Drunk girls - it's no big deal

Over the years, alcohol has brought me many things, including headaches and embarrassment

Who'd be a drunk girl? Well, occasionally me, for one (though, since I turned 30, "drunk woman" is more appropriate). Over the years, alcohol has brought me many things, including headaches and embarrassment - never more so than when I recognised an author at a party, struggled for an opening gambit, and plumped for: "Wow, your eyes are really far apart."

But primarily, it's brought me fun, excitement and a huge sense of freedom. To sit on the beach with a friend, a bottle of wine and two plastic cups, not knowing where the night will take you, but that it'll probably involve dancing, meeting new people and, most of all, laughing like a drain, is one of the best feelings there is.

Which is why it pains me that drunk girls are currently so reviled. I say "currently": unless you've been propping up the bar 24/7 for a long, long while, you are likely to have noticed how the moral panic around women and drinking has been growing for years, though you might have seen it not as a moral panic, but basic good sense. You are also likely to have noticed that stories about binge drinking in the general population are almost always illustrated with a photograph of a scantily clad young woman, often passed out on a park bench. (These images crop up so regularly now that I'm always surprised when I find a park bench that doesn't have an inebriated woman draped over it. Then I remember that, despite living in cities my entire adult life, I have never come across a woman in said situation.)

One of the keenest purveyors of stories about the binge drinking, low morals and high hemlines of the nation's women is the Daily Mail, and as the new year loomed it was at it again. On New Year's Eve, the paper's front-page headline blared: "New Year bingers' abortion legacy", followed by the definite statement that "drunken one-night stands over New Year will bring a record number of abortions". New Year hadn't even happened yet, but it was being stated - not speculated, suggested, or expected - that there would be more "binge drinking and unprotected casual sex" that night than ever. Sometimes it's almost as though the people who work at the Mail want such things to happen just so they can have their prejudices confirmed . . .

The paper was at it again early last year, when it ran a story headlined "Office girls are twice as likely to die from drink", the first sentence of which stated: "A growing ladette culture means young women who work in offices are twice as likely to drink themselves to death as the rest of the population."

Now, I have read the Office for National Statistics report on which this story is based, and the reality it presents is quite different. What it found was "more than twice as many [alcohol-related] deaths among men as among women" between 2001 and 2005 - a pretty important fact, I'd say. And while a slightly higher proportion of deaths among women who work in offices (than, say, deaths among women who work as educational assistants) is due to alcohol, what that statistic does not tell you is that office workers are hardy beings who have such a low death rate in the age group covered by the study (20-64) that, as the study makes clear, their "alcohol-related mortality is actually lower than for women in England and Wales as a whole".

Not only that, but one of the report's main findings was that "employment appears to have a protective effect for women against alcohol- related mortality". Yep, having a career actually decreases a woman's chances of drinking herself to death - not something you'd have been likely to surmise from that headline, would you?

Yet if men are killing themselves through drink at twice the rate of women (and an ONS report in 2006 found not only that alcohol-related death rates are much higher for males than for females, but that the gap between the sexes has actually widened in recent years), why aren't dishevelled young men being used to illustrate binge drinking reports? Why wasn't the fact that "twice as many men as women die from alcohol-related causes" headline news last year? Does no one care about men's well-being?

The answer, it seems, is that what spurs these stories isn't concern for anyone's health, but a wish to scare women into submission. The drunk girl - loud, wild and free - represents everything that traditionalists hate in a woman. She isn't concerned with being a moral role model for the community; she's much too busy having fun for that. How dreadful.

"What about rape?" you say. "Aren't drunk wo men more likely to be raped?" Well, yes, there certainly is evidence that opportunist rapists target drunk women, and no doubt we should all look out for each other accordingly. The main problem here clearly isn't the behaviour of women, however - it's the behaviour of rapists, stupid. In fact, along with those health statistics, all this suggests is that if anyone should be encouraged to stay indoors knitting, it's men.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked