A few years ago, when I was working on my master's degree in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina, I became perhaps the first person to write a thesis on the subject of spring break. It was a grimmer task than you might think.
The objective of the thesis was to design a public information campaign to aid spring break destination cities, such as Fort Lauderdale, Panama City, and South Padre Island in Fla., in developing public information programs which would help female visitors avoid sexual assault. To prove that there was a need for such programs, I spent months poring over newspaper accounts and police reports from a number of cities from Myrtle Beach to Brownsville, Texas to Vale, Colo.
It wasn't a pretty picture. We get a glimpse of it every year when one or two stories hit the national wires about college males assaulting college females in some balmy southern retreat. Of course, that's the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
After my degree work was done, I sent letters outlining my findings to a number of spring break cities, offering advice on how they might make themselves safer and more hospitable to female visitors. I was acting out of the usual combination of philanthropy and entrepreneurial zeal; I hoped to maybe land a little consulting work with these towns. Those who bothered to respond to my dispatch thanked me for my concern, but assured me that they had no problem with sexual assault during spring break.
They were kidding themselves, of course. Or perhaps it was something more cynical. To embrace a solution is to admit you have a problem, and no city wants to go on record as saying it has a history of its guests being sexually assaulted. But there is ample evidence to suggest that sexual assault is part of the landscape in the tourism business (it has received some unwanted attention in the cruise ship industry in recent years) and perhaps at no time more than spring break.
The reasons for this epidemic are pretty clear. Put hundreds of thousands of young men and women in an environment awash in alcohol, hundreds of miles from cultural and other restraints of campus and community, and you have a recipe for trouble. In the last generation, there has been an enormous amount of research and writing on the subject of sexual assault on college campuses. Most campuses today offer their female students some combination of rape awareness campaigns, hotlines, and counseling services.
The rape awareness campaigns consist of the now commonplace advice: don't drink too much; stick with your friends, don't allow yourself to become isolated with someone you don't know well. The subtext of this message, of course, is that the most likely rapist is an acquaintance, someone the woman knows and thinks she can trust, possibly someone she just met, say, in a tiki bar in Daytona Beach.
Later, when she tries to tell police what happened, all she knows is that he said his name was Jason, from Kawabunga Polytechnic; he seemed nice; he took her back to her hotel room. And he raped her.
Of course, she knew all the rules of engagement. She had even served on the student advisory committee on sexual harassment and gender relations. But that was back on campus, in the claustrophobic halls and dormitories, amid the hassle of research papers and final exams. Now she was liberated from all that. She was at the beach. She was on spring break. She just wanted to have fun and not worry about rules and schedules and GPAs.
Unfortunately, male behavior never takes a holiday and for that reason, women are perhaps never truly safe as long as men are around. And because of the nature of spring break and the huge numbers of people involved, it is very difficult to identify or arrest a suspect when a rape is reported. And it is likely that a vast majority of spring break rapes are never reported. To the customary legal and emotional hurdles a woman faces if she decides to bring rape charges, add the fact that a spring break rape occurs hundreds of miles from home, perhaps in a foreign country, perhaps on a cruise ship under a foreign flag. It gets very, very complicated.
Last year, Volusia County, Fla., law enforcement officials made arrests in only 30 percent of reported sexual assault cases. "It's a transient crowd that we're dealing with," said a Daytona Beach criminal investigator. "These young people are still immature, they get intoxicated and are around people they don't know, putting themselves in compromising positions. And when it's over, they can't ID anybody."
As the women from local campuses pack their bags for spring break, please remember: You are headed into shark-infested waters.