A few years after my first beer, I blacked out for the first time and woke up with a massive, bloody gash on my shoulder — cause unknown. Apparently, my friend had carried me home after I flipped over a guardrail I had been using as support. We laughed about it.
Drinking isn't manly, but we sure think it is. Millennial men are more likely to suffer alcohol-related health issues and to associate alcohol with masculinity (interestingly, women are fighting the opposite issue: they keep being told not to drink — so as to protect themselves from drunk men).
This problematic double-standard is reinforced by a culture where heavy drinking in our teens and early-20s is not only acceptable, but expected. This link limits and distorts our definition of masculinity.
We need to rethink it.
I remember my first drink. I was 14, hanging out with a group of older guys that had long hair and rode skateboards and swore a lot. I couldn’t stand the bitter taste so, as we romped around in minor rebellion, I poured most of it out into the bushes, making a point to finish the last of it off in full view of the guys and upending the can to show there was nothing left.
Multiple studies have found that drinking socially is a mechanism for men to affirm their masculinity. Men associate beer drinking in particular as masculine and being able to drink lots of beer as more masculine. (It’s unclear why beer is supposedly more masculine — perhaps it’s because men are more likely than women to drink it and most young people begin with sweeter drinks, like alcopops).
Mad Men's Don Draper, the Dos Equis' most interesting man in the world, Old Spice's guy with wolves on his shoulders — alcohol on TV is typically depicted as increasing our chances of getting hot ladies, excel in social situations, and to have fun.
Now, let’s be fair — there is no conclusive evidence that alcohol advertising leads to increased drinking habits, so hold off on the angry letters to Heineken. There is evidence, however, that alcohol’s generally neutral or positive (almost never negative) depiction on television makes young people more comfortable with drinking, thus influencing our opinions of drinking as a concept. And young men are particularly susceptible to this message, which is why we are targeted by most alcohol ads.
Young men are the most likely of any group to binge drink and more likely to commit sexual assault once alcohol is introduced into a social situation. Men in general are twice as likely as women to die from, and less likely to request treatment for, alcohol-related issues.
This isn’t to say that as soon as a guy has a beer, he transforms into a stubborn, heart-attack-prone rapist, but alcohol undeniably increases risks to his health, safety, and the safety of others. Like all risks, engaging within reason can lead to many positive things (fun, relaxation) — but drinking shouldn’t necessarily be considered "manly."
Don Draper is highly successful in business and does well with women, but not because he drinks scotch. The masculinity he exemplifies — courage, determination, self-confidence — are not related to drinking, and certainly not binge-drinking.
Drinking isn’t necessarily evil, but it isn’t masculine either. It’s time we disassociated the two.