In the U.S., military service is linked with increased risks for potentially dangerous substance abuse related to the consumption of alcohol and prescription medications. Risks are especially high in servicemen and servicewomen stationed in combat zones or actively exposed to combat situations. According to the current research consensus, women in the military drink more often than their civilian counterparts. However, the results of a study published in July 2014 in the journal Armed Forces & Society indicate that the reverse situation may hold true. Among other things, the authors of this study linked lower rates of alcohol use by women in the military to fear of sexual assault and sexual harassment by other military personnel.
Women and Alcohol
Most women in the U.S. drink alcohol on at least an occasional basis. In addition, more than 10 percent of alcohol-consuming women qualify as heavy drinkers by exceeding the gender-specific recommendations for moderate intake issued by federal public health experts. These recommendations are issued in order to decrease the odds that alcohol consumers will fall into a pattern of use that increases their odds for developing alcohol use disorder (alcoholism/alcohol abuse). Compared to men, women have a unique susceptibility to alcohol’s effects. Reasons for this susceptibility include women’s relative lack of body weight and women’s slower processing of alcohol even when they weigh the same as men.
Women, Alcohol and Sexual Assault
Unfortunately, rape and other forms of sexual assault are not uncommon experiences among American women. Even when the well-known phenomenon of under-reporting is taken into account, at least one out of every four women has likely gone through such an assault. Alcohol consumption acts as a contributing factor in roughly 50 percent of all reported sexual assault cases. In some of these cases, the victim of the assault has consumed alcohol, while in other cases the perpetrator has consumed alcohol. In still other cases of sexual assault, both the victim and the perpetrator have consumed alcohol. Contributing factors for women’s risks for alcohol-related assault include increased aggression and violence in men under the influence of alcohol, alcohol’s capacity to seriously alter basic decision-making, cultural attitudes toward women in general and cultural attitudes toward women who consume alcohol in particular.
Drinking in the Military
Evidence compiled by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) indicates that alcohol abuse is a common problem among military personnel. For example, large numbers of service members participate in the drunkenness-producing activity called binge drinking. The highest rates for binge drinking and other forms of alcohol abuse tend to appear in combat veterans and other personnel who have served in active combat zones. NIDA is one of many organizations to report rates of alcohol consumption in servicewomen that exceed the rates found in women with no history of military service.
Do Military Women Drink Less?
In the study published in Armed Forces & Society, researchers from Western Washington University used data from a long-term project called the 1997 National Longitudinal Study of Youth to compare the rate of alcohol consumption among women currently in the military and female military veterans to the rate of consumption among women who have never served in the military. The final results from this project, designed to measure health outcomes for people born between the years 1980 and 1984, were gathered in 2010. More than four out five of the original 8,984 participants completed all phases of the project. Among other things, the National Longitudinal Survey asked each participant to describe his or her habitual pattern of alcohol intake. The researchers concluded that men currently serving in the military and male military veterans consume alcohol substantially more often than their counterparts with no record of military service. However, they also concluded that, counter to previous findings on the subject, women currently serving in the military and female veterans actually consume alcohol less often than their counterparts with no history of military service. After reviewing the possible reasons for this discrepancy, the researchers concluded that the explanation might lie in the relatively clear risks for sexual assault while serving in the military. Servicewomen and veterans exposed to these risks in a military environment may choose to keep their alcohol intake at lower levels in order to reduce their odds of being victimized. The study’s authors note that their project is unique in its comparison of the long-term drinking behaviors of civilian women and women who serve in the military. However, they also note that the relatively small number of women involved in the National Longitudinal Survey who joined the military may have affected the accuracy of their findings.