Friday, January 1, 2010

Women, Alcohol, and Sex

Last week, the blogosphere was abuzz about titillating new findings on women, drinking, and sex. The results of a new survey, released by a British feminine-hygiene company, were juicy: British women have, on average, eight sexual partners. With five of them, they were drunk when they did the deed. They couldn’t even remember the names of two of the guys the next morning. Five out of 10 preferred drunken sex to sober sex.

Interesting findings indeed, even though some fall clearly in “tell me something I don’t know” territory. First, eight isn’t a shocking number. (For the record, nine is the average number of sexual partners for an American woman today. If it’s news you want, look to New Zealand, where it’s 20.) I venture to guess that there are a couple of guys each of us might like to erase from memory. And does it really come as a big surprise that we’re more likely to let our hair down and go wild after a few drinks?

But before you could say “last call,” the findings had been reported far and wide. Many news organizations cited the survey as an academic study, though there was no academic expert involved, and ran screaming headlines based on the following statement, made by a FemFresh brand manager:

“These results are a clear indication that British women today are severely lacking in confidence. The fact that alcohol plays an integral role in their love lives shows that women are looking for a boost in self-esteem when it comes to their bedroom antics.”

While the company calls the “survey” shocking, it’s this leap that floored us. Exactly how do you get from questions like “When sleeping with someone for the first time, would it be safe to say you always have a drink or two inside you?” to the fact that women have no sense of self-worth? That’s when ELLE decided to peer a bit deeper into truths and trends about women, booze, and our behavior in the bedroom.

First, in America as in Britain, it does seem that we’re drinking like fish. “We started from an assumption that, you know, women are binge drinkers,” said a spokesperson for FemFresh. In that assumption, they may be right on target. Sharon Wilsnack, PhD, a professor in the department of clinical neuroscience at the University of North Dakota, spent 20 years tracking the drinking habits of U.S. women. Sex and the City plotlines to the contrary, “when we looked, we didn’t find huge differences [in how much women were drinking],” she says, “but what we did find were huge increases in intoxication. I think it’s possible that young women particularly are drinking more intentionally—you know, to get drunk.”

It’s certainly happening with the college set: There, what Wilsnack would call binge drinking—i.e., the consumption of four or more drinks in a row by women, or five by men—now has cute monikers like “pregaming” or “frontloading.” Some bright, young co-eds have even found a new way to recycle their Poland Spring water bottles.

“My friends will fill up a water bottle with vodka—one bottle is a little less than half a fifth—and take it with them when they go out. It’ll be gone by the end of the night,” says Julie Saunders, 21, a senior at Central Michigan University.

At Columbia College in Chicago, hot chocolate or coffee with Bailey’s Irish Cream liqueur is the carry-along cocktail of choice during long, cold winters. But usually, says Emily Cotty, 21, “we pregame at home, then drink at the bar.”

For twenty- and thirtysomethings, happy hour is “practically Pavlovian,” says Tia Patel, 35, a marketing manager in New York. “Alcohol is a social elixir, yes, and increasingly part of the social construct—it’s like signaling your brain that when you have a fruity cocktail in hand, it’s time to have some fun.”

“Binge drinking is so common that it’s almost like there’s nothing wrong with it. They don’t realize that that’s not life,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD and author of Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness.

With our workaday lives awash in alcohol, it only follows that it’s practically baked into dating: In the FemFresh survey, 45 percent of respondents claim that alcohol allows them to relax, unwind, and lose all inhibitions with a new date.

“I always drink on dates,” says Patel. “In fact, I dated a guy I had been set up with who didn’t drink, and it was impossible for us to break through those initial first-date jitters. We didn’t last past date five.”

Of course, it depends on the type of get-together: “I always have a drink if the date’s at night,” says Diane Edwards, 31, an advertising account executive in Manhattan. “Just not necessarily at brunch or picnics.”

And there’s good reason that as far back as the advent of absinthe, alcohol has been a go-to social lubricant.

“Alcohol inhibits our GABA–a neurotransmitter in the brain which is like a damper,” says Lombardo. “It lifts off that heavy blanket, and it tends to affect the frontal part of our brain, concerned with reason and rational judgments.”

Once you remove the heavy blanket, it’s certainly easier to jump between the sheets.

The interesting thing is that while a buzz may make hooking up easier, college-age women we spoke to seem to behave more conservatively on bona fide dates. This flies in the face of FemFresh’s findings: Instead of drinking liquid courage because she’s worried about what a guy will think of her once they’re in the sack, she won’t drink at dinner for fear he might not deem her worthy of date two.

“It’s kind of a turn-off to drink too much on a first date. You want to make a good first impression,” says Saunders. Cotty agrees: “I drink with my girlfriends but not always on a date. Ordering the drink affects his perception of you.”

What this could point to, whether the clothes are off or on, is what Lombardo refers to as “disordered thinking”—or a constant vigilance about how someone perceives you.

“It might be: He thinks I’m fat. How do I look? How do I sound? Every detail and being in tune with that,” she says.

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