One might say Megan Holmes was a regular on the southern California college party scene.
"Some nights we were out till 2 in the morning, but some were short," she said. "On average we went to at least three or four a night."
But amid the crowds of young women in revealing themed costumes and free-flowing kegs, Holmes may have been the only one at these alcohol-drenched gatherings without a drink in her hand. Instead, she carried a stack of clipboards and a Breathalyzer.
Holmes, who is now working on her doctoral degree at UCLA, was part of a team of researchers who sought to take the study of college drinking to the next level — by venturing inside a total of 66 college parties to see what was really going on. The research was published Thursday in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
"It wasn't shocking to me because I had just graduated college so I had seen most of this stuff going on before," Holmes said. But she adds that there were some surprises.
"Most shocking to me was that women at themed parties kept dressing less and less," she said. "When I was in college there were themed parties, but I never saw girls just wearing lingerie or just a bra and panties, and that was pretty common at the themed parties I saw."
These observations — along with dozens of Breathalyzer readings and surveys completed on the scene by college partygoers — defied the typical methods of research on college drinking, which normally use questionnaires administered days or months after the bottles have been cleared and the music has stopped.
Parties Getting Wilder?
The researchers had some sobering findings, among them that revelers at smaller parties tended to drink more. This could be explained by simple mathematics; the fewer drinkers on hand, the more booze there is to go around, they said.
But lead study author John Clapp, director of the Center for Alcohol and Drug Studies and Services at San Diego State University, says the behavior of women drinkers at themed parties was particularly notable.
"One of [the] most surprising things to us was the theme-party finding that women drank more at these," he said. "We started going to theme parties like toga parties or costume parties, with highly sexualized themes and with the women wearing not very much."
"What was surprising was it was one of few places that we know of that women actually outdrank men; we're not exactly sure why. It could have something to do with fact that they aren't dressed."
Not everyone feels the findings are a surprise. As for whether young women drink more during sexualized theme parties, Peter True, a senior at Boston University, said, "Definitely. They have to be that faded to go out wearing those ridiculous clothes, I'm 100 percent sure."
"There's a direct inverse relationship between how revealing their theme is and how drunk they get," he told ABC News. "At lingerie parties they drink the most. … They have to drink more if they wear less because they have to lower their inhibitions to be seen wearing that out."
The findings of the study seem to point to a combination of sexually charged themes and the presence of alcohol — an interplay that seems to result in a daringly permissive atmosphere.
The results of the surveys that the partygoers completed as part of the study showed that while 61.3 percent of respondents reported being at the party to socialize, and 45 percent reported having fun as a main motivation, nearly 40 percent of all respondents said they were at the party to get drunk. More than 21 percent said they were there to try to meet a sexual partner.
And the graduate students involved with the research say they feel college parties could be getting even sexier — and less inhibited.
"The most surprising thing that I've seen was how sexualized the theme parties are, kind of like the way Halloween parties have changed, the kind of costumes girls wear now," said Julie Ketchie, a doctoral student researcher who is now working with Clapp on similar research. "There are these girls walking down the street, and you can see their butts hanging out of their skirts."
"The theme parties, it's kind of like 'Spring Break: Girls Gone Wild' all the time."
Drugs, Alcohol Ubiquitous Threats
Of course, not all of the gatherings the researchers attend are out-of-control, inebriated blowouts.
"Some parties can be chill — 10 to 15 people watching football game and it's a BYOB thing, versus a larger party where they have kegs and drinking games," Ketchie said.
But Clapp notes that at the most lively parties, the breath tests from some students showed that they were putting themselves at risk.
"The alcohol levels we got from Breathalyzer tests were fairly high; it would meet the definition of legally drunk at pretty much every stage," Clapp said. "We had a range, with some people really, really drunk."
Clapp and his team report that in the surveys completed by partygoers, 32 percent reported playing a drinking game, and more than 70 percent report having access to illicit drugs. While the researchers were only able to confirm the availability of illicit drugs at 12 percent of these parties, alcohol remained a major factor; nearly 90 percent of all of the party guests who took a Breathalyzer test were intoxicated, with average scores near 0.08 percent blood alcohol concentration.
And Clapp adds that the location of a party can often play a big part in how intoxicated its guests become. When drinking takes place at a bar, he says, the controlled nature of the establishment goes a long way in terms of keeping drinking behavior in check. But at house parties, discretion often goes out the window — a point to which college senior True can personally attest.
"People get pretty messed up at most places, but at bars there's actually a sort of limit to how much you can drink because of price, and good bartender will cut you off, whereas a good frat bro probably won't," he said.
And when it comes to this type of celebration, True says he believes young men and women are equally affected by alcohol-soaked parties.
"I think guys can at least on the whole hold more alcohol," he said. "But in terms of how drunk you're getting I'd say it's about even; you see a wrecked girl throwing up in [the] street and a bro passed out on the couch pretty equally."