The University of Tennessee has suspended a fraternity for 30 days after one of its members was dumped at a hospital with a blood alcohol level of "well over" 0.4 percent, five times the legal limit for driving and clearly within what doctors call the "death zone" for alcohol poisoning. The thing is, the 20-year-old student hadn't been drinking, exactly. According to Knoxville police, he and his Pi Kappa Alpha frat brothers had been giving one another "alcohol enemas." University officials were appalled. "Shock would not be an [overstatement]," says Tim Rogers, vice chancellor of student life. "I myself had never heard of what has been alleged." What are alcohol enemas, and how popular have they become?
What, exactly, is an alcohol enema?
Unfortunately, it's pretty much what it sounds like: A tube is inserted in the rectum and alcohol is poured directly into the colon. A more colloquial name is "butt chugging." In the Tennessee case, police say they found several bags from boxes of wine scattered around the fraternity, along with several passed-out guys. It isn't, apparently, a pain-free way to get blitzed: The student who was admitted to the hospital was "extremely intoxicated and showed signs of physical and possible sexual assault," the police report says.
And this gets you drunk?
Yes, and fast. According to the Knoxville police, the frat guys apparently used "rubber tubing inserted into their rectums as a conduit for alcohol, as the abundance of capillaries and blood vessels present [in the area] greatly heightens the level and speed of the alcohol entering the bloodstream as it bypasses the filtering by the liver." That's what makes alcohol enemas so dangerous, gastroenterologist Dr. Preston Stewart tells CNN. Our stomachs and livers use an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase to break down alcohol and make it less toxic, but booze enters the bloodstream unfiltered when it's poured into the gastrointestinal tract.
So why not just down shots?
Presumably part of the draw is that "you get totally plastered at a much faster rate," says Mary Fischer at The Stir, who says that when she was at the University of Tennessee, "the worst thing anyone ever did was funnel a few beers or partake in a keg stand or two." Boredom or curiosity may also have driven the enema recipients, Dr. Aaron White, at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), tells CNN. "In the past year or so there have been several stories about young people finding unique ways to get alcohol in their bodies," in part because they think it will prevent vomiting and hangovers. But throwing up excess alcohol, he notes, is one way your body keeps you alive.
Was this a hazing incident?
The UT chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha was cited for hazing in 2008, but the university thinks this was just a high-risk boozing incident. The student isn't new to the university or the fraternity, and hazing is usually associated with pledging. In any case, says Joslyn Gray at Babble, "you don't need a college degree to understand that it's never a good idea to get your party planning tips from a Jackass movie."
How common is "butt chugging"?
Hard to say; we don't have reliable specific numbers. More generally, about 1,825 college students 18 to 24 die each year from alcohol-related injuries, according to NIAAA figures. It's not uncommon to hear of a new exotic routes to intoxication — besides "butt-chugging," thrill-seekers have been known to insert vodka-soaked tampons into the vagina or anus, or indulge in "vodka eyeballing." And it's not just college students: A Texas man died in 2004 after his wife gave him a sherry enema. Alcohol enemas are "extraordinarily dangerous," says the NIAAA's White, "but people shouldn't get the impression that it's a widespread phenomenon."
Sources: Babble, CNN (2), Digital Journal, Knoxville News Sentinel, New York Daily News, The Stir