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The Drinking Age Misconception

Written by Katrina Moncure Jan 06, 2011

One of our bigger campaigns here at NYRA is lowering the drinking age, the issue about which we’ve probably gotten the most press, as well as the most vocal opposition, whether angry opinion articles or pro-21 forum trolls or that time Alex Koroknay-Palicz was tabling and someone came up and screamed at him after merely hearing this is one of our positions. I run #16tovote on the 16th every month to promote lowering the voting age, been doing it for nearly a year now, and in that time I can probably count on one hand how many negative responses to it the event has gotten. If we were instead doing a monthly Twitter hashtag campaign like that one on the drinking age, I can guarantee the dissenters and trolls would crawling out of the woodwork!

Because, you know, how dare we suggest that teenagers should be drinking!

Actually… we are not suggesting that at all. The pro-21 people often say they support the high drinking age because “I don’t think teenagers should be drinking!” Well, okay, it’s ageist but you’re entitled to your opinion. Thing is, that statement is not what supporting the current drinking age says. Supporting the current drinking age is to say “I think teenagers should be arrested, in legal trouble, and treated as criminals for drinking!” Because, you know, it’s better to have a criminal record, get hassled by law enforcement, and possibly go to jail than to very slightly endanger your health.

Yeah, that’s the trouble. When you’d rather see a group of people in jail than doing something involving only their own bodies, don’t even try to say it’s about protecting their health. It’s about criminalizing teens for daring to engage in “improper” behavior.

And, as I pointed out last month on my own blog, the drinking age becomes a go-to excuse to discriminate against teens in other ways, ways that have nothing at all to do with drinking. Many hotels will not allow under-21s to check-in for fear of “underage drinking parties” (despite the fact that they run that risk by having underage people stay there at all, even with families, so all that rule really does is inhibit youth independence). Some places, such as movie theater company Muvico, serve alcohol in some instances for the specific purpose of keeping young people out (though they might insist it’s the other way around), because they think adults have an inherent right to be away from them. With the drinking age, you can just add alcohol to a situation and you have an excuse to get rid of those unwanted youth. In some jurisdictions, in some alcohol-serving establishments, the mere presence of anyone under-21 can get them shut down, and people would much rather just get rid of the offending youth than try to get the rule changed (which might open them up to accusations of wanting to endanger youth for profit). Because, let’s face it, our society absolutely loves alcohol and absolutely hates young people.

Not to mention the times parents have been sentenced to several years of prison for allowing their children to drink in their homes. Yeah, good job. In other words, teen drinking is a more serious problem, so much so that it’s worth ripping apart their families. That’s apparently less harmful. I guess.

Again, all that is ridiculous and does absolutely nothing to protect youth. There’s also the fact that people under 21 who have had too much (something that happens at ALL ages!) can be too afraid to seek medical help, a fear that is sometimes fatal, because they’d get in trouble for underage drinking. There’s the fact that people under 21 who had even just had a little bit but end up victims of rape or other assault are afraid to report their attack for fear of being charged for underage drinking, and in many cases law enforcement cared more about the fact that this young person had been drinking than that she’d been raped!

Does this mean pro-21 people think it’s okay or even deserved for under-21s to be raped or die if they’d been drinking? They’d say no, but the actual effects of the law they support says otherwise. Or, in the case of assault victims, you may often hear “well, if she hadn’t been drinking in the first place, it wouldn’t have happened”. Which is the fluent language of rape apologism, which takes the blame off the actual rapist and places it on the victim, that if the victim had behaved this wouldn’t have happened. One might say that’s just another reason to not drink underage, that because of the law, no one will believe you if something happens. But that fact is in and of itself a PROBLEM, and as a problem it should be solved, not to be used as an excuse to shame someone into behaving in a way you approve of. A young person’s body belongs only to that young person, and as such, what substance he/she chooses to put into that body of his/her own free will should be a choice that is respected, and assault on that young person against his/her will should be seen as the serious crime it is, regardless of whatever he/she consumed prior to it.

Though bodily autonomy is the real issue here. Our most frequently used talking point for lowering the drinking age is that it’s ridiculous we send young people to war at 18, that at 18 they are allowed the CHOICE to sign up and risk their lives in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but they can’t make the CHOICE to have a glass of wine until age 21. But in another way, it does make sense. It makes sense because if it’s a crime against society to put alcohol into your own body, yet at that same age that society can ship you off to risk your life for whatever international squabble it’s gotten itself into, then your body clearly does not belong to you, but to the government, until you are 21.

So, to review, to support the drinking age is: to support inhibiting youth independence, to support criminalizing and demonizing youth for merely making an unhealthy choice under a certain age, to support excluding youth from more and more social situations, to support ruining a business and taking away people’s jobs and livelihood because a young person was merely present in their establishment, to support destroying families because they allowed someone under-21 to have wine in their own home, to believe the life of an under-21 drinker is not worth saving, to believe under-21 drinkers deserve to be raped and otherwise assaulted, to believe under-21s do not own their own bodies.

Yeah, don’t even try to call us the ones who are cavalier about the health and safety of youth. We too include people who have been touched in some way by alcohol abuse. We absolutely believe that people of ANY age should never drink more than they can handle, that they should get help if they have a problem, and that they absolutely should never ever drink and drive. We also believe that your age alone does not determine the responsibility of your drinking. We absolutely support promoting real responsible drinking in a way that is age-blind and isn’t about fear mongering or demonizing anyone. We absolutely oppose the idea that there is something wrong with people who choose not to drink, at any age. After all, we may want to lower the drinking age, but we do not support drinking. We support CHOICE!

Pro-21 wants to restrict, blame, disable, and demonize youth and has the nerve to think it’s about protection. It’s not. The drinking age and all that comes with it hurts youth every day, as does anything else that restricts, blames, disables, and demonizes youth. And we’re here to stop it.

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