Catching Up to the Boys, in the Good and the Bad

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 10, 2008

She lost count of the vodka shots. It was New Year's Eve 2005, and for this high school freshman, it was time to party. She figured she'd be able to sleep it off -- she'd done it before. But by the time she got home the next day, her head was still pounding, her mouth was dry, and she couldn't focus. This time, the symptoms were obvious even to her parents.

After that night, she realized the weekend buzzes had gone from being a maybe to a must.

"Before, it was a novelty," the Silver Spring teen said. "It went from, 'Well, maybe . . .' to 'Oh, I know I'm going to drink this weekend.' "

A generation of parents and educators have pushed to ensure that girls have the same opportunities as their male counterparts, with notable results. In 2007, for example, it was girls who dominated the national math and science competition sponsored by Siemens. But a growing number of reports show that the message of equality might have a downside.

Teenage girls now equal or outpace teenage boys in alcohol consumption, drug use and smoking, national surveys show. The number of girls entering the juvenile justice system has risen steadily over the past few years. A 2006 study that examined accident rates among young drivers noted that although boys get into more car accidents, girls are slowly beginning to close the gap.

A 17-year-old Charles County girl was charged last month with reckless and negligent driving in a Nov. 28 accident in which a 15-year-old girl was killed. In June, a 20-year-old student at George Mason University traveling west on the inner loop of the Capital Beltway near the Springfield interchange drove her convertible into a tractor-trailer. She and three friends were killed. Then, in September, a 17-year-old Fairfax County girl was charged with aggravated involuntary manslaughter after she drove her sport-utility vehicle head-on into a van, killing a 59-year-old woman.

"When you take off the shackles, you release all kind of energy -- negative and positive," said James Garbarino, the Maude C. Clarke Chair in Humanistic Psychology at Loyola University in Chicago. "By letting girls loose to experience America more fully, it's not surprising that they would absorb some of its toxic environment."

The teenager with the vodka hangover, who is now 16, was one of several Washington region teenage girls who agreed to talk about their lives and what compels them to drink, smoke or indulge in behaviors that might make their parents blanch. They asked that their names not be used so they could speak frankly.

In the same breath, the young women talked about feeling "empowered" because they can choose from myriad colleges and careers and about how that "freedom" extends to partying at clubs, drinking and smoking. Experts worry that those feelings, coupled with a teen's natural sense of invincibility, can be a potent and dangerous combination. Indeed, the teenage girls interviewed by The Washington Post seemed almost blase about the potential consequences.

"People tell me all the time [smoking] isn't good for me," said an 18-year-old from Bethesda, rolling her eyes. But in her mind, that's 30 years down the line. Same with the drinking (she prefers champagne) and the occasional recreational drug.

"In the past, people have had this angelic picture, but girls are just as bad as boys are," she said. "We do what we want to do, when we want to do it."

"I live for now," she said, a grin spreading across her face. "It's great to be a girl."

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