Upfront

Research has long shown that drinking and sex is a dangerous combination for teens, leading to unwanted pregnancies, STDs, even rape. But the message girls get from today's media is "Drinking plus sex equals fun," said Laina Y. Bay-Cheng, PhD, of the University at Buffalo–State University of New York.

"If we look at popular media representations of drinking and sex, especially those aimed at adolescents...we have to reckon with the fact that our data say one thing, but music videos (and other media) show a very different picture," said Bay-Cheng at the symposium "Bringing Sexy Back—From Sexualization to Healthy Sexuality" during APA's Annual Convention.

Take the "Shots" music video by LMFAO, Bay-Cheng pointed out. "They embody party fun. They are all about having a raucous, drunk good time." But this song and others like it are not just produced by and marketed to men. "Women are singing to women about the fun that can be had if you get really drunk and go out," she said.

In "Just Dance" for example, Lady Gaga sings about having too much to drink, losing your keys, your phone and not knowing where you are. "Anyone who does work on sexual trauma is thinking that is a recipe for disaster," said Bay-Cheng. "But the refrain is 'Just dance,' everything is going to be OK." The hit singer Ke$ha—currently on her "Get Sleazy" tour—is another unapologetic party girl. In her "TikTok" song, "she brushes her teeth with a bottle of Jack and has no worries because she's got plenty of beer," said Bay-Cheng.

While these are clearly sexualized images, the women are not passive sexual objects for men's consumption, said Bay-Cheng. These women are talking to girls about drinking and attracting guys—and "kicking them to the curb" if they are "not up to snuff."

"Part of the allure and what we have to reckon with is that it actually could look like a lot of fun," said Bay-Cheng.

Focus groups conducted by her co-author, Jennifer A. Livingston, PhD, at the University at Buffalo's Research Institute on Addictions, with 14- to 17-year-old girls confirm that idea—as well as the "transformational" nature of alcohol. As one girl put it, "I can do anything and not worry about the consequences."

If society really wants to limit the risks of alcohol and sex, said Bay-Cheng, it needs to recognize the role of gender norms in raising the appeal of alcohol and sex, especially to young women who face competing expectations: to play the part of a sexed-up party girl as well as an obedient and responsible good girl. Blaming sexual and sexualized behavior on alcohol allows girls to negotiate this enduring double bind.

"If you have sex, you're a slut and if you don't you're a prude, but drinking allows you to do both," said Bay-Cheng. "You can go out get, drunk, have sex and the next day say, 'I'm still a good girl; it wasn't me—it was the alcohol.'"

—S. Martin