Alcohol in Courtship Contexts: Focus-Group Interviews with Young Swedish Women and Men

Article excerpt

This study consisted of focus-group interviews carried out in different parts of Sweden with young adults from varying social environments. The groups were taken from naturally existing networks of friends, and one of the principal items of discussion centered on the role of alcohol in social interplay between the sexes. The analysis shows both similarities and differences between how women and men talk about the significance of alcohol in making new contacts. Both give alcohol a similar and high rating for facilitating flirtation. In discussion of the pick-up situation, however, clear differences appear. The women's view was that for a woman it is possible to take sexual initiatives while being intoxicated, though within limits. What men describe in the corresponding situation is that for them intoxication is a means of daring to be open and natural with women.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: A first version of this paper was presented at the 29th Annual Symposium of the Kettil Bruun Society for Social and Epidemiological Research on Alcohol, Krakow, Poland, june 2-6, 2003. In that context it benefited from comments by Marja Holmila. Thanks also to the two anonymous reviewers of Contemporary Drug Problems as well as to Sandra Bullock and Robin Room for valuable guidance in revising the article.

The usual view of the combination of young people and alcohol is that it easily amounts to trouble. From the point of view of the young people themselves, however, the perspective usually differs. Alcohol is seen by them as a selfevident part of sociability, not least in helping to make interactions between the sexes possible (Pape & Hammer 1996). The concept of the role of alcohol as a facilitator of social contact is deeply ingrained in many cultures, and not only among the young (Heath 1999, Room 1996). The images of alcohol as a lifestyle marker (Brain 2000), and of the positive effects in social interplay between the sexes, have been widely employed by the alcohol industry in marketing its products, yet so far little investigated in alcohol research (Room 2002).

Ideas concerning the sexually disinhibitory effects of alcohol vary from culture to culture (MacAndrew & Edgerton 1969). One Finnish participant-observation study of young discotheque attendees showed that, especially among males, alcohol was seen as important for overcoming shyness in contact with girls (Kruse 1975). The results of a survey of Finnish university students also present mainly positive evaluations of alcohol for achieving relaxation in the social interplay leading to possible sexual relations (HaavioMannila et al. 1990). This study found that for women the consumption of alcohol is generally linked to more liberal sexual attitudes, while for men it is connected to an increased social and sexual forwardness. Norwegian studies of the relationship between alcohol and sexuality also point toward ideas of the disinhibitory effects of alcohol. Studies of young people's alcohol and sex habits showed that for both sexes drinkers more often than non-drinkers tended to motivate their most recent sexual experience by external, situational factors rather than by the agency of the person himself or herself. This tendency was, however, more pronounced among young men than among young women (Traeen & Lundin Kvalem 1996).

Apart from variations between men and women in their views concerning alcohol, it has been seen that the consequences of drinking also vary depending on who is doing the drinking (Holmila 1991, Jarvinen 1991, Measham 2002, Nadeau 1999). A North American qualitative study of young men's and women's experiences of courting rituals shows that men view women who allow men to buy them drinks as signaling sexual availability. When such expectations are frustrated, a conflict arises that sometimes leads to aggressive behavior in men (Ferris 1997). In another North American study concerning the different expectations associated with alcohol consumption, it was found that when men and women drink together, men more often than women perceive both the partner and themselves as behaving more sexually (Abbey et al. …