There are many reasons why a Vassar student might abstain from drinking or events associated with alcohol. They may have a moral opposition to drinking excessively or while underage. They may be taking medication or have a condition that would make any alcohol consumption potentially deadly. Or they may be fine with drinking but be uncomfortable with the noise and crowd level of parties or Mug nights.
Whatever the reason, the decision not to partake in mainstream drinking culture should always be respected. In my experience, Vassar students tend to adhere to this philosophy. I have never felt pressured to drink or stay in a space that I was not comfortable in by my peers; in fact, on several occasions, friends and strangers have gone out of their way to make sure that I was comfortable and that I was enjoying myself even when not drinking.
While I am sure that some people reading this have had different experiences, I have never seen a Vassar student try to pressure other students to do things they don’t want to do where alcohol and drugs are concerned.
Where Vassar lags behind, however, is in its treatment of and general attitude toward so-called “alternative programming.” While individual students don’t pressure one another to drink, Vassar creates an intense implicit pressure to drink by recognizing it as the norm and abstaining from alcohol as the “alternative” choice. This creates a toxic drinking culture in which people consume alcohol not in the course of normal college experimentation, but under a sense of obligation.
I don’t take any personal issue with drinking. Since I turned 21, I haven’t felt any need to actively abstain from it. Drinking can be a perfectly fun and safe activity if done in moderation. I don’t find the concept of a drinking culture particularly objectionable either. Many college students drink. Naturally, alcohol consumption is an important part of our school culture, and complaining about it seems a little futile. After all, our founder was a brewer, and so is our school mascot.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a drinking culture. Yet, there is something wrong with it when it feels compulsory. There is something even more wrong with a culture that infantilizes non-drinking while enforcing drinking as an established and celebrated norm. The solution doesn’t necessarily have to be a campus culture that discourages drinking, but rather one that at the very least considers both choices to be equal options. From early on, however, drinking is promoted and enforced as the norm.
Early in my first year at Vassar, I remember seeing a presentation about drinking responsibly on campus. I can’t remember if it was overseen by the Vassar Student Association (VSA) at large, my dorm, or some other official body, but I remember it being explained to me that there were two extremes: binge drinking and not drinking at all. It was explained to me that the ideal was in between these two points: specifically, drinking somewhat, but not too much. Perhaps it was just a slip of tongue or perhaps I just didn’t understand what they meant, but it seemed odd that such an event would actively promote drinking.
However, even if this was just a Freudian slip, it seems to me like an oddly self-fulfilling prophecy. We assume that first-years will begin drinking, and through this we create a feeling that people are obligated to drink. If someone feels like everyone around them is partaking in an activity, they are more likely to think that they’re supposed to engage in it even if they don’t really want to. At college in particular there is a feeling that we’re supposed to be experimenting and doing new and different things. I have certainly felt—and I suspect others have too—that if I’m not at least trying alcohol, then I’m not making the most out of my time at college.
Ultimately, the mere act of consuming alcohol is not the biggest issue with drinking culture at Vassar College. The main problem, to be clear, is programming. There is a serious lack of options, especially on major occasions, for students who do not want to engage in mainstream drinking or party culture. The options that do exist end early and are far too often casually dismissed. While there have been some recent efforts to provide this alternative space (huge shout-out to Big Night In), the college is still not at a point where non-drinking students have equal opportunities to have fun.
Now, I want to define what I mean by “mainstream drinking culture.” What I mean is not a few friends having a beer in their room during the weekend. While that is a definite part of life of Vassar, it is not indicative of mass drinking culture. “Mass drinking culture,” for the purposes of my argument, will be defined as elements of Vassar in which drinking occurs en masse—usually centered around a certain event or a larger party culture. Mass drinking culture is not necessarily indicative of all drinking culture at Vassar. A lot of parties are smaller and don’t involve a kind of high school party atmosphere of binge drinking, loud music, and turning its location upside down. In fact, those parties are very likely more representative of Vassar party culture.
But these are also not the most visible elements of Vassar drinking culture. Mass drinking culture on campus is most visible on occasions such as Halloween and Founder’s Day. It can also be observed on any typical Mug night and throughout the early part of the fall semester. Now, I understand none of these events are inherently tied to alcohol. People can—and I’m sure people do—go to the Mug or Halloween parties sober or abstain from drinking on Founder’s Day. These events are not necessarily related to drinking or drug use.
Practically, however, they are. The Mug, for example, is indicative of the kind of club environments that are often associated with drinking, and pregaming is very common. Yet, that’s not to say that everyone who enjoys going to the Mug does so after drinking. That is, many students abstain from going to the Mug or Halloween dance or Founder’s Day not because they want to actively abstain from alcohol use, but because those spaces are often not accessible or enjoyable.
I am autistic, and while I can sometimes tolerate crowded spaces with loud music, I generally don’t like them. A lot of people, disabled and otherwise, not only don’t like those kinds of spaces, but cannot physically handle them. I personally find the Mug to be extremely suffocating and unsettling, and for that reason I have abstained from Mug nights.
For those like me, another option would be valuable. Unfortunately, there often simply isn’t one. Herein lies the greatest problem with mass drinking culture at Vassar: alcohol and parties have become such an inherent norm that people don’t think about the need for an alternative. Because of that, there are not nearly enough spaces on campus for people who do not want to engage in what is generally considered to be the dominant option. For a while, if you didn’t want to attend the Halloween party, or go to the Mug, or go to Founders’ Day, you had to choose your own alternative, since the VSA didn’t view your needs as important enough to acknowledge.
That is a kind of ableism, for it holds up bodies for which these kinds of events are accessible while ignoring those for whom they aren’t. There are many students on campus who make a conscious choice not to drink or attend these events. There are also many students for whom drinking or going to the Mug or going to some similar event isn’t an option. To not prioritize those voices, to not acknowledge them to be just as valid as any other voice, is dereliction of duty on behalf of the student body and the VSA.
We’re finally starting to get those alternatives, though. Big Night In orchestrated a great event at the same time as the Halloween party that was well-organized, fun and (seemingly) well-attended. That event was the first time I felt like I had really celebrated Halloween on this campus. Big Night In organizes quite a few events, and while I don’t go to many of them, I very much appreciate what they’re doing. They provide an alternative for students who want to enjoy themselves without needing to participate in mass drinking culture.
However, it remains a great shame that Big Night In is considered “alternative programming.” It is unfortunate that what Big Night In does is considered so outside what we have constructed as “Vassar” that their substance-free events are not a celebrated outgrowth of our school culture, but an alternative to the mainstream. Abstaining from “mainstream” programming is considered, in that sense, an abstention from Vassar as a whole. This isn’t Big Night In’s fault; of course, they are a wonderful organization that is doing great work. Rather, it is the fault of a campus community that undervalues the need for substance-free programming.
I call upon the VSA to value and invest in alternative programming. I call upon the broader Vassar community to consider carefully how we have constructed what it means to be a student here, and the role that alcohol consumption plays in that. I’m not suggesting that we embrace temperance or even cut down on our drinking, but rather that we do our part to help change Vassar culture for the better.
A Vassar in which all lifestyles are equally valued and equally considered a part of our campus culture is in everyone’s best interest. In order to realize that Vassar, however, me must insist that our student representatives take on this issue and fight for more substance-free events.