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Study compares how alcohol harms cisgender, transgender and nonbinary students

Research by psychology professor identifies need for intervention efforts that are gender-inclusive
By: Surbhi Bir
November 18, 2021
Two femme individuals engaged in conversation, smiling and drinking wine.

Compared to cisgender women, transgender men and nonbinary individuals report experiencing increased risk of sexual assault after drinking alcohol.

Alcohol use is quite common on college campuses, especially in Canada where the legal drinking age corresponds with the years a student spends in college or university.

But sometimes patterns of heavy drinking emerge that can potentially lead to students experiencing a number of harms. Research has helped experts understand the context in which heavy drinking occurs and plan preventive efforts to minimize alcohol harms, but these are not always gender inclusive.

“Patterns of heavy drinking, when students consume five or more drinks in one sitting, are related to patterns of students experiencing a number of harms such as blacking out, getting in a fight or experiencing assault,” said Sarah Dermody, a psychology professor and director of the Clinical Addictions Research and Equity (CARE) Lab

“But there are certain groups that have not been examined closely, like transgender individuals at universities. We know very little about their alcohol use patterns and the harms they experience from their drinking.”

In her latest study called ​​Heavy drinking and drinking harms for cisgender and transgender college students, external link, Dermody examined alcohol use and harms among college students and their interrelations between cisgender, transgender and nonbinary students. 

The results of the study show that patterns of alcohol use, its consequences and their interrelationship differ for cisgender men, transgender women and men, and nonbinary individuals relative to cisgender women. 

“We identified that the risk of experiencing harms when drinking differed between cisgender, transgender and nonbinary college students,” Dermody said. “The research includes many new observations, but the one that I think is of greatest concern is that transgender and nonbinary students reported higher levels of suicidal ideation while drinking.”

Differences in alcohol harms based on gender

Based on a U.S. sample of four-year college students from different racial backgrounds, the study used cisgender women as the reference group for all comparisons.

Dermody and her colleagues found that cisgender men reported fewer occurrences of regret, sex without consent and unprotected sex when drinking, but greater occurrences of injury and trouble with the police.

Compared to cisgender women, transgender women and nonbinary individuals reported lower odds of regret and unprotected sex after drinking, while transgender men and nonbinary individuals reported increased odds of sex without their consent. 

“The consistent finding was that all transgender subgroups were at an elevated risk of suicidal ideation when intoxicated. This warrants further study as well as potential intervention efforts,” said Dermody.

“There’s an entire sub-population that’s being overlooked in our guidelines for adverse drinking. For example, the current Canadian drinking guidelines around what constitutes high-risk drinking levels are based on sex and they have different recommendations for men and women. There’s no indication of transgender men, transgender women or nonbinary folks.”

According to Dermody, the findings from her research suggest that gender identity should be considered when universities make recommendations about low-risk drinking levels and when they design interventions to prevent alcohol harms for students with diverse gender identities.

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