Sex, sun and scandal: “Liberated” film explores darker side to spring break

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"Liberated: The New Sexual Revolution is a documentary about coming of age in today’s young adult hookup culture. Following the journey of college students on Spring Break, the film provides shocking insight into attitudes and behaviors regarding sex, the normalization of sexual violation, and the struggle against conceptions of gender and sexuality shaped by the media." Photo and quote courtesy of Magic Latern Pictures

The movie opens as swarms of college fraternity boys in neon T-shirts covered in slogans such as “Show me your tits” and “All I do is F— and Party” chanting “U.S.A.” and chugging beer from funnels migrate to the beaches of Cancun and Panama City Beach, Florida, each winter. This scene can only be one thing: spring break.

Filmmaker Benjamin Nolot descends into the belly of the beast in his new documentary film, “Liberated: The New Sexual Revolution,” confronting the undercurrents of toxic masculinity and sexual violence inherent in hookup culture. Micaela Stevens (senior), Gabriella Anson (senior) and Politics professor Caroline Heldman sponsored the event and brought the film and speakers to Occidental for a screening and panel discussion April 2 in Mosher Lecture Hall. Sponsors for the screening included Planned Parenthood Club, Occidental Sexual Assault Coalition (OSAC), Women and Youth Supporting Each Other (WYSE), Delta Omicron Tau, Zeta Tau Zeta and the Occidental College Politics Department.

The film focuses on the hookup culture among heterosexual, cisgender college students and their experiences on spring break through five years of “man-on-the-street” interviews, B-roll footage and filming. “Liberated” includes interviews with leading sociologists and authors from the fields of gender and dating — painting a vivid picture of the ramifications of hyper masculinity and ideas of entitlement towards women’s bodies.

“We originally anticipated doing a film on the larger sexual culture here in America, and we envisioned a short scene at spring break that would capture young adult attitudes about sex,” Nolot said. “However, on the last day of our trip down there [Panama City] we were exposed to a situation where girls were being sexually violated. This provoked us to go back again the following year to investigate further.”

Two of the subjects from the documentary, Kimberleigh Andrews and Shay Douglas, were present for the panel following the screening of the documentary. Andrews said that seeing herself in “Liberated” reminded her of the challenges she experienced during the filming process.

“How can I manage to be carefree in an environment that forces me to be on the defensive?” Andrews said. “How can I be myself without the fear of someone exploiting me? I had a great time despite my fears, but I learned that spring break is only a hyperbolized version of our everyday life.”

Despite the sponsorship from many Occidental student organizations, Anson, an OSAC member and director of WYSE, took issue with much of what was said during the panel discussion, as the documentary film was produced by Exodus Cry, a Christian organization.

“The painting of casual sex as inherently disempowering and the framing of sex as the most sacred act in the world felt very invalidating,” Anson said. “I really took issue with men on the panel explaining to women what kind of sex was OK and what kind wasn’t, what sexual behavior is OK and what kind isn’t. To me, an important part of women’s empowerment is recognizing a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her body, life.”

Anson discussed a problematic moment when the director encouraged everyone to applaud for the men in the audience, since there were only a handful of men in attendance, reinforcing the ideology that sexual assault is solely a women’s issue.

“We shouldn’t praise men for showing up to something that deeply concerns them,” Anson said. “We shouldn’t praise men for doing the bare minimum while women are expected to do so much more and receive significantly less recognition when doing so.”

“Liberated” is available for instant play on Netflix. The filmmakers and cast are on a global tour promoting the film and conversation surrounding hookup culture and sexual violence. Anson expressed her appreciation for “Liberated” beginning these crucial conversations.

“I think ‘Liberated’ is a good starting point, but I’d like to see a documentary that is more intersectional and more applicable to the average college student’s life,” Anson said.

Anson also echoed the sentiment that spring break is a magnified view of the college experience and not the norm.

“Bringing ‘Liberated’ to campus was important to me because it deals with topics like hookup culture and rape culture, which is incredibly important and relevant to our community,” Anson said. “However, the spring break experience depicted in the film is only applicable to a very small subset of college students.”

Andrews, recalling her experiences of objectification, discussed the objectification she felt subject to when she participated in a bikini competition and was instructed to squat for a predominately male audience by the male host. Andrews discusses her concern for her 13-year-old sister who will grow up in this same system of male entitlement.

“Watching myself through the lens of the documentary brought into focus the predatory nature of rape culture,” Andrews said. “I hadn’t realized that it includes everything before and after sexual assault, normalizing it to the extent that survivors will even blame themselves. Everything about spring break has been specifically and intentionally implemented for the male gaze, it directly affects female empowerment because men are so conditioned to being catered to.”

Heldman, whose academic research focuses on the presidency, media, gender and race in the American context, grapples with the question of how people can seek sexual liberation within this restrictive and toxic culture.

“The first step in seeking empowering sexual exploration is to recognize how the prevailing culture is limited and harmful, and to reject the social scripts that say that you have to engage in hookup culture,” Heldman said. “Maybe that’s your path, but maybe it’s not. Real empowerment comes in recognizing and rejecting heteronormative, sexist sexual scripts and demanding better.”