Lisa Diebold, 22, has two goals for her senior year at Syracuse University: "Learn how to drive a stick shift, and drink a guy under the table." The pert advertising major has nearly mastered her first objective. She now darts about the hilly campus in her white Volkswagen Golf. The second is giving her a bit more trouble. One Friday night, after drinking close to two pitchers of beer, she had a screaming fight with her boyfriend and put her fist through the rear window of her car. And then there are a handful of evenings she can recall only in flashes.
But the setbacks have not deterred her. On a recent blustery night, she and five of her closest girlfriends, dressed in unseasonable short sleeves, downed cocktails and took shots of "buttery nipples," a syrupy blend of butterscotch schnapps and Baileys Irish Cream. It was a Tuesday during midterm exams, but they closed down the bar anyway. "You don't want to be that dumb girly girl who looks wasted and can't hold her liquor. I know it's juvenile, but I've had boys comment how impressed they are at the amount of alcohol I've consumed," Diebold explains. "To be able to drink like a guy is kind of a badge of honor. For me, it's a feminism thing."
For Syracuse administrators, it's frightening. Last year twice as many women as men--one or two each weekend--were rushed to the local hospital owing to acute intoxication. Some suffered from alcohol poisoning and needed a stomach pumping; others had fractured bones after drunken tumbles. A handful sought treatment for sexual assault. "Our women are drinking one for one with men, but they're coming in much more damaged," says Dessa Bergen-Cico, the university's associate dean of students. "We're seeing a real role shift going on here."
Throughout the 1990s, it was mainly frat boys who generated headlines for waking up hazed and dazed in the ER--if they woke up at all. In recent years, however, some colleges have found a new cause for concern: young women who drink as dangerously as, if not more so than, their male classmates. This development invites a raft of knotty questions. Why are today's girls and young women, who are also getting arrested more and doing more drugs, behaving more like boys in so many reckless ways? Do they simply feel freer to be themselves? Or does the sassy, self-confident girl-power generation feel it must show up guys everywhere, including at the bar?
Since 1999, some 16,000 men but more than 19,000 women have requested screening for alcohol abuse at federally funded day-long clinics held each spring at about 400 colleges. Individual schools have found their own gauges for the trend. At the University of Vermont, for instance, the average blood-alcohol level of drunken women treated at the hospital is now .20--10% higher than that of intoxicated men and more than twice the legal limit of .08. Counselors at Stanford University have observed an uptick in women who had "regretted sex" while drunk. And at Georgetown University there has been a 35% rise in women sanctioned for alcohol violations over the past three years. "Here on the front lines, we're very worried about this," says Patrick Kilcarr, the director of Georgetown's Center for Personal Development. "Women are not just drinking more; they're drinking ferociously."