Sexual Orientation and Alcohol Use among College Students: The Influence of Drinking Motives and Social Norms

Article excerpt


Evidence indicates GLB individuals may be at greater risk for high rates of alcohol consumption; however, few studies have identified specific factors explaining why differences exist. Using data from the 2001 College Alcohol Study, we examined the ability of drinking motives and social norms to explain the relationship between sexual orientation and binge drinking among over 7,000 students. Findings suggest drinking motives and norms are important for all college students and may be more relevant than demographic characteristics such as sexual orientation. Prevention efforts focused on motivations for drinking, therefore, may be effective for all students regardless of sexual orientation.

Key Words: Alcohol Use, Sexual Orientation, Drinking Motives, Social Norms


College students are one of the groups at greatest risk for substance use, particularly alcohol misuse. In fact, college students have higher rates of alcohol use and binge drinking than their same-age peers who do not attend college (Gfroerer et al., 1997; Johnston et al., 2006; Paschall & Flewelling, 2002; Slutske et al., 2004). Much of the literature on substance use among college students focuses primarily on binge drinking and as a result many social, psychological and demographic risk factors for this behavior have been identified and are fairly well understood. What is not as clear, however, is whether the conclusions drawn from studies of college students, as a whole, can also be applied to gay, lesbian, and bisexual (GLB) students. This is particularly troubling as evidence from several studies indicates that GLB individuals may be at greater risk for high rates of alcohol consumption (Mosbacher, 1993; Diamant et al., 2000; Russell et al., 2002). Moreover, there is growing consensus that rates of binge drinking are higher among lesbians than heterosexual women (Burgard et al., 2005; Hughes & Eliason, 2002) and that bisexual women may be at greater risk for binge drinking (Eisenberg & Wechsler, 2003a; Eisenberg & Wechsler, 2003b; Trocki et al., 2005). Among men there is less consensus with some researchers finding no sexual orientation differences in binge drinking (Drabble et al., 2005) and others reaching the opposite conclusions (Eisenberg & Wechsler, 2003a).

Although the literature is not extensive, emerging research suggests that risk factors for substance use among college students as a whole, may not work in the same manner with GLB college students (Ford & Jasinski, 2006). This suggests that current models developed to explain binge drinking among college students work for heterosexual students, as they makeup the overwhelming majority of students, but may not explain alcohol misuse by GLB students as well. Consequently, prevention programming based on heterosexual models for alcohol use may not be as effective for the GLB population. The current study examines the ability of drinking motives and social norms, two well established predictors of college student binge drinking, to explain the relationship between sexual orientation and binge drinking.

Drinking Motives

A number of different types of motivation have been identified as important predictors of binge drinking including coping, conforming, enhancement, and drinking for social reasons (Cooper, 1994). These motives are related to some form of positive or negative reinforcement gained by using alcohol. Furthermore, research indicates that different drinking motives lead to unique patterns of drinking and consequences of use. Drinking to deal with depression or anxiety or using alcohol to regulate negative emotions, is an example of using alcohol to cope (Cooper et al., 1995). Students who drink alcohol for coping reasons tend to be frequent users, often drink alone, and are more likely to binge drink (Cooper, 1994; Cooper et al., 1995; Williams and Clark, 1998). Second, drinking to conform to the expectations of the social group is also a form of negative reinforcement. …