On the Culture of Binge Drinking in a Residential College Town

Culture: The values, beliefs, behaviors, and expectations of behaviors or social norms of a given population of humans.

Do you know what I find amazing? I find it amazing that I never see people burning couches and cars in the streets of my neighborhood. And I find it amazing that I never find discarded red plastic cups in the gutters outside my house. And I never find my neighbors passed out in the bushes in front of my house. Never. Not once in the 7 years that I’ve lived in my neighborhood. And there is never a Beer Pong table set up in the front yard of any of my neighbors’’ houses, ever. It’s kind of disappointing, really, because from what I remember from my college days, drinking games can be fun.

My students laugh when I express my amazement at these events, or the lack of these events in my neighborhood, because more than likely, it does happen in their neighborhood. I have the privilege of teaching at California State University (CSU), Chico, which, unless you’ve been living under a rock with no internet access, was the first college in the U.S. to top Playboy Magazine’s first list of Party Schools more than 25 years ago. We unfortunately held that title for 15 years, only because Playboy didn’t bother to print another Top Party School list in that time. It’s been a dubious honor, one we were all more than happy to shed in 2002 (Dear Arizona State, thanks for taking the heat off of Chico and making us #2). But still, the reputation lives on, even with the current students, most of whom weren’t alive when we first were honored in Playboy.

I think, at the time, that we may have earned the title. During a few debaucherous years in the mid 1980s, Pioneer Days in Chico, which was the equivalent of Spring Break in Florida, produced, what some would call, the heyday of the party era in Chico. As a result of several years of increasingly publicized partying, local college students and thousands of out of towners flocked to Chico for special event weekends, and for Pioneer Days. Thousands of young people filled the streets of Chico during Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day, and Pioneer Days celebrations, and filled the Sacramento River on Memorial Day and Labor Day, floating down the river with tens of thousands of other young people.

Chico made national news with alcohol-fueled rioting in the streets in the name of a good time, cars were overturned at the infamous intersection of 5th and Ivy Streets, and MTV even offered directions on how to get to Chico for Pioneer Days. The result was catastrophic, and stained the reputation of any student who attended Chico State at the time.

But 1987 was a long time ago, especially for popular culture references to still be relevant, without some continuing activity that reproduces the culture and supports the cultural references of Chico as a party school. Today, there is not as much of a debate in our little city about whether an excessive party culture exists; most residents of both the town and the university agree: there is a problem here at Chico that revolves around drinking alcohol.

Stories float through the halls of Chico State with a fairly regular pattern about alcohol related incidents both on and off campus, and in Fall of 2012, four young adults died in Chico due to alcohol related incidents. The fatal incidents range from the slightly bizarre (falling out of a tree while intoxicated) to the expected (driving while intoxicated) to the quiet (not waking up after ingesting multiple forms of drugs and alcohol). The non-fatal incidents range from waking up in bushes, getting lost on the walk home from partying downtown, injury or assault, sexual assault, or just not remembering what happened the night before. Both on the record and off, alcohol related incidents permeate the discussions around campus and have for many years.

Sit in a classroom in the few minutes before the beginning of class, and you’ll hear students boast about the previous night’s escapades, most with fuzzy detail, a bit of bravado, and a hint of awe that they survived the night. Listen at the Union cafeteria on Thursday afternoon and you’ll hear plans of the best places to find a party for the night, how much they can spend on alcohol, and who will be hanging out with the group. Honestly, the conversations probably aren’t too dissimilar than that of most other college campuses around the U.S.; recent studies have found that about 80% of college students in the U.S. drink alcohol, and of those, about half binge drink.

But what makes Chico, and Chico State, so different from most of the rest that at one time in our history, Playboy put us at the top of the Party School list? And what makes Chico culture so different, that in a 2011 study of alcohol consumption at California State University campuses, Chico students reported the most frequent use of alcohol, and the most alcohol consumed on each drinking occasion, of the 14 CSUs in the study, and 20% of Chico students report drinking enough alcohol in one sitting on a weekly basis to be intoxicated,

My students describe the consequences of too much alcohol, and too frequent consumption in great and heartbreaking detail, but the 2011 study illustrates the consequences much more succinctly. In the report, students reported risky sexual behavior, including not using protection, having sex with someone they did not previously know, and having sex with a new partner following drinking. Additionally, 16-20% of students who attended parties at either Greek organizations, in campus residence halls, and at private residences reported passing out after drinking at least once during the previous semester. Perhaps most disturbing, students at Chico State were the least likely to report there was a system in place at the parties they attended that was designed to look after anyone who became intoxicated, and Chico State students were the least likely to report that obviously intoxicated partygoers were refused alcohol at those parties. Chico has a culture of drinking alcohol unlike any other CSU.

How did we get to this spot? This place where students drink more frequently, drink more in each sitting, have riskier behavior, don’t bother to take care of their friends and fellow students when drunk, and continue to serve them alcohol when they are obviously too drunk to care for themselves?

I don’t doubt the statistics, by the way; the statistics mirror what my students tell me in class: they drink hard and fast, and a lot, at Chico State.

This is what we talk about in my sociology classes here at Chico: why does the party school behavior continue at Chico? What makes it different than all the rest? What is our culture here at Chico that perpetuates the behavior and reinforces the reputation? Also, how does the larger culture influence drinking patterns in our youth?

There are a unique set of geographic and environmental factors that play a role in the drinking culture here at Chico. Chico State is a highly residential campus, with a high concentration of student housing in a very small area.

Lack of late-night opportunities in neighboring businesses such as movie theaters, concert venues, and alcohol-free clubs for people under 21 years old contribute to the excessive drinking culture here at Chico. The biggest movie theater is over two miles away from the closest university neighborhood, and three to four miles from the farthest neighborhoods. There are no cheap late night movies on or near campus, no dance clubs geared for the under-21 year old crowd, and only two concert venues that have limited seating (both are small former movie theaters) with shows rarely scheduled.

Approximately 80% of the 16,000 students enrolled at Chico State live within two miles of the university campus. The residential area immediately north, south, and west of the university, is comprised of apartment buildings, dozens of old Victorian homes that can house 10-20 residents each, a dozen or so fraternity and sorority houses, and University Housing, which houses over 2,000 students a year. This concentration of student residences creates a climate where the norm is college life, where college hours dominate the neighborhoods (in other words, no pesky middle-aged folks with 8-5 jobs who will complain about loud parties). It’s not uncommon for house parties to flow onto front yards, sidewalks, and meander from house to house in a neighborhood.

Most students live within walking distance of the main party area in Chico, and thus, don’t worry about driving home from bars and parties, so no one needs to abstain from drinking to be a designated driver. They can walk, or take a pedicab, or just sleep on someone’s couch, at a moment’s notice, when coming home from a night out. Walking to and from areas where parties might occur is more convenient than going to the movies, taking in a concert (few and far between in Chico), or going to any restaurant in town.

Within the College Town are 8-10 liquor stores, depending on where one draws the boundaries of College Town, and in the adjacent downtown area, there are dozens of restaurants and bars that sell alcohol. Statistically, Chico has a severe over concentration of liquor outlets, and those outlets are centered in and around College Town. More access to alcohol outlets increases consumption and binge drinking.

Big houses: Chico enjoys large lot sizes, with very large houses that can physically support large parties. Walk down 5th Street on any weekend evening during the school year in Chico and you’ll find a party, or three or four. Everyone is usually welcome as long as they aren’t looking for trouble. Large porches offer couch seating and a place to watch people walk by, and invite them in to join in the fun.

Moderate climate: During the traditional academic year, Chico enjoys fairly moderate weather. Sure, it gets hot here during the summer, and occasionally, we have rain and cold nights in the winter, but generally, Chico enjoys temperate weather during the school year, which means large parties can congregate on lawns and streets. Also, college students walk in Chico, especially in College Town because of the geography of the area around the university, but also, due to the weather. It’s almost always nice enough to walk in the downtown area and College Town because of the weather. It creates a very social environment, and influences the number of people out in the neighborhoods.

A side note here: Incoming first year students are discouraged by the university administration from bringing vehicles to Chico due to the high rate of auto thefts in the area, but more importantly, the lack of parking space at the university. What does this create? A situation where students have to walk, ride a bike, ride the city bus, take a taxi, or rely on friends to take them out of the downtown area. Pedicabs are available in Downtown, but are limited in schedule, passengers, and area of service.

From the micro-culture of College Town, to the larger university culture, the excessive drinking culture at Chico persists. Faculty often condone drinking excessively by reminiscing of their own drinking exploits in college and canceling classes the day after big party holidays. Students are the servers at the downtown restaurants where their professors have dinner, and drinks, and get drunk. It is a not-so-subtle acceptance of both underage drinking and excessive drinking.

Consider this: students at Chico reported that they drank 2-3 drinks BEFORE going to parties; this is called “preloading”. Mostly, preloading happens with shots of hard alcohol. It gets the party going before students even leave their home. Why do they do this? My students report that they do it for a number of reasons, but mostly, they do it because they are afraid they won’t be able to find alcohol after they leave their homes since they are not yet 21. But at Chico, that’s not likely, given our culture. Regardless, preloading happens still. Once students leave their homes, they have another 2 or 3 drinks while they are out often due to peer exposure, then finish off the night with a drink or two at home. That’s the average. Some people drink less; some people drink more. By the end of the night, the average person will have consumed enough to be intoxicated.

Most students underestimate how much they drink and overestimate how much their peers drink and in the CSU alcohol survey, most students thought that their peers drank significantly more than they did. That skews the “normal” behavior expectations to the higher end of alcohol consumption, and increases one’s own alcohol consumption.

The underlying problem with alcohol consumption at Chico State does not begin with Chico State. Sure, we may help it along some with our climate, our geography, our access to alcohol here, and the lack of alternate social activities in the area, but these things would not be a problem if the larger culture, the American culture, didn’t contribute to irresponsible and excessive alcohol consumption as well.

Ask yourself this question: Where and when were you first exposed to alcohol? How did you learn how much to drink? What to drink? How do you know who to trust to make you a drink?  Was it modeled in your home with your parents’ drinking habits?  Was it your friends in high school, who had limited access to alcohol but likely binged when they did get access? Was it in college? Maybe, it was here at Chico State when you were 18 years old.

How did you learn to drink alcohol?

I ask my students this same question every semester. They giggle with nervous laughter when I ask them how their parents taught them to drink. Forgive the pun, but it’s a loaded question. A few, less than 10%, tell me they have never had a drink of alcohol, and they’ll wait to drink until they are 21, and do it responsibly. Fair enough. More students tell me they started drinking with their friends in high school or earlier, but the alcohol was usually beer, often pilfered from their parents’ refrigerator, and with limited access. A few tell me their parents allowed them the occasional beer or glass of wine at the dinner table in a limited manner. But the majority, the vast majority, tell me they learned to drink when they came to Chico State at 18 years old (most have some alcohol before they enter college, but they don’t start drinking regularly until college).

It’s a rite of passage, I hear people say about drinking regularly in college. Maybe, but maybe not. Regardless of the rite of passage argument, most people who learn to drink at college, learn to drink while partying with their peers. They tend to model the behavior of their peers at this age and in this environment, especially if they’ve never had responsible drinking modeled for them by adults previously.

We know, through extensive research, that parental attitudes and behavior modeled to children play a significant role in teen and young adult drinking patterns, either positively or negatively. Parents who binge drink, are more likely to have children who binge drink, and the opposite is true as well. Parents who tell their children that they disapprove of underage drinking, will have children who delay drinking compared to children whose parents are more permissive.

Parents are suppose to set the limits for their children, and we do that with bedtimes and eating vegetables and curfews on Friday nights, and who our children can hang out with, but many parents are afraid, or don’t know how to model positive drinking behavior to their children. Maybe parents, too, reminisce about the glory days of college drinking, maybe they binge drink, or fail to monitor their own attitude about underage drinking and shrug it off as not a big deal.

Regardless, we have failed, and are failing every day, as a culture, at socializing our youth and modeling positive drinking behavior, Binge drinking is on the rise, irresponsible drinking is epidemic, and as a result, 3 college students die each day in America due to alcohol related injuries.

Your children will likely come to a place like Chico one day. We have no limits here when it comes to access to alcohol, the weather’s nice so there’s always a place for a party, our students have a skewed view of peer drinking habits, and we let other young adults model the worse drinking behavior a young adult can see. It’s a place where the odds are stacked against your children in terms of responsible drinking behavior, and if you don’t socialize your children to drink responsibly, they’ll likely learn to drink here. And what they learn here, will likely stick with them throughout their entire life.

Originally posted at Ethnography.com, January 2015