Drinking like the Guys or Drinking with the Girls? The Role of "Risk-Talk" in British Female University Students' Stories of Alcohol Consumption
Sociology, Social Policy, and Social Work Queen's University, Belfast Belfast, UK
There is an upward trend in female alcohol consumption in a number of European and North American countries; in the UK and Finland young women report higher rates of intoxication than their male peers (Ahlstrom, 2007: 70). In the UK, a country with a particularly high rate of female "binge-drinking", qualitative researchers have sought to explain the implications of female drinking for women?s gender identity, since, as Gough and Edwards (1998: 409) put it, "Western cultures advertise (excessive) alcohol usage as an exclusively male activity". Female drinking is widely seen as challenging gender norms, either as a deviant subversion of ideals of femininity, or as part of a broader project of female emancipation (Day et al, 2004; Young et al, 2005). The implication is that traditional femininity does not offer a relevant language or framework to discuss and explain female binge-drinking. The problem with such accounts is that they start from the presumption that female binge-drinking and hegemonic femininity are irreconcilable. In an in-depth study that looked at British female university students attitudes towards binge-drinking, socialising, and drink-spiking, we found that female drinking is by no means at odds with a dominant discourse of femininity, and one of the central ways in which these two are allowed to co-exist is through recourse to a language of precaution. Interviewees often discussed their experiences of binge-drinking in terms of the precautionary behaviour it entailed - watchfulness, concern for personal security and predatory others, and policing one's physical boundaries. Such behaviours are integral aspects of traditional femininity, as well as at the heart of a precautionary language of risk-awareness. The practices associated with risk-management are, in this respect, functionally important in terms of creating normative concerns that reinforce - rather than contradict - hegemonic femininity. This paper will outline the interview findings, discuss the function of "risk-talk" in legitimating new behaviours and reinforcing group solidarity, and consider the idea that the assimilation of a precautionary language and ethos might have distinctive gendered characteristics.