By Jessica Trappe
“How much alcohol is in this?” asks Amber* as she looks at the drink in her hand. “7.5%! No ways! I’m halfway done with this and I’m not even tipsy,” she says to the five of us huddled in her small bachelor flat. This is a typical Wednesday night and we are ‘pre-drinking’. The music is as loud as it will go on Jenna’s small laptop and we all have drinks in our hands.
Amber and Kyla* are Jenna’s best friends and Jack* and I arrived together. Jack is the only man in the room yet he does not seem intimidated; he readily contributes to our conversations that can sometimes be quite sexist. The conversation is captivating and I sit there, on a pile of laundry, on the small couch, clutching my Smirnoff Spin. We talk about women’s rights, freedom, religion and current events. Our arguments become less clear the more alcohol we consume, but none of us seem to notice.
‘Pre-drinks’ have become part of the drinking culture at Rhodes University, and some would say the aim of any night out is to get drunk, as fast as possible, with the least cost.
But at what point does drinking stop becoming fun and start becoming an addiction?
At a university that is infamous for its students’ drinking habits, the thin line between a fun night out and binge drinking is blurred.
Rhodes University has taken an active role in educating its students about alcohol and its consequences, as well as debunking some of the myths that surround it.
Displayed all over campus are posters produced by the Dean of Student’s Office, which are aimed at helping students to figure out how much they drink in relation to other students.
Often students assume others drink more than they do, which is not necessarily the case.
The posters were not on our minds as we all sat in Jenna’s small flat; all we wanted to do was have a good time.
However, the conversation did shift to alcohol at Rhodes. “At Rhodes it’s really hard to make friends,” says Kyla as she smokes by the door.
“If you don’t go out it’s so hard to socialise. When someone asks you if you go out and you say no, it’s like, ‘You don’t go to Friars, you don’t drink – what??!’”
“My first time getting drunk was at home. It’s better that way. At least now I can handle myself, because when that guy says, ‘Let’s get out of here’ I can turn around and say, ‘Nah’,” says Amber as she straightens her already-straight,silky, blonde hair.
An empty bottle of cheap wine is discarded, another is opened and I head to the fridge to grab a few more Smirnoff Spins.
In a few minutes we will be making our way to Friar Tucks via the Rat – our usual route.
Rhodes University Dean of Students, Dr Vivienne de Klerk, and Professor Charles Young, of the Rhodes Psychology Department, have taken a particular interest in the issue of alcohol at Rhodes University.
They have conducted a number of surveys and interviews with students to highlight the issues around alcohol consumption at the university and have published three academic articles on the subject.
According to their findings, students’ main goal in consuming alcohol is to become intoxicated. The study said drinking to achieve intoxication is an example of the enhancement-motive commonly implicated in binge drinking.
They found that the reasons behind pre-drinking among students are both economic and social.
Drinks bought at the supermarket or liquor outlet are much cheaper than those at night clubs and bars.
Typically, a group of students will meet at a student’s ‘digs’ (accommodation off campus) or at a student’s room in residence to get intoxicated together.
The conversation is often lively and there is always music playing. Usually a strong punch is made using the cheapest, available liquor or everyone provides their own drinks.
‘Pre-drinks’ have become a normal part of the thriving drinking culture at Rhodes.
Reasons for drinking include peer pressure, the fear of missing out (FOMO), and the need for social bonding.
At pre-drinks it is desirable for everyone to get drunk at the same time and to the same extent.
The research paper also highlights how many students found it daunting to enter a club or pub, sober.
Although students take part in excessive drinking, they are not necessarily ‘alcoholics’.
Alcoholism is based on dependency. Alcoholics usually drink in solitude often as soon as the day begins.
“I don’t think alcoholism is a problem (at Rhodes) – it is based on dependency and is rare,” according to Young.
He described binge drinking as heavy, episodic drinking that is harmful. “The amount of alcohol consumed is not the problem,” says Young. “The problem is that that entire intake is condensed into a small amount of time.”
As we all went hand-in-hand down the street to Friars on that Wednesday night, I could not have been happier. We were all friends, all together and all having a great time.
Granted, some of us were already stumbling, but I could not wait to get to Friar’s.
Five minutes at Friar’s made me wish I had never gone there.
I was sober – that was the problem.
All around me I could see intoxicated people stumbling about, splashing their drinks on to each other and trying to “hook-up”.
The music was so loud I could feel it vibrate through my whole body and the air was thick with smoke.
Somehow we had become separated. That will happen in Friar’s. Everyone around me seemed carefree and reckless.
I sat there, miserable in my sober state.
I looked down on to the dance floor.
Below, a young man wearing a red boa caught my attention. His eyes were glazed over and he seemed lost in the crowd.
Kyla, who was sitting next to me smoking, started talking to a young man who was clearly trying to persuade her to sleep with him despite her insisting she had a boyfriend.
A man in knee-high orange socks walks by – it hardly fazes me.
A guy in a martial arts outfit captures my attention for a minute. But my attention is pulled away by a girl who manages to fall down the last three stairs.
A group of people are chattering right next to me and one of them almost spills his drink on me. At this point I cannot stand it anymore, I say goodbye to Kyla and head home.
Two hours later, I am woken up by Jenna, sobbing outside my flat. She has twisted her ankle and is so drunk she cannot stand. I am worried that she came home alone, but she managed to mumble that a ‘nice group of people’ brought her home.
Thursday afternoon, after lectures, I decide to check in on Jenna, and return her boots which she left at my flat the night before. As I hand them over to her she looks confused.
“How do you have my boots?” she asks.
“Don’t you remember?” I ask.
“Last thing I remember was going to Friar’s,” she says.
(*) The names in the article have been changed to protect the identity of the students.