The social calendar at many American universities is driven by one question: Where's the beer?

The answer is more complicated than "the pub", in the US because most students cannot legally drink alcohol.

The gap between the legal drinking age—21—and the age most students enter university— 18—makes American university students vulnerable to exploitation. It also may mean they are more likely to drink dangerously.

First, some numbers on the danger.

A recent survey found that 40% of American students who have tried alcohol drink every week. Many of these students are too young to drink legally.

This serves as the catalyst for a host of tragedies.

The most recent study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) found that an estimated 1,519 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 died from alcohol-related accidents in 2014.

Roughly 696,000 students each year are assaulted by another student who has been drinking, and as many as 29,412 young adults per year receive medical treatment for alcohol overdoses.

The same study found that acute intoxication and alcohol-related incidents make up the “vast majority” of medical emergencies for college students.

There seems to be a connection between irresponsible drinking and the fact that these students can’t drink legally. Other studies by the NIAAA have shown that binge drinking and other high-risk drinking patterns are significantly more common among underage drinkers in the US.

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American students have more to fear than their inexperience with alcohol. They are also vulnerable to exploitation. To return to our opening question, their desire for alcohol puts them at the mercy of privileged people with their own agendas.

At my university, and many others, the answer to the alcohol question is almost always the same: fraternities and sororities – “Greek life,” as they are collectively known on campus, after the letters from the Greek alphabet that give each group its name.

In short, these organisations are old, exclusive, expensive, and have questionable records on gender, class and race relations. They are also notorious for being a place –if not the only place – where underage people can access alcohol.

I learned this during my first weekend at school when I watched my male friends climb fire escapes to sneak into frat houses for parties. It would become a regular practice.

Meanwhile, young women were welcomed through the front door. For them, the danger was inside the party.

At my university, students intuitively understood that frat houses operated in a liminal legal space. Situated in the heart of campus, "Greek Row" featured enormous fraternity houses surrounded by university buildings. 

The Herald: Rare photo evidence of the author in public. During my time at university, it felt like sporting events were one of the only places where the fun didn't revolve around drinking,Rare photo evidence of the author in public. During my time at university, it felt like sporting events were one of the only places where the fun didn't revolve around drinking, (Image: Facebook)

Alcohol, as a rule, is not allowed on campus.

But at the fraternity houses, things are different.

Unlike my dorm room, fraternity houses are private residences and university security could not enter. And, occasionally, thanks to black trash bags strung like curtains around the yard during parties, the police needed a specific complaint to enter.

By sequestering themselves from the law, Greek houses create a toxic bubble that students fall victim to every year.

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Because Greek life has an alcohol monopoly, it is not surprising that the drinking culture on campus is deeply enmeshed with these same gender, class and racial concerns that plague the organisations themselves.

In 2013, a leaked email from one Georgia Tech fraternity member to his friends triggered a frenzy of attention on the rape culture inside American fraternities.

The email was loaded with misogynistic and exploitative language. But there was no need to look further than the signature to see that there was a problem.

“Luring your rapebait” read the subject line.

The letter, which styled itself as advice for how to “succeed” with women, focused heavily on how to – openly or secretly – provide partygoers with alcohol.

“If anything ever fails, go get more alcohol”, the writer concluded.

After subsequent apologies and explanations nodding to the “poor judgement” of the author, it soon emerged that multiple women had filed lawsuits alleging rape at the same fraternity house.

When I was in school, fraternity parties were not so different from the ones you see at the movies: house bands, strobe lighting, the occasional toga and all of it papering over a disturbing amount of drug abuse, sexual abuse and – the source of it all – alcohol abuse.

Numerous have found that fraternity members commit rape at a rate of up to three times as often as other students.

And rates of alcohol abuse and alcohol-related injuries and emergencies are also higher among Greek life members than the rest of the student population.

The Herald: Beer pong is ubiquitous on campuses.Beer pong is ubiquitous on campuses. (Image: Jonah Brown on Unsplash)

When I first moved to Scotland, I thought that student drinking culture seemed relatively civilized in contrast.

After living here for years, and reading more about alcohol abuse in Scotland, I am no longer convinced that it is that simple.

Read more: I'm a health correspondent – but if I'm honest, I've had a lot of fun binge drinking

There are unsurprisingly few studies that directly compare attitudes towards drinking on American and Scottish university campuses. But there is at least one.

“Alcohol Use Among College Students in Scotland Compared with Norms from the United States” was a 1996 study that did exactly what the name suggests.

Despite its age, the study’s conclusions match much of my experience. Young, newly independent students are likely to abuse alcohol no matter where in the world they are.

But the attitudes towards drinking are very different on this side of the pond.

The study found that, although Scottish students reported “higher rates of hangovers, missed classes, and blackouts than the Americans”, student affairs personnel and local officials tended not to view student drinking as a problem.

The study also compared how students in Scotland and America drank. Compared to American students who binge on the weekends and then must wait for the next Saturday night party, Scottish students reported spreading their drinks out and associated drinking more with meals than their American counterparts.

This fits with my sense that people in Scotland have a different relationship with alcohol from what I'm used to back home.

It feels more accepted; a part of the culture that isn’t going anywhere. On nights out in Scotland with my classmates, and then coworkers, alcohol did not seem so illicit. Back home, especially as a student, there was often an undercurrent of tension.

To me, this tracks back to the toxic environment on college campuses: the way that the law accidentally pushes young people to drink in dangerous ways, and with dangerous people.