A study recently published in the journal Sex Roles came to the depressing – yet, sadly, not so surprising – conclusion that a woman holding an alcoholic drink is perceived to be more sexually available and less human than a woman who is not, or indeed a man who is holding a drink.
The research was undertaken by academics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the University of Nebraska, and Iowa State University, and is thought to be the first to investigate the relationship between dehumanization and alcohol use. It involved a set of three experiments, each of which involved a picture of a young person (male or female) at a bar holding a bottled drink (beer or water).
In each, 398 volunteers – 207 of whom were male and 191 of whom were female – were asked to describe how drunk and how human they thought the person in the photograph was, using a seven-point scale and descriptive words such as “tipsy”, “mechanical”, and “buzzed”. Participants were also asked to rate the person on various derogatory analogies, including “cold like a robot” and “lack self-restraint like an animal”.
In the final experiment, the researchers included captions or statuses, the idea being to add some more context to the scenario. For example: “4 drinks in! ha ha keep it coming! Hooray for the weekend!”
The general results of the study showed that participants rated the women harsher when she was holding an alcoholic drink than when she was holding water, implying she was less human in the first scenario. And yet, the man wasn’t rated any differently when he was holding an alcoholic drink.
This, the researchers say, relates to harmful gender stereotypes that suggest a woman who drinks is more sexually promiscuous – or “up for it”. But if you think it is just men who think this way, you’d be wrong. According to the study, men and women are just as likely to make these misogynistic assumptions, highlighting how internalized sexism has become.
“While we predicted that women drinking alcohol would be dehumanized more than women drinking water or men drinking alcohol, it was still surprising to see it emerge,” Jeanine Skorinko, a professor of social science and policy studies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said in a statement. “This is especially shocking because just holding a beer bottle increased perceptions of intoxication and perceptions of sexual availability for women, but not for men. Moreover, it didn’t matter who the perceiver was – male and female perceivers dehumanized women drinking alcohol similarly.”
This has “troubling implications”, she added, saying this perception of women who drink may encourage others to be more sexually aggressive towards them. This effect that may be compounded by the fact that men, drunk on alcohol, are more likely to sexually objectify women, as discovered by a previous study. It might also suggest that outsiders may be less willing to help a woman who has been drinking when she finds herself in a risky situation – something we have seen play out in the news cycle with the Brock Turner case and Brett Kavanaugh nomination (later confirmation).
But hopefully, this study will help prompt change and encourage us to rethink our assumptions. “By having this deeper understanding, hopefully we can start to increase awareness of these issues and reduce the victimization of women – whether they are drinking or not.”