Women And Binge Drinking: When Too Much Is Not Enough

By Regina Walker 03/29/16

Women pay a higher cost for their drinking, both physically and socially.

Women And Binge Drinking: When Too Much Is Not Enough

We have written before on The Fix about the challenges women in recovery face that are unique. Thanks to the decades-long unspoken assumption in American culture that there is something unladylike about drinking to excess, even admitting you have a problem is disproportionately difficult for women struggling with alcohol addiction. And this is all before you even get into the ins and outs of recovery treatment programs that still, in many respects, fail to address the specific needs of women struggling to break the chains of alcohol addiction. With the ongoing redefinition of women’s roles in society, there’s been a huge sea change in the degree to which women feel free to be in the open about problems that would have been hidden behind a curtain of shame not so long ago—but, at the same time, is it possible that greater freedom also means greater risk? Or is it just that we’re talking about it more? Let’s take a look at the numbers. 

First of all, the very expression "binge drinking" seems to carry a moral judgment—an implication that you’re drinking for no other reason than to get drunk. In fact, a commonly accepted definition of binge drinking is drinking for the express purpose of getting drunk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have given us specific numbers, separated by gender: if you are a man, it’s five or more drinks in every two hours, and if you’re a woman, it's four or more. Of course, the most useful metric is BAC (Blood Alcohol Content): 0.08 grams percent or above, as far as the CDC is concerned, you’re binging.

If you look at the numbers, binge drinking itself has increased pretty dramatically in recent years. Kaiser Health News says that figures are up alarmingly for both men and women: overall, between 2005 and 2012, heavy drinking as per the above definitions rose 17.2%. That’s a lot of people hitting the bottle harder—presumably because we want to get drunk, also as per the definition of binge drinking. 

What’s interesting, though, is how much of that is driven by women drinking more.  

Over that time period—according to a study published by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME)—binge drinking among women rose at a rate seven times greater than among men. The numbers are startling. They can vary significantly depending on geographic location, but to take just one example—in Santa Clara, California, binge drinking among women rose 36%, compared to 23% among men, leading one researcher to comment, “It seems like women are trying to catch up to the men in binge drinking ... it’s really scary.”

In California and nationwide, the rise in binge and heavy drinking rates was largely driven by women, who report drinking more as social norms change, according to researchers from the IHME at the University of Washington.

“Nationwide, women showed a much faster escalation in binge drinking than men, with rates rising 17.5% between 2005 and 2012; men, on the other hand, saw rates of binge drinking increase 4.9%.”

Women pay a higher cost for their drinking both physically and socially. Women who binge drink (at lower intakes than men) are at higher risk of developing liver disease than men and are more vulnerable to the brain-damaging effects of excessive alcohol use. When it comes to cancer, women are at a higher risk of mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, and breast cancer. With each drink, a woman increases her risk for breast cancer, according to a study published in Lancet Oncology. 

According to the CDC, about 7.6% of pregnant women used alcohol between 2006 and 2010. Use of alcohol during pregnancy has been linked to fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome, low birth weight, and spontaneous abortion as well as a myriad of other birth defects.

Yet women have more to lose when asking for help. A mother is at risk of losing custody of young children if she identifies as having an alcohol problem. 

One of the biggest problems with this sharp rise in binge drinking—with all its associated serious risks to health, as well as risks of personal injury or the infliction of injury on someone else—is that looking for help often trails behind the behavior. As binge drinking has spiked—again, dramatically more among women than men—recognition of the problem and looking for help has trailed behind. This is no big shock to professionals in the field.

The increase in binge drinking doesn’t surprise Terri Fukagawa, clinical director of the New Life Recovery Centers in San Jose, California, where 15 of her 24 treatment beds are filled with clients primarily addicted to alcohol. She said she’s seen more people seeking treatment for alcoholism in the past four years.

Still, she noted, "there are a lot of people still out there needing treatment, but they won’t come in unless they have a consequence like losing a job or [getting] a DUI. They think they have control over it."

The study by IHME notes that surprisingly, some of the spike in binge drinking may be driven not by poverty or difficulty in finding work, but by relative affluence. After all, binge drinking is much more likely to occur in younger people, and if you look at locations where the biggest spikes can be seen, it seems that an influx of affluent young people in high stress jobs—especially in the tech sector in places like San Francisco—may do a great deal to drive the increase in binge drinking.

There’s a lot of talk about how changes in social norms might drive an increase in binge drinking, especially among women. What that means seems to be most relevant in upper income brackets. The study that’s sparked all the renewed interest in binge drinking among women mentions specifically that where there’s relative affluence, there’s more money to drink to excess, and that women in traditionally hard-partying environments, like tech startups, may be especially vulnerable. Long hours, and decompressing after work over a few (or more than a few) drinks with co-workers, keeps both men and women out late and looking more than ever to shed some anxiety over drinks—but this easily becomes habitual, perhaps cripplingly so.

Kaiser Health News says: “Young people are more likely to binge drink, and affluent people have the money to drink more. So the influx of wealthy professionals in cities like San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland—many in hard-working, hard-partying tech jobs—may have helped spur significant spikes in drinking rates in the Bay Area and similar communities, experts said.”

At the same time, though, at the lower end of the economic food chain, the contraction in the economy, the continued challenges of finding work and caring for one’s family, and other factors may have made those who don’t work for glamorous tech startups more vulnerable as well.

Where were the highest rates of binge drinking reported? While there were major spikes in places like Oakland and San Francisco—driven, so the data says, by an influx of young people into relatively high pay but also high stress jobs—the single county that reported the highest levels of binge drinking in the entire U.S. wasn’t in some tech enclave, but in Wisconsin. Specifically, Menominee County, Wisconsin.  

Menominee County has a population of around 5,000 people, and it is a Native American reservation largely populated by members of the Menominee tribe. Here, we see not affluent techies, but members of a marginalized ethnic and social community, for whom binge drinking likely represents what it does for affluent techies in San Francisco or Oakland: an escape.

But the underlying tale remains the same: life can be hard, and drinking can take the edge off. Though the particulars are important, so is understanding that women face special challenges that mount even as greater presence in the workplace, and greater opportunities, present themselves.

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Regina Walker is a licensed psychotherapist in NYC. She has written for multiple publications and is an avid photographer. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.