The Portman Group, the drinks industry watchdog, is in the process of rolling out its campaign to highlight the increased vulnerability of binge drinking women. Yet, to date, the dangers of binge drinking amongst women don’t seem to be taken seriously.

Qualitative research can be a powerful conduit between issues that are topical in our society and what the public at large really thinks about those issues. We therefore felt very well placed to delve into the subject of binge drinking and to listen to women talking about drinking and socialising in the UK. We conducted the research with women in bars, as they were socialising, and in more traditional group discussions, where opinion is more considered and contemplative.

We wanted to find out if binge drinking really exists, who the so-called binge drinkers in our society are. And, more importantly, we wanted to explore the issue through the eyes of women drinkers.

Fancy A Couple Of Glasses Of Wine?

A vast number of people in British society enjoy alcohol without causing harm to either themselves or others. Indeed, the women we listened to believed that they were in control of their drinking. Our respondents “enjoy a few glasses of wine” rather than “periodically binge drink”. ‘Binge’ suggests a planned activity, something that they set out to do. They don’t, they go out for a few glasses of wine. They’re not binge drinking, they’re socialising with mates. Binging is synonymous with bad behaviour and dysfunctionality, being out of control through excessive drinking.

The first issue we discovered is that, amongst the broad spectrum of women we spoke to, there is no clear understanding of what binge drinking is. Far less that this has anything to do with them.

In actual fact, binge drinking is classified by the Government as twice the daily alcohol limit or more. That’s approximately four regular (175ml) or three large (250ml) glasses of wine for women. When our girls thought about this quantity, many of them, especially the professional women over 30, confessed that their in-home drinking regularly amounts to similar levels.

Sheila, a 53 year-old IT Manager enlightened us:

“It’s not unusual for me to come home in the evening and have maybe two large gin and tonics and then wine with dinner. Then I continue to drink throughout the evening and before I know it I could have drunk the whole bottle of wine. I then get up early the next day, have another very stressful day at work and repeat that pattern of drinking in the evening.”

Thus, any communication aimed at stemming binge drinking must begin with a clarification of what the phenomenon actually is. The current communication designed to prevent binge drinking is currently being met, on the whole, with ‘that doesn’t apply to me’. If people don’t connect to the issue, how can the Government attempt to effect change?

The second issue relates directly to the communication, which became apparent in the reaction of our women when they were shown the recent government caution campaign. Our women ignored the message. Why? Because the advertising had been framed in the language of dependency. Women processed these messages as being about drugs and alcohol: other peoples’ problems, the bottom of the barrel, not girls like us:

“I just switched off when I saw the image, I thought prostitution and backstreets, seedy London life. Not the fun, bright, exciting going out that I look forward to,” claimed Anna, 35, an estate agent.

Christine, a 45 year-old sales rep added:

“It just reminds me of my Dad telling me not to get home too late, I’m an independent woman, don’t tell me what to do.”

And this is extended to the tone in which the media reports on binge drinking. Its language is provocative, alarming, sensational. The disconnect between that and the acceptable, fun night out of our women couldn’t be more apparent.

The media and government voices are prohibitive and patriarchal. What is needed is engaging, female-to-female messaging.

Make Mine A Double

We heard that women are drinking more than ever before. This is a self-confessed statement made by our respondents and is backed up by national statistics.

We believe that, fundamentally, there are two underlying causes of increased drinking.

Firstly, we have officially become the ‘because I’m worth it’ generation. The growth of selfgifting and immediate material self gratification (1) has spread to drinking. Women feel they deserve to drink, they drink as a reward, it’s an acceptable self-gift that extends across age groups, employment status and socio-economic background. As one of our interviewees, Tina, a 27 year-old nursery nurse, explained:

“It’s my reward at the end of the week, I don’t drink on a weekday because I work with children so it would be irresponsible, I have to make up for that on Friday and Saturday.”

Secondly, our society is one based on two-income households, with many women working in male dominated environments. With increased economic independence, women are taking cues from male drinking habits. They are socialising as hard as men and have assumed the culture of male drinking rather than carving out a culture for their own social drinking. This leads to regular episodes of binge drinking. Caroline, a 38 year-old finance director elaborates:

“There is always the belief in the workplace that you have to be smarter, funnier, quicker than your male colleagues — you don’t want to ‘let yourself down’ in a social context.”

Now put this against a background of drinking alcohol without the culture of appreciation that, say, the French have and its no wonder that women have become confused about their drinking habits and have slid into a behaviour of often excessive drinking.

Pass Me A Resolve

We believe that it is impossible to make an impact on unsafe drinking when few women understand what safe drinking is. Most women we spoke to are illiterate regarding alcohol, units of consumption, moderate healthy drinking and binge drinking. Qualitative interviewing approaches allow the emergence of a far more honest and revelatory understanding of real attitudes in relation to real behaviours than simple selfreporting of drinking levels.

What is happening within our society is that a good deal of media coverage and governmental communication has been focussed on demonising an issue that has only recently been defined and which few consumers actually understand. For the public at large this is akin to debating the football off-side rule while believing that the game is played with a golf ball. For the majority of women, it’s akin to debating the off-side rule full-stop.

There is a very real need to help women understand the dangers of unsafe drinking. For messages to be effective they must be delivered in a manner that is neither prohibitive nor authoritarian. We must engage women in all walks of society — not just teenagers. We must recognise that women are becoming a species of episodic drinkers. And as a nation we must learn that excessive drinking is antisocial and unhealthy for all of us and happens more often than we care to admit.

And qualitative research is a key facilitator here — it can reveal the discrepancies in transmitted and received messages — why, for example, the language may need to change if health promoters are to tune in to important professional female audiences, for whom ‘bingeing’ is simply “not about me..