Sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Rampant immorality. Breeding grounds of future devil-worshippers, communists, and worst of all, homosexuals.
All of these have been included in near-apocalyptic descriptors to American high schoolers of what they may experience, not attending Woodstock, but enrolling in college. These warnings may seem outdated and over-exaggerated (they are), but unless one attends a university such as Brigham Young or Biola (Bible Institute of Los Angeles), it is likely that an undergraduate experience will include at least one of the aforementioned sins, most pointedly when in relation to the recreational use of drugs and alcohol.
While most students eventually disregard these four formative years as a whirlwind of experimentation, LGBT college students are much more susceptible to both substance and domestic abuse than their heterosexual peers, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
Research conducted in 2014 revealed that between 20 and 30 percent of LGBTQ youth and young adults experience substance abuse, as compared to 9 percent of heterosexual youth and young adults.
As with most statistics about the health of the LGBTQ+ community, the knowledge of a disadvantage to the community compounds stress and anxiety already existent. However, it is not necessary to accept the challenge to our health as an inevitable conclusion to the partying and experimentation we may engage in during college.
Buster Ross, a sexual health and addiction counselor who specializes in LGBTQ+ issues, notes that college campuses are rife with issues of substance abuse, especially when they come to an intersection with the “formation or innovation of sexual identities.” Ross, sober since graduation from college, now works with queer and questioning-identified youth to combat rooted shame and disconnect which, in their experience, lead to issues of addiction. Ross came to work in the field of addiction counseling based on their own family history and their experience while in college, which they note as an environment “super conducive to chemical abuse,” and now believes one of the most important strategies to combat both substance and sexual abuse is opening a dialogue about all the subjects we consider to be taboo.
Ross acknowledges that the substances most often abused, especially alcohol, act as catalysts to disinhibiting shame and preoccupations about social interactions, and LGBTQ folk especially rely on artificial means of managing interpersonal relationships when unsure of others’ reception to their orientation of gender identity.
Since graduation, however, Ross discovered the anxiety they, and many others, experienced could be managed in ways outside of the risk of abuse.
Rather than using alcohol or drugs to distill anxiety, Ross encourages “natural disinhibitors,” such as eye contact, measured breathing, and physical acknowledgement of people in order to improve anxiety “people on college campuses often anesthetize with alcohol.” Ross admits that while these are only basic steps, they are the launchpad to other steps one may take to feel more at ease in a social situation, and the advantage of retaining one’s faculties increases natural connection and encourages discussion of otherwise difficult topics. Ross also says that once someone is somewhat reliant on substances to smooth out social interactions, they are more likely to include them as the metaphorical lubricant in sexual encounters, which can be dangerous and increase the difficulty of determining consent.
“One of the most preventative and useful things you can do is find another person whom you’re already comfortable with, likely within the [LGBTQ+] community, and have a dialogue, maybe starting with ‘this is weird, but I’ve never been able to feel comfortable in these situations without the use of chemicals, it makes me really uncomfortable — have you been able to?’ And from there your homework is to find an individual, maybe someone who has or has not been comfortable without the use of chemicals, who you can try this interaction with,” Ross advises. They also encourage posing this question to someone one may be in a sexual relationship with, especially if these sexual encounters are aided by alcohol or drugs. They add that once one becomes conditioned and patterned to operating on a sex drive constantly combined with chemicals, the encroaching narcotic spiral leads to a missed opportunity in human interaction.
“Sex is a reasonable human need, and when always paired with chemicals will become really problematic. I don’t want you to have to come to me for addiction counseling because you can’t have this basic human action without the use of chemicals,” Ross says.
On the topic of other collegiate situations in which non-prescribed medications and stimulants are used, Ross’ suggestion is to take a course load that is manageable without self-prescribed chemical help, or seek academic and professional counseling and help . Ross’ pervasive desire is that college students seek help preventatively, rather than “burning out,” and coming to them for addiction counseling as an ultimate step.
Whatever the nature and content of addiction, one of the most important component of treating it is to engage with its presence, rather than sweeping it under the rug. Though this is markedly difficult for the LGBTQ+ community, as we deal every day with questions of what to reveal and what to keep hidden dependent on both our comfort and perceived level of safety, there are steps, spaces, and individuals willing to engage in conversation. Many of these individuals can be found right on campus, and sometimes, the simplest step to begin a wider conversation about the nature of addiction starts with the person next to you.
Buster Ross can be found on Twitter @LGBTGIF. He is the LGBTQ program director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Clinic.
For more information about Hazelden Betty Ford Clinic LGBTQ Services: http://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/treatment/addiction-treatment-specialties/lgbtq
Every student covered under UC Ship is entitled to free counseling and psychological health services. For more information, visit CAPS UCLA at http://www.counseling.ucla.edu
For campus information specific to LGBTQ issues, feel free to visit the LGBT Campus Resource Center, located next to the Student Activities Center.
Artwork by Austin Wang