Lady Liquor: Drugs, Alcohol, Moral Panics, and Children as Property

Wait a minute! Wait a minute!

It turns out! Women drink too! Sometimes they even drink faster or more than men, according to a charmingly colloquially written science news piece that crossed my notice over the holidays. According to a survey of Spanish college students, male college students drink more on average, but women drink faster, and a higher percentage of women were identified as "binge drinkers." A survey of U.S. students also found that students in mixed-gender housing were more likely to binge-drink than students in single-gender housing. Which, as we've discussed, is completely true in my experience, therefore I believe it! And nothing is wrong with the article itself, and the research could guide policy changes on college campuses that keep students safer, whether they drink or not.

But an almost-inevitable result of research – however sound or suspect – on gender breakdowns on, well, anything, is the inevitable tide of sexist eye-rolling or concern trolling that follows. (Look no further than the comments on that article. I kid. There is no reason to read them.) I've long been fascinated by moral panics, as they inevitably target the young, or the ladies, or people of color or sexual minorities. (Christine Sismondo notes that while bars catering to sexual minorities have probably always been around, raids on same in the 1940s and '50s started because Joseph McCarthy was disproportionately interested in the behavior of gay men, who he believed could be more easily blackmailed and brainwashed by Communists. Of course, the moral panic – and the attendant official interest in gay bars – took on a life of its own, and raids continued well after McCarthy's resignation.)

There's a long and storied history of moral panics and how they've shaped policy, but this being my first post of 2013, I'd like to focus solely on the ones that grabbed headlines in 2012:

  • Hand sanitizer! People are drinking it! While I had previously assumed that hand sanitizer was basically rubbing alcohol (methanol) in a user-friendly gel form, it turns out it is pretty much seriously concentrated ethyl alcohol, which is, um, technically potable. Check out this NPR post, which is basically, those dumb kids! (16 reports of drinking hand sanitizer doesn't quite qualify as statistically significant, but who needs statistical significance when you can use a tiny number of cases to tar a whole generation of kids? And also, um, publicize the trend?)

  • OK, fine, maybe drinking hand sanitizer isn't widespread enough to get worked up about The Kids These Days. And also, it's a little too gross-sounding to have any sort of aesthetic appeal. But like! What about the cinnamon challenge, where apparently kids are trying to see how much cinnamon they can eat in a sitting! All of one teenager had actually been hospitalized for this by the time the article I've linked was published (apparently it's tough to process a lot of cinnamon at once). That also doesn't really qualify as a "trend" to me, but it does remind me of the advent of super-hour or super-hot candies in the early '90s. My mom was concerned about the competitive, self-destructive nature of the candies, more so than the fact that they were called Warheads, apparently. (I guess they don't even make the hot kind anymore. No wonder the kids have to huff cinnamon now. Jeez!)

  • New drugs: different from the old drugs! 2012's top contenders are, of course, bath salts (which are now broadly associated with news articles othering homeless folks and not with Christmas presents for Grandma) and spice (what could be worse than reefer? Fake reefer! It's madness!)

  • Vodka eyeballing! Actually was first reported on in 2010, and is probably also not a real thing. Keep your eyes open (heh) for this to resurface; the iVillage article I link above is from April of this year, but re-ran verbatim in November, and also includes a reference to rainbow parties, which, REALLY? Do we have to go over this AGAIN?

I'll write more about the history of moral panics in my next post, and how they tend to single out or other specific groups of people, and how that has fueled things like the prohibition of drugs and alcohol and, oh, like, the War on Drugs. Almost every goofy Alarming Trend piece I've seen and referenced here turns an eye on the practices of the young, whether grossly exaggerated (drinking hand sanitizer), completely fabricated (rainbow parties) or simply an example of people doing things they've always done, using new technologies (yes, I am saying James Joyce basically sexted Nora Barnacle).

The question is: Why are so many recent moral panics focused on the young, and on young women in particular (see the aforementioned studies on young women's drinking, and the last few years' worth of concern trolling about "raunch culture")? The creepily prurient nature of some of these "trends" makes me wonder – for instance, there is the fact that every alarmist story mentioning vodka-eyeballing also talks about vodka tampons or butt-chugging: couching the discussion in "concerned" terms gives journalists an opportunity to talk about the bodies of the young, and young women in particular, with a level of detail they wouldn't normally be permitted. (I suspect more readers are squicked out by the idea of butt-chugging than anything else, but hey, the squick factor is linkbait too.)

A couple of years ago I ended up in a Facebook discussion with some friends from grade school (many of whom I hadn't seen since then), which started out as a series of comments on a grade-school yearbook page somebody had scanned. The discussion turned to How Things Had Changed, with some commenters – who are now parents of young children – worrying about their own children having to watch the obligatory puberty movies as fourth-graders (as we did) and kids asking questions in class about sperm was. I couldn't help but chime in that their memories of playground talk were very different from mine (I may have also implicated several of the commenters in telling jokes or sharing information that robbed me of my own innocence, which is a great way to get defriended, by the way). One of the most reliable comforts of getting older is that we get the opportunity to cluck our tongues and wring our hands at the vagaries of the younger generation – as if we ourselves never drank, huffed household cleaners, ate tongue-burning candies or wrote filthy notes. And while the health and well-being of children and teenagers is definitely everybody's business, maybe we need to get out of the business of talking about kids (our own or kids in general) like they're our property, instead of like they're people.  

Previously: Storming the Sazerac and Sipping In

 

Comments

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Yes.

And, not to mention the fact that it kind of distracts from the real problems. I think major issues are probably just good old fashioned binge drinking and teen pregnancy. I guess that doesn't make a thrilling news story, though, which speaks to the children as property (and spectacle) element.

I remember watching these horrifying Oprah and news specials on rainbow parties and salad tossing, or whatever was the "trend" when I was a teen, and feeling distinctly uncomfortable with the focus on young teenage girls and their bodies - simultaneously sexualizing them and then condemning them for it, and applying such attitudes to any and all teenage girls too - think your daughter is the shy, quiet bookworm type? THINK AGAIN! It made me feel like it didn't matter whether I was doing any of these things or not, everyone assumed and was imagining me doing all manner of shocking things. Which was gross and upsetting.