​College 101: Bro Culture

I'm willing to bet that one of the strongest associations Americans have with the collegiate experience is with alcohol.

Whenever a college-centric movie comes out, it's inevitably focused on frat drinking culture (see Animal House, National Lampoon, Old School and the upcoming Neighbors), homoerotic bro-bonding and all. But what gets lost in these narratives (beyond the dignity of everybody involved, of course) is the impact of this "bro culture" on women – specifically, the way in which it encourages young women to be "one of the guys" in a distinctly sexist way. It's actually this experience that often makes collegiate women aware of the very real, yet often explicitly unrecognized, sexist double standards that surround them on all levels.

"Bro culture" (also known as "frat culture") is basically defined by excessive drinking and its effect on campus culture is pervasive. Currently, about four out of five college students consume alcohol and half of all college students engage in binge drinking. An insane one out of every three college students meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder and hospitalizations for alcohol overdoses increased 25% for those aged 18–24 between 1999 and 2008 (Dowsett Johnston, 2013).

Although excessive drinking has always been a stereotypical cornerstone of the college experience, it was previously never expected of and even looked down upon for women, but times have changed: today, female college students now actually outpace men in binge drinking on college campuses. A 2009 study found that female college students now drink 40% more often than they did in 1979, while the numbers for men didn't change. One in eight women now report binge drinking (drinking four or more drinks at a time).

This is our version of equality: Collegiate women are now expected to be both feminine and sexually attractive, as well as "one of the guys" who can drink and party as much as their male friends can. As U.S. News and World Report noted, binge drinking may have increased among women not because they have a gender-based alcohol problem, but because they are likely consuming drinks one for one with their male friends. But in doing so, because female hormonal and metabolic differences decrease our tolerance for alcohol compared to men, women meet the standard of binge drinking far before their male counterparts.

An August 2013 feature by Caroline Kitchener about Princeton's Tiger Inn Club in The Atlantichighlighted this phenomenon. The club, which Kitchener refers to as "the frattiest and hardest- drinking" of Princeton's eating clubs (or coed fraternities), increasingly attracts women—in fact, in 2012, more women applied to the club than men. Girls endure things like swallowing live goldfish and being force-fed dog food while doing push-ups to secure a spot in the hardest partying club. Why? "They felt like gender roles were less rigid [there]," Kitchener reported. "It wasn't necessary for women to act 'all put-together.'" One rising senior in the club told Kitchener, "'The guys always want us girls to chug a beer or take a shot, or be a man. There is no pressure for a girl to be a girl.'"

This ethos, which is a growing norm on many college campuses, proves that not only are women not yet equal based on the discrimination and sexism we still experience in our daily lives, but because even when we do consider ourselves equal, it's an "equality" still dictated and determined by men's standards. To the women trying to make it into the Tiger Inn Club—and the countless women who sit in college bars across the country trying to fit in with guys by matching them drink for drink at their own peril due to an obvious biological disadvantage—conforming to the male social standard beats submitting to admittedly rigid female gender roles. Meeting in the middle—where women aren't scrutinized based on their ability to live up to ridiculous, virginal, puritanical "ladylike" standards, but aren't held to dangerous and stupid macho standards, either—is apparently not an option.

Some seem to think the appropriate response to this phenomenon is to paternalistically discourage drinking, to advocate for a return to the puritanical days of "ladylike" alcohol consumption. I'm not one of those people. Drinking in college – though not mandated or enacted universally by all students by any means – is an inalterable reality. My advice for rising college freshwomen: reject binary, totalistic choices. You are not an inherently bad person if you do happen to get exceedingly drunk at a frat party (in fact, if you are considering pursuing a career in anthropological ethnography, it could be a very informative participant-observation experience). You're also not a complete loser if you choose to abstain from alcohol altogether (there's nothing wrong with a night of Netflix and/or bananagrams, I'm just saying). But just be aware of why you're making the choices you are and how they make you feel. Especially if you think binge-drinking is the only way to feel like you belong or are equal and/or worthy in a given situation, it's necessary to give the situation some more thought. At the end of the day, if you know and respect your limits, only do things with which you feel completely comfortable, and make sure there are people you know and trust with you and watching our for you, you're in good shape. As with most things in life, the best way to prepare for the unknown is to really, truly know yourself: If you do, you'll be able to handle (most) anything thrown at you.

This piece is an excerpt from College 101: A Girl's Guide to Freshman Year by Julie Zeilinger. republished with permission.

Julie Zeilinger is originally from Pepper Pike, Ohio and is a member of the Barnard College Class of 2015. Julie is the founder and editor of The FBomb, a feminist blog and community for teens and young adults who care about their rights and want to be heard. Julie has been named one of Newsweek's "150 Women Who Shake The World", one of the "Eight most influential bloggers under 21" by Women's Day Magazine, one of More Magazine's "New Feminists You Need To Know," and one of the London Times' "40 Bloggers Who Really Count." Her writing has been published on the Huffington Post, Forbes and CNN, amongst other publications. She is also the author of A Little F'd Up: Why Feminism Is Not A Dirty Word. Follow her on twitter: @juliezeilinger.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.