Social norms and alcohol
- You need to be 18 years or older to drink alcohol.
- We’ve evolved many complex social norms around alcohol.
- These norms cover all sorts of aspects of who can drink, when, where and why.
- Norms vary across countries, cultures and groups
- Some of these norms are harmful and we should challenge them.
- Harmful norms can and should be replaced with more helpful norms.
What are our social norms around alcohol?
Humans have been making alcohol for 10,000 years—and we’ve been drinking it, in the form of juice from rotting fruits and vegetables, for even longer. We get the ability to digest poisonous rotting fruit from our ape ancestors, going back millions of years.
Because of alcohol’s peculiar effects on us, over time we’ve developed lots of complex social norms around how we consume it.
These norms are different all over the world. In Australia, broadly speaking, we have norms like these:
Who can drink
- It’s okay for adults to drink.
- It’s not okay for children to drink.
Why to drink
- It’s okay to drink to celebrate, relax, enjoy the taste, feel drunk, fit into a group.
- It’s frowned upon to drink to avoid dealing with life problems or to feed an addiction.
When to drink
- We think it’s okay to drink at meals or social occasions.
- It’s seen as a bit weird to be drinking really early in the morning.
Where to drink
- You can drink in a pub, bar, restaurant, at home—or even at some workplaces under certain circumstances.
- Not so cool to drink in places such as a hospital, daycare centre, or on public transport.
How much to drink
- It’s normal to drink a similar amount to everyone else around you.
- It’s not normal to drink way more than everyone else, or way more than is safe.
What to do when drunk
- We aren’t surprised when people laugh, sing, dance, stumble around, tell everyone they love them, put things on their head.
- We don’t think it’s acceptable to do things like drive a car, perform surgery, fly a plane, or get into a drunken fist fight.
However, the specific norms vary across all sorts of groups within our society and depend on the specifics of the circumstances and the alcohol itself. Some of these norms can be quite harmful to some or all members of the group.
Harmful social norms
Some group norms around alcohol can cause real problems and are worth challenging. You can see how they run counter to the Field Model.
“You have to drink.”
Drinking is mostly social, and there can be a lot of pressure to drink within a group. This can come from simply wanting to fit in, and not wanting to stand out or be left alone, or it can come from explicit pressure to pass some kind of group test — “Prove you can handle being with us.”
Are there problems with this? It’s reasonable for any group to have norms that include standards of admission. But if you’re forcing someone to drink alcohol to participate, you’re basically poisoning them. And if a group of people insist on poisoning you, you might wonder if they really care about you and your inner world.
“We all do stupid things when we’re drunk.”
One of the main reasons why people like to drink in groups is to experience what’s called “disinhibition”—literally letting go of your inhibitions, and being a bit more relaxed, silly, loose, playful, wild, whatever.
So we have social norms that accept, sometimes even encourage, people doing unusual things when drunk. This can also lead to people using drunkenness to justify bad behaviour.
But there’s scientific debate about whether or not alcohol makes us less inhibited, or whether we just use it as an excuse.
The norm around doing stupid things when drunk can be a part of why people like to drink. But we need to make sure the norm doesn’t make people feel like it’s okay to do anything, especially when it hurts someone else.
“It’s not my fault if I did it when I was drunk.”
It’s harmful enough to have a norm around being stupid when drunk, it’s even worse to say drunkenness means you have no responsibility for your actions.
You are responsible for your actions, even if you’re drunk. That’s why drink driving is a crime.
“If someone’s drunk at a party it means they are interested in sex.”
For many people, finding out if someone is interested in you sexually or romantically is genuinely stressful. Nobody likes that kind of rejection, so one reason why people drink is to lower their own anxiety and make it easier to approach someone.
The problem comes if the norm is taken to mean “if they’re drunk then they’re up for it”.
People drink, party and socialise for all sorts of reasons, and just because someone is drinking doesn’t mean they want to have sex with anyone, including you.
“They’re drinking, they must want sex,” is a false assumption about another person’s inner world, and a clue that you should Stop Ask Listen.
“If you want to have sex with someone, you should get them drunk first.”
This is a dangerous belief. People who hold this belief will go to parties and other events and target a specific person with alcohol (or other drugs) specifically to make them vulnerable to sexual pressure or assault.
This is sometimes called weaponising alcohol, because alcohol is essentially used to attack someone.
Getting somebody drunk is a way of impairing their thoughts and judgment in order to deprive them of free choice—so it’s a violation of the Field Model and very likely a criminal act.
“Drunk people who are sexually assaulted deserve what they get.”
When a drunk person is sexually assaulted, people sometimes argue about whether or not they “deserved it”. You particularly see this in the media when a woman who was too drunk to defend herself is sexually assaulted.
This is a bad norm. Nobody deserves to be sexually assaulted, and this norm blames victim and absolves the perpetrator.
Yes, being drunk can reduce your physical and mental ability to protect yourself, and you should definitely take precautions for your own safety. But if someone breaks into your house, it’s irrelevant whether or not you locked the door, or had an alarm, or had a guard dog—we know the person who broke into your house broke the law.
It’s the same with sexual assault. The fact that you were drunk or otherwise vulnerable is no excuse for someone to commit opportunistic sexual assault.
Nobody deserves to be sexually assaulted, and norms that blame victims of assault for being drunk and vulnerable are harmful norms that need to be challenged.
Helpful social norms around alcohol
We should be promoting social norms around alcohol that respect individual rights and freedoms, and promote safety and care for people in our community.
“It’s okay not to drink.”
Alcohol is expensive, toxic, and arguably tastes pretty bad. Maybe we can just say it’s fine if people don’t want to drink.
“We can drink and still be self-aware.”
Even if we’re drunk, we should still be aware of what’s right and wrong, what’s helpful and harmful.
“If we’re drunk, we need to be safe.”
Sure, we sometimes get drunk so we can be more spontaneous and carefree, but knowing that we’re going to be partly impaired means we should at the same time be even more careful of serious risks, like fights and assaults, both from our own impulsive behaviour and from the people around us.
“Take extra care when mixing sex and alcohol.”
Yes, people often drink to reduce the anxiety of social interaction. But since alcohol can make it harder to understand what another person really wants, we need to take extra care about communication and consent if sex and alcohol are being mixed.
“We should help drunk people stay safe.”
If someone is wobbly, slurring or just generally out of it, we should help them to a seat, a cab or some other safe place. Put yourself in their shoes and don’t leave them in a position where somebody else can take advantage of them either.