The Realm of Hammered, Horizontal Academics

Does the current drinking age (21) contribute to dangerous outcomes related to both binge drinking and unplanned, unsafe sex?

Most university graduates are happy to have their senior honors thesis behind them. None more though than a recent Duke University student whose "mock" honors thesis, chronicling her drunken sexual exploits over her last two years of college, isn’t likely to be forgotten any time soon.  This particular student’s "scientific" approach is what has made her promiscuity novel, or I suppose I should say viral, but binge drinking and hooking-up is what college students do... right?  It is an interesting question, which we have the data to answer, and it leads to an even more interesting question; how much of college student promiscuity is the result of binge drinking? Once we have the answer to those questions then maybe it time to consider whether the late drinking age in the U.S. (age 21) is a policy that contributes to the dangerous outcomes related to both binge drinking and unplanned sex.


According to a new study in the NBER* that uses data collected from (never married) students from 136 U.S. post-secondary institutions, nearly 46% of students had binge drank in the month preceding the survey (binge drinking is defined as 5 drinks over a short period of time). In the preceding three months, three-fifths of students had sex, and one-ninth had sex with least two partners. Risky behaviour is high, with 65% of those having sex failing to use a condom at least once in the previous month and 10% having previously become pregnant or having impregnated someone else at least once.

Even so, the behaviour of the now famous Duke student, who had 13 sexual partners in 21 months, can hardly be described as typical for a college student. With only 12% of students having had multiple partners in the past three months, many of which could have been transitioning between committed relationships, it is reasonable to conclude that the share of college women working their way through an entire sports team is actually quite small. Among students who are also binge drinkers, though, risky sexual behaviour is far more common; relative to average student, binge drinkers are 25% more likely to be sexually active, 20% more likely to have sex without a condom and 94% more likely to have had multiple recent sex partners. Even once you controlling for all other determinants of promiscuity, binge drinking significantly increases the probability a student will be sexually active with two or more people.

According to the research, excessive drinking leads to more risky sex in college students so perhaps, then, it is no surprise that our Duke student called the hookup she had sober an "entirely new experience" and calling sex while comatose a "normal nite."

Since July 2008, one hundred and thirty-five chancellors and presidents of colleges and universities in the U.S. have signed a petition asking the government to lower the minimum drinking age. The current president of Duke University is among them. They argue that the minimum age has led to dangerous behaviour as underage students move to covert drinking behaviour when they cannot access alcohol legally. A recent study of college drinking conducted at Harvard University finds that students who binge drink as teenagers are less likely to binge drink as university students, but that might just be shifting the risk earlier in their lives. The problem with current legislation though is that by the time students are old enough to drink legally the adults in their lives, who might have taken the opportunity to teach them how to drink responsibly, are not longer in the picture. I am not suggesting that changing the minimum drinking age is necessarily the antidote to risky college student sexual behaviour, but it an empirical question worth exploring.

*  DeSimone, Jeffrey S. (2010) "Binge Drinking and Risky Sex among College Students." National Bureau of Economic Research Working Papers: 15953.

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