The Quest to Find the Iron Stomach: How Students Define Binge Drinking at Denison

[Image credit: CNN, 2011]

By Jeffrey Alder

Stroll across Denison University’s campus, and you might guess that the most contentious Greeks at this fair college on the hill are Socrates and Plato — guess again. Universities around the country are facing an epidemic: national Panhellenic organizations, known as Greek life, have a large drinking problem, and students are dying. In 2017 alone, Time magazine reported 4 student deaths, the culprit of each one involving Greek life and binge drinking. This is not to belittle Greek life as an organizational form, but you cannot ignore the negative effects of alcohol’s inclusion in hazing or even in the average Wednesday party in the Sunnies.

As the stereotype goes, members of Greek life drink the most and have a higher definition of the number of drinks consumed to be considered binge drinking. Just how many drinks does it take to constitute binge drinking for Greeks? And how much do athletics and academic decisions influence alcohol tolerance?

To answer this question, I draw on data from a survey conducted at the beginning of the 2018 Spring semester. Among the questions were a series of binge drinking inquiries. The focal point of this piece is: “How many drinks in a session constitutes “binge drinking” to you?”[1] This question was asked to give us insight on students’ tolerance: to help us find which students truly wield the iron stomach. Spoiler alert: they are definitely affiliated with Greek life.

A Lot of Greeks Drink

The average Greek at Denison drinks 2.3 days a week (October 2017 data) — for men it’s 2.6 and for women it’s 2. For non-Greeks it’s 1.3 days a week. And they dominate perceptions about drinking too — the campus thinks that the average student drinks a bit above Greek levels (2.8 days a week). Actually male Greeks are closer to right in their perception — they say 2.5 days — which is less than everyone else on campus guesses (on average). In our data, 51 percent of Greeks claim to have binged in the past week (66% of men and 45% of women) compared to 19 percent of GDIs (24% of men, 16% of women).

Greeks Drink A Lot

The figure below allows us to see all the binge-drinking definition responses, and the extremes are evident among Greek-affiliated students. A lot more Greeks define binge drinking in the 12-15 range than unaffiliated students. But the average binge-drinking definition for Greeks is 6.5 (7.4 for men, 6.1 for women) compared to 5.7 for the unaffiliated (6.1 for men, 5.4 for women). It seems pretty clear that Greek culture encourages binge drinking, which would influence a student to claim a higher tolerance.

Figure 1 – Greek-Affiliated Students Have a Higher Tolerance than the Unaffiliated

Greeks and Social Science Majors

Choices about Greek life are not made in a vacuum but are overlapping with social class, race, and perhaps with academic major. One stereotype is that Greeks are social science majors. Of the 186 Greek-Affiliated students in the sample, 45% are social science majors — meaning the remaining 55% are split between 5 different divisional majors (undecided included).

Perhaps as result of the link with Greek life, majors in the social sciences have a higher tolerance than those with other majors. Interesting enough, unaffiliated males who are social science majors define binge drinking significantly more than those who are non-social science majors. This difference is not seen among affiliated males — and being both affiliated and a social science major makes little to no difference to binge drinking definitions. This proposes a new question: why do male, social science majors define binge drinking at a higher rate? The difference is greater than affiliation with Greek life.

As for women, it’s clear that major does not really change how they define binge drinking; Greek affiliation does though.

Figure 2 – Social Science Boys Can Out-Drink All Other Majors

Greeks and Varsity Athletes

Now for the big ones — varsity athletics and Greek affiliation. First off, unaffiliated males who play varsity sports define binge drinking less than social science majors, further intriguing me. For members of a fraternity however, involvement in a varsity sport has a large influence on their alcohol tolerance; much more so than among members of a sorority. Being in a varsity sport has little to no effect on how sorority girls define binge drinking, the difference is actually much larger among unaffiliated Sorority girls.

I guess playing a varsity sport and being in a fraternity really enhances one’s drinking ability. To the point of iron stomach capabilities. They define binge drinking at around 8.2 drinks, which is much higher than social science fraternity members, who average 7.4. With that, non-varsity sport, fraternity members define binge drinking more than one drink less than their varsity counterparts. That’s a lot of alcohol, folks. Surely more than I can handle.

Figure 3 – Frat Varsity Athletes, Iron Stomach Winners?

Conclusion

Greek-affiliated men who are also varsity athletes are the true wielders of the iron stomach, a talent many do not have. It seems the only way to get ahold of this talent is to party and play sports — activities I’m really bad at.

This is a problem. While college is an environment where students can explore more of themselves, doing it like this where your life is put at risk can be harmful, even deadly. There are norms around being affiliated in Greek life that call for dangerous behaviors such as binge drinking, and universities around the country are cracking down on these groups.

On the other hand, you’re in college and these are supposed to be the best 4 years of your life — at least that’s what we are told. So go crazy. Reenact Animal House if you want. Just be mindful of the impact these decisions can have on your life.

Jeff Alder spends most of his free time postponing his studies and giving campus tours or playing video games instead. His current favorite game is Fortnite. He also studies Political Science and German on the side.


Notes

1. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above. This typically happens when men consume 5 or more drinks or women consume 4 or more drinks in about 2 hours (CDC Mar. 27, 2018). For more, see here.

2. The deaths of at least four fraternity pledges this year have helped fuel a re-examination of Greek life at US colleges, which have long struggled with how to crack down on hazing and alcohol abuse without disbanding the organizations (AP Nov. 22, 2017).

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