Do Early Drinking Contexts Predict Current Drinking in Adult Lesbians?
Cheryl Parks, PhD, MSW, University of Connecticut and Tonda L. Hughes, PhD, RN, FAAN, University of Illinois at Chicago.
Purpose: Alcohol abuse is a prevalent and serious problem among women who identify as lesbian. Compared to heterosexual women, lesbians appear to be less likely to abstain from drinking, less likely to decrease drinking with age, and more likely to report alcohol-related problems. Stress associated with “coming out” and early reliance on gay bars are frequently cited as explanations for these findings however neither explanation has been empirically tested. General population studies indicate that patterns of alcohol use established early in the life course or during periods of life transitions are predictive of later patterns of use and alcohol related problems. Further, associations with heavy drinking peers, increased availability of alcohol, and drinking within particular contexts, such as at parties and in bars, are believed to contribute to heavy drinking and drinking related consequences in adulthood. Data from wave two of the Chicago Health and Life Experiences of Women (CHLEW) study provide an opportunity to examine how early drinking contexts of women “coming out” as lesbian affect current and lifetime drinking and drinking consequences among adult lesbians. Method: Data were collected in face-to-face interviews with 384 self-identified lesbians. Independent variables include early drinking contexts (primary association with other lesbians, heterosexuals, or mixed groups; availability of alcohol in social interactions with lesbians, heterosexuals, and gay men; level of alcohol use with other lesbians, with heterosexuals, and in public). Dependent outcome variables include current drinking (past 30 day average drinks/day; level of current drinking) and lifetime alcohol-related problems. Regression models were used to evaluate the effects of early drinking contexts on each DV, controlling for relevant demographic characteristics and age of “coming out”. Results: The majority of respondents are light (40%) or moderate (27%) drinkers; 7.5 % drink heavily and 26% are abstinent. “Coming out” was defined by most women as the time when they first acknowledged to themselves that they were lesbian (mean age = 23 years). Most respondents socialized with mixed groups of lesbians and heterosexual women (49%) when they first came out; fewer socialized with mostly heterosexual women (22%), mostly lesbians (19%) or other groups (10%). Alcohol was usually or always available for most respondents when socializing with gay men (68%) or with other lesbians (53%), and less so when socializing with heterosexuals (42%). Respondents reported consuming the most alcohol while “coming out” when with other lesbians (e.g., at home, on a date, at a bar or party) and consuming the least when in public contexts (e.g., at a concert or sporting event). Results of regression analyses indicated that drinking contexts when “coming out” accounted for 8%-13% of the variance in current drinking levels and lifetime alcohol-related problems. Implications for practice: Patterns of drinking established during “coming out” can have enduring effects on later alcohol use among lesbians. Availability of non-drinking venues for socialization, more visible resources, and education about associated risks may help reduce alcohol use during this vulnerable transition in lesbians' lives.