Friday, March 9, 2012

It's time to address the issue of spring break sexual assaults

[caption id="attachment_866" align="alignleft" width="169" caption="By Will Moredock"][/caption]

I have the distinction of being one of the few people in the world to write a thesis on the subject of spring break. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

I did manage to visit some notorious spring break locations, but it was all research and the matter at hand was actually pretty grim. The title of my thesis was "Safe Break: A Demonstration of the Need and a Theoretical Structure for Public Information Campaigns to Help College Women Avoid Sexual Assault on Spring Break." It was very academic, but it had its purpose.

The dirty little secret about spring break is that it is the perfect petri dish for sexual assault. You have tens of thousands of young people meeting and mingling in an unstructured environment, far from the restraints and regulations of campus life — and it's all awash in alcohol. When tragedy strikes, the victim is in a strange city, hundreds of miles from home, likely surrounded by people who are in a festive mood and don't want to deal with her "bad experience." If the incident does get reported to local authorities, they have every incentive to bury it as deep and fast as they can. No vacation town wants to be known as the place where women go to get raped.

After my thesis was accepted by the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina, I sent out synopses to the police and public safety departments of a couple dozen leading spring break destinations from South Padre Island to Virginia Beach, with the idea that they might be able to put some of my ideas to use and even be willing to hire an eager young consultant to create a public information campaign for them. I received a couple of polite "thank yous" and that was the end of my consulting career.

The problem of spring break sexual assault is still there two decades after I tried to sound the alarm. Google "sexual assault" and "spring break" and you will get more than 15,000 hits. But the good news is that many of these sites are posted by colleges and women's organizations, telling women how to avoid spring break sexual assault. The advice they give is the same advice young women have been hearing from their mothers, big sisters, and campus security and women's services for years: 1. Stick with friends you know and trust; 2. Drink in moderation; 3. Don't get isolated in a strange place with strange people; 4. Watch your drink and do not accept an open drink from anyone; 5. Plan a time and place to check in with your friends; 6. Trust your instincts and be ready to act on them.

It all sounds familiar enough, doesn't it? But for some reason these well-earned precautions seem to get left in the dresser drawer when young women pack their bags for spring break. And you can understand why. They're going on vacation. They're fleeing the troubles and travails, the headaches and heartbreaks, of the campus for a few carefree days of partying late and sleeping till noon. What they forget, of course, is that the threat of sexual assault does not take a holiday. In fact, it is probably more prevalent in the swarming, frenzied mass of young people in places like Daytona Beach and Myrtle Beach than back home on their staid and respectable campuses.

Twenty years ago, the problem of spring break sexual assault was unacknowledged and unstudied. I wrote my thesis with the idea that spring break municipalities and hotels might market themselves and enhance their reputations with public information that showed they were concerned about the risk of sexual assault. How naïve I was.

The tourist industry will do nothing to acknowledge a threat to its visitors, lest they frighten said visitors — and their money — away. This was demonstrated by the slow response of Florida tourism officials to the wave of murders of its tourists in the early 1990s. Only the bad publicity forced them to take action.

And so it has happened that in the past 20 years college campuses have taken the initiative in warning their female students of the dangers of spring break. The College of Charleston is like most American college campuses today; the school has posted this reminder on its website: "Don't forget to take along your most valuable companions — personal safety precautions ... Acquaintance rape and robbery top the list of crimes committed against college students on spring break."

Websites did not exist 20 years ago when I was writing my thesis, but if they had, I doubt such a message would have been found. The last two decades have seen sweeping changes in communication technology and in attitudes toward women's safety. They are probably related.

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