Despite a general decline in alcohol consumption across the adult population since the 1980's, increasing numbers of young women are consuming alcohol, commencing their drinking career at an earlier age and becoming involved in high risk drinking behaviours. Numerous studies show that the consumption of alcohol by adolescents is widespread. However, there is comparatively little research examining the role and culture of drinking by young women. Historically, most research and subsequent alcohol intervention and prevention programs have generally been based on perceptions and constructs of male drinking. A substantial body of literature and research has reported sex differences in adolescent drinking patterns, but does not necessarily recognise the differences between the sexes in the meaning of the behaviour and the place drinking holds in their respective cultures.
This study examined the relationship between gender roles and drinking behaviour in a group of young women in their final year of secondary school. It used both qualitative and quantitative methods to develop an understanding of drinking behaviours from a female perspective. Two key investigative strategies are utilised in this study: firstly, a series of face-to-face qualitative interviews with 113 young women and secondly, a written survey questionnaire of 1442 final year female secondary school students.
The research investigated both individual students' sex role personality type traits as measured by the Australian Sex Role Scale (Anthill, Cunningham, Russell & Thompson, 1981) and students' beliefs about broader social constructs of women's roles in society as measured by the Women in Society Questionnaire (Lewis, 1988). The examination of these sex role traits and social beliefs and their relationships with drinking behaviours, combined with the motivations behind and evaluations of, outcomes of drinking make this research unique.
The research clearly identified that drinking is well established in young female culture. Large numbers of students were found to regularly consume alcohol, often at hazardous and harmful levels. Almost half the young women drinkers had been drunk at least once in the past three months to a stage where they were uncoordinated and could not walk straight. Even heavier drinking was a common occurrence, with just under one-quarter of the drinkers reporting having passed out or vomiting from too much alcohol.
While drinking was a normative behaviour among the young women, femininetype personality traits were associated with more conservative drinking behaviours and masculine-type personality traits were associated with more frequent and heavier drinking. An analysis of the survey questionnaire found that sex role personality traits of masculinity and femininity were significantly related to drinking behaviour, but no such relationships were identified for the broader social beliefs about women's roles in society. However sex role personality traits and gender role beliefs were both associated with the young women's motivations or reasons for drinking and their evaluations of outcomes or consequences of drinking.
High levels of femininity were strongly related to reasons for drinking that were shown to be associated with conservative drinking behaviours. High levels of masculinity, on the other hand, were associated with reasons or motives for drinking that were generally related to increased frequency and heavier drinking. In particular, masculinity was associated with hedonistic drinking and drinking as a coping strategy for unwanted emotions. Interestingly, there were characteristics of contemporary feminine culture that were also associated with increased drinking behaviours. While higher levels of masculinity were generally associated with increased support for all listed reasons for drinking, the research identified that increased levels of conservatism or traditionalism were also associated with increased support for drinking as a coping strategy, drinking to reduce inhibitions and the need to develop drinking skills or a tolerance to alcohol.
Femininity and increased levels of conservatism were also associated with greater concern for the consequences of drinking. These varied between different drinking type groups, with increased levels of concern being associated with more conservative behaviour. In particular, increasing levels of concern about loss of control became more important and influential as drinking behaviour increased. Losing control as a result of too much alcohol had severe implications based on perceptions of femininity.
Only femininity was associated with levels of concern about consequences of drinking and no significant relationships were identified between masculinity and concerns for the consequences of drinking. This may reflect the overall importance and relationship that gender has on constraining alcohol behaviour. Whilst reasons for drinking may reflect personality traits of both masculinity and femininity among this group of young women, their evaluations of the consequences of drinking tend to reflect femininity only.
For many young women, heavy drinking was often perceived as a threat to their feminine image. However, for large numbers of drinkers, moderate alcohol consumption was compatible with their femininity.
The results of this study have a number of implications for health promotion practice, particularly in the context of developing and targeting prevention and intervention programs. Gender constructs are important in the drinking culture of young women. Therefore, educators should not be reluctant to use gender based formulations when addressing drinking behaviours among young women. Indeed, the identification of these characteristics has the potential to target problematic drinkers.