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Young women's social drinking in context--pub style: a study of decision making and social drinking of young women in urban South Australia.

Particular harmful effects of excessive drinking, including binge drinking, have been well documented (Single & Rohl, 1997; Commonwealth of Australia, 1993; Pols & Hawks, 1992). Health professionals and the wider community have been called upon to assist drinkers to engage in low-risk drinking so as to reduce the unwanted effects of hazardous and regular harmful drinking. The NH&MRC claimed in particular that females need to consume less alcohol than males to remain within safe drinking limits (Pols & Hawks, 1992); yet despite concerted efforts to highlight the range of risks and reduce harms associated with hazardous drinking, the prevalence of binge drinking remains high among young people under 30 years of age (Single & Rohl, 1997) and is a particularly significant issue for young women.

Alcohol plays a major part in most young women's socializing. It has become clear from national aggregate data and some smaller studies that about one-quarter of young women (under 25 years of age) now binge drink on a regular basis (Single & Rohl, 1997; Commonwealth of Australia, 1995; ABS, 1994; Davey & Clark, 1991; Corti & Ibrahim, 1990). Indeed, adolescent and young adult women now make up the most significant group of harmful drinkers in this country (Single & Rohl, 1997). The majority of young women first start consuming alcohol socially in their early teenage years and then binge drink into young adulthood (Single & Rohl, 1997; Commonwealth of Australia, 1995). Yet there appears to be no documented research that has specifically investigated young women's intentions, decisions, experiences, drinking styles, and settings in relation to their preferred drinking behaviors.

This paper summarizes a recent qualitative research project that sought to describe the social drinking experiences, implicit decision making, and hotel (pub) preferred environments of young women ages 18-30. It is hoped that the findings from the study will inform future studies and offer guidelines for better health promotion and harm-reduction strategies, and for the provision of safer hotel settings and related services for young women. The study is part of a larger project to examine young women's social drinking patterns, intentions and settings (de Crespigny, Vincent & Ask, 1998; de Crespigny, Ask & Vincent, 1998).


Face-to-face semi-structured interviews were conducted with young drinking women ages 18-30 (N=41) and with hotel staff (N=12) in parallel with participant field observations in the four different hotel settings. The pilot study was conducted in one inner-city pub by the first author, as chief investigator. This involved interviews with young women (N=20) and with pub staff (N=5) and 36 hours of field observations. A larger study was then conducted, including two other investigators who had been trained to use the same multiple methods (Carspecken, 1996; Minichiello, Aroni, Timewell & Alexander, 1995). A briefing, debriefing and data-collection review system was overseen and facilitated by the chief investigator to enable ongoing critique of the data collection and analysis. This ensured that interrater reliability, content validity, construct validity and criterion-related validity were maintained (Carspecken, 1996; LoBiondo-Wood & Haber, 1994; Mason & Bramble, 1989). The second study involved further interviews with young women (N=21) and hotel staff (N=7) and 30 hours of field observations, distributed fairly evenly across three pub sites. On completion of the preliminary data analysis, the researchers' interpretations were taken back to a focus group comprising young women (N=10). The purpose was to test the findings and ideas with the group, empowering young women through the process of critique and corroboration (Dey, 1993). Based on the information and evaluation by the focus group, the results and interpretations of the data were refined, including young women's opinions in the final reports and recommendations, thus ensuring that young women were themselves pivotal to the outcome of this work (de Crespigny et al., 1998).

In total, 41 young women and 12 hotel staff (bar, managers and security) were interviewed, 10 young women took part in a focus group, and over 66 hours of participant field observations were undertaken within the four hotel settings. The chief investigator also held consultations with a group of female licensees from the wider hotel industry. A more extensive account of this is provided in de Crespigny et al. (1998).

The questions were semi-structured in format to elicit both demographic and qualitative data. The demographic data and key questions on drinking enabled comparisons to be made between this sample and national aggregate data in terms of smoking status, age of first social drink, pattern of consumption, and preferences of alcoholic beverages. The participants' qualitative self-reports underwent preliminary analysis during the data-collection phase, whereby key themes were revealed and confirmed (Minichiello et al., 1995). On completion of all interviews and observations, the combined data were subjected to nonnumerical analysis using the NUD.IST software package (Qualitative Solutions & Research Pty. Ltd., 1995).


Qualitative analysis revealed both differences and consistencies between hotel sites and between participants (women drinkers, staff, and female informants). This provided new information about young women's social drinking choices and styles related to their intentions and decisions, female friends, safety and transport, and venue choices. Self-reports by female participants were cross-referenced to interviews with pub staff and female licensees and to participant observations. The findings in this report relate specifically to young women's alcohol consumption patterns, drinking styles and related venues. A more extended account is provided in de Crespigny et al. (1998).

1. Reasons for drinking

Similar reasons for drinking tended to be offered by all the young women. They used alcohol to relax, to help them enjoy themselves, and to facilitate social interaction. Several younger women (under 22 years) reported that alcohol increased their level of confidence in meeting and talking with new people. Most participants indicated that they used alcohol "to let their hair down," particularly on a designated "big night." Examples of the latter were after exams, having a "girls only" night out, and other specified celebrations. It was also evident that drinking styles served different functions at different times. These might occur over the same week or within a single night. For example, a participant might describe alcohol use as facilitating or contributing to a situation such as having a conversation with girlfriends, being with friends in a restaurant, or "going wild" at a dance party. Alcohol use thus varied systematically with implicit norms about a situational requirement. The women generally knew in advance what they would drink and how much they would drink in each setting.

2. Alcohol consumption

All participants drank alcohol. Consistent with the national aggregate data (Single & Rohl, 1997), the women in this sample indicated that the average age of consumption of their first alcoholic drink was 15 years, with a range of 12-20 years. The majority of participants started drinking regularly at about 17 years, generally after leaving school. The number of standard drinks consumed on a typical night at a pub was seven on average, which clearly confirmed the binge pattern (five standard drinks or more in a brief drinking session) (Pols & Hawks, 1992) previously attributed to this group (Single & Rohl, 1997; Commonwealth of Australia, 1995; Corti & Ibrahim, 1990). They indicated that they averaged about 12 standard drinks over a one-week period. Nearly all of the young women indicated that they were weekly binge drinkers (Pols & Hawks, 1992). None drank on a daily basis. However, several who were over 24 years old drank over two standard drinks per day three or more times a week, and did so most weeks. They might therefore be classed as hazardous to heavy drinkers (Pols & Hawks, 1992).

3. Typical drinks

The most commonly preferred drink in the city pub was full-strength beer. Many participants in this location said that at times they would have a spirit to "get in the mood" before going out or when first entering the pub. They would then proceed to beer. Most said they preferred spirits, but these drinks were too expensive for regular socializing at the pub. These beer drinkers also consumed spirits when there was a special occasion such as a "big night" or if they were going to a nightclub. This usually occurred less frequently than their regular pub pattern. Many also indicated that they consumed particular spirits such as Vodka, Midori, Kahlua or mixed cocktails when at nightclubs and dance venues because it was contextually appropriate: "That's what you do there." Thus the choice of beer was often related to what was seen as hotel or "pub" style socializing, while choice of spirits or cocktails was related "club" style socializing.

By contrast, half the women interviewed from the three suburban pubs reported drinking spirits when in pubs. These drinks included liqueurs such as Bailey's, Midori, Kahlua, Southern Comfort, Tequila, Vodka and Jim Beam. About one-third also regularly drank full-strength beer, while a few said they drank beer from time to time according to taste, budget and context. Opportunity also influenced the choice of beer--for example, if there was "happy hour" with half-price beers in the pub. No beer drinker from any pub drank light beer.

At the time of this research, "designer" alcoholic drinks such as Sub-Zero were being widely advertised. Very few participants reported that they regularly consumed these beverages in pubs or elsewhere. Fewer than a third said that they had ever tried such drinks, and those who had tried them did not continue, as they thought them to be too sweet. Only one woman out of 21 interviewed regularly drank alcoholic soda (Sub-Zero), and only a few drank champagne at the pub. A few drank a mixture of beverages or were still experimenting with various drinks, saving that they had not yet found their preferred drinks.

Thus choice of drinks at these suburban pubs was first spirits, then beer, with the choice related to budget or setting. Interviews with pub staff and observational data closely supported these findings.

Shouting drinks

"Shouting" is a common, long-established Australian expression relating to a group norm whereby members take turns buying drinks for everyone in the group. The next round is often purchased even if a drinker has not finished his/her previous drink. In the city pub, buying in rounds was not common unless there was a happy hour with half-price beers. In the three suburban pubs, buying in rounds was common in two of them, with several young women reporting that they frequently "shouted" friends' drinks. Again, this was usually when drinks were cheap. Allowing males to buy drinks and not reciprocating was rare except in the case of young women who were in a steady relationship. Many participants stated that they valued their independence and did not wish to "owe" males any favors by accepting free drinks.

Managing the social drinking scene

Locality and safety were major themes regarding choice of pub. Many young women went to their local pub because they had friends who went there, it was relaxing, safe and accessible, and they could drink and not worry about getting home safely. Knowing bar and security staff was important for many local pub attendees. The majority planned ahead, shared a cab, elected a sober driver, or walked in groups.

Situational factors were often given as important reasons why young women wanted to retain control while out drinking. Factors included being in a crowd where there might be risks associated with men who were rough, violent or untrustworthy. This is hardly surprising, as girls and women have always been taught that they must be on guard against predatory males. Many participants said they had left a venue if they were experiencing male verbal abuse or sexual harassment or would do so in any such future situation. Moving away from such men or leaving the pub were regarded as the best ways to avoid or handle such situations, but they felt this was unfair and impinged on their enjoyment of their night out. They usually relied on female friends to manage such situations jointly. Some younger participants deliberately went to "gay" clubs as a further strategy to avoid predatory male behaviors and said they felt safe there.

Many of the young women talked about the pubs they liked to go to. These were local friendly, safe places where they could "be themselves." They would try to avoid other venues that did not offer these characteristics. A common theme across all settings and groups was that young women did not like to go to unsafe or "sleazy" places where there was poor transport, poor parking, and poor outside lighting or where males were predatory, threatening or "obnoxious." Some participants saw that hotels (taverns) in general were preferable to clubs because they were less sleazy and the "scene" was different.

Attendance at night clubs and dance venues was more prevalent among those under 22 years old. The older groups spent their time at their local pub, entertaining at home, or going to friends' houses or to restaurants. Many women over 22 years old said they now attended pubs more often and had reduced their club attendance because they got "bored" with the latter. They preferred their local pub because they could relax, meet friends, and not have to get dressed up or put up with unwanted male behaviors. Attending nightclubs thus appeared to represent a transient rite of passage for young women 18-21 years old.

Managing intoxication--getting "tipsy"

A common expression for becoming intoxicated was getting "tipsy" or "pissed." Almost all participants reported that they deliberately intended to get tipsy but wanted to stay in control when out drinking. They regarded this as a way of feeling relaxed and having fun. Almost all reported having been very drunk at some point when young teenagers because that was what "it was all about." Getting too tipsy was now undesirable for a range of masons. These included being out of control, looking drunk, having a hangover, being sick, or being embarrassed in front of others. Most were quick to point out that drunkenness was a rare occurrence, at least for them in their pubs. It was thereby evident from interviews that the majority were in control of their drinking and intoxication most of the time. Pub staff and field observations corroborated this impression.

Many also described a particular level of intoxication they could recognize and liked to reach when out drinking. They reported that they had learned how to reach and then maintain the particular level of intoxication they wanted while still feeling in control. Once they reached this point, they tended to taper their drinking or stop altogether. However, despite intentions to the contrary, some young women still noted that they had occasionally become intoxicated when they had not planned to do so. Only a few described getting drunk as either a regular or an occasional planned event; these young women were generally under 23 years old.

One finding of concern was the higher level of unintended intoxication associated with risky decision making about walking home late at night or drink-driving among a small number of women under 24 years old. While in the minority, these young women took such risks deliberately; they said this occurred in the absence of safer options such as being with friends or taking public transport or taxis. Fewer than 10% of all participants reported that they would drink and drive, walk home alone, or hitchhike in the future.

More specifically, several women under 21 years old reported unintended gross intoxication at nightclubs, having consumed several single spirits or "shooters" (two to three spirits in one drink). These drinks had usually been free or cheap and were promoted to young women to encourage them to enter the venue and attract male customers. These young women had been lured by such drinks, were inexperienced drinkers, and had poor transport resources for getting home. Several reported that they had been separated from their friends and therefore risked walking home alone on occasion. Two of the male security staff interviewed held the particular view that women were more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol and therefore less able than men to control their drinking. One of these participants stated that in his opinion women should keep in control to avoid problems with drunken males--yet he also supported his hotel's marketing strategies to increase custom by offering women cheap drinks: "They are good for business as they bring in males." The same staff member indicated a concern that a drunken woman would give his pub a bad reputation. This was not supported by the reports of young women, other pub staff, or observations. Bar staff believed that young women were in fact more able than males to control themselves when out drinking.

Many of the women said they drank water before, during and after a drinking session to mitigate the effects of alcohol and to reduce costs. Some women drank soft drinks for the same reason. Beer or spirits were often interchanged with water or soft drinks as a deliberate way to control intoxication. Staff interviews and observations supported these findings.

Many young women said they generally planned to consume a "few" drinks before going out to pubs and/or clubs. A "few" constituted between two and five standard drinks. This was usually with girlfriends, with the intention to relax and "get in the mood" for going out. Some said this was also a way of saving money on drinks.

The "big night"

The concept of the "big night" emerged frequently in discussions with the young women. Characteristics of the big night included drinking more than usual, staying out until 4 or 5 a.m. and dancing a lot. This was often based on multiple styles of drinking associated with going to a hotel for "a few drinks" and then on to a club. The big night was typified by high levels of excitement, dancing, and drinking large quantities of spirits such as Tequila Slammers, cocktails or "shooters." Big nights typically occurred once every two months or so and were considered to work better if they were spontaneous. The women under 22 years old generally did not plan their big nights, but older ones did, probably due to commitments and responsibilities the next day. One of the security staff similarly commented that younger people were more likely to have unplanned big nights.

Drinking styles

One participant described how she went on a "pub crawl," drinking beer and moving from pub to pub with a group of girlfriends. During this time their drinking style was to binge-drink beer over several hours, with the distinct aim of getting drunk together. At another time, this same individual went to a restaurant with her friends, and their drinking style then was to have two glasses of wine over dinner with no intention or outcome of being intoxicated. This typified the way that young women have particular drinking intentions and venues; their drinking choices and patterns vary with the time, place and purpose of the social event. In the pub they valued talking and having fun with friends, often drinking beer, water or spirits over three or four hours, not being overly intoxicated, and being casually dressed. These same participants described an entirely different demeanor and drinking style in dance clubs. At the latter they reported drinking spirits, dancing, being dressed up, expecting to be louder and more intoxicated, staying over several hours after midnight, and being more overtly outgoing. At times this was also where they hoped to meet a new male, which was not their general expectation at their local hotel.

Pub style drinking was thus viewed by all participants as the most favored and central part of their social lifestyle. Meeting and talking with friends, work mates or other students was highly valued, particularly in all female groups. Almost all young women in the city pub, but fewer than 50% at the other pubs, drank full-strength beer. Beer consumption was at binge levels while socializing and relaxing with girlfriends at their "local pub." Few women preferred to drink wine there, but many reported liking it with a meal. The majority of young women from all pubs liked and consumed spirits; they would often have one or two on arrival to achieve the level of intoxication they sought to "be in the mood" or "kickstart" the night and then continued with full-strength beer. Surprisingly, this predominant consumption of beer is not reflected in national data, where women have been reported as being mainly wine and spirits drinkers (Single & Rohl, 1997). This marked discrepancy may mean the participants in this local study were in fact atypical. A more plausible explanation would be that respondents in national surveys reported their overall consumption pattern and preferred beverages, and not their particular styles of consumption according to context.

Club style drinking involved the use of a wide range of cocktails, spirits, and some designer drinks in nightclub or dance house settings. This form of socializing was more common among those 18-22 years old, and it was among this group that there were more reports of unintended gross intoxication, losing track of friends, and going home alone.

Restaurant or home style drinking involved consuming wine in a restaurant or at home with friends, and was more common among those over 22 years old. This usually involved sharing a bottle of quality wine with friends and did not usually constitute unsafe drinking of over two standard drinks. The exception to this was when the meal preceded a big night or a long session at the pub.


These results raise a number of important issues. Although caution should be exercised in extrapolating these findings to a wider population, there is still some sense that participants may not be much different from their peers elsewhere in Australia. Like the majority of drinkers in Australia, almost all participants were 14-15 years old when they had their first social drink. This and their pattern of binge drinking were both consistent with recent national population data on drinking women in this age range (Single & Rohl, 1997; Commonwealth of Australia, 1994, 1995). The major differences were the level and style of beer drinking among these young women compared with the national data. It is hypothesized that national data do not so far reflect these subtleties of multiple styles of drinking and social contexts.

It is premature to draw firm conclusions, but the majority of these young women reported common themes. These were corroborated by observational data and hotel staff reports. Such themes were:

1. The importance of girlfriends for socializing and safety.

2. The need for safe drinking venues.

3. The discomfort of and perceived risks from male sexual harassment and violence.

4. The need for more accessible and safe public transport.

5. The way money determines choices of alcohol beverages and transport.

6. The explicit intention to be intoxicated and then controlling intoxication at a desired level.

7. Appreciating friendly bar and security staff who offer support and help.

8. Preorganizing a sober driver or sharing cabs.

All these themes require further investigation, but even at this stage they provide useful clues for improving approaches to supporting safer drinking choices and drinking environments.

The findings also indicated that young women's drinking choices are changeable in style across social context. The types of beverages and the level of consumption differed markedly for the local pub, nightclubs, restaurants, and home environments. It was mostly the younger group--those under 22--who reported attending dance venues or nightclubs on a regular basis. It was here that the club style of drinking and intended or unintended intoxication most often occurred. The exception to this was when there was big night at a hotel, a special celebration, or a happy hour with cheap drinks. Spirits were the most preferred drink in both pubs and clubs, but these were usually too expensive for weekly pub drinking. Wine was regarded more as a restaurant style drink and/or was consumed home style, with family or friends.

The idea of drinking styles thus extends our perspective beyond simply responding to a commonly identified drinking pattern such as binge drinking. It allows us to see that young women's drinking choices and behaviors are deliberate, contextually based, and changeable. This knowledge might enable us to develop and implement strategies based on young women's active choices and needs. We might then support differential prevention and harm-reduction policies and practices based on the direct drinking experiences and intentions of these young women. Such responses might be better targeted and more effective because contextually based. Enhancing policies, information, education and environmental strategies based on the concept of selective drinking styles might even promote safer drinking and drinking environments for these young women.

Most participants talked about how they were safety conscious and supported girlfriends and male friends in staying safe. This suggests that safety is always a concern of young women, and that collective decision making and supports are common wherever young women congregate, including licensed venues. This is hardly surprising, as females are brought up to believe that they are constantly at risk of "being a victim" and that they should control this situation through their own vigilance. Whether this inequitable situation should itself go unchallenged is a larger debate that has never been directly addressed. Many young women reported the ongoing negative impact of male harassment and violence on their venue choice, enjoyment and well-being. This had a major influence on their choice of venues and whether they stayed at a particular venue.

The findings from this study confirm that these young women were predominantly "binge drinking" while in their pub settings, at least once a week. Many also reported that their pattern of drinking was similar to that of other young women they knew of. More specifically, while the overall drinking pattern was binge drinking, the choices of beverages, levels of consumption, intended level of intoxication and outcome of socializing changed according to specific social intentions and settings. It indicates that young women's varied drinking styles reflect their deliberate choices and purposes of drinking according to their expectations of an event or venue. Styles of drinking were thus contextually based and could best be described as pub, home, restaurant, nightclub or big-night style.

More research is needed into drinking and related issues of Australian women (Hands, Banwell and Hamilton, 1995; Hamilton, 1991), and of young women in particular. The direct experiences of young women themselves will inevitably provide important clues for the development of targeted policies and strategies. Yet the invisibility of young women in the literature underscores how little we still know about their drinking choices and situations. We need to better understand how gender-specific issues and strategies based on young women's experiences might assist in reducing or preventing the harmful effects of hazardous alcohol consumption and contexts. Such efforts need to focus on safer, culturally appropriate, and accessible drinking information and education, licensed venues, staff training, transport, and other supports for young women. Such efforts may not only enhance the health of this group, but improve the opportunities for other drinkers to be better served as well.

The finding that drinking styles vary in a deliberate and contextual manner seems to be significant. That drinking style is influenced by the choices, environments and outcomes of young women is perhaps not surprising (Zinberg, 1984). It suggests that young women do not have a "fixed" pattern of binge drinking that is unchangeable until they "grow out of it." Women can and do take a flexible approach to their drinking according to their perceived needs. This may be where we can best target prevention and harm-reduction efforts. By linking into their perceptions and expressed needs we might engage them in a process that can influence both their behaviors and the licensed premises that they attend.

This study may not be generalizable, and we still need to explore what happens in country towns and in less socially advantaged suburban settings. There is clear need for further ethnographic studies on the wider range of young women's social drinking issues. National data show that young women are drinking at harmful levels (Single & Rohl, 1997). However, despite the inherent risks and harms associated with their intoxication, young females have not yet featured at as high a rate as their male peers in alcohol-related hospital admissions. This may be a problem of interpretation or documentation, or even a positive trend against harm among this group. For example, of all 1990-91 alcohol-related hospital separations in New South Wales, one-third of drinkers 15-34 years old were females (Commonwealth of Australia, 1994). In a recent report on the National Drug Strategy by Single & Rohl (1997), in 1995 there were twice as many males as females in national alcohol-related hospital separation figures. However, the latter report does not show how this relates to young women ages 15-34, so it is difficult to translate these figures or compare them with other data. This group is thus still underrepresented or hidden in the mortality and morbidity data, and we are unable to determine whether or not they will be increasingly involved in the future.

If young women are drinking at harmful levels but do not feature as significantly as their male peers in the alcohol-related mortality and morbidity data, one might well ask why. What is it about young women (or particular subgroups) who binge drink and become intoxicated, yet apparently do not experience high levels of harm? Are their behaviors, drinking styles or chosen settings so different from those of their male peers? Are there other aspects of the young-female drinking culture that have positive or counterbalancing influences on preventing or reducing alcohol-related harms? Or is it that young women are still to display, by more reliable measurements, the unwanted effects of harmful drinking behaviors and cultures? We do not yet know, and we need to investigate.


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AUTHORS' NOTE: We acknowledge funding from the South Australian Health Commission Health Enhancement Committee, the Flinders University of South Australia and Southern Region of Councils Research Grants Program, Flinders 2000--Flinders Medical Centre Research Fund, the Flinders University of South Australia URB Grants Program.

CHARLOTTE DE CRESPIGNY (National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction [NCETA], Flinders University, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide, South Australia 5001; Charlotte. DeCrespigny@flinders. is a senior lecturer in the School of Nursing at Flinders University and has worked in the drug and alcohol field for over 10 years. Her dissertation was a critical ethnography of young women's decision making, drinking, and the pub environment. At the time of the study, NIKI VINCENT was a senior research officer and ALEX ASK a research officer at NCETA.
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Author:De Crespigny, Charlotte; Vincent, Niki; Ask, Alex
Publication:Contemporary Drug Problems
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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