The College Experience: How Each Gender’s Substance Use Differed

The word “college” spurs some associations right away: living away from parents for the first time, managing a budget and schoolwork without any supervision, making new friends and parties.

The parties must be included in that list. College is often a time when so many Americans experiment with drugs or alcohol for the first time. Yet, how many people truly want to take drugs or consume alcohol when they first do so, and how many students are convinced to partake by their peers? Does the pressure occur at the direct request of their friend or friends, or is it often an indirect influence caused by being at a social gathering and in the minority of those not participating in drinking or using drugs?

The Recovery Village surveyed 400 people with a wide a range of financial backgrounds, ethnicities and ages on their experiences with drug and alcohol use during college. Some of the most interesting results involved the difference in answers between the male participants and female ones. A little more than 51 percent of the 310 respondents who attended college said they used either alcohol or an illegal drug at least once during college. Males were far more likely to answered yes, as 65.87 percent of them said they consumed drugs or alcohol at least one time. Only 41.85 percent of females said the same.

Digging a little deeper into the results shows a significant disparity in how males and females were first introduced to alcohol and drugs.

Examining the Why: Reasons for Substance Use

Why do people experiment with alcohol and drugs when in college? Oftentimes, the first few instances of substance misuse feel like a rite of passage and come with a level of curiosity for the person consuming. Walking through this gateway and into the general misconception of what college life is can be intentional — or at the behest of others.

The most common reasons survey respondents gave for their college drug and alcohol use was to relieve stress or to feel the euphoric high associated to whatever substance they consumed. The third-most-selected choice was “to appease friends or acquaintances,” which received 16 percent of answers from the 160 respondents who said they participated in using drugs or alcohol during college.

However, 22 percent of females said the influence of others persuaded them to try drugs or alcohol, while only 10 percent of males answered this way. Additionally, females were more likely than males to say that peer pressure influenced their alcohol or drug use during college. Peer pressure is one of the most common reasons why people try drugs or alcohol, whether it be their first time or one of the many times following. Any setting where someone is drinking or using drugs can make a friend who isn’t feel left out. Additionally, if someone has romantic interest in a person who is doing drugs or alcohol, or offers it to the original person, that might cause influence.

Why did more females than males say that peer pressure influenced their substance use? The Deseret News cited a survey in 2001 that backed up the claim that female teenagers feel more pressure than male teens to drink alcohol. The National Institutes of Health conducted the study and Bruce Simons-Morton was cited in the article saying that peer pressure was a common cause of drinking for girls, while not as much so for boys.

Is Peer Pressure’s Hold on Women Real?

Are females actually more susceptible to peer pressure than males? Two Croatian researchers conducted a study, published in UA Magazine, back in 2013 that shows males are less likely to resist the influence of their peers, resulting in participating in riskier behavior. Additional research suggests the same, that men are actually more likely than women to succumb to pressure from their peers.

Maybe the decision to drink alcohol or take drugs is not so much about responding to peer pressure as it is about how each gender responds to stress.

Numerous experts have distinguished how each gender responds to stressful situations.

Maestripieri continued, “According to some psychologists, there is basic difference in the way men and women respond to social stress: for men, it’s either ‘fight or flight’ while for women it’s ‘tend and befriend.’”

Peer pressure and stress can be linked in some situations. Someone receiving societal influences to drink alcohol or take drugs against their own wishes can lead to the stress of fitting in or being well-liked. If women are more likely to befriend the other person in this situation, that could include giving in to the pressure in the moment.

How to Handle Stress and Peer Pressure

College life is filled with stress: keeping up with schoolwork, budgeting and handling routine chores such as laundry and cleaning without the help and supervision of parents. Add in trying to make friends and entering this new environment can be a minefield of internal struggles.

Properly handling stress when it relates to peer pressure is a vital skill for college students who do not want to partake in risky behavior, such as drinking or using drugs. The website Young Women’s Health lists different ways people can respond to their peers’ influences:

  • Consider the consequences of the decision
  • Build self-confidence through healthier activities
  • Trust the instincts
  • Be assertive and do not be afraid to say, “No”
  • Put up boundaries if needed to avoid someone who applies pressure to use drugs or alcohol
  • Remember that there are others in college who are not yet comfortable with substance use

Pressures can lead to a dangerous amount of substance use, which can result in a dependence on drugs or alcohol and an addiction. If your child is struggling with substance use while in college, they might be experiencing stress caused by their peers’ influences. However, substance use is not required  to fit in and make friends. College should be one of the most enjoyable periods of a person’s life, and too often teenagers and young adults miss out on this period due to addiction.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.