured this concept via two items that related parent’s occupations that were ‘coded according to the standards of the Danish National Institute of Social Research into six groups as follows: social class I (high) to V (low) and a group VI covering parents who were living from social welfare benefits’. They asked participants, students aged 11, 13, and 15 (though the analysis in the paper referenced here used the data from only 15-year-olds): ‘Have you ever been really drunk?’ with possible response choices as follows: no, never; yes, once; yes, 2–3 times; yes, 4–10 times; yes, more than 10 times’. Of the 1453 students of 15 years, 681 girls and 621 boys answered the questions about alcohol use and were included in the analyses. The authors argued that there were differences in risk factors for drunkenness between socio-economic groups but that ‘different aspects of poor well-being at school were important for drunkenness in the different socio-economic groups’. More specifically, they suggest that:

experiencing low influence on their school environment was the most important predictor among both boys and girls with higher socio-economic positions. This was also the strongest predictor among girls from the intermediate socio-economic groups, but low satisfaction with school had the strongest impact on drunkenness among boys from the intermediate socio-economic groups. Among students from poorer social circumstances low parental engagement in school related matters had the strongest impact on drunkenness.

This research suggests that while there are important differences in young people’s alcohol use that are related to socio-economic status, personal well-being as measured by student engagement at school, and positive interpersonal relationships with parents appear to be important factors in moderating young people’s alcohol use.

In another study Demant (2009), a sociologist working with young people in Denmark, developed an innovative approach to the conduct of alcohol studies with young people. The aim was to move beyond social interpretations of alcohol as a symbol or marker that is attached to particular people, and try to come to an understanding of what intoxication means for young people. Using a social constructivist approach, Demant (2009) conducted 37 focus group interviews and, in this account, reported one young woman interviewed over three years. Demant (2009, 29) suggests that researchers are only privy to the explanations of experiences that young people want to share which creates problems for researchers. Specifically, ‘it is difficult to clarify which aspects within a given practice are to be understood as social and which it would be sensible to address as the workings of alcohol’. However, Demant seeks to avoid the difficulties of some social constructionists for whom the social ‘tends to be a collective matter, which acts behind the backs of the agents’. The implications for studies on young people and alcohol are that: ‘concepts like drinking pressure, excuse value and peer pressure often have a tone of this kind of “invisible agency”, which ascribes power to a collective that works behind the backs of drinking teenagers’. A quote from Susanne, one of his participants, expresses the importance of alcohol to her identity: ‘If you are too sober, then it won’t work. Then it is not fun at all… I would not dare to talk to anyone if I wasn’t drunk. Then I would just stand in a corner or something. It becomes easier to talk to others’ (Demant 2009, 35). Demant (2009, 35–36) interprets alcohol use not in symbolic terms, ‘but as something that is important to becoming part of the relations at the disco’. In his analysis, Demant apportions a degree of conscious choice to young people’s drunkenness: ‘The girls drink in order to make their state of drunkenness as perfect as possible. They therefore make themselves available to the effect of alcohol to a certain limit and, in this way, invite alcohol to take over some of their control’. The girls here are accommodating their drinking to the party space. They are ‘training to be affected in the right way according to the specific party space. Alcohol creates a bodily effect, which the girls make themselves available to, and at the same time are surrounded by’ (see also Demant and Ostergaard 2007).

In another study Bogren (2006, 520–528) works with this concept of control by defining a loss of control as ‘becom[ing] intoxicated’. For young Swedish people who do not drink, ‘drinking is implicitly linked to drunkenness, in that when drinking is mentioned, so are what is commonly understood as the consequences of drunkenness (e.g., memory loss the next day)’. Bogren discusses drunkenness in terms of physicality. In this study young people also describe this aspect of drunkenness, including ‘vomiting, becoming unconscious (“passing out”), having one’s stomach pumped, hangovers and memory loss’. By way of cross cultural comparison, Bogren explains that Spanish young people also describe the physicality of drunkenness. In contrast, Finnish youth describe it as ‘a change in mood that facilitated communication’ (Bogren 2006, 528). In this way young people express some of the positive aspects of drunkenness (for example, increased communication), and do not simply refer to negative physical consequences (see also Midanik 2003; Sulkunen 2002).

In some research young people are reported as not considering drunkenness to be harmful. Despite the fact that where this finding was reported drunkenness was not explicitly defined, the researchers nonetheless found this casual attitude toward alcohol to be concerning (Graham et al. 2006). Not only do some young people consider drunkenness not to be harmful, it has often, also, been considered to confer positive social attributes to some young people, reinforcing their positive associations with achieving drunkenness with their peers. Demant and Järvinen (2006, 590) explain their data from a large qualitative study in which 28 focus group interviews were conducted with boys and girls from the 8th and 9th forms in different Danish lower secondary schools as follows: ‘The aim of this article [which considers data from two focus group interviews with six and eight girls respectively, aged 14- and 15-years-old] is to demonstrate how the struggle for social recognition – with alcohol as the central marker – transpires in two groups of teenagers’. In their account the authors claim to illustrate:

how alcohol experience and positive attitudes towards drinking are used to symbolize maturity – the teenagers who drink the most construct themselves as “socially older” than the others. The function of alcohol in this struggle for recognition is so strong that the teenagers who drink very little or not at all are put under considerable pressure. With alcohol as the central marker of maturity – and the parents of the teenagers who drink are described as supporters of this view – teenagers who do not drink come out as potential losers in the status negotiations of the groups.

Many young people who drink alcohol when they socialise also participate in pre-drinking, where they drink with friends (usually at someone’s home) before going out to socialise with others: ‘Intoxication is also a primary motive for pre-drinking. For example, one participant in a Pennsylvania study reported: “No matter what the quantity, if it gets the job done, the intent is to get wasted”’ (Wells et al. 2009, 5). Drawing from both Measham and Brain (2005) and Järvinen and Room (2007; see Appendix B), Wells et al. (2009, 5) argue that: ‘Pre-drinking may be symptomatic of a “new culture of intoxication” apparent in European and other countries whereby young people drink and use other drugs with the strategic and hedonistic goal of achieving drunkenness and other altered states of consciousness’. In another study with young people in Switzerland, Steinhausen et al. (2008) also claimed an association between drinking and wanting to feel drunk or high. For these young people drunkenness was associated with an altered state of consciousness.

While arguing that there is no consensus definition of the term binge drinking, Guise and Gill (2007) examined young people’s own ways of understanding the term. Guise and Gill (2007, 896) explain that student drinking habits in the UK are structured around priorities such as studying and that ‘binge drinking was also structured; the aim was controlled intoxication to reduce inhibition and have fun’. Similar arguments are made by Measham (2006, 261) who suggests that:

empirical research suggests that young people intentionally manage their levels of desired and actual intoxication by using strategies that incorporate aspects of perceived risk, accessing well-informed and credible sources, such as online scientific journals, health sources, and the popular dissemination and discussion of these on websites, in chat rooms, and by mobile phones (e.g., Moore, 2004 [see Appendix B]; Moore & Miles, 2004 [see Appendix B]).

In their research Lintonen and Rimpelä (2001, 146–150) used data from a cross-sectional mailed survey, The Adolescent Health and Lifestyle Survey, in Finland in 1999, to explore young people’s understandings of alcohol use and to correlate these perceptions of drunkenness with BAC levels. The survey asked young people (n=7751) about their ‘subjective perceptions of drunkenness… from the most recent drinking occasion’. The young people were asked: ‘In your opinion, the last time you drank alcohol, were you: “completely sober”, “slightly drunk”, “really drunk”, “so drunk that I passed out”?’ They were also asked to explain what and how much they drank: ‘Think back on your last drinking occasion and describe in your own words as accurately as you can what you drank and how much? (If you shared drinks with other people please try to tell us how much you personally drank)’. This research suggested a high correlation between subjective perceptions of drunkenness and BAC, suggesting that young people, aged 14–18, are capable of assessing their level of drunkenness. This study concluded that: ‘The perception of being really drunk, on average, related to the consumption of around 100 g of pure ethanol, or a six-pack of beer’.

The roles that intoxication and drunkenness may play in an individual’s life can change throughout the life course. We trace some aspects of this trajectory here. In their research Harnett et al. (2000) created a typology of different types of drinking by young people in which recreational drinking was defined as hedonistic and involving excess. Summarising Harnett et al., Newburn and Shiner (2001, 11) describe how intoxication was understood in this context: ‘Intoxication and losing control were considered to be “fun” and featured in most of the recreation of most of the young men over 17 or 18 – either by intention or as a by product of “enjoy[ing] a drink”’. Consistent with these other studies Kypri et al. (2005, 448) found that alcohol use and intoxication frequency decreases with age. The authors used a web-based drinking diary to collect data on university students’ alcohol use and intoxication levels and ‘to present a descriptive epidemiology of intoxication in a university community’:

Drinking measures used in the analyses presented in this study included a 7-day retrospective diary, in which the number of standard drinks (defined as 10 g ethanol) consumed on each day and the duration of the drinking session were recorded. Respondents were also asked to indicate how many of the drinking episodes resulted in them becoming ‘intoxicated/drunk/impaired’. Pictures of standard drinks were provided on the web pages as a guide. Elsewhere in the questionnaire, respondents were asked to enter their weight in kilograms or pounds for the purpose of computing an EBAC [estimated blood alcohol content].

In defence of their choice to use the EBAC as a measure of intoxication, Kypri et al. (2005, 449–450) argue that: ‘Compared with subjective reporting of intoxication and the standard binge criteria, an EBAC threshold of 0.08 g per cent produced a more conservative estimate of the incidence of intoxication’. Whether participants lived in university residence halls or shared housing was found to make a difference in drinking patterns and practices, particularly for women. For example, students in residence halls drank more heavily per drinking occasion than those in share houses.

As we have indicated a number of times self-reporting of perceived drunkenness to assess intoxication has been used in a number of studies. For example, Monshouwer et al. (2003, 156–160) looked at the age of onset of first alcohol use and first intoxication for young Dutch people, where the measurements were based on the following questions: ‘How old were you when you drank at least one glass of alcohol for the first time?’, and ‘How old were you when you got drunk for the first time?’ Results indicated that the earlier a person starts drinking, the more likelihood of intoxication. They suggest that early onset of alcohol use is linked to socio-demographic characteristics. The authors also claim that the: ‘Onset of alcohol use is part of a behaviour pattern, also involving other “problem behaviours” like truancy and other substance use’. Here, Monshouwer et al. link alcohol use to intoxication to ‘problem behaviours’ indicating that drinking alcohol is a problem, although, as has been argued in other studies (see for example; Measham 2008), many young people do not interpret alcohol use in this way.

Parents of young people have been shown to associate both short and long-term risk with adolescent use of alcohol. However, in one study most parents described more concern with the potential, immediate short-term risk of drunkenness, such as ‘injuries (including assault), accidents, aspiration of vomit, unconsciousness, drowning, sequelae of unsafe sex, drink spiking, loss of control and death’ (Graham et al. 2006, 8). According to Graham et al. (2006, 8–10), parents have difficulty responding to adolescent alcohol use and drunkenness and worry about their exposure to alcohol-related dangers while intoxicated. However, they argue that ‘it is not clear for these parents… what is “normal” and what is “problematic” alcohol use’. While these parents, and the researchers, are able to define some of the risks they believe are associated with drunkenness and intoxication, they are not explicit in their definitions of these terms. Some parents have been shown to believe that ‘adolescents hide their own and their friends’ intoxication’.

Young people and drinking as a rite of passage

Much of the research literature and media commentary suggests that young people’s intoxication and drunkenness should be understood as a public nuisance and/or a public health issue requiring intervention. However, another way of examining this issue is to think about young people’s drinking as a rite of passage. In this sense it is argued that young people go through a number of drinking phases during the journey to adulthood, and that drinking practices take on different symbolic meanings at different times (Demant and Ostergaard 2007; Kloep et al. 2001; Clemens et al. 2007).

In their research Beccaria and Sande (2003, 100–101) are concerned with the ways in which ‘global youth culture impacts on local traditions of “rite of passage” and intoxication’, and the tensions between traditional ways of drinking and the reflexively modern creation of ‘social identity as a “life project”’. They argue that the contemporary practice of young people’s drinking games provides an example of a new form of ritual, or rite of passage to adulthood. Intoxication is understood as having both physiological effects and also ‘symbolic intentions and functions in society… [which are] embedded in different cultures and religions’. Alcohol use can be understood as ‘offering an opportunity to communicate meanings among members within a society and culture’.

Beccaria and Sande (2003, 101–107) go on to argue that the process of intoxication can be understood literally as a rite of passage, whereby young people pass through the three phases of a ritual: the separation phase, the liminal phase and the aggregation phase. With intoxication, the intoxicated person is first separated ‘from personal identity, social structure and social categories and turned into a liminal phase of playing and games’, then: ‘in the process of transformation and transition outside the normal order of the society’ and finally, ‘in the aggregation phase the novices are “timed into” the social structure with new identity and status’. Drawing on Turner (1969) they argue that this ritual process is ‘a game in which individuals discover and develop common cultural codes, meaning and values’. In Norway, for example, the official, or traditional rite of passage described by Beccaria and Sande is religious confirmation, where a small amount of red wine is consumed. This rite is contrasted to the modern (so-called, although it dates back to the seventeenth century), secular ‘use of alcohol and ensuing drunkenness, [which] occurs between the ages of 16 and 18, in the celebration commonly known as russefeiring which is performed by school leavers in their final year’. Beccaria and Sande situate russefeiring by describing how the ‘Norwegian term “russ” is taken from Latin: (cornua deprositurus, which translates as “taking off the horns”)’. For these authors:

This term and social practice originates from an old academic ceremony in Germany and Denmark dating back to the 17th century or earlier. The name of the tradition today denotes both the connection to the old academic ceremony and to the Norwegian word for intoxication “rus”, which means “the party of”.

Comparing and contrasting Italy and Norway’s youth drinking culture and transitions into adulthood, Beccaria and Sande (2003, 110–113) find that ‘in both countries, young people experience close friendship and local belongingness during the process of intoxication and transition’. Despite the ways in which rites of passage are enacted in both Italy and Norway for young people, Beccaria and Sande argue that, today, a rite of passage is not blindly followed but instead actively constructed and performed as a celebration and transformation of life and identity into the public arena. Further, ‘the ritual process provides the individual young person in transition with opportunities to initiate and celebrate individual skills in the making of social, symbolic and cultural capital’. However there are different expectations which each culture brings to the performance of alcohol intoxication:

Young Italians experiment with long and strong intoxication without losing public self-control (or at least not always). The individual goal is to be strongly intoxicated without losing public social control while together with other people. Norwegians are also experimental. The code among young Norwegians involves heavy drinking with a symbolic performance of drunkenness and individual lack of control over the intoxicated body. Public intoxicated action is a sign of personal identity. In Italy, heavy drinking is exhibited in performance as normal as possible and under control. Intoxicated manifestation of the body is a sign of lack of personal identity. Cultural codes are still different with regard to the interpretation of intoxication of the brain and body in northern and southern Europe.

In their research Demant and Ostergaard (2007) also use the concept of a rite of passage in their examination of a ‘house party’ attended by 14–16 year old Danish students. However, they suggest that the concept of a ritual or a single rite of passage is not really accurate for understanding the role of alcohol and intoxication in young people’s lives. Alcohol is instead, they argue, a central organising aspect of their social lives and, the role it plays is more sustaining than a rite of passage implies.

Consumerism, marketing, advertising and young people

In this final section on young people, intoxication and drunkenness we provide a brief sketch of the ways in which the marketing of alcohol, and the images and meanings associated with varying drinking practices and beverages, are claimed to impact on meanings and understandings of intoxication and drunkenness.

McCreanor et al. (2008, 941–944), for example, consider the sociological context for young people’s drinking habits in New Zealand and argue that: ‘The discursive resources available and normative in this social climate support arguments and understandings that alcohol is not for low or moderate consumption but is seen as intended for producing intoxication’. They recruited ‘24 groups (12 Maori, 12 Pakeha) of between three and six friends with the intention of interviewing them at approximately eight-month intervals’. Participants were drawn from three age groups: ‘14–15 years, 15–16 years and 16–17 years’. There were four groups each of females and four groups of males (eight groups) and ‘a further four groups that were mixed by gender’. In all, 70 interviews were recorded. In addition they conducted ‘29 data sessions of a “one-off” nature with other groups of friends in whatever combinations of age, gender and ethnicity occurred within an opportunistic sample’. The aim was to understand how participants experienced socialising and drinking in a range of actual youth events such as Big Day Out (a music festival), New Year celebrations, school balls/afterballs, birthday parties, weekend drinking and the like.

In their research McCreanor et al. (2008, 939–944) report on the incorporation of ‘pro-alcohol discourses within broader youth accounts of social life that resonate with contemporaneous marketing messages and emphasise the pleasures and compulsions (but not the harms) of alcohol intoxication’. The authors claim that their research shows ‘direct associations between branded products and the will to intoxication’. They quote Ed (17 years old, Pakeha, mixed group) as saying: ‘I was just like “yes Smirnoff Blue, Smirnoff Blue, I’m going to get so wasted tonight”. I was in the taxi and I was like passing it back to see if anyone wanted it, and everyone was “no screw that shit”, and I had it straight. I was just like going, “oh you guys are just pussies”’.

McCreanor et al. (2008, 939–944) claim that these findings provide support for Measham and Brain’s (2005) notion of a ‘culture of intoxication’. Their data demonstrates that ‘the synergistic, cumulative effects of environmental exposure of young people to alcohol marketing creates and maintains expectations and norms for practices of drinking to intoxication’. As Tony (17 years old, Pakeha, male group), one of their participants explains: ‘Yeah well I’ve got to get drunk don’t I? Because that’s the trend. It’s just you know if everybody else is drinking you don’t want to not drink. I mean I could if I wanted to, I say that of course but then’. McCreanor et al. (2008, 944) suggest that: ‘Tony is reflecting on the “carrot and stick” character of the intoxigenic environment in which peer pressure is applied to the abstainer and peer esteem awaits the accomplished drinker’. In this way of thinking young people grow to ‘trust and value industry-given knowledge and messages presented in important domains of youth culture’. The term ‘intoxigenic social environment’ is used by these authors ‘to refer to the discursive social practices that engage with and utilize pro-intoxication talk to create and maintain expectations, norms and behaviours around alcohol consumption’. They further argue that this is a context created largely by the marketing of alcoholic beverages:

These data show multiple instances in which young participants make meanings from alcohol marketing that create and maintain social environments where drinking to intoxication is the norm and the expectation. Participants enjoy, value, identify with and make social use of the alcohol marketing messages that are used to create positive valence for specific products. We argue that, in their own cultural spaces, young people combine these elements into lived ideologies of alcohol intoxication.

Young people are often caste as consumers par excellence and the marketing of alcohol to young people is both controversial and understandable from a marketing perspective. Newburn and Shiner (2001, 20), for example, suggest that since the 1990s there have been trends and development in marketing alcohol to young people that have ‘witnessed a diversification of the drinks market as concerted efforts were made by the drinks industry to exploit the youth market’. These trends included the ‘development of “designer drinks”, followed by the emergence of alcopops – also known as alcoholic soft drinks’. These new forms of beverage and the accompanying marketing, have been ‘characterized by a high alcohol strength and have stimulated particular concern because of the belief that they appeal particularly to young people. It has been suggested that designer drinks were part of the drinks industries’ response to the emerging ‘Ecstasy culture’ which involved a rejection of alcohol in favour of illicit drugs’.

Newburn and Shiner (2001, 21–22) cite Hughes et al.’s (1997; see Appendix B) claim that the ‘attitudes of 12–17 year olds towards designer drinks varied quite distinctly with age and this reflected attitudes towards, and motivations for, drinking’. The argument here is that the ‘brand imagery of designer drinks, unlike that which was used for more mainstream drinks, tended to match 14 and 15 year olds’ perceptions and expectations of drinking. The popularity of these drinks peaked between the ages of 13 and 16, while more conventional drinks became consistently more popular with age’. This research claims that ‘designer drinks tended to be consumed in less controlled circumstances and were associated with heavier alcohol intake and greater drunkenness’. Further support for this argument is provided by research undertaken by Forsyth et al. (1997; see Appendix B) who suggested that ‘under-age drunkenness was most strongly associated with white ciders, fruit wines and vodka, although it is worth noting that the first two categories included designer drinks such as Electric White, Ice Dragon, White Lightning, and Mad Dog 20/20’ (cited in Newburn and Shiner 2001, 22).

To this point the discussion has been related to young people as the population that appears to cause or be the object of most concern in relation to intoxication and drunkenness and their meanings and consequences. Indigenous communities are also a common target for interventions designed to curb alcohol abuse and familiar stereotypes abound in media commentary on these communities. In the following section we provide a sketch of the type of ground covered in these accounts. A point to stress at this stage is that we do not set out to provide an extensive review of concerns with intoxication and drunkenness in Indigenous communities. Such a task is beyond the scope of our discussions. Our intention is to present an outline of concerns so as to illustrate our claim that the meanings and understandings of intoxication and drunkenness shift and change in relation to contexts, settings, different populations and differing purposes.

Intoxication and drunkenness in Indigenous communities: Media commentary and the popular imagination

The New Zealand and Australian news media dedicate substantial time to discussing the issues of drinking and drunkenness in Indigenous communities in the two countries. The main elements regarding much of this commentary include identifying the causes of the current problems with Indigenous drunkenness, with cataloguing those problems, and suggesting possible solutions to them. We are not able in this space to discuss other indigenous communities, though populations such as Native American communities do feature in media commentary (Fields 2007).

Much of the commentary in the New Zealand and Australian news media considers it self-evident that the causes of contemporary social disorder in Indigenous communities can be traced to the introduction of alcohol by European settlers, the ‘mapping’ of whose arrival Louis Nowra (2007) calls ‘one of the most depressing exercises in Australian history’. As John Stapleton (2004) writes, if we want to understand the causes of the disorder that mars the Sydney suburb of Redfern, we must recognise such suburbs as being marked by ‘tableaus of dereliction which have as much to do with alcoholism and addiction as the vexed subject of race’. For Malcolm Brown (2007), the deaths of young Aborigines on Palm Island are symptomatic of the destruction wrought on Indigenous communities by white Australia. He writes:

Maybe the Palm Islanders were happy once. They probably were in 1770 when, as the Manbarra people, they saw James Cook’s Endeavour sailing by… Things were destined for major change in 1914 when the Queensland government gazetted Palm Island as an Aboriginal reserve… Over the next 20 years, some 1,630 Aborigines regarded as troublemakers in the Queensland communities and elsewhere in Australia were sent to Palm Island. The island quickly became known as “Punishment Island” and the disaffected individuals, who came to represent more than 40 tribal groups, lived in squalor.

The plight of Palm Islanders is taken to represent the problems with alcohol abuse in Indigenous communities across Australia generally (see Hodge 2003; Mann 2008; Pryor 2001; Skehan 2003). A story in The Australian describes Palm Island as ‘a lawless place with horrific degrees of theft, domestic violence, sexual assaults against children and abject drunkenness [which is] a typical result of boredom, aimlessness, lack of education, absence of role models and complete loss of self-worth’ (Koch 2004). In Brown’s (2007) account of the problems on Palm Island, he traces the cause of the despair currently plaguing Palm Island to the introduction of alcohol to the island in 1973: an event which only brought ‘drunkenness, violence and arrests’. Over time, ‘the island fell more deeply into the welfare mentality, with its associated feelings of hopelessness and desperation’. The ‘old paternalism’ of the Queensland government, which subsequently introduced an ‘alcohol management plan’, only exacerbated the problem, for ‘what else can islanders do but drink?’ It is even suggested that the situation on Palm Island is indicative of a country whose black imprisonment rate has reached ‘(pre-Mandela) South African dimensions’ (Farrant and Ambrose 2000). Indeed, in one account The Sunday Age points to the experiences of a Father Raass, who believes that conditions in Indigenous communities are equivalent to ‘the poorest parts of Africa’ (Skelton 2006).

A story in The Age suggests that ‘even in Victoria most Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders felt the colour of the skin was influencing the way police treated them’ (Farrant and Ambrose 2000). Farrant and Ambrose (2000) suggest that there are specific cultural factors that have contributed to the scale of alcohol abuse amongst Aborigines:

Many Aborigines like to meet and socialise with friends and extended family members in the street or other public areas, a practice that draws more attention in country towns than, say, Melbourne. That has led to troubled relations in recent years in several country Victorian towns, such as Mildura and Robinvale… In Mildura, the magistrate’s position is rotated regularly – a wise idea… in a town where the visiting magistrate can quickly feel pressures to “deal with the Aboriginal problem”.

Robinvale is a town in regional Victoria that, according to a story in The Age, has ‘fallen off the page’ in terms of government assistance (Nader 2008; see also Skelton 2006). It is said to suffer from one of the highest suicide rates amongst Aboriginal youth in the state. The problem, write Farrant and Ambrose (2000), is again cultural: ‘The question of cultural difference is one that may never be reconciled in a country whose justice system is based on Judaeo–Christian tenets and British historical practice. Aboriginal customary law, for example, is not formally recognised by the official justice system at all’.

Writing in The Australian, Louis Nowra (2007) offers an example of the incompatibility between the two cultural and legal systems. According to Nowra, Aboriginal men often try to explain the ‘epidemic of male violence and sexual abuse’ that is ‘obliterating’ Indigenous communities by deferring to what they claim to be their own cultural traditions in order to – literally – ‘get away with rape and murder’. He recalls one case in particular:

Even when Aboriginal men go to court, many receive lenient sentences when using the defence of intoxication combined with customary law. [An Indigenous man] was convicted of manslaughter, not murder, yet no alcohol was involved in the crime and he was breaching the conditions of his parole at the time. There is no doubt that some judges still consider that Aboriginal men’s treatment of their women should be viewed differently from how the rest of society treat women. The defence does work.

It has also been suggested that alcohol has been at the heart of the racial divisions in New Zealand. Commentary there suggests that in contrast to the settlers, ‘Maori were one of a very few cultures who had not developed alcoholic drink’. And while it took the Maori time to develop a taste, liquor ‘was soon pouring in with the pioneers and has since soaked into our way of life as if into a sponge’ (New Zealand Herald 2003b). The extent to which alcohol became a part of daily life in New Zealand was made clear by the historian Stevan Eldred-Grigg, who estimates that in the 1840s, Pakeha (settler) men ‘each drank around 45 litres of licit spirits a year’ (New Zealand Herald 2003b). It is argued that New Zealanders are still living with the legacy of this period of developing a drinking culture.

What is striking about Australian and New Zealand news commentary on alcohol abuse in Indigenous communities is the willingness to recognise the roles that European settlement has played in the disorder that plagues Indigenous communities. This stance reflects a sense of the double-sided nature of alcohol – that it can be both ‘a “faithful companion”’, as well as being as ‘responsible for “nine-tenths of the evils of society”’ (New Zealand Herald 2003b). The Australian news media identifies similar evils in Indigenous communities in Australia. A story in The Sydney Morning Herald claims that, ‘across Australia, booze cuts a swathe through the indigenous population, killing 1,145 people between 2000 and 2004’ (Farrelly 2007). An account in the New Zealand Herald (2007b) claims that alcohol abuse, along with ‘poor health… drug abuse, pornography, unemployment, poor education and housing, and general disempowerment’, have contributed to the collapse of morality in Aboriginal communities, and has led to the ‘sexual abuse of men and women and, finally, of children’, incest and violent rape, and the organised prostitution of teenage girls as young as 12.

While the New Zealand Herald is quick to point out the many problems that stem from ‘endemic alcohol and drug addiction’ in Aboriginal communities, the newspaper is also eager to discuss possible solutions to the problem. Its discussion of the then Liberal/National party coalition government’s (the Howard Government) intervention into Aboriginal communities is equivocal. The paper both celebrates the fact that something is being done but is critical about what it is, and offers little in the way of real alternatives. The newspaper variously describes the Howard Government’s intervention into Aboriginal communities as a ‘mission to rescue the children’, an ‘invasion’, a ‘crusade’, ‘draconian’, and as heralding ‘the end to Aborigines’ rights to control access to their land’ (New Zealand Herald 2007b; see also Shanahan 2007; Toohey 2008a). Moreover, the newspaper dismisses the government intervention as lacking innovation since it is modelled on the success community elders had in bringing about a decline in drunkenness, assaults, domestic violence ‘and other ills of alcohol’ a decade ago (see Toohey 2008b). In all, the Howard Government’s actions are seen as belonging to a long history of government responses to problems in Aboriginal communities that are ‘ineffective, culturally inappropriate or inconsistent, and met with mistrust’ (New Zealand Herald 2007b).

Research on intoxication and drunkenness in Indigenous populations in Australia

The ways in which intoxication and drunkenness are defined and understood in indigenous populations around the world is a topic that is outside the limits that we have set for this discussion. Rather, our interest is with Indigenous Australians and the ways in which intoxication and drunkenness are used, defined and interpreted by researchers of Indigenous issues. We review research and debates about legality and public drunkenness as they relate to Indigenous Australians; the controversy surrounding sobering-up centres, particularly in relation to defining and understanding intoxication and drunkenness; and finally we examine the notion of drunken comportment and intoxicated aggression in Indigenous communities.

The legality of public drunkenness is different in different places. For example, ‘being intoxicated in a public place has not been an offence in the ACT since 1983’ (McMillan 2008, 1). In this jurisdiction police may detain a person intoxicated in public only if intoxication is accompanied by disorderly conduct, behaviour likely to cause injury or damage to property, or an inability for the intoxicated person to protect themself from physical harm. Throughout Australia the impetus to decriminalise public drunkenness was, in part, due to the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991 (McMillan 2008, 12). Victoria is the only state in Australia where public drunkenness is still an offence, despite reports and recommendations over the years (see Appendix B) suggesting this law be reconsidered. While public drunkenness laws impact on everyone in a community, it is argued that they have greater impacts on Indigenous populations. The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service argues strongly for the decriminalisation of public drunkenness due to the negative experiences of Indigenous Australians. They argue that these laws result in ‘over policing’ leading to a ‘lack of holistic facilities for those with substance abuse problems; and the fact that the offence is a “gateway” to further charges and entrenchment in the criminal justice system’ (Guivarra 2008, 19). For these researchers, public drunkenness is not foremost a legal issue but a public health, medical and welfare problem and they argue that the fact that public drunkenness laws in most states in Australia have been abolished is testament to this view. Guivarra (2008, 20) argues that public space is used differently by Indigenous Australians and ‘homelessness and low income levels both contribute to Indigenous Australians being highly visible to police. Physical presence in public spaces as a precursor to arrest is supported by the figures which show that public drunkenness arrests do not correlate with drinking trends’.

Taylor and Bareja (2005, 14) claim that public drunkenness continues to be a major reason for being detained in police custody:

  • in 2002, 12 per cent of all incidents of police custody were due to public drunkenness;
  • in the jurisdictions where public drunkenness has been decriminalised (all jurisdictions except Victoria and Queensland), incidents involving public drunkenness generally involved people being placed in detention for purposes of protective custody;
  • among Indigenous custody incidents, 19 per cent were for public drunkenness whereas this figure was eight per cent for non-Indigenous incidents;
  • Indigenous people comprised the vast majority of all public drunkenness custody incidents in the Northern Territory (92%) and Western Australia (83%);
  • incidents of custody relating to public drunkenness were much more likely to involve Indigenous than non-Indigenous persons.

However, while the numbers of custody incidents relating to public drunkenness are high, the proportions of all incidents which involve public drunkenness for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have been decreasing since 1995:

  • in 1995, 34 per cent of all Indigenous custody incidents involved public drunkenness compared with 19 per cent in 2002;
  • for non-Indigenous incidents, 15 per cent involved public drunkenness in 1995 compared with only eight per cent in 2002.

This research suggests that police cells are being used as a temporary solution to the problem of public drunkenness rather than other alternatives, such as sobering-up shelters (Taylor and Bareja 2005, 14).

For Weatherburn (2008, 92) the problem of disproportionate Aboriginal arrests for public drunkenness, and more generally alcohol-related crime, is a problem of supply (measured by consumption, expenditure on alcohol, liquor outlet density or liquor trading hours): ‘The Royal Commission’s [The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 1991; see Appendix B] own research revealed that 46% of all Indigenous detentions by police were for public drunkenness [see McDonald 1992; Appendix B]. In the years that followed, the evidence linking alcohol abuse to Indigenous arrest and imprisonment continued to mount’. This is an argument for the decriminalisation of public drunkenness. However, as Guivarra (2008, 20) explains:

There are two streams of argument against decriminalisation. One is the long running position that abolition of public drunkenness law can only happen once there are enough sobering-up centres available. The other is that, in the interests of community safety, police and local councils need every weapon available to them, including bans on public drinking, and “move on” laws.

In 2003, the role of Aboriginal people in the problem of public drunkenness in Townsville was under debate. Hoolihan (2003, 9) explains the controversy:

When public drunkenness and the bad behaviour associated with it are mentioned in Townsville most people think about Aboriginal people in our parks. The reality is that the nightclub strip in Townsville generates more incidents of violence and bad public behaviour than exists in our parks. Despite this Townsville politicians scapegoat Aboriginal people as the cause of the public drunkenness problem when they politicise the issue leading up to elections. They then fail to take action once elected to office. This has led to a public debate being drawn out… [over] many years without any hope of dealing with the issue successfully. Furthermore, the negativity that is generated by such a public debate fuels racism, negative stereotyping, and negative social interaction between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

Hoolihan (2009) argues that the high cost of living, racism in the housing sector, poor health status (resulting from low socio-economic status) and unemployment all contribute to a constellation of issues which are the root causes of public drunkenness. These issues, Hoolihan (2009) argues, are swept aside in local debate about how to fix the problem of public drunkenness.

Margolis et al. (2008, 104) describe a study about supply reduction in remote Indigenous communities: ‘An Australian review by d’Abbs and Togni (2000) [see Appendix B] concluded that supply reduction was effective in reducing alcohol consumption and related harm including drunkenness, interpersonal violence, and property damage’. Here drunkenness is defined as a harm related to alcohol consumption and this term was not used again in the evaluation of alcohol management plans in four remote areas of the Northern Territory. Instead, alcohol-related harms and the impact of different methods of alcohol restriction were considered.

In other research Putt et al. (2005, 1) use data from two different surveys to consider the impact of intoxication on crime rates among Indigenous and non-Indigenous offenders. Their report claims that ‘overall it is alcohol that seems to be most directly associated with adult Indigenous male offending, as alcohol intoxication was directly attributed as a cause of the most recent crime by many Indigenous male offenders’.

As we have suggested, the question of the decriminalisation of public drunkenness has been closely linked to the establishment, use and support of sobering-up centres since the 1980s. Brady et al. (2006, 201) argue that they provide ‘an alternative to individuals being arrested and held in police cells and watch houses’. Brady et al. use case study data to examine the benefits of sobering-up centres and argue that their study provides ‘supporting evidence of the important role of sobering-up centres in averting the known harms of a custodial response to public drunkenness, as well as avoiding the potential harm of alcohol-related injury among vulnerable Aboriginal people’ (Brady et al. 2006, 201). However, despite lobbying since the 1950s, the 2002 National Police Custody Survey reported that ‘police cells, in spite of efforts to the contrary, continue to be used as temporary sobering-up shelters in the absence of other alternatives’ (Taylor and Bareja 2005, 5).

Sobering-up centres are of interest to us here as an instance of the variety of responses of Australian communities to public drunkenness and also the ways in which intoxication is defined. Brady et al. (2006, 202) explain how intoxication was defined and recorded at a sobering-up centre in South Australia: ‘Staff estimated blood alcohol concentrations using a Lion Alcometer S-D2. Readings were recorded as percentage of blood-alcohol concentration (eg. 0.050% is equivalent to 50 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood)’. The staff also recorded a qualitative assessment of patients’ condition upon arrival. Table 3 provides behavioural indicators and the estimated blood alcohol range associated with those behaviours.

Table 3. Scale and indicators used to determine condition upon arrival at ‘sobering up’ centre



Estimated blood alcohol concentration range (%)

Condition 1

Presenting reasonably normal, steady on feet (balanced), reasonable coordination of eyes and limbs, clear speech, able to follow instructions, able to blow on the Alcometer, undress, shower and dress unaided. May be anxious or aggressive on occasions.


Condition 2

Somewhat unsteady on feet (unbalanced), slurred speech, some difficulty in following instructions, may need some help in showering, not mentally alert, may be anxious or aggressive on occasions, can blow on the Alcometer but may need encouragement.


Condition 3

Presenting unbalanced, difficulty talking and following instructions. Slow response time. May be sick, with strong alcohol breath. Disoriented, anxious, may be aggressive and violent, poor coordination of eyes and limbs, will need assistance in showering and going to bed, may have some breathing difficulties.


Condition 4

Very unbalanced, unable to follow instructions, cannot undress, shower and dress for bed unassisted. Strong alcohol breath, difficulty breathing, drowsy, incontinent, poor coordination of eyes and limbs, crying.


Condition 5

Comatose. Seriously unwell. Need to transfer to hospital for care.


Source: (Brady et al. 2006)

Brady et al. (2006, 204–205) suggest that the clients who were using the sobering-up centre were highly intoxicated, defined by both the assessment of their behaviour as well as the estimated blood alcohol concentrations. They found high levels of intoxication among females, and explained this as perhaps being linked to ‘the way in which women’s bodies process alcohol (the fact that they generally have less fluid and more fat in their bodies), rather than indicating that they are consuming more alcohol’. Linking intoxication to risk, Brady et al. argue strongly in support of sobering-up centres:

Non-Aboriginal clients were fewer in number and generally presented with lower intoxication levels. These findings support national survey data estimating that 82% of all Indigenous current drinkers consume at risky or high risk levels compared to 28% of non-Indigenous drinkers [see Commonwealth Department of Human Services and Health 1996; Appendix B]. In view of the levels of intoxication documented here, it is likely that these individuals would be at high risk of injury, abuse or death if they were not offered the humane care and safety of this facility.

While acknowledging that some may see sobering-up centres as simply ‘rewarding drunken behaviour’ Brady et al. (2006, 205) argue that the use of such services by police acts to reinforce ‘the message that public intoxication is socially unacceptable’.

In their ethnographic study, Shore and Spicer (2004, 2510) take seriously the influence of socio-cultural factors on drunken comportment. In their examination of an Australian Aboriginal community they argue for ‘a model for examining intoxicated aggression that includes societal/cultural framing, personal factors, pharmacological effects of alcohol and drinking context/environment’. Such a model should also seek to ‘explore the ways in which culture actually can pattern drunken behavior in the context of additional factors and the extent to which the patterning of such drunken behavior in one Aboriginal community actually conforms to the predictions of the “time out” function of drunkenness’. These authors claim that the literature on Aboriginal alcohol use tends to use social constructivist readings or functionalist accounts of the role of alcohol in Indigenous communities. From these perspectives drinking plays a major role in the construction of Aboriginal culture, and that it serves to promote particular functions, such as powerlessness or social cohesion, in those communities. Their project consisted of three months of intensive fieldwork in an anonymous Aboriginal community in rural north-eastern Australia (including numerous formal and informal interviews) and a written survey to examine the relationship between alcohol and violence. Shore and Spicer (2004, 2519) argue that intoxication and drunkenness are events and states of being which are understood in an Indigenous community as a part of the overall interactions of the community:

In this Community, rather than functioning as an excuse for behavior, drunken comportment functions as a medium through which tensions and conflicts are played out. Violent acts committed while drinking in the Community may be partially explained through this system, but are never excused. Alcohol-mediated violent acts are remembered in the Community, and often lead to increased tensions between individuals and kinship groups, and hence more fights and conflicts, even at times when people are sober. In this manner, alcohol-mediated violence seems to be integrated within the larger structure of Community interactions, rather than being a removed and special situation.

Gender and the problem of intoxication and drunkenness

In this section we move to a discussion of the ways in which intoxication and drunkenness are often imagined and debated in gendered terms. In this discussion we see that intoxication and drunkenness are most often framed in masculine terms. When women, young and old, enter discussions of intoxication and drunkenness it is as if the terms take on new meanings, as the old ways of making sense – of both intoxication and drunkenness, and of femininity – become problematic.

Much media commentary, for example, has a difficult time figuring out how to discuss women and drunkenness. On the one hand, many accounts continue to cast women as the victims of men’s aggressive drunkenness, and, yet, also spend time discussing women’s drinking itself (see Phipps 2004). So, while women are represented as being susceptible to men’s aggression, women are also depicted as being more susceptible to drunkenness than men. The New Zealand Herald (2007c), for example, cites statistics that suggest that women might be ‘taking over’ from men in ‘in the alcohol stakes’ (see also Burchill 2001), while a story in The Guardian reports that female drunks are ‘more aggressive’ than men (Saner 2008). In another account a student welfare officer at Georgetown University in Washington D. C. is quoted observing that ‘women are not just drinking more, they are drinking ferociously’ (Vulliamy 2002). Carol Midgley (2001b) also suggests that studies are showing that ‘young women are drinking themselves to death’.

In her reckoning of women’s drinking Jane Brody (2002) seeks a physiological rather than social explanation to what she calls the ‘ferocity’ of such drinking. Brody argues that women’s smaller bodies are less able to break down alcohol before it reaches the blood stream compared to men. As a result, consuming the same quantity of alcohol will result in greater levels of intoxication for women than for men (see also Critchley 2008). In these sorts of narratives, women ‘develop alcohol dependency at about half the rate of consumption than men, with almost the same proportion for liver damage and brain injury’ (Minogue 2001). Meanwhile, Bachelard (2008) claims that the culture that has produced a ‘generation of ‘strong, independent, [and] liberated’ young women, has also led them ‘to believe, wrongly, that they can safely adopt the drinking patterns of the boys around them’. This is the ‘dark side of sexual equality’, writes Ed Vulliamy (2002) in The Guardian, and it could well turn out that ‘alcohol problems are the price women pay for emancipation’ (Minogue 2001; see also Wolf 2007).

This dilemma is personified in the figure of Gina Mallard – a notorious middle-aged woman from Lincoln (UK) who had a high public profile for anti-social behaviour and public drunkenness. Mallard featured in a story in The Guardian on women with serious drinking problems. Mallard’s drunkenness is variously described as ‘colourful’, ‘loud-mouthed’, ‘frightening’ and ‘intimidating’. What Mary O’Hara (2004) calls the ‘Mallard question’ concerns precisely the relationship between drunkenness and whether women are to be seen as victims or aggressors in drunken violence and crime: ‘The “Mallard question”, it is fair to say, has divided the community. Some local people regard her merely as an irritant or public nuisance. Others believe she is an aggressive, violent terror whose antics make their lives a misery’. The example of Gina Mallard, however, is no longer exceptional. In a story in The Sydney Morning Herald Jordan Baker (2008) claims that, while the ‘number of women arrested for domestic violence is soaring’, it is not clear whether they are the aggressors or whether the victims of this crime (Baker suggests that many women arrested for domestic violence ‘are trying to defend themselves’). The relationships between women and drunkenness have long been a topic of interest for media reporting and commentary. For example, the The New York Times recounts how, long before celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan became notorious for their drinking, the popular press of the late-eighteenth century published pamphlets such as ‘Characters of the present most celebrated courtesans exposed, with a variety of secret anecdotes never before published’, which included stories about the ‘sordid affairs’ of well known people (Grose 2007). More than two centuries later, the drinking habits of young women – the ‘Bridget Jones generation’, as Claire Phipps (2004) writes – are again a favourite topic for the press, and young women’s drinking is being discussed with the same paternal concerns as young people’s drinking:

Young women have got the government worried. Our drinking is, apparently, out of control. And so the No 10 strategy unit report on alcohol misuse, due this month, is expected to recommend a public information campaign aimed at the “Bridget Jones generation”. Concerned department of health officials will back this up with a new Hello!-style magazine, Your Life!, packed with celebrity-endorsed, cautionary tales about the dangers of binge drinking.

According to Phipps (2004), the problem with the rush to demand government intervention into women’s drinking habits is much the same problem as trying to find government solutions to the problem of youth drinking: the press and government simply do not understand why they drink. Phipps (2004) writes that the press and government in Britain are judgmental, and they ‘demand explanations for women’s drinking that we don’t ask of men’s, as if falling over after a few pints were an exclusive male right’:

The strand of opinion that recoils from the sight of ladies stumbling along the pavement late at night, laughing loudly and perhaps even singing, would obviously prefer their eventual abstinence to come sooner rather than later. It is hard to imagine young male bingers responding to such pressure. But come one Friday night soon, you might find that those young women who are usually perched in the corner with a couple of Martinis have finally tired of the scrutiny and gone home in disgrace.

The differences between intoxication and drunkenness in men and women have received much attention in the research literature as well. Both qualitative and quantitative studies inform the search to better understand both how intoxication and drunkenness are defined by men and women differently, and also how intoxication is thought to affect them differently. Research has shown that ‘drinking continues to be a male-dominated activity, men outnumber women in almost every category of drinking behaviour investigated in research: consumption, frequency of drinking and intoxication, alcohol abuse and dependency. Men are also less likely than women to be aware of the recommended daily limits’ (Mullen et al. 2007, 151).

Wang et al. (2003, 910–915) conducted a study with ‘twenty right-handed healthy subjects – 10 female subjects (mean age, 36.1 +/- 8 years; range, 21–50 years) and 10 male subjects (mean age, 40.6 +/- 8 years; range, 25–53 years)’ of similar socioeconomic background and education levels. They examined ‘metabolic decrements’ in the brain to compare gendered responses to alcohol use. They ‘hypothesized that female subjects would have larger metabolic decrements than male subjects when given alcohol because it is believed that women are more sensitive to the behavioral effects of alcohol than men’. They further hypothesised that the ‘decrements in regional brain metabolism would mediate, in part, alcohol’s behavioral effects’. They found that ‘global and regional brain glucose metabolism at baseline did not differ between genders’. However, while ‘alcohol consistently decreased whole-brain and regional brain metabolism in both genders, ethanol-induced decrements in brain glucose metabolism were significantly smaller in female than in male subjects’. That is, Wang et al. explain, ‘despite the [unexpected result of] significantly blunted metabolic response to alcohol in female subjects when compared with male subjects, they showed greater self-reports for intoxication, high, dizziness, and sleepiness’. For these researchers ‘alcohol-induced disruptions in motor performance also tended to be greater for female than for male subjects’ (Wang et al. 2003, 915).

Psychological differences have also been identified between intoxicated men and women. Olge and Miller (2004, 60) argue that:

intoxicated men tend to be more aggressive toward men than toward women and that women do not show this differential response pattern… Through multiple steps of social information processing, intoxicated men evidenced more processing alterations related to aggression when the provocateur was male and the apparent intent hostile. This relation was absent in the case of intoxicated women.

Olge and Miller (2004, 60–61) offer psychologically-based explanations for this difference, arguing that ‘women tend to experience more empathy for provocateurs and more anxiety and guilt upon showing aggression, which decreases the potential for aggression so that where men show aggressive response, women present anxiety and guilt’. They suggest that the real-world ramifications of this divide are obvious when considering that intoxicated women ‘ranked hostile male scenarios significantly lower in hostility than all other groups did’. The authors suggest that since:

women may have been more empathic toward provocateurs and may experience more guilt and anxiety toward their own aggressive behavior, it may be that alcohol impairs processing ability by forcing processing into a more schema driven stereotypical mode. This would account for intoxicated men’s increased hostile representation and women’s decreased hostility compared with non intoxicated men and women, respectively.

A number of qualitative studies have examined how men and women understand the role of intoxication and drunkenness in their own lives. Lyons and Willott (2008, 695), for example, argue for a different approach to gender arguing that:

Rather than viewing and measuring gender in terms of static roles and personality traits, a more fruitful approach is provided by social constructionist theory. This posits that women and men think and act how they do because of concepts about femininity and masculinity that they adopt from their culture (Courtenay 2000 [see Appendix B]). Thus, gender resides not in the person but in social transactions and daily activities defined as gendered (Crawford 1995 [see Appendix B]). As Measham (2002 [see Appendix B]) has stated, “masculinities and femininities are not something imposed upon men and women, but something men and women accomplish themselves on an ongoing basis, constructed in specific social situations in which people find themselves” (p. 351).

In a study of masculinity and drinking in Glasgow (UK), Mullen et al. (2007) examined ‘links between excessive alcohol consumption’ and masculinity. Mullen et al. (2007, 157) consider how this masculine role plays itself out in the context of ‘drinking and drunkenness’ amongst 16–24 year olds in Greater Glasgow with ten focus groups and 12 in-depth ‘life-trajectory’ interviews. As other studies have shown (see for example Harnett 2000), drinking is important in different ways at different times of life. Being drunk becomes less acceptable as men get older. However, Mullen et al. argue that, ‘a certain level of intoxication is valued when you spend time with friends or are trying to meet a sexual partner’ even as men got older. Nonetheless, drunkenness was still considered to be risky.

In this study Mullen et al. (2007, 153) argue that many men ‘are not only compelled toward intoxication due to it being “deeply rooted in expectations of male behaviour” but also that not drinking is not an option for men as it would be seen as “weak and feminine”’. Not only is drinking excessively important to constructing a masculine identity, but there is a gendered imperative for men to do so ‘without becoming intoxicated’. However, the authors suggest that a drunken comportment is becoming a more complicated area for young people to navigate as the social milieu keeps shifting. Mullen et al. (2007, 162–163) claim that ‘drunkenness is a key theme’ in their findings, but that the link between traditional masculinity, which was enacted largely around only other men, is shifting and the rules of drunken comportment are becoming more complex. This research identified a shift from a preference for drinking in homogenous groups to mixed-gendered groups. In this context a good night out explicitly involves ‘some intoxication’, it ‘markedly contrasts with the experience of their fathers and grandfathers’: ‘The young men in our study could feel uncomfortable about a young women getting drunk, initiating sexual contact, or being loud and “emotional”, but they tend to prefer drinking in mixed-sex groups in comparison to the experience of their fathers’. Mullen et al. (2007, 162) suggest that ‘we are witnessing a move away from the conventional hegemonic masculine role to a more pluralistic interpretation’.

For much of our discussion to this point the concept of ‘intoxication’ has referred to a state attained through the consumption or ingestion of alcoholic beverages. However, Bogran (2008, 97–98) sees intoxication ‘in broader terms as an instance of an experience of ecstasy, where ecstasy indicates transcendence of regular or everyday limits or frames’. Bogren suggests that ‘gender is linked to ecstasy through the idea that transcendence and escape from the everyday’ provided by intoxication ‘is said to be a concern only for men’. Bogren links the ‘escape’ from the mundane to sex, but coming back to alcohol use, she suggests that ‘women do not “need” sexual transcendence as men do, that is, women do not need or want no-strings-attached sex with many sexual partners, women rather want love and security’. Bogren explains her argument further:

I suggest that we hypothesize that women’s drinking and intoxication is subject to more strict social control because one image of drinking women places women closer to nature than men. Evolutionary theory links women’s sexuality to pregnancy and child care, and because contemporary alcohol prevention campaigns and news reports target women – but not men – for their role in reproduction, these cultural ideas together contribute to the positioning of women as “closer to nature”.

Partanen (2006, 193–194) argues that in Japan, drinking alcohol has long been considered men’s business. In her description of the male drinking session, Partanen explains how a ‘wall of etiquette’ is erected in social situations which is then ‘unwrapped’ in the drinking of alcohol, allowing communication to flow more freely. It has been noted that during a night of drinking, men are encouraged to speak and laugh loudly, sing and clap, but when the party is over, sobriety is regained ‘almost instantly’ and everyone ‘acts almost like a different person, like a group of actors leaving the stage after the curtain comes down’. Despite this immediate switch to sobriety at the end of a festive night, Partanen explains: ‘The inebriated are to be humored and cared for, and most often this is women’s task. Tolerating inebriated men and being concerned about their safety is a part of Japanese women’s routine’. Labelling Japanese men’s drinking as ‘heroic’ (defined as both heightened sociability and intoxication), Partanen understands alcohol’s role in a variety of cultural practices and highlights the idea that alcohol’s effects are more than simply physiological and depend upon more than the alcohol itself.

In a US study Montemurro and McClure (2005, 279–286) analysed so-called bachelorette parties to consider gendered assumptions about drinking behaviour. They conducted in-depth, qualitative interviews with 51 women over 21 years old. From the standpoint of symbolic interactionism they understand alcohol as a symbol through which meaning is created for the women at the bachelorette party. In fact, they argue: ‘The bachelorette party is the only pre-wedding event in which it is expected and planned that women will become intoxicated – and really the only secular ritual focused on women’s alcohol consumption’. Montemurro and McClure argue that public intoxication by women is both under-researched as well as stigmatised, however, these ideas and understandings may be changing, as ‘public intoxication may no longer be perceived as deviant by young women and/or by society at large’. Indeed it is argued that intoxication at this ‘event is the norm’ and it is used by women for a number of reasons in this context: for stress reduction during the planning of the wedding, as well as to alleviate the stress of becoming a wife and taking on a new role: ‘Any anxiety or stress she may have about getting married is not appropriate for public display or discussion. Thus, the bachelorette party provides a much needed release for women’. So, intoxication provides a space where the stresses of a wedding and a changing role for women are allowed to be relieved by alcohol use, even to intoxication, which has otherwise been shown to be a stigmatised practice for women. Montemurro and McClure (2005) propose that bachelorette parties provide a space for women to deviate from and resist traditional gender norms in that they are, in particular, drinking in public, and drinking to excess; two things that are seen as traditionally male activities. This, they argue, enables women to ‘use alcohol as a symbol of power and equality’. This study of bachelorette parties indicates that intoxication plays a vital role. 83 per cent of respondents (n=118) described parties at which the bride-to-be was intoxicated. For the purposes of their analysis, Montemurro and McClure defined ‘trashed’ as an intense kind of intoxication, ‘in which the bride-to-be passed out, blacked out, or got sick from drinking too much’:

It seems that the women in this sample used alcohol as an excuse for their actions. In other words, if they were able to dismiss or legitimate their behavior by claiming intoxication, to say that behavior was neutralized in some way, their ‘real’ self or identity would not be marred by their actions at the bachelorette party.

In another study Lyons and Willott (2008, 705) conducted qualitative research in New Zealand with eight focus groups with 32 participants (16 women, 16 men, mean age 24.6 years). Women reported drinking less than men but, as in other studies, drunkenness was part of what it was to be social and having shared stories/histories with your social network. Lyons and Willott were interested in the increase in women’s drinking and how gender relations and identities are constructed in the context of alcohol consumption: ‘Specifically, this study aimed to explore contemporary constructions of femininity, and how young women are (re) defining their gender identities in relation to men and the traditional masculine ethos of consuming alcohol in public’. Women’s drunkenness was found to be monitored in particular ways; it was acceptable, but only ‘up to a certain point’. Lyons and Willott argue: ‘Once very drunk, however, women are looked down upon, considered embarrassing and also “slutty”’. They explain ‘that participants know they hold this double standard themselves, and that women see themselves as holding it even more than men’. In the quote below Lyons and Willott argue that, in New Zealand, men’s drinking is strongly tied to the pub and sport. Tracy interjects to claim that women can only get drunk to a certain level of drunkenness. For Lyons and Willott this suggests that respectability ‘remains an issue for women’:

Simon: We’re still, I think as Matthew was saying before, it’s, I think we’re still, we’re adjusting to, to different, um, gender roles basically. Like, that it’s OK for women to be getting drunk but I think

Tracy: To a level of drunkenness

Simon: Yeah, but, but I don’t, I think probably there’d be people who would look down more on the young girls stumbling around the Viaduct, than the young guys stumbling out of the pub, do you know what I mean, after watching the rugby. Like, there’s still some disparity there.

The relationships between men and women and intoxication were explored in a study by Abrahamson (2004, 13–23). The research comprised two to three hour (same gender) focus groups with men and women and involved a total of 56 participants. Abrahamson argues that ‘the role of alcohol in the flirtation game has a similar meaning for both women and men. The implications of picking up/being picked up in the context of intoxication, on the other hand, are different for men and for women and are described in different terms’. For men: ‘Unbridled intoxication is described as a liability-free zone where other rules apply and where alcohol offers absolution’. Women however describe a different experience: ‘The women feel themselves to be under observation and also are constantly observing themselves. They continually guard themselves against going too far and set themselves invisible boundaries. For women, alcohol offers no excuses’ (Abrahamson 2004, 22). One of Abrahamson’s participants, a young woman of about 20 years of age explains that if she was seen flirting when she was sober she believed that she would be viewed as ‘desperate’ but, ‘under the cover of intoxication… flirting can be presented as partly serious and partly in jest’. Many of these twenty-something women spoke about the need for alcohol, and the need to be at least ‘somewhat intoxicated’ as something that they required when they were ‘younger’, because it facilitated socialising when they felt too shy to do so without it.

While we have shown that intoxication and drunkenness are gendered concepts, evidenced by both qualitative and quantitative research, the studies we review here do not enable us to better understand, as Lyons and Willott (2008) argue we should, how society works to underpin these gendered constructions of intoxication and drunkenness And indeed there are signs in some studies that females are starting to act more like males in terms of public displays of intoxication and drunkenness.


In this chapter we have reviewed media commentary and the research literature that focus on different populations and the problem of intoxication and drunkenness. As is evidenced throughout our discussion these terms are rarely defined and are therefore open to differing interpretations depending on the context of their use.

Although popular perceptions of alcohol use and intoxication and drunkenness tend to rely on generalisations it is clear that there are important differences between and within groups. For example, from our discussion of media commentary and the research literature on young people as a population who present particular concerns in relation to intoxication and drunkenness, we could suggest that not all young people, male or female, in different geographical locations and cultural settings, regularly drink to intoxication and even if they do, their patterns of consumption – the context of their drinking and even the types of alcohol consumed – is different in different geographical locations. The same is true for Indigenous groups. What is missing in this research is the absent (silent) majority who drink responsibly or do not drink at all.

We have also presented a limited account of media commentary and research on the raft of issues that are associated with understandings of intoxication and drunkenness with Indigenous populations (in this case in Australia). These issues present a minefield for review and discussion. The political, the cultural, the social and the economic dimensions of the history of colonialism, dispossession, and marginalisation of Indigenous populations in Australia are things that make an appearance in this commentary and research. The complexities we have indentified in relation to the meanings and consequences of intoxication and drunkenness take on an altogether different dimension in this context. Our only contribution here is a very modest attempt to highlight this complexity.

We have also presented a discussion of the research literature on gender differences related to intoxication and drunkenness. The sociological literature, we argue, holds the promise for more nuanced portrayals of lived experiences and cultural differences in drinking behaviours. These are not dependent on describing physiological or psychological harms, nor do they attempt to measure these harms by using various scientific formulae. Sociological approaches make it clear that different rules and moral codes still apply to the ways in which men and women drink, often to levels of intoxication and drunkenness. For the most part intoxication and drunkenness appear to be expected of males and are seen as deviant in females. These differences in expectations of course, as has been shown elsewhere in this review, are not new, but they do find purchase in new ways in the contemporary context. This is not to say that male intoxication and drunkenness is not seen as a problem though, and particular groups are the targets of legal interventions, particularly related to issues around public safety. There is evidence, however, that young women are adopting more traditionally male drinking styles and the reasons for this are not yet well known.

Cite this chapter as: Kelly, Peter; Advocat, Jenny; Harrison, Lyn; Hickey, Chris. 2011. ‘Young people, men and women and Indigenous Australians: Different understandings of intoxication and drunkenness’, in Smashed! The Many Meanings of Intoxication and Drunkenness. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing. pp. 93–136.

Smashed! The Many Meanings of Drunkenness and Intoxications - contents

   by Peter Kelly, Jenny Advocat, Lyn Harrison, Christopher Hickey