Communication Currents

Friends Don't Let Friends Hook Up Drunk

August 1, 2010
Health Communication, Interpersonal Communication

Many college students' social interactions revolve around alcohol and sex. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports the majority of college students drink, and approximately 40% of them drink excessively. Heavy alcohol consumption often leads to a variety of negative consequences that can range from illness, accidents, and death, to vandalism, poor academic performance, and risky sex. Drinking fuels the so-called “hook-up” culture, whereby young adults engage in sexual activity (that may or may not include actual intercourse) with people they are not committed to romantically.

While alcohol and sex are often seen as staples of college life, mixing the two can put young adults—especially women—at increased risk of sexual victimization, unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and emotional distress. Looking at the way college students talk about hooking up can provide insights as to why young adults make some of the health decisions they do, and about the communicative strategies they employ to protect each other in risky situations.

To address the problem of college drinking, many prevention programs have been developed. One such program that also addresses alcohol fueled sexual decision making is called Let's Talk About It (LTAI). LTAI is a scenario-based simulation of alcohol-related decision making. In a classroom setting, a trained facilitator presents students with five different scenarios and asks them to choose, from a set of three options, how they would react.

To capture the essence of what LTAI is like, here is an example of the first scenario: “It is a Thursday night. You are at a party on campus and the only drink available is a large bucket of punch. You do not know who made the punch, what is in it, or the alcohol content. Do you: A. Ask the host who made the punch, how much alcohol is in it, and proceed with caution” (moderate risk option); “B. Dive in, you came to party” (high risk option) or “C. Stay away from the punch and wait until some friends arrive who you think will bring cans of beer and soda” (low risk option).

Students report their choices anonymously using clickers (immediate response technology). Once they all “click in” their answers, a summary of responses is projected onto a screen via a bar graph, displaying how the group responded without revealing individual answers. The LTAI facilitator then engages students in a discussion about how they responded and why.

In an effort to understand more about college students' decision making process in situations involving both alcohol and sex, 141 undergraduate students from nine different classes were asked about the following LTAI scenario involving a hypothetical friend's potential hookup: “As the evening wears on, your friend Jane meets up with a person she has had her eye on for quite some time. The two of them have a couple drinks together and things are getting pretty hot. The new acquaintance invites Jane over to his place.”

Just over 39% of students chose option “A. Try to persuade her not to go by reminding her she may regret it” (moderate risk option); 21.4% chose option “B. Wish Jane a fun time” (high risk option); and the remaining 39.3% chose option “C. Make sure Jane gets home safely” (low risk option). Thus, over three-quarters of participants reported they would choose the low-risk or moderate-risk options. Along with the clicker data, students' discussions about the Jane scenario during the LTAI simulation were analyzed to explore why they made the decisions they did.

A few students said their answer depended on how drunk Jane was or what “get home safely” meant. However, the vast majority of students considered the scenario in terms of relational issues. First, they explained they'd be more likely to try to stop Jane from leaving for a drunken hook up if they were close friends with her rather than if she were a newer friend or a friend they did not know very well. Second, how well students knew the male character in the scenario was also an issue for them. Many students indicated they needed to trust him in order to let Jane leave with him. Finally, students also discussed the relationship between Jane and male character. If the two had just met each other that night, participants said they'd be more inclined to try to stop Jane from leaving with him.

Given the connection many college students feel between drinking and friendship and the importance they place on their peer relationships, it might not be surprising the majority of students framed the Jane scenario in terms of relational issues and went with the less risky options. These findings suggest friends don't let friends hook up drunk, and the salience of the hook-up culture might be overstated.

Students indicated they use a variety of communicative strategies when trying to protect their friends. Some LTAI participants said they would appeal to Jane's sense of regret by warning her she didn't “want to feel like a slut in the morning” or she didn't “want little Jane's running around.” Other students spoke of trickery or deception as a strategy, indicating their drunken peers were easily distracted or fooled out of their sexual exploits. For instance, one participant said she'd tell Jane they were going to the guy's house, and then “take a cab somewhere else;” whereas another student said she'd offer to buy Jane food.

Students also brought up direct confrontation as a persuasive strategy. One woman said she had experienced a situation similar to the Jane scenario and just “dragged her out of there.” These findings indicate students are willing to engage with each other to prevent risky behaviors, and, while often difficult, such communicative strategies could be effective.

Providing students with the opportunity to reflect on, discuss, and interpret their own and their peers' behaviors in hypothetical, yet still realistic, situations involving both alcohol and sex offers insights for both the participants and researchers about the larger social context in which dangerous drinking and sexual encounters co-occur among college students. Additionally, using LTAI in the classroom setting with trained facilitators provides a safe place to help students examine the role of communication in complex situations involving friendships, alcohol, and sex.

About the author (s)

Linda C. Lederman

Arizona State University


Lisa Menegatos

Arizona State University

Doctoral Candidate

Aaron Hess

Indiana University-University Purdue University

Assistant Professor