John Clapp, director of the Center for Alcohol and Drug Studies at San Diego State University, recalls a moment two years ago that put the importance of his work in real-world perspective.
Driving through the College Area one weekend, he spotted a young woman stumbling alone down a dimly lit, otherwise deserted street. The woman—young enough to be the 43-year-old academician's daughter—was scantily dressed, bruised and bleeding at the knees, and so visibly intoxicated that she seemed oblivious to her predicament.
Clapp watched her shuffle past a darkened alley. He wondered: Was she a student? Had her friends abandoned her at a party? Did she wander off alone? Did she frequently find herself in this type of situation? And the scariest and most relevant question of all: Would she make it home safely?
The fact that Clapp—an expert on alcohol and drug addiction and a graduate of Ohio State with a doctorate in social work—could only guess at the answers to these questions is a big part of what drives his research.
“The college drinking problem is real, and it's been in the research arena for some time,” he says. “Sill, a lot of work needs to be done to find solutions to some of these problems.”
It was in the spirit of this belief—that more needed to be known about problem-drinking among college students before the problem could be adequately addressed—that Clapp and his crew of young researchers recently released the first fruits of a groundbreaking study of college parties. During a two-year period, teams of researchers—all in their 20s, with most between 22 and 26—fanned out into the neighborhoods around the San Diego State campus and scrupulously studied the behavior of revelers at more than 200 private parties. Party-goers—more often than not students loaded to the gills and just as often dressed in what their observers described as “basically nothing”—were asked to take time out from their fun to fill out surveys and blow into breathalyzers.
The result: a landmark paper titled “Person and Environment Predictors of Blood Alcohol Concentrations: A Multi-level Study of College Parties.” The paper found that attendees of college parties that included drinking games tended to consume more alcohol than at parties that did not—a finding to which at least one blogger (at the University of Pennsylvania's student newspaper) aptly responded with “Duh.”
More significantly, the study showed that female guests of college parties with sexual themes—examples included “Anything but clothes” and “Roman senators and slaves”—tended to show higher blood-alcohol levels when tested than male guests. That surprised everyone. Previous studies had concluded that women, on average, almost never drink more than men in a given setting.
The findings made national headlines and were published in the January issue of the academic journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
“The significant themed party by gender interaction in our study showed that women had higher BrACs (breath-tested blood-alcohol concentrations) than men at themed parties and no difference in level of intoxication between men and women at non-themed parties,” the paper said. “This finding is very surprising considering the large number of studies demonstrating greater alcohol consumption among men compared to women.”
The paper caught the attention of Clapp's colleagues in the field of alcohol studies, and not just because of its startling conclusions. The very method by which the San Diego State researchers went about gathering information was itself a groundbreaking effort. Most previous studies on college drinking were based almost entirely on information obtained after the fact—through interviews and questionnaires given to subjects days, sometimes even weeks, after the drinking had occurred.
Clapp had a problem with the notion of drawing conclusions from the memories of people who in all likelihood were intoxicated when the memories were made. Even an earlier study in which researchers from Virginia Tech actually attended college parties was, in Clapp's view, potentially problematic.
“Their entrances into the parties were arranged through the fraternities,” he says. “I thought it was really cool they were getting in, but I also thought that, by getting in that way, they might have been changing the behavior of the party-goers.”
For Clapp, obtaining real-time, unadulterated data is critical—indeed, he views his work as literally a matter of life and death. When interviewed, he peppers his conversation with statistics that bear out that belief. Every year, he says, more than 1,700 U.S. college students die as a result of drinking. Every year, 12 percent of people leaving college parties get in their cars and drive drunk. His research has found that many college students are heavy “episodic drinkers”—binging on weekends, going back to classes on Monday, and then binging again when Friday comes. “A lot of them develop into alcoholics,” he says.
Women, he notes, are particularly susceptible to the damages of alcohol, both in how their bodies process the drug and what Clapp calls “the unintended consequences.”
“Women metabolize alcohol slower than men; whether they develop a dependency earlier is not clear,” he says. “One of the big risks for women in being drunk is sexual assault. We're trying to get another study going to look into that.”According to a report published five years ago by the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 70,000 U.S. students between 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault every year. The San Diego State University Police Department reported 45 “forcible sex offenses” in and around campus between 2004 and 2006. How much a role alcohol played in those offenses wasn't disclosed. University police made 656 arrests for liquor-law violations during that same time period.
SDSU has long had a reputation as an epicenter of bacchanalian revelry: Playboy included it in its list of top 10 “party schools” in 1987, 2002 and 2006. The perception galls faculty members and administrators, who say the school has worked hard to fight its Animal House image, and that the image was never really deserved in the first place.
“There's reputations, and then there's realities,” says James Lange, coordinator of alcohol and other drug initiatives for the school's Health Promotions Department. Lange works with different university departments to develop and implement alcohol and drug prevention programs. “Do we have a reputation? I believe we do, for being a party school. But when we look at actual data of student drinking, we actually see that we're way below the national norm. That said, there's definitely a subset of our student population for whom excessive drinking is occurring and causing problems, and we're working every day to come up with creative solutions.”
One of those creative solutions was the Center for Alcohol and Drug Studies, which opened in 1985 and narrowed its focus to research and evaluation in 2003. Located on the second floor of an office building just off campus, the venue resembles more a bare-bones insurance office than a research facility. But since its inception, the center, on Sky Park Court, has produced numerous important studies—one provided statistical evidence of the previously anecdotal link between drinking and smoking—and developed a national standing as an innovator in its field. Its reputation is so solid that the state contracts it to operate the Central District Driving Under the Influence Program (otherwise known as drunk-driving school for court-referred offenders) and to evaluate state drug and alcohol prevention grants.
The center also developed and operates a program in which employees rush to emergency rooms and trauma centers to evaluate patients being treated for injuries in which drugs or alcohol may have been involved. If the patient is found to be a heavy substance abuser, he or she is referred by the center for treatment, and the information is placed in the patient's file. The program, amounting to professional intervention at a time when the intervened are most susceptible to reason, highlights a key mission of Clapp's center: innovative applications of lessons gleaned through painstaking academic research.
The center has 60 employees at its main office and 40 running the Driving Under the Influence program.
Clapp launched the “College Bar and Party Project” in the spring of 2005, with funding from a National Institute for Alcoholism and Alcohol Studies grant. The study was billed as a three-semester effort to study the relationship between blood-alcohol levels and “environmental and individual factors.” The bar portion of the project, in which researchers entered “college-oriented” local watering holes to study drinkers' habits and surroundings, is still ongoing.
For the party portion of the study, Clapp and his team spent the first six months just determining how to best go about their mission.
“I spent a lot of time at night driving around and just looking for parties,” he says. “I'd leave the office at 9 p.m. on a Friday and Saturday night and just drive through the neighborhoods, counting the number of parties and writing them down.”
Ground rules were established. Parties were defined as “five or more students gathered together where alcohol consumption was present.” Everyone contacted for the study—the party host, guests, bouncers, everyone—had to be informed they were being observed. The researchers also had to try as much as possible not to interfere with the natural behavior of the partiers: no stepping in should a fight break out, no calling the cops should illegal drug use be observed.
Clapp and a team of 30 young researchers—undergrads, grad students and interns—mapped out a 6.2-mile driving route running through the residential areas around the SDSU campus. Then, the real work began. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night beginning in January 2006, “spotters” would start the show by cruising the target route, counting the parties they saw and writing down their locations. The number averaged seven to eight a night, though on particularly wild evenings as many as 22 were found raging at once.
The team randomly selected about four parties an evening, and crews of seven researchers—including a “security” person, typically the biggest member of the team—tried to enter them. They contacted the hosts and, after explaining the nature of the study, offered each an incentive of a $20 gift certificate if they would let the crew observe the evening's festivities. Fewer than 8 percent refused entry—a remarkable participation rate for any scientific survey.
Once in, the crews immediately began documenting everything they observed, to the point of even sketching maps of the layout of the party. Were beer kegs present? Were drinking games played? Were the partiers dancing? Was any drug paraphernalia out in the open? Every aspect of the event was meticulously noted and filed away.
To distinguish themselves from the guests, crewmembers each wore red or black jackets and sweatshirts with the words “College Drinking Survey” emblazoned on the backs. More than the presence of all those notebooks and sketchpads, it was the jackets that seemed to captivate the revelers' attention.
“People were always asking if they could buy one,” Clapp says.
Party guests were asked to fill out surveys and take breathalyzer tests both as they entered the party and as they left. They were each given $5 gift certificates to Rubio's for participating (“Our study,” Clapp says, “paid for a lot of fish tacos”).
The wildest parties were almost always the ones with themes—“White Trash” parties, “Ugly Christmas Sweater” parties, “Pirate” parties.
“It was always obvious when a theme party was going on,” says Julie Ketchie Croff, a 27-year-old project manager for the study and a co-author of the ensuing paper, “because they were the parties where you'd see large crowds of people.”
Perhaps driving the popularity of the theme parties was the presence of so much bare skin. The researchers immediately noticed a strong sexual component to many of the theme parties: They appeared aimed at separating the guests from as much of their clothing as possible.
“We saw one party themed ‘Anything But Clothing' where the guests showed up wearing pillow cases, car mats, crime tape,” Ketchie Croff says. “People were basically nude, except they'd be wrapped in this crime tape. We also saw that ‘Ho' was a common theme—‘Golf Ho,' ‘CEO and Secretary Ho,' ‘G.I. Ho.'”
The researchers also couldn't help but notice an apparent gender-based disparity in costumes—the themes tended to allow male guests to wear more clothing than the female guests. At the “Pirate Party,” for example, a male student could show up wearing an eye patch and be considered appropriately costumed. More—or, more accurately, less—was expected of the women.
“The sexual component all seemed to be for the female,” says Audrey Shillington, associate director of the center.
That component shocked some researchers more than others. Megan Holmes, who coordinated the field portion of the study, says she was aware of the nature of the theme parties going in—as an undergrad at SDSU at the time, she'd been to a few. Still, she said she couldn't help but be disturbed by what she saw.
“To a certain point, I found it offensive,” says Holmes, 26, who today is a social-welfare doctoral student at UCLA. “I think going to a themed party, in general, is something fun to do. When you get to the point where the theme is for women not to wear anything, that is offensive. I don't really see the logic for women to do that, except maybe to get attention.”
Marian Novak, who works primarily on the bar portion of the project but who observed several of the theme parties, sees the increasing popularity of such gatherings as a sign of societal mores trending downward.
“When I saw these girls standing in the road, with their boobs hanging out and everything showing—can't you get arrested for that?” says Novak, 53. “Being sexually promiscuous, getting drunk and puking all over—that was not considered socially acceptable behavior before.”
But Ketchie Croff isn't so sure today's party scene is any worse than what previous generations experienced.
“I don't know if we can say that there is more drinking or sexual promiscuity going on today than previously,” she says. “The pendulum swings. Didn't people in the '70s drink a lot? Wasn't that what Animal House was all about?”There is also some disagreement among the researchers interviewed about the forces behind the party study's most significant finding—that women tended to show higher blood-alcohol levels at theme parties than their male counterparts. Holmes believes this may be the result of women drinking before the party in order to “get the courage to go out wearing almost nothing.”
“For a female to go out in the outfits that they're going out in, they'd have to drink quite a bit more to do that,” she says.
Shillington, 53, agrees with Holmes that the female partygoers tend to drink prior to attending theme parties. But, she says, that may have nothing to do with them trying to steel their nerves.
“When you talk to the women, they don't say they drink to get their nerves up,” she says. “It's part of the pre-party ritual. For the women, it's an event—they're so invested in it time-wise. They want to go out and have a good time, and the pre-party drinking is part of that.”
According to the president of one SDSU fraternity, the seven to eight theme parties his house throws every year are definitely male-oriented.
“But that's not just our choice,” says the student, who asked that his name and that of the fraternity not be identified. “Girls won't come to the parties unless they have the opportunity to dress provocatively. That's just how the scene is here—girls love it, and so do the guys.”
The volatile combination of drinking and overcharged hormones at times led to some scary moments for the researchers. Fights erupted, and on a few occasions, guests sexually harassed female team members. Clapp and the crew he was with were egged one evening. On another evening, one partygoer vomited all over a male researcher's shoes.
“We would place ourselves in the parties so that, if we needed to put ourselves out of the way of a ruckus, we could,” says Ketchie Coff.
But for the most part, Clapp says, the researchers were well received at the parties. Guests were generally friendly toward their observers and, at times, even folded their presence into the evening's festivities.
“We attended one party around Halloween where guests showed up dressed like us,” he says.
The field portion of the party study wrapped up in spring 2006. Clapp and his team then began the months-long task of analyzing the data gleaned from 224 separate college parties and 1,304 separate interviews. The resultant paper has since been cited in dozens of media outlets and medical magazines across the country, including the ABC and Fox news networks, the Washington Post and HealthDay magazine. Unfortunately, Clapp says, two particular elements of his findings—college women and sex—frequently led to some less-than-delicate inquiries from the press.
“I had someone from one of the national outlets—I won't identify which, but it was a big one—actually ask if we had pictures in the lab of college girls in their underwear,” he says. “One of the things that gets lost in that is how many students die every year from drinking.”
The paper received a more on-point response from the world of academia.
“It's helped a lot of the students who conducted it get into grad school,” Clapp says.
Much more importantly, Clapp says, the findings will aid both his center and researchers elsewhere in their efforts to realistically address the problem of student drinking. “From this,” he says, “we can design effective programs to help with intervention.”
Such is the hope of Megan Holmes. Any endeavor, she says, that took two years out of her life and permanently changed her perspective on drinking had better come to something.
“Any time I'm in a social situation now where people are drinking, I'm definitely more aware of my surroundings, what people are drinking and how much,” she says. “The experience has definitely given me a lot of information to work with. If I'm at a party with friends and they're trying to decide whether or not to drive after drinking, I've learned and seen enough to be able to convince them not to drive.”
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