Binge drinking and sex: a graph

Have a look the following 2010 graph produced by the University of Delaware on their college students:

The key aspects to realise from this graph are that the girls who don’t drink basically don’t have (unprotected) sex, and that, more surprisingly, the boys who don’t drink don’t have (unprotected) sex.

This graph concurs with a general thought on Anglo-Saxon culture, which is that the repressive attitudes towards sex within a culture of quite high female empowerment finds a ‘safety valve’ in binge drinking. Basically, young Anglo-Saxons need to get hammered in order to get laid. And, apparently, the need for an alcohol excuse is mutual. This might also explain why you see so much less of this binge drinking amongst men after the age of 30 or so: the alcohol then takes away the performance, so the real point of the drinking disappears.

This dynamic also has real and serious knock-on effects, if you will pardon the pun. It might go some way to explaining why teenage pregnancy rates are so unusually high in Anglo-Saxon countries compared to rich European or Asian countries: once sober, the shame kicks in again and prevents the girls from getting a morning-after pill.

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17 Responses to Binge drinking and sex: a graph

  1. Tel says:

    What about hardened, habitual drinkers? Do they get any teenage pregnancy? I already know the answer but I just had to ask.

    BTW… Can you explain why “high female empowerment” results in a “repressive attitudes towards sex” when we have had repressive attitudes for at least 100 years before anyone even started thinking about female empowerment? What’s your opinion on the roaring ’20s?

    Basically, young Anglo-Saxons need to get hammered in order to get laid.

    Sure, but Anglo-Saxons of any age need to get hammered in order to function full stop, so what it your point then?

  2. conrad says:

    “It might go some way to explaining why teenage pregnancy rates are so unusually high in Anglo-Saxon countries compared to rich European or Asian countries”

    Birth rates are higher all round in Anglo-Saxon countries than all rich Asian countries and most rich European ones (France being an exception), so I’d need convincing that the amount of explanatory power is large — Anglo-Saxons just seem to breed more in general.

    • Paul frijters says:

      The difference in teen pregnancy rates are huge tween the Anglos and the rest of the OECD. Places like France, Spain, and Sweden drink about as much but have teen rates about one-eight (or less) of those of the UK and the US.
      As to proving causality, forget it. Too hard. Plausibility is all you get on this kind of question. Just imagine the randomised control experiment you would want for causality….

      • conrad says:

        Paul, you might like to consider Figure 1 here: As can be seen, Denmark and Finland have worse teenage drinking problems than the UK (at least with males who are in the survey — female data might be nice too). Alternatively, they have far lower teenage birth rates.

        • Paul Frijters says:

          yep, as said in my comment above, the degree of binge drinking is actually not the highest in Anglo countries (though close to it). The article you refer to defines it as drinking more than 10 times, where you see the Scandinavian vying with the Anglo countries. If you define binge drinking as drinking 5 units at least then you find some of the Southern European countries also involved. Its the relation with sex and then pregnancy that seems particular to the Anglo-Saxon countries, though I have not found comparable graphs like the one above for other countries. It seems almost too extreme to hold anywhere else!

        • Paul Frijters says:

          refers to a Department of Health report saying that there are more young girls in the UK who binge drink than young girls in other countries, though English boys are not the biggest drinkers in Europe. All fits in.

      • Tim Macknay says:

        Paul, I don’t think the Anglo-Saxon generalisation holds water. On the information from the wiki article you’ve cited, there is a huge divergence in teenage pregnancy rates between Anglo countries, and they are not uniformly above the non-Anglo ones. The Australian rate, for example, is much closer to that of Spain than it is to the UK or US. The German rate is lower than any Anglo-Saxon country, but is closer to Australia’s rate than it is to Sweden. The Canadian rate is noticeably higher than the Australian one, but still lower than Portugal and nordic Iceland. The UK and New Zealand rates are significantly higher again, but still substantially lower than those of the US, which is out on its own with rates closer to those of sub-Saharan Africa than the other OECD states. The wiki article also notes that in the US, the rates for the African-American and Latino communities are significantly higher than the Anglo rate, which isn’t really consistent with your “Anglo-Saxon Culture” hypothesis either.
        You also seem to have tacitly assumed that binge drinking is an exclusively Anglo-Saxon cultural feature. However, it’s also a significant feature of Scandinavian drinking culture, but the Scandinavian countries (with the exception of Iceland) all have significantly lower teenage pregnancy rates than the Anglo-Saxon ones.

        • Tel says:

          Not to mention the Pict drinking culture (Irnbru for mornings, Buckfast after noon, frugal with the whisky), the cheerful Celtic drinking culture, the noble Norman drinking culture, the dour Slavic drinking culture and absolutely crazy Russian drinking culture.

          European culture… not difficult to swallow!

          Then there’s Asian drinking cultures, Japanese drinking games for example.

  3. Tim Macknay says:

    Sorry, I missed that last bit of discussion about Scandinavian binge drinking.

  4. conrad says:

    Out of interest, I went looking for interactions. There is lots of qualitative junk out there, but provides a summary of some of the issues.

    Looking through their points, their suggestions are (let’s hope this gets through the spammer — I have changed one word so it does..):
    1) people are having socks earlier
    2) peer pressure to have socks (presumably without contraception in some cases)
    3) Poor adolescent knowledge of contraception and use thereof
    4) Only sporadic use of contraceptives even when knowledgeable
    6) Substance abuse
    7) Personality characteristics
    8) poverty
    9) poor eduction
    10) Much older boyfriends.

    A quick flick through some articles shows that many claim these sorts of things, but none of them seems able to predict the cross-cultural data (which I agree is very curious), suggesting something important is missing. The only really obvious one here that might interact with booze is poverty levels. Perhaps having low levels of really serious poverty helps (this would account for the high booze non-Anglo countries).

    • Paul Frijters says:

      yes, I know those kinds of reports. You get similar ones for explaining obesity. I find them exasperating. The socks-education thing has been researched to bit in the literature and to my knowledge is completely unsupportive of the idea that education helps.
      4), 6), 7) are complete cop-outs because they beg the question where that comes from
      1) and 2), 8), 9) and 10) completely go against the historical and comparative trends: why this Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism? Poverty in Spain is much higher and average education in the UK and Australia is not all that bad in comparative terms (sure, not as good as one wants, but that is another matter).

      So I find such lists very politically correct and you can see why departments draw them up (their message that we need to improve education and reduce poverty is super-safe) but rather limited in insight. They safely stay out of all the more interesting yet invasive cultural questions.

  5. conrad says:

    I think a dire poverty explanation has some merit (cf. just poverty). If you look at Aus the highest rates are with Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders, followed by groups where early pregnancy is common but the immigrants haven’t become rich. That is actually noted in that report, even though presumably it’s not PC:

    “Cultural norms and expectations were identified by Siedlecky (1996) as playing a significant role amongst Lebanese-born women in Sydney where more than half the study participants were married before the age of 20, with many becoming mothers in their teens.”

    I’m willing to bet that this doesn’t happen to rich Lebanese-born women.

    If you look at the US, you find similar results with poor Afro-Americans.

    It would be nice to actually get nice quantitative data on this, to see to what extent these figures are inflated by these groups. It may well be that it isn’t Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism at all, but rather other people in Anglo-Saxon countries (in which case you can forget about binge drinking being a thrilling predictor). Even this wouldn’t be the whole story, however, because it clearly doesn’t work for all poor minority groups, and there are probably even some that are susceptible to this in some countries but not others (I’m thinking of minorities in places like Singapore who give up having children just like the locals).

    • Paul Frijters says:

      yes, the behaviour of minorities within countries is certainly interesting. Other countries have minorities too so unless you want to argue something specific about the minorities you have in Anglo countries (and there are simply not enough Aborigines in Australia to make much impact on the country averages) you are still left with the aggregate puzzle.

      However, before we dig up the teenage pregnancy rate of white middle-class girls (which I seem to recall is also several times that of comparable OECD countries), the question should be put in reverse, Conrad: what could possibly convince you that there is something to the ‘repressed attitudes to sex lead to higher binge drinking amongst young people as a means to drown out their inhibitions’ story? There are a million ‘what ifs and how abouts’ that one can pose of the data and the literature which no-one can possibly answer all, so the real question is what you would ex ante accept as plausible evidence for such a story? Which ‘what ifs’ would need to be knocked out for the cultural one to start to sound likely?

      Btw, I am not going to claim the thought above is novel. Psychologists have stumbled upon it many times.

  6. conrad says:

    “so unless you want to argue something specific about the minorities you have in Anglo countries”

    I think you do have to look at the nitty-gritties of each group and each culture. For example, as far as I’m aware, all indigenous cultures that are in endemic poverty have high teenage birth rates, so there is some generality there. That includes Greenland, Brazil, … Other groups that don’t have social stigma attached to it are also going to have kids earlier (as noted above). (incidentally — aboriginals are responsible for about 1/6 the of the teenage pregnancies, and small groups can make a big difference for low probability events. A good example of this in another domain is that Pakistanis in the UK have 25% of the obvious genetic disorders yet are only 2% of the population. So they may be important in some places for this question).

    “what could possibly convince you that there is something to the ‘repressed attitudes to sex lead to higher binge drinking amongst young people as a means to drown out their inhibitions’ story?”

    I’m not convinced of this at all. I don’t think people in the UK or Aus have especially different attitudes to sex than most European countries (I think this myth is perpetuated by English comedy, where we find some sorts of humour associated with it funny that other groups don’t). Alternatively, I am convinced that binge drinking that occurs for whatever reason does lower inhibitions (I doubt anyone disputes that). But we still don’t know to what extent drinking is leading to these births and to what extent it is simply correlated with other factors and so looks like it. It’s not surprising, for example, that people drink more when they realize they are going to have difficulties all their lives and never have a swish middle class job. It also wouldn’t be surprising to find out that if you’re resigned to this sort of life, having a kid as a teenager is not going to worry you in a way that it might worry you if you wanted climb the career ladder. Why do crappy jobs for a few years if you can just become a mother now, especially if all your equally as poor friends do (c.f., your white middle class associates)?

    If this is correct, then I have to predict high teenage pregnancies rate in the ATSI communities even if they arn’t drinking much. Perhaps that data actually exists now, so you could see the size of the effect with that group.

    Another example of correlated behavior would be the Anglo tradition to drink for courage. If you want to pick up, then you get drunk, but this is at least in part a social tradition and not entirely related to the effects of alcohol. So even in cases where people are getting pregnant due to drinking, it’s not really binge drinking per se, it’s a social tradition.

    “Which ‘what ifs’ would need to be knocked out for the cultural one to start to sound likely?”

    I think the main story is cultural, but there are interactions with other things. I don’t believe in all of these stories about repression leading to boozing etc. . I think the data is on my side here, because if we actually had a decent how-repressed-are-you measure I don’t think it would differ much across Europe and hence it wouldn’t predict anything.

  7. Jim Rose says:

    Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine argue that as the teens concerned were on a low economic trajectory in the first instance, teenage motherhood does little economic harm. These women who give birth in their teens do not have markedly different life outcomes than sisters who do not give birth in their teens.

    Indeed the book Promises I Keep showed that a pregnancy causes teens to stop drinking, partying, and smoking and to clean-up their act and gain a purpose and a sense of identity for the first time on their lives. As a mother, they can now command respect. a mother commands the respect of a mother, no matter what her age.

    Young women have babies simply because they want to have babies. Teens from poor families can look upon motherhood as the one aspiration they can achieve and do well at. They do not marry the fathers because they often are philandering losers. The unfaithfulness is a particular barrier.

    A mistake theory of teenage pregnancy and unprotected sex can explain anything, so it explains nothing because it forbids nothing.

    Policies that assume young women are making mistakes are groping in the wrong direction because it is assumed that better information will improve the quality of the previously mistaken decisions about costs and benefits.

  8. Avi Waksberg says:

    Interesting point Paul but much seems to rest on the assumption that if boys and girls (young men and women) aren’t having unprotected sex then they aren’t having sex. I don’t know how valid this assumption is.

    • yes, that is a fair question. For the basic mechanism to hold, it would indeed have to be the case that there is a fair proportion of youngsters out there for whom unprotected sex whilst heavily intoxicated is the main way it happens. As to percentages for which this would actually be true?

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