By Jacob Solis
It’s been a little less than a year since a certain disturbing video turned up online. A woman, college-aged, reveling in the fun and sun of spring break just hours earlier was now drugged and raped. Hundreds of bystanders on the crowded beach in Panama City Beach, Florida, stood nearby as her legs were held down, and the sheriff’s office collected multiple statements from witnesses who were mere feet away.
It was the dangerous result of the prevalence of drugs and alcohol, and one that happens with an alarming frequency nationwide.
One in four women who go to college are sexually assaulted, according to the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center. These statistics come from a range of studies and surveys dating back all the way to the 1980s. But even recently, a 2014 survey done at the University of Nevada, Reno, found sexual assault to be more frequent than the crime blotters would suggest.
Of 6,000 respondents, 651 people identified as victims of sexual assault. These 651 victims stand in stark contrast to the six reported forcible sexual offenses in 2014 that can be found in UNR’s Clery records. Of that first set of victims, a third said that both people involved in the assault were drinking alcohol when it happened.
It’s a sobering statistic for consent advocates, and a frightening one considering the upcoming spring break, where male revelers average more than 18 drinks a day and women average 10 drinks, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
It’s led organizations like the YES! Always campaign to start talking more about the role of consent, especially over spring break. YES! Always, a student-run advocacy group focused around consent, has planned a campaign this week aiming to do just that.
“Spring break is usually a wild time for college students,” said Alana Ridge, a team member with YES! Always. “They usually go on pretty awesome vacations, but alcohol is usually involved, so we want to keep stressing the importance of consent over spring break because sometimes it can be forgotten or there are blurred lines.”
The campaign stressed that alcohol is not the cause of all sexual assaults, but added that the party drug of choice does a lot to blur lines. In light of all this, the YES! Always team has focused on simply starting the conversation.
“Consent is something that we assume people know about, but a lot of times when we’re coming in to college, people haven’t really had that conversation, and sex ed programs certainly aren’t teaching it, so it’s relying on the parents,” said Hayley Hanger, also with YES! Always.
Part of the problem, according to Marlo Spieth from the legal services website Avvo, is that culture provides a problematic starting point when it comes to the portrayal of women as sexual objects.
“Especially in pop or rap or really anything that’s popular, you’re going to see images of women and not only are they scantily clad, but you literally see shots of just their breasts,” Spieth said. “It’s this idea that you’re visually breaking down the woman’s body and it gets into people’s heads, that a woman’s body isn’t part of a person but rather disconnected, fragmented.”
Spieth added that these images imply that women love that kind of objectification, even though the images themselves are far from fact. For her, the images create a connection between culture, sexual violence and alcohol, and it’s a sentiment that rings true for the people at YES! Always.
“Culture shapes everything that we do, and I think that just the large amount of alcohol consumption in general, in college, is definitely shaped by culture and it’s really heavily encouraged during spring break,” Hanger said. “But I think that a lot of times it’s not the media telling people specifically to do these things. It’s back there, in their mind, as an ideology and it shapes the way that they might think about things.”
Hanger added that these cultural norms often mean bystanders will stand by instead of intervening — such as what happened in Panama City Beach. For Hanger, the behavior for these bystanders has been normalized, and thus they may just attribute it to “spring break.”
At the end of the day though, the YES! Always team was sure to stress that as much as consent can be negative with “no means no,” it can be positive too. For them, it’s all about the conversation, be it about sex or consent.
“If we don’t have people talking, if people aren’t acknowledging sex at all, how are we going to have a conversation with them about getting consent?” Hanger said.
Jacob Solis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.