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[This is Part 1 of a two-part series examining alcohol and gender issues.]

April is Alcohol Awareness Month. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), the observance was established back in 1987 to encourage communities to focus on alcohol-related issues, increase awareness and understanding, and reduce the stigma associated with alcoholism. In support of this vision, campuses will engage in alcohol education and health promotion efforts throughout the month that include programs like national alcohol screening day and social marketing campaigns that provide accurate information on the impact of alcohol.

This year, the #MeToo movement and daily headlines of stepped-up efforts to address sexual assault and harassment in the workplace have provided a golden opportunity for campuses to extend their Alcohol Awareness Month efforts to include thoughtful and honest conversations about the challenges that alcohol holds for women. Specifically, the role of alcohol both as a potential contributing factor to harassment, as well as personal implications for women when it is used as a mechanism for managing gender-based power dynamics. Along the way, it can provide administrators with the opportunity to examine whether or not the current campus environment undermines their efforts to promote community norms and expectations of safety and respect.

Drinking and Gender-Based Harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace has historically remained invisible except to those who have suffered silently. There are also those who suffer in the open, but are silenced by societal attitudes about what women who choose certain careers should be expected to tolerate. The New York Times wrote about this in a recent story exposing the seamier side of cheerleading in professional sports. In it, former cheerleaders discuss the “systematic exploitation by teams that profit by sending them into pregame tailgating and other gatherings where they are subjected to offensive sexual comments and unwanted touches by fans.” Among the multiple examples of behaviors that these women must endure, one former cheerleader recounts a particularly sickening experience. “[One fan] looked at me and said, ‘I hope you get raped!’ That’s the kind of stuff we’d have yelled at us. Even from our fans, once they get drunk, they yell things…It’s part of the job.” Adding insult to injury, cheerleaders were allegedly taught to respond to such behavior by saying, “That’s not very nice” and to always be “sweet, not rude.” Most, if not all, of the examples of harassment and assault in this article include mention of the offenders being drunk.The not-so subtle messages: this is normal and accepted behavior when people are drinking, and women should never make someone who degrades and insults them feel bad about their behavior.

Similar scenarios play out every weekend on our college campuses. Consider the number of students who are guilted out of reporting harassment or standing up to their abusers by those close to them through statements such as: “He was drunk, he really didn’t mean it.” Or, “He’s really a nice guy, don’t ruin his life because he made one mistake when he was drinking.” Like the cheerleading example, alcohol is nearly always the mediating factor while at the same time serving as an excuse for reprehensible behavior; an escape clause for breaking the law.

Earlier this month New York state and city legislators became the first governing bodies in the country to require most private employers to provide yearly sexual harassment training to their employees. As those behind the legislation work to identify additional recommendations for businesses to improve the work environment, they would do well to consider the NFL cheerleaders and the example it provides of how a business can fail to ensure a workplace environment free from harassment. They might also consider the growing body of research identifying the clear link between heavy drinking by males and harassment of their female coworkers. One study, “Harassing Under the Influence” draws a clear connection between heavy drinking among male employees, and the likelihood of increased prevalence of gender-based harassment. Findings like these have caused many organizations to rethink traditional office gatherings and celebrations that serve up liberal amounts of alcohol.

Driven to Drink,” a study published in the Academy of Management Journal provides additional insights which could easily be speaking to the college and university environment. Inc. magazine reported on the findings: “The more the workplace turns a blind eye to drinking, the more likely drinking is to occur. The implication is accentuated in the context of workplace parties, celebrations, and special occasions. It is likely that if the tonality expressed by organizational leaders and the organizational culture is lighthearted about drinking, then heavy drinking is likely to be more prevalent.” The similarities between these findings and research more familiar to campus administrators should serve as a wake up call that the impact of college environments may well extend beyond the campus borders. In that way, colleges and universities are reminded of their responsibility in creating a campus climate that protects women today in order to ensure their protection in the future.

Next Month: Risk With No Reward: Women, Gender Dynamics, and Alcohol

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