This article originally appeared on VICE UK
It's 23:00 and I'm sitting in a pub, blowing into a breathalyser. An icon pops up on the glowing blue screen and tells me that I shouldn't drive any time soon. Neither should my male friend Sam. We've had the exact same number of drinks all night, but I'm significantly drunker than he is.
Someone comes over and asks what we're doing. "Don't worry!" I say. "It's for science!"
We're here, getting pissed for science, because women are now drinking nearly as much as men. A recent study carried out by researchers at the University of New South Wales found that men born in the early 1900s were 2.2 times more likely to drink than women. Nowadays, they found, men born between 1891 and 2000 are just 1.1 times more likely to drink than women; the great gender booze gap has nearly closed.
To investigate why this has happened, I decide to carry out my own, highly scientific analysis. I begin my research at 19:00 in the pub with Sam, who – alongside me and my sister, Rosy – will be the other participant in my study. Sam and I order a pint each, Rosy a rum and coke, and we get to drinking.
Earlier today I spoke to James Nicholls, Director of Policy at Alcohol Research UK, to get his opinion on why women are drinking more. "In many aspects of life we've become less patriarchal," he said. "And one of the consequences of that is that in activities like drinking, women's behaviour has come closer to men's."
It all started in the 1960s, he says, when the rise of feminism meant that "there were fewer taboos about women going out and being in social spaces doing the kinds of things that men do... more women were working and had disposable income".
The alcohol industry followed the money and began marketing drinks to the new generation of working women. Bottled lagers, for example, were initially marketed to women who wanted to drink with men after work, but wanted a lighter alternative to pints of bitter and ale.
One hour and one drink down, my blood alcohol content is at 0.037. Sam's is the same, and my sister Rosy's is a measly 0.004. I send her off to buy another round and remember what Jeremy Corbyn said recently when he criticised Britain's after-work drinking culture as sexist – discriminating against mothers who feel forced into going to the pub in case they miss out on a promotion.
Are women today actually only drinking as much as men to conform to work norms, in the hope it brings them professional success? Dr Patsy Staddon, who helps to run Bristol service Women's Independent Alcohol Support, says the stress of balancing work and family life really is driving women to drink more.
"It's really hard work trying to keep up a home, which a lot of women are still doing to a bigger extent than men," she says. "So the expectations that we have of ourselves are very high. And then there are all of the other reasons that incline people to use alcohol as a drug, such as mental health issues – which can happen to men as well as women, of course."
Back in the pub, it's 21:00. My blood alcohol level is at 0.073, Rosy's is 0.008 and Sam's is 0.057. I get the sense that another drink will lead to a hangover tomorrow, but buy another pint of IPA anyway and apologise to my liver – which, according to Dr Staddon, is much smaller than Sam's. So as well as me being a few inches and a few stone lighter than him, I'm not going to be able to process this alcohol as well tomorrow.
"If women drink the same amount as men, we can expect to feel more serious effects – we just aren't as big, and we don't have as much water in our bodies," she says. "So alcohol is more toxic to us in the same amount as men are drinking." She means dangerously toxic, too – women are more vulnerable than men when it comes to developing alcohol-induced liver damage and dying from cirrhosis.
If women everywhere are matching men drink for drink, as I'm doing now, do they know they're getting drunker? And what pushes a woman to want to be hammered, surrounded by men who are not as drunk?
Dr Angus Bancroft is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Edinburgh. He researches the drinking behaviours of young women and says that alcohol marketing has a lot to do with the rise of women drinking. "There's a huge demand to be this personality type who is really bubbly all the time," he says. "The ideal of a young women who is always up for it – mad for it – is an image that's constantly fed and replayed through alcohol companies, even though that person is actually probably hideously annoying to be around."
Do I feel like I have to be a fun time party girl when I go out? I don't think I do. It's now 22:00 and the alcohol in my system is at 0.11, but that's just because I've been drinking a lot over the course of an evening, not because I've felt any particular pressure to get wasted. We go to a gig and I push my sister into the middle of a mosh-pit to see what being fun feels like, but she just gets annoyed. We both buy new drinks.
It's 23:00 and my alcohol level is at 0.16, Sam's is at 0.13 and Rosy is at 0.033. I wonder if she's been pouring her rum and cokes away, and envy her sober composure in the smoking area. I think about how drunk women are treated by society – how we're shamed for being "unladylike" and called "foolish" when we're the victims of sexual assault and rape after we've been drinking. "Men seem to have this kind of shame shield, which stops us being judged when we get up to the same stuff," says Dr Bancroft.
He adds that one of the freedoms now afforded to many young women is that they're allowed to risk getting stuff wrong. "Drinking can represent a risk, but taking risks is a good thing," he says. "It's part of growing up... [and] how you find out who you are. It's quite natural that women would want an equal part in that."
But young people are actually, on the whole, drinking less than their parents. So perhaps women might not actually be drinking as much as men – it's more that men are just drinking as little as women.
It's midnight and the band is finished and I'm standing on the street, drunk, watching everyone go home. Most of them are not as drunk as me. After five or six beers, my blood alcohol content has reached 0.18 – at least 0.02 points above my male companion's. I'm dizzy and sick. I get in an Uber home and pass out in the back of it.
Whatever Dr Bancroft says, I don't feel very empowered at all.
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