The Challenge of Staying Sober in a Drinking Culture

Young adults drinking on the beach

America is a big country filled with all kinds of people, some that drink and others that don’t. Problems arise when a person who doesn’t want to drink is immersed in a culture where drinking is the norm and everyone present is expected to participate. The pressure to fit in can be overwhelming, especially in a college environment where young adults are away from home for the first time.

What is it like in that alcohol-saturated world? What is it like when a person tries to maintain his (or her) sobriety while surrounded by friends who are drinking?

One man tweeted the kind of challenge he faced when trying to avoid drinking with friends.

Drinkin buddy says to me You WILL come to the bar with us & get drunk cause ur not a man unless U drink.

Then he tweeted his response to that comment: Anyone can drink lets see u stop!!

This exchange is not surprising in any part of our world where drinking is both accepted and expected. We’ll take a look at how this pressure manifests in adolescence and in college.

Peer Pressure to Drink in Adolescence

Koren Zailckas spent her teenage and college years drinking as much as she could. She sneaked out of her house to drink with friends and planned her college schedule around her hangovers. After she got sober at 22 years of age, she looked back and analyzed the destructiveness of those years in the book, Smashed, Story of a Drunken Girlhood. She described her attitude during one of her first escapes into drunkenness at 15 years of age:

I conform to a beer-ad version of myself, I agree to drink beer from a funnel, even though I know the boy channeling it will pour too fast, and I will end up wearing the thick tar of beer and wet sand…I want to prove that I can funnel as much beer as they can… I concede to shifting my personality, just a hair, to observe the standards I think the situation calls for.

Many young adults drinking

Peer Pressure to Drink in College

In college, the pressure hikes up several notches, most notoriously when newbies pledge the fraternities or sororities. Tragically, not every pledge survives the alcohol-fueled pledge period.

In 2017, pledges died at Penn State, Louisiana State University, Florida State University and at Texas State University. 

  • Timothy Piazza died after experiencing hazing at Beta Theta Pi at Penn State. He was 19 years old.
  • Maxwell Gruver was a freshman when he died after being ordered to consume alcohol while pledging Phi Delta Theta at LSU.
  • Andrew Coffey, 20, was found unresponsive after attending a party the night before. He was pledging Pi Kappa Phi at FSU.
  • Matthew Ellis, 20, was pledging Phi Kappa Psi at TSU and attended an off-campus event. He was found dead the next morning and circumstances pointed to an alcohol-related death.

What possesses these young men to abandon caution and common sense and drink themselves to death? A significant factor is the desire to fit in and a fear of appearing to be too different from their peers.

Asking Students How They Manage to Stay Sober

Staying sober while your college peers are engaged in habitual drinking is a daunting challenge. A professor at North Carolina State University surveyed two dozen sober students at her school to find out how they managed this delicate social challenge. It turned out that few students found it successful to simply tell people that they didn’t want to drink, because that made them “deviant” from their peers—even if that deviance was healthy and beneficial. Rather than drinking to excess being stigmatized, abstaining from alcohol is stigmatized in this setting.

What responses did these students receive from other students if they refrained from drinking?

No alcohol allowed sign
  • Excluded from social activities or conversations about drinking
  • Interrogations at parties
  • Openly mocked for their choices
  • Getting weird looks from drinkers
  • Called “wimpy” or “womanly” (for a male)
  • Challenged by questions like “Don’t you want to have fun?”
  • Classed as “goody two shoes” or “prude”

What techniques did these students develop to deal with the challenge of staying sober in a drinking culture?

  • When offered a drink, shifting the focus from the drink to the conversation or the person offering the drink
  • Making a point of not coming across preachy or self-righteous
  • Making sure they joined the activities of the party so as to not seem isolated by sobriety
  • Offering evasive or deliberately vague answers when offered a drink
  • Holding a cup already filled with a non-alcoholic drink

The researcher states, “As non-drinking violates the cultural norms of college, it was oftentimes easier for students to avoid revealing their non-drinking status in order to avoid drinkers’ perceptions that they were judging them, to prevent being stereotyped as a non-drinker, and to help themselves fit in.”

Changing this Dangerous Culture

To save lives and enable more people to stay healthy and successful, this culture must change. Some colleges are tackling this problem head-on, by going dry like Oklahoma University did in 2005 after an alcohol-related death in a fraternity house. Others are establishing recovery dorms where those who are coming back from alcoholism or drug addiction can find 24-hour support.

On the other side of this problem, some universities are allowing alcohol brands to sponsor and advertise at on-campus sporting events. Other schools are now selling alcohol at on-campus events.

Involvement in Greek life routinely includes the expectation that members will participate in drinking. Two researchers into Greek life noted that, “Greek housing has been found to create an enabling environment for drinking.”

A Better, Healthier Culture

It will take time and the efforts of many individuals to change this culture to one that is healthier and more tolerant of differences. In the meantime, many young adults will continue to feel intimidated into drinking more than they’d like to, with damaging results.

Since this culture is unlikely to change soon, it’s up to families to monitor the drinking habits of their loved ones while these teens or young adults are surrounded by a culture of drinking. Runaway drinking when young can turn into uncontrollable alcoholism by the time a person has a spouse and a couple of children. By that time, many people are going to require rehab to recover not only sobriety but also their ability to maintain their own integrity of choices.

A healthy group of young adults

That’s why the Narconon drug rehab program includes a life skills component—to bring integrity and the ability to stay true to one’s choices back to life. Recovery takes longer than the 30 days of many rehab programs which is why the Narconon program has no fixed time limit. A person graduates when that integrity has been restored and a person has the skills to navigate even these direct challenges.

If someone you care about needs to recover not only their sobriety but also their ability to resist peer pressure, look into the Narconon program today. Call us.


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.