Trigger warning: sexual assault
In explaining and emphasizing different aspects of my feminist agenda, I have often used the term “liberated” in referring to sexuality, employment choices, physical presentation and general social behavior. I have always considered sexual liberation to be a positive thing, a social shift that accepts women as having sexual desire as frequently and naturally as men do and (sometimes) accepting that there is nothing inappropriate in their acting on that desire. I thought of sexual liberation as something that allows all people to have safe and consensual sex without fear of sociopolitical punishment for that choice.
Benjamin Nolot’s 2017 documentary, “Liberated: The New Sexual Revolution,” acknowledges but critically challenges this understanding of contemporary sexual “freedom.” Yet, this is done in a thoughtful and nuanced way. The argument develops in a slow and subtle manner so that viewers are not forcefully told they are wrong and complicit in a problematic culture. Instead, the movie demonstrates how young people have been conditioned to perpetuate a dangerous and damaging sexual status quo.
The film begins with its sometimes-host introducing us to Panama City Beach during spring break. He meets and begins following a group of young Australian men who exemplify the hookup culture encouraged during this week of partying. The men explain that the point is to have sexual encounters with as many “girls” as possible during the week and to have them never spend the night so as to increase their nightly numbers. As far as these, and other interviewed young men, are concerned, that is how young women understand spring break, too.
A particularly shocking encounter in this section shows one of these men meeting a young woman alone in their hotel hallway. She explains that she’s not planning to have sex during the vacation because she doesn’t know anyone. Yet within five minutes, he has brought her into his room, given her a drink, kicked out his friends and locked the door, asking them to “give us five minutes.” She then walks out, embarrassed, and literally runs away from the laughing and gesturing group of men when she sees her friends walk by.
Sections of this nature are interspersed by with interviews by different psychological and sociological professionals. These discussions focus on conventional conceptions of masculinity, femininity and sexuality. While the entire movie is striking and effective, the content and placement of these interviews is the most impressive and nuanced aspect. A common critique of discussions about rape culture is that men are generalized and demonized as a homogeneous unit. This critique is unavailable to viewers of “Liberated.” These experts explain that men are socialized to view losing their virginity, and subsequently having as many sexual conquests about which to brag, as quickly as possible in order to maintain their value among other men. Here, there are cuts back to the film crew during spring break. Men in their 20s, alone with the interviewers, explain how much pressure they felt to have sex and not to care about it.
The experts next turn to socially enforced ideas of what it means to be a woman. They explain that through popular music and television, young girls are taught to want to become sexy women as soon as possible. Here, college-aged women on spring break explain the pressure they feel to allow men to touch them, to dance sexually and to undress whenever asked in this environment of drinking and hyper-sexualization. Tellingly, though, all the interviewees explained that these pressures are constant in everyday contexts, too. The message that you have to be beautiful in a certain way, and that your reward is being a prized sexual object, is persistent and consistent.
The final section is the most horrifying. There is about a 20-minute collage of cellphone videos showing women’s bikinis being ripped off, their bodies being picked up and grabbed, their objections being ignored and their fears being laughed at. At one point, two men pick a woman up by her legs, spreading them, and then members group of men proceed to force their fingers into her, all the while chanting “Pussy!” in an almost ritualistic circle around her. She is screaming “Help me!” the entire time.
This documentary is important because it does not exaggerate reenactments or scandalize one-time occurrences of irresponsible drunken behavior. Almost all of the non-interview footage is clearly coming from cellphone videos of spring breakers themselves. These videos show forcibly sexual behavior happening en masse, and the real young people exemplify the damaging results of social pressures to which the experts allude. No one group is demonized or attacked. The documentary does not argue that men are monsters creating rape culture. Instead, they are socialized to think that treating women as disposable bodies is what they must do to be proper men. In the same way, women are told to be “cool” and uncaring about sex and to find value in others’ appreciation of their bodies.
The first criticism I have of this movie comes from a review I saw online. The reviewer claimed that the filmmakers are wrong in their claim that this is normal behavior and that spring break is a special circumstance, that this kind of thinking and acting by college-aged people is concentrated into this one week of irresponsibility. I do not agree with this review. In fact, I find it quite naïve and rather defensive. But it points to a weakness in the documentary. I wish they had obtained footage at college parties or even just along bar-lined streets on a weekend night. This would show that unwanted and aggressive sexual advances, grabbing and hyper-masculinity are the norm, not the exception. This somewhat touches a connected criticism, and that is the film’s failure to reach an intersectional conversation of sexual assault. For example, the very underreported sexual assault of trans women is not at all mentioned. However, I realize that a PCB spring break is not the most diverse sample from which to draw.
My other full criticism of this film is also, I think, a major strength. I felt a constant and growing discomfort the entire time I was watching. I gave myself a stomach ache because of how tense my body became. This was not just in the second half when assault was the clear topic. This began in the first scene when the Australian man said he knew how to convince drunk women into his bed. I was in tears for the last 10 minutes of “Liberated,” and I continued to cry for about 20 minutes after it ended. This movie refuses to sugarcoat how disgusting and inhumane the normalized treatment of women’s bodies is.
Cover photo courtesy of PopSugar.