You’ve come the wrong way, baby!
Ann Dowsett Johnston is an advocate for more campus dialogue on risky drinking … and with good reason. She knows from bitter experience whereof she speaks.
Alcohol abuse among women is on the rise. Yet far too few people are willing to discuss the harmful effects of our society’s favourite drug, argues Ann Dowsett Johnston, Artsci’75, author of the bestselling book Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol (Harper Collins, Canada).
“It’s way riskier for women to drink than for men to do so. We get addicted much faster and the negative health results come much earlier.” Alcohol, she adds, has become an urgent women’s health issue. “In Britain, we’re even seeing a growing number of women in their twenties with end-stage liver disease, classically an old man’s condition.”
What’s needed, Dowsett Johnston believes, is the same kind of discussion around women and alcohol that we’ve had around tobacco use.
In a chapter in her book that’s titled “Binge: The Campus Drinking Culture,” she examines one venue in which dialogue is long overdue: universities. “We know that in the college years there’s an escalation of risky drinking among young women, and a lot of what goes wrong goes wrong then,” she says.
Times have changed since Dowsett Johnston’s student days at Queen’s. In the ‘’70s, it was “uncool” for women to drink excessively. “Today, when I ask bright young women on campus about their favourite drinks, they’ll say shots, or more alarmingly, Red Bull and vodka. My generation typically drank beer with their boyfriends or we drank wine. Now it’s more hard liquor, more binge drinking, and keeping up with the men.”
Dowsett Johnston notes that drinking to “black out” has become normalized. “I was very, very disturbed by the story in my book about incoming students being told to write the name of a roommate or friend on their arm before partying. That way, should they pass out, someone would know who to call to get them home.”
Alcohol’s dangers are familiar to Dowsett Johnston. An award-winning writer and editor and one-time senior university administrator at McGill University, she has been in recovery herself for the past five years. The daughter of alcohol-addicted parents, she grew up in northern Ontario, rural South Africa, and Toronto. Dowsett Johnston’s mother was “a classic ’60s alcoholic, a stay-at-home mom who mixed Valium with cocktails.” Her dad became an alcoholic in retirement, and died of the disease.