Let’s first acknowledge the elephant at the beginning of this article. There is underage drinking at Kenyon College. There is underage drinking at most colleges. I do not condone it, but this social construct exists and I must therefore find my own way to live within it.
Here’s the mouse sitting on the elephant’s back that we don’t talk about enough: you don’t have to drink in college. I know, I know, you’ve heard it before. Whether it’s from your mom, your Uncle Gary, your Beer and Sex advisor, or your slightly tipsy classmate from freshman English, people say that it’s okay not to drink until you’re twenty-one. That they respect your decision, that it’s “honestly pretty cool that you still go out without drinking.” However, it doesn’t always feel that way.
It isn’t your fault, kind college drinkers and concerned relatives. I have myself to blame for a lot of the thoughts I have about my decision not to drink until I’m at least twenty-one. But I feel like there’s something missing in this discussion about college drinking. When I arrived at Kenyon, our Beer and Sex advisors taught our floor about the party culture here. That word—culture—fascinates me in this context. When you really think about it, party culture is its own little universe. There is a language involved, and the social dynamics are considerably different on Saturday nights versus, say, a Tuesday evening. People talk differently, act differently, and dress differently.
Consequently, my status as “Sober Person Who Only Goes Out When She’s in the Mood to Be the One of the Only (If Not the Only) Sober Person in the Room” isolates me from that culture a bit. Sometimes, I feel more like an ethnographer studying party culture than I do an inhabitant of this world within our own. It is this distance—more psychological on my part than anything—that causes those thoughts I have about my decision to not drink.
What are these thoughts, you ask? Well, there are plenty of them, and the more I think about them, the more I realize that the majority center around one topic: what other people think of my sobriety. Do they think I believe I’m better than them? Do they roll their eyes at my willingness to consider the law? (Or does my presence remind them that they are breaking the law?) Do they even care that I don’t drink? Do they even notice? These questions stream on and on, in various iterations of the same idea: what do people think about this decision?
I believe that this points to two problems, one of which is societal and the other more personal. In terms of the latter, I definitely need to improve the way I look at my decisions. At the end of the day, it shouldn’t matter how other people perceive my choices and the way I live my life. If I am confident in my reasons for sobriety, then I should be confident that people will understand—and if they don’t, then that doesn’t really matter. I should not be living my life constantly trying to look at myself through other peoples’ eyes in order to make sure that I look okay.
On a societal level, I think my discomfort points to one of the central problems revolving around drinking culture. While we as a college students (and somewhat as a nation) are beginning to address drinking in college, we don’t talk about not drinking. There’s this odd sort of assumption that you will drink when you’re underage, and I think there needs to be more of a discussion about the fact that this just isn’t the case. We have all heard about the “perils of peer pressure” and have been warned time and time again “not to do something because everyone is doing it,” but I have talked to multiple friends who felt that pressure to drink in order to fit in.
When I started my freshman year at Kenyon, I was really nervous about how I would fit into the school’s drinking culture. However, my cross-country teammates (who I usually go out with on the weekends) were remarkably welcoming to people who don’t drink. They are the perfect example of a drinking culture that acknowledges the benefits of not drinking and does not pressure people. They are the reason that I believe we can change the discussion about drinking on college campuses.
This topic is far too complex for me to articulate, and I’m not entirely sure if I am the right person to attempt to write the ethnography on drinking culture at Kenyon. In fact, Professor Suggs did just that a few years ago, and though Kenyon has likely changed a bit since his study, many of his observations still ring true. However, I’d like to hope that introducing my perspective to the conversation will help future discussions be a little less skewed.
Image credits: Quinn Harrigan, Caroline Daugherty, Kenyon College