Spring break documentary sheds light on issues of sexual violence and gender identity

violence at home

Courtesy of Getty Images

violence at home

Keegan Kearney

In their 2017 documentary “Liberated: The New Sexual Revolution,” production company Exodus Cry asks viewers to take a hard look at what it means to be “masculine,” “feminine” or any range of expression in between.

Iowa State, Faithful Envoy, an awareness group against human trafficking, and ACCESS, a domestic assault support center, hosted a showing of the film, which discusses the attitudes of modern culture toward sex, gender identity and relationships.

Present at the Q and A panel was Bobby Dennis, advocate from ACCESS, Alex Young, second year master’s student whose research is focused on masculinity and early adulthood, and Iowa State professor Dr. Amy Popillion, who teaches classes on Human Sexuality and Sex and Gender in Society.

“Liberation” is set up against the backdrop of a college staple — the spring break beach trip. The film follows groups of students looking to have some fun during the week at Panama City Beach, Florida.

Their definition of “fun” becomes the focus of the documentary, as they examine how both men and women see their respective roles in what the film calls a “hook up culture,” in which sex is viewed not just as casual, but as a sign of self-worth in relation to other people.

The camera crew follows groups of men and women as they engage in, or seek to avoid, sexual encounters and the sex-driven activities of the spring break destination. Among the characters are groups of sexually motivated men illustrating their methods for picking up women, which according the members of the panel, constitute various forms of sexual coercion and violation. Among the tactics of a normal spring break experience for these characters are acts like unwarranted public groping, emotional and psychological manipulation, and the generous application of alcohol, to lure uninterested or resistant women into sex.

The film then goes into detail about how the expectations of men in society cause this kind of behavior. Interviews with various spring breakers and academics reveal that men often see sexual conquest as a form of proving their self worth or their masculinity in a performance for other men in their peer group, acting from their insecurities and driving them to oversexualized behavior.

Women in the film expressed feeling similar social pressure. In order to gain some semblance of respect, attention and worth from society, women said they felt they needed to conform to certain standards of beauty and docile behavior. At the spring break party, this pressure became increasingly apparent as crowds around the beach swarmed women and called on them to strip, kiss and otherwise please men in the crowd.

The panel discussed various ways in which young men and women develop these attitudes and behaviors around sex.

The members agreed that social pressure to rack up large numbers of sexual partners and define the male identity as something distinctly non-feminine causes confusion and unhealthy behavior in men, while women often feel they need to conform to men’s expectations to be accepted.

When asked how often the kind of behavior shown in the film happens at Iowa State, Dennis stated he believes it is very prevalent, and not just isolated to one campus, but to the many spaces within the culture. He said the reason he does the work he does with ACCESS is because he is aware of just how widespread this behavior is in modern communities.

The documentary looks to modern culture and the media as part of the problem; the panel discussed how images of celebrities in music, movies and advertisements give young people certain ideals of what it means to be empowered and valuable. From macho action movie heroes to pop singers and Mr. Clean commercials, sex or sex appeal is often prevalent in the way products or entertainment are marketed to society. However, the panel recognized that there are much more nuanced processes at work here, and that the “media” as an entity isn’t solely responsible.

“Hooking up and sex and sexual violation, that is as old as civilization.” Young said.

He said this kind of sexual behavior is not at all new, but has become increasingly visible with the rise of mass media and social networks.

The culmination of the film outlined a horrific headline from the weeks after the festival; video had surfaced of a young woman being gang raped on the beach in the middle of a large crowd, with no one stepping in to put a stop to the assault — though many cell-phone videos emerged.

Madelyn Plain of Faithful Envoy, who brought this event to campus, believes the issues outlined in the film are inextricably related to our society’s vast yet largely unnoticed human trafficking trade.

“If men and women are not empowered to speak up when they are violated or assaulted, then they become even more vulnerable to be exploited. As more people think that sex is a commodity or that sex without relationship or intimacy is no big deal, there are even less people to create a resistance against human trafficking.” Plain said.

“Liberated: The New Sexual Revolution” is available to stream on Netflix.