OPINION: ‘Party culture’ is harmful, universities must do more to help

Citizens from Manhattan and surrounding areas come to Aggieville to celebrate Fake Patty's Day 2018 with family and friends. (Archive photo by Alex Shaw | Collegian Media Group)

Whether it be through the media or mainstream impressions of college, people have grown increasingly apathetic toward university “party culture.” In fact, it has become so normalized that trying to question it can get you verbally attacked.

This reveals an interesting fact of human nature — namely, we will defend whatever brings us happiness and pleasure to the point of fanaticism, irrationality and willful blindness.

However, I want to engage in a bit of heresy, upset the orthodoxy and show why party culture’s normalization should be questioned.

My case is not that drinking alcohol or partying hard are inherently bad or always wrong. I am not making a Puritan case against alcohol consumption or dancing. I am, however, acknowledging that we have a severe problem in how young people tend to go about these things.

There is a difference between partying and party culture, or drinking and drinking culture. I am going to examine the cultural norms and practices that have emerged from underlying beliefs on conduct and consumption.

The facts about consumption

Let’s first grasp the scope of the problem. A 2014 study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that, out of the 60 percent of students aged 18-22 who drank alcohol in the past month, two-thirds of them engaged in binge drinking.

Fortunately, 2015 data saw that binge drinking number drop to about three in 10 students. For clarity, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines “binge drinking” as consuming four or more standard alcoholic beverages for women and five or more for men in a single sitting.

Another startling fact is the sheer number of adults who suffer from alcohol use disorder or alcohol dependence: 15.1 million in total — 9.8 million men and 5.3 million women. Alcohol use disorder can be treated, but it cannot be fully cured for those afflicted. Surprisingly enough, many of those who suffer from alcohol use disorder are unaware of it and think their drinking habits are normal.

Second, the consequences are heavy. Consider the financial burden: “Three-quarters of the total cost of alcohol misuse is related to binge drinking,” according to the NIAAA. Many people would like to believe that binge drinking is a harmless and contained activity, but this is false. The CDC has warned that excessive drinking is draining the U.S. economy, and the effects are felt by everyone.

Unruly alcohol consumption is also involved with 1,800 student deaths every year, nearly 700,000 cases of physical assault and close to 100,000 instances of sexual assault.

A disheartening 2018 study found that partying events with heavy alcohol consumption during Division I football games increased reports of sexual assault and rape by 28 percent among individuals aged 17-24, and parties during home games increased these reports by 40 percent in the same age group.

A 2018 Oxford study asked whether university students are happy with hookup and party culture. Only 10 percent of students answered affirmatively, while a sizable group of students in the middle thought their friends only appeared happy, and 27 percent were convinced their friends were unhappy and unfulfilled. The evidence is clear that our party culture has negatively impacted the lives of students and the university.

Third, we need to explore why people drink excessively. Factors like past experiences, impulsive personalities, stress, social norms and other environmental considerations like cost shape drinking motivations.

One study hypothesized that the reason why men drink excessively is to share emotions and smiles. They found that compared to female drinking groups, male drinking groups were more likely to smile and share emotions after they began drinking.

Another reason why heavy drinking may be so appealing is the possibility to escape from the self and, in one way or another, lose control. Regardless, there are serious questions to ask about why some prefer excessive drinking, and the answers are rather depressing.

Responsibility and enforcement

There is no question that alcohol invites a host of risks if not properly managed, but this is where we find our key problem — alcohol consumption demands responsibility, but alcohol also undermines self-control and rational decision-making.

This is a known fact among researchers. People who binge drink are more likely to make regrettable sexual decisions and impair their ability to make rational decisions in both ambiguous and known probability cases.

We are essentially telling people to be responsible with a substance that can make them less responsible for their actions, though not less accountable. People need to enforce accountability on one another and be conscious of their actions, but that doesn’t happen enough. For example, how many parties stop people from binge drinking? And if there are examples, are they representative of an average experience?

Furthermore, we need new norms and customs that do not teach alcohol as synonymous with adulthood, legitimacy or fun. We need to address the underlying health concerns that might motivate or are often associated with excessive drinking: 77 percent of people with alcohol dependence already have other physical ailments and psychiatric diseases like depression and anxiety.

Finally, universities play a huge role in making a safe environment. A 2014 article from The New York Times found that most universities were not enforcing their drinking policies, or they were creating task forces that didn’t do anything.

Here is a telling quote from the article: “Today, fewer than half of colleges consistently enforce their alcohol policies at tailgates, in dormitories and at fraternity and sorority houses. Only a third do compliance checks to monitor illegal alcohol sales in nearby neighborhoods. Just 7 percent try to restrict the number of outlets selling alcohol, and 2 percent work to reduce cheap drink specials at local bars, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota.”

The article goes on to talk about Harvard University social psychologist Henry Weschler’s grand experiment in the 1990s. He discovered that 44 percent of college students in America were binge drinkers and worked alongside generous foundations and universities to curb the problem.

They discovered that bars would use discounts and promotions to lure students in, and many fraternities and sororities incentivized binge drinking. Armed with these results, Weschler proposed solutions.

What happened in the first few years? Half of the colleges that pledged to make significant changes did nothing. Indeed, other scientists who have tried to combat or address the issue later found their universities running out of money and interest in their research.

The bottom line is this: We make mistakes as individuals and suffer as communities. Universities have to deal with the messy aftermath of binge drinking, the divisive philosophy of pleasure and the politics on the role of administrators and students. However, this is a clear issue with clear consequences.

What will we do?

Suan Sonna is a freshman in political science and philosophy. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.