Psychology :: Are drunk girls more promiscuous? Perception is not always reality

Teens’ perceptions of adolescent girls’ flirtatiousness is based on what girls are drinking, as well as what their romantic male partners are drinking, according to a new University of Michigan study.

U-M researchers explore the commonly held myth that women who excessively drink alcohol are promiscuous, aggressive and unreliable. Previous research has documented that men and women commonly believe in this misconception, despite the findings indicating that women’s sexual interest is diminished by alcohol.

“We know that such myths contribute to the high rate of sexual assault among women because they lead to misperceptions about women’s true intentions,” said Amy Young, lead author and assistant research scientist at U-M’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG). “We thought it was important to determine whether adolescents hold these beliefs, too, given that adolescent girls have the highest rate of sexual assault.”

Young collaborated on the paper with Sean McCabe, a research associate professor at the U-M Substance Abuse Center, and IRWG Director Carol Boyd, a professor of nursing and women studies.

The study surveyed 1,463 students in grades 6-11 in an urban public school district. Students were presented with a vignette story, in which a male and a female character are socializing at a party. In some of the stories, the characters are drinking soda; in others, they are drinking beer and are intoxicated. Students were randomly selected to receive stories with soda- or beer-drinking characters. They were asked about their perceptions of the characters and the responses were compared based on soda- or beer-drinking stories.

Participants who read about the female character consuming alcohol perceived her as more sexual under certain conditions: when she was very drunk but her male friend was not drinking alcohol, and when she was somewhat drunk and the guy was very drunk. Thus, perceptions of the female character were based not only on what she was drinking, but what she was drinking in addition to what the male character was drinking.

Young said the female character’s drinking influenced how she was perceived regarding her sexuality, physical impairment, aggressiveness and social skills. While assumptions were made about the male character who drank, it was only in terms of his physical impairment and social skills, but not based on what the female character was drinking.

The U-M researchers suggest that sexual myths about women who drink stem from a longstanding notion that a woman’s responsibility is to uphold the morality of society and sacrifice her needs for her family?and alcohol consumption interferes with these responsibilities.

Young said notions about women who drink originated in the early 1900s, when “traditional” gender norms of femininity and masculinity became prominent in society.

The consumption of alcohol by women was perceived as their failure to uphold their obligations as a wife and mother, she said. While excessive drunkenness among men was not viewed positively, being able to drink alcohol without losing control was considered a positive masculine trait.

Prevention efforts should target youth, such as teaching them how to critically view media images, Young said. The media associates certain gender characteristics with alcohol consumption. Men are perceived as demonstrating control and masculinity, while women are considered promiscuous. Children see these images and develop beliefs about men and women who drink, well before they may start to drink alcohol.

“Prevention efforts that occur prior to adolescence can be particularly effective because children are more receptive to messages from adults than adolescents are,” Young said.

The researchers said one limitation in the study is that participants responded to hypothetical scenarios, which might not reflect their actual behavior.

The findings appear in the September issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly.

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