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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Unconventional Wisdom: Why America's High Drinking Age Gets College Girls Drunk and Raped

This is my first post in the Unconventional Wisdom series, in which I will explore ways in which ideas, when put in to practice, have had effects opposite the ones their creators intended. In doing so, I will demonstrate how frustratingly often the Law of Unintended Consequences rears its ugly head to disrupt our puny human plans. Hopefully, everyone who reads this series will begin to understand that the farthest-reaching consequences of our ideas are often the unforeseen ones, and that we must all do a better job of anticipating and counteracting the harmful side effects of even our best-intentioned schemes. In this spirit, I encourage anyone who reads any post on my blog to point out the possible unintended consequences (positive or negative) of measures I propose.

As the title of this post suggests, I am going to point out an unintended consequence of setting the U.S. legal drinking age at 21. Here's the deal: young people like to drink with their friends. They want to go out, get wasted, do crazy things, and try to hook up with members of the opposite sex. Those that are over 21 do most of this in bars. Why? Simple-at a bar, someone else mixes and serves your drinks, plays the music, cleans up the piss and vomit, throws out the belligerent folks causing trouble, and handles all of the other hard work involved with managing and supporting drunken revelry. Bars are specially designed drinking establishments, so it only makes sense that they are better places to go out drinking than someone's house or apartment. Legal drinkers often "pregame" the bars by drinking beforehand to avoid paying as much for alcohol served at the bar, but they still end up at the bars later for the social scene.

Underage drinkers, however, drink mostly in private residences. The reason for this is also simple: it is easier for the police to enforce drinking laws at a relatively small number of bars and clubs than it is for them to keep tabs on the huge number of residences where people may be drinking. Therefore, bars that let in underage customers are more likely to get caught and slapped with huge fines than private party hosts, so most bars take fairly strong measures to keep out those who are under 21. (Cops know where the college frat houses that host parties are, too, but colleges usually only allow their own police forces, which are notoriously lax on alcohol enforcement, to patrol their campuses.)

Most private parties are held at men's residences, namely apartments, houses, and the aforementioned college fraternities. Girls like to party, too, but since one of the main goals of partying is meeting new people to "date" (read: screw), women who host parties would be letting a whole lot of strange dudes who probably want to have sex with them come drink at their houses, which introduces a rather high risk of rape. Therefore, a lot of girls in late high school and early college either don't go to many parties or party where the boys live. You see, dudes love having parties because it means inviting a whole lot of strange women that might want to have sex with them over for drinks. Biological realities mean that the men's risk of being raped by their guests is next to nothing. The underage girls, though, are now getting hammered at the house/apartment/frat of some guys that they may or may not know and who are also drunk, probably older than them because one has to be 21 to buy the alcohol for a party, and definitely hoping to get laid. This puts these girls at EXTREME risk for rape. Sure, they usually arrive in packs, but as the night goes on, they pair off with men and disperse throughout the party. A drunk and horny guy just has to maneuver his girl into a nearby room and lock the door to be able to do whatever he wants. Often, girls who are raped at or around parties report not being able to resist, say no, or make a scene because they were too drunk.

Contrast this with a bar. Bartenders are not trying to hook up with their customers at the bar because they are being paid to do a job for a set amount of time. They can't just clock out early to go take some chick into a back room and bang her. Also, their managers instruct them to monitor patrons' levels of intoxication because people puking on the bar, pissing on the bathroom floor, and starting fights with other patrons is bad for business. Groups of men at bars are more fragmented and off-balance than they are at a house party, where there is usually a large contingent of roommates or frat bros looking to score easily on their home turf. Finally, bars have security on hand keeping an eye on things in case some guy gets a little too friendly on the dance floor or tries to follow a girl into the bathroom.

The bottom line? Bars are safer places for girls to drink than frats, but keeping the drinking age high drives younger, less party-savvy college freshmen and sophomores out of the bars and into the arms of guys who want to get some. To make things worse for all concerned, some girls end up getting so drunk in these unmonitored situations that men who do not intend to rape anyone mistake their lack of response for consent and have what they think is consensual sex only to be arrested for sexual assault a few days later. When girls get hammered in strange places, EVERYONE gets screwed.

How do we fix this? Try lowering the drinking age to 18. That may have unintended consequences of its own, though. Comment on this with anything that you come up with.


  1. Here's the Deal: When I started reading this I instantly thought of Steven Levitt (pointing out unusual facts and things to contemplate). You went in a different direction than I thought you would, but I think it was to keep the blog open-ended. Blend in statistics with your statements and you will be golden. I enjoyed reading your blog.
    P.S. What do you think about Levitt, since you are an economics major?

  2. Levitt is a very smart guy. He did a lot of excellent work on criminal behavior and deterrence of crime in addition to the provocative abortion bit that ended up in Freakonomics. He's also done some VERY interesting research just recently on the gap in standardized mathematics test scores between men and women. He was the first person I am aware of to use international testing data from all the OECD countries to point out that women do better compared to men in nations with predominantly single-sex education systems, something I may post about later.

    Perhaps his most eye-opening work, from my perspective, is the writing he and Stephen Dubner did in Super Freakonomics about the causes of and solutions to global warming. He basically said that a bunch of scientists assembled by Bill Gates figured out how to fix global warming, if it really is a serious problem and human-caused, for a paltry $100 million a year.