Reporter: Tara Brown
Producers: Stephen Taylor, Hannah Boocock
Tiny dresses, towering heels and way too much to drink.
That's what passes as a girls' night out these days but it's an evening that too often lands them in a police cell or even hospital.
According to the latest research, when it comes to binge drinking, young women are now doing their best to match the blokes.
What was once considered embarrassing and outrageous behaviour is now celebrated as the norm. So why do they do it?
Well, their simple explanation is, they just want to have fun.
TARA BROWN: In every sense they’re the new breed of twenty-something woman. Savvy, sassy and oozing self-confidence.
CHLOE: Sometimes I wonder why we put so much effort into looking good when we get back at five in the morning and we look like trash.
TARA BROWN: They’ve travelled from Canberra to go out in Sydney – four friends ready for a night of living dangerously.
CHLOE: Russian Roulette.
ALL GIRLS: Russian Roulette.
TARA BROWN: Entree to their evening – cocktails and vodka shots just to get things started.
ALL GIRLS: OK, ready? And then skol.
TARA BROWN: They may be tender in years but already Jess, Chloe, Ivana and Kim are seasoned drinkers.
ALL GIRLS: Ladies, the night is young.
TARA BROWN: So how many drinks would you have on a big night out normally?
KIM: Self- poured drinks or standard drinks?
TARA BROWN: Self- poured drinks.
IVANA: I don’t know. I’d say we all drink equally as much.
KIM: So probably about 20 drinks in a night.
IVANA: We do drink responsibly.
TARA BROWN: Well, a lot of people would say drinking 20 drinks is not drinking responsibly.
CHLOE: Alcohol just helps you get out of your shell and do things that you wouldn’t usually do.
TARA BROWN: And so the night out begins in Kings Cross. Our Canberra four is very comfortable in this crowd – like-minded women who are out for fun with no fear of the consequences. It wasn’t so long ago that this style of drinking for women was the exception – now it’s more often the rule. And women are defiantly reveling in their drinking revolution.
KIM: You work hard but play harder.
IVANA: That’s our motto.
KIM: Yeah, pretty much our motto yeah. It’s all good to be serious all during the week but while you’re young you know, we want to go out and have fun because we can. You know we basically, we can have everything. You know, we’re going to go out and celebrate that.
DR KERRY ARMSTRONG: This generation drinks more than any previous generation.
TARA BROWN: Why?
DR KERRY ARMSTRONG: Well I think the social stigma surrounding seeing drunk young women out and about doesn’t really exist anymore. And other young women will see that and think, ‘Good on her, she’s out having a good time’ you know, ‘She’s on it tonight.’
TARA BROWN: Pick any city in Australia and you’ll see them ‘on it’. This is Brisbane where Queensland University of Technology psychologist, Dr Kerry Armstrong, has spent months watching young women at play. Her research, a first focusing on female drinking habits, has uncovered some frightening facts.
TARA BROWN: What age are women starting to drink?
DR KERRY ARMSTRONG: 12 and upwards. Most people are having their first taste of alcohol around about the age of 12, 13.
TARA BROWN: And when do they start to become serious drinkers? By about the age of 15, 16.
CHRIS: Basically Friday, Saturday night we get a lot of alcohol-fuelled violence, we get a lot of alcohol-fuelled vulnerable people.
TARA BROWN: This is a side of an alcohol-fuelled night out we don’t often see…
CHRIS: If the crooks are out there, people are in your face, I’ve told you once before – I can’t stand constables standing around when people are swearing at them and all you do is caution them.
TARA BROWN: …The men and women who clean up the mess.
CHRIS: Breach of the peace, make a decision, put them in the truck, then call me and tell me what you’ve done. You don’t need my permission to put someone in the truck who’s playing up.
TARA BROWN: On this Saturday night, Inspector Chris Craner’s job is to keep the streets of Sydney safe for the thousands of party-goers – many of them young women, and many of them drunk.
CHRIS: I think a lot of it comes down to respect for yourself – like why do you do it, why do you drink so much, why’s the culture that we drink so much and why do we have to put up with it?
TARA BROWN: Do you think you’re winning?
CHRIS: Ha, on my shift I try to.
TARA BROWN: But it can be incredibly frustrating. We haven’t been on patrol for long before there’s a job. And no prizes for guessing – alcohol’s involved and so is a young female. It’s after midnight. This 16-year-old girl has been drinking…
POLICE: Just watch yourselves guys.
TARA BROWN: …And now she’s upset the police are ending her party.
CHRIS: Don’t spit mate, it’s not going to help. Spitting is not going to help you, alright?
TARA BROWN: It’s not a pretty sight as she’s led away for a night in the cells.
CHRIS: When we got here, we got attitude basically, straight away from her. Um, you can hear her now, banging on the back. She spat right in the face of a police officer, you just never know what people have got, whether they’ve got HIV and there’s just nothing worse – you’d rather be hit than spat on.
TARA BROWN: You’re essentially picking up kids though, does it feel like police work?
CHRIS: No it feels like child-minding, kindergarten and it drives me mad.
DR KERRY ARMSTRONG: There can actually be what we call a ‘badge of honour’ mentality. So say you’re out and you get picked up for something say by the police or the security. In some of our observations we’ve seen women being escorted from premises and getting cheers and adulation from the crowd.
TARA BROWN: Back in the nightclubs, the Canberra girls are more intent on tramping it up than getting into trouble. Shots and champagne are having the desired effect. This notion of women now drinking more than they’ve ever drunk before, is that about trying to catch up with the guys?
KIM: I don’t think so but I think times have changed and for the first time now really, you could see a group of guys go out drinking and you go, ‘Oh yeah, they’re just out with their boys you know, and getting tilted’. And then you’ve got the girls going out, and there’s not so much, ‘Oh my god, look at those girls, they’re so drunk’. Now it’s just even when you look at the two groups.
IVANA: I wouldn’t say we’re in competition with the boys. I’d say we’re just we’re just basically saying it’s our time, it’s girl time. We don’t want boys, we don’t want family, we just want to get together and just yeah, rip it up.
TARA BROWN: Sounds like the blokes might cramp your style a bit?
KIM: Basically they do.
TARA BROWN: While it might not be about men, women are now drinking just like them and in the worst cases, behaving just as badly.
NICK: Alcohol affects people’s judgement and women become a lot more aggressive, we’re certainly seeing them getting involved in glassings, which wasn’t the case five or six years ago, that’s a new trend and generally speaking, causing all sorts of havoc that they wouldn’t normally do if they had been sober.
TARA BROWN: Young, binge-drinking women have far exceeded their limit for NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Nick Kaldas.
NICK: We hope and pray that this is a trend that might pass but we can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.
TARA BROWN: I guess there are some days where you just feel like saying, ‘Grow up, just grow up.’
NICK: You do, I think we do need to reiterate the message often and loud: ‘If you break the law, you will be arrested, you will be charged and you’ll face court’ and particularly young women need to think about what that means. It’s something that will go on a record, and it may affect your career. And it may certainly affect your reputation.
TARA BROWN: Busy bars make for busy hospitals. Every weekend there’s a steady stream of the sick and sorry. And the Royal Adelaide hospital is no exception.
NURSE: Are you OK? Try and calm down.
TARA BROWN: Over four hours, four seriously intoxicated young women who’ve faced enough embarrassment, are brought here by friends.
NURSE: How are you feeling?
HELEN: Like shit.
NURSE: Yeah, do you know what’s brought you into hospital?
HELEN: I’m sorry, I drank too much, I’m sorry.
NURSE: That’s OK, you don’t have to apologise to me.
TARA BROWN: It’s the same for all four…too much to drink, too quickly. And in the case of this 19-year-old, far too much. Her blood alcohol reading is .415. Medically, she’s lucky she’s not in a coma. Statistically, she’s one of many.
PROFESSOR GEOFF HUGHES: They can be out of control in a loud and noisy way. They cannot walk properly. They may have lost their balance and they need help to walk or support. They could be crawling along the floor even. They could be sick and vomiting.
TARA BROWN: Get drunk and you could end up here?
PROFESSOR GEOFF HUGHES: Yes, this is the walk-in entrance.
TARA BROWN: Director of Critical Care Services, Associate Professor Geoff Hughes and his team are tired of picking up the pieces but are more worried about the long term health risks of heavy drinking. Liver and heart disease, brain damage and breast cancer. On a personal level do you ever feel like shaking these girls? They say they’re going out to have fun, to have a great night but in the long term they could be doing some really serious damage?
PROFESSOR GEOFF HUGHES: I think all of us, all of the staff in the department probably do feel that, yes. You know, you’d like to snap them and snap them awake and just make them realise what they’re doing.
TARA BROWN: And hope not to have to see them again?
PROFESSOR GEOFF HUGHES: We would hope not, we would hope not.
TARA BROWN: Do you have regulars?
PROFESSOR GEOFF HUGHES: Yes, there are.
TARA BROWN: Now, there have been health risks associated with heavy drinking. Are you guys aware of them?
PROFESSOR GEOFF HUGHES: Yes.
TARA BROWN: What are they?
JESS: Liver. Liver damage, laughter.
KIM: Your skin goes really bad. Wrinkles. I think the pros far out weigh the cons but with it.
TARA BROWN: Yeah?
KIM: Yeah. Yeah as long as you’re not an alcoholic.
IVANA: Yeah, and we’re not at that stage right now where we’re thinking about you know, ‘What are we going to be doing when we’re 50?’ We’re just living in the moment. We’re not really thinking about what’s going to happen tomorrow let alone next year and the next five years. We’re just in the here and now. Yeah. I think that’s a generation Y thing.
KIM: Yeah, now, now, now.
TARA BROWN: Maybe these Gen Y girls need to listen to their cautionary Generation X sisters.
ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS MEMBER: You know, I was a blackout binge drinker. I didn’t drink everyday.
TARA BROWN: They’re all 30-something women and they’re all alcoholics who recognised their addiction in their 20s.
ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS MEMBER: You don’t have to be an old man sitting on a park bench with a paper bag to be an alcoholic. You can be young, attractive, professional, successful, female.
TARA BROWN: And more and more young, professional women are reaching out to Alcoholics Anonymous for help. So much so they now have special meetings for young people.
ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS MEMBER: One minute I’d be nice and the next minute I’d be a homicidal maniac.
ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS MEMBER: I would pick fights but I wouldn’t pick fights with females. That wasn’t for me, that wasn’t cool.
TARA BROWN: While this group of women is quick to point out not all heavy drinkers are alcoholics, the behaviour of the social drunk reminds them of themselves.
ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS MEMBER: I would end up in nightclubs and hotel pubs holding the toilet bowl.
TARA BROWN: Do you have any advice for those young women who think they’re having a great time but they’re ending up comatose, in hospital vomiting everywhere, victims of sexual abuse or even just ending up broke because they’re drinking so much?
ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS MEMBER: And it’s expensive these days. It’s been a while since I’ve had a drink but these days it’s really expensive. Um, I would say to them like keep themselves safe. Because it can be pretty scary, the things that can go on out there and you don’t mean for things to happen.
TARA BROWN: It’s nearing one o’clock in the morning and the Canberra girls have happily and loudly hit the streets in search of another nightclub. But inside, Kim starts to feel the effects of way too much champagne. She’s vomits in the bathroom and has to be taken home. It’s not the way she or her friends wanted – or expected – this night to end.
KIM: We don’t normally drink champagne. I didn’t realise that it could do that to you. No. I always, I always associated Moet with class.
TARA BROWN: Instead you now associate it with a toilet bowl.
KIM: Yes, pretty much, pretty much, yeah. I was violently ill.
TARA BROWN: Can you see a day when you say, ‘Right, that’s it, no more 5am finishes?’
JESS: I think it’s already creeping in for some of us. Like, we go out less regularly now that we’re getting a bit older.
TARA BROWN: Yeah that’s right because you’re 20 now, so it’s all over…
JESS: Yeah I know, yeah yeah. Got to start settling down.
KIM: Yeah I really hope not. Like, we just have way too much fun. I hope it never ends. I think it’s such a huge part of Aussie culture as well. You know, you go out to drink. That’s just what we were brought up in and that’s what’s normal, so we’re doing it.