Spring Break’s Race and Rape Politics

It’s not often when a nearby zip code gets a cursory mention in Democracy Now!’s featured headlines or in other national journalistic outlets, including CNN.  As a Bay County, Florida resident of almost five years, I feel compelled to weigh in on the absurd political and cultural climate behind the recent news captured in  the DN! headline: “2 Charged for Sexual Assault on Crowded Florida Beach.”  I live bayside (precisely to avoid annoying beach culture) in Panama City, and yes, a nearby (Panama City Beach, aka. PCB) sexual assault — the mainstream media seems to prefer the racially charged term “gang rape” — appears to have occurred in broad daylight sometime in March while people crowded around and even taped the event. In fact, this is how the (so far two Black male) perpetrators were caught and charged: cellphone video footage was apprehended from a search when a suspect was interrogated on unrelated charges after a Waffle House shooting in a nearby Alabama town.

I’m not a “carceral style” feminist who believes that we can solve complex issues such as rape culture through prosecutory measures. Yet, I must admit how much I resent the fact that our beautiful springtime climate here is seriously compromised by spring break culture each year.  The inundation of spring breakers looking to cheaply crash in PCB’s ample hotels, drink and litter on our eroding beaches, and stay up all night partying at our accommodating, under 21, clubs has me going into hibernation each spring, while holding my breath to wait for the body counts to start rolling in.  A shooting here, a drug deal gone bad there, a drunken car crash over there, and yes: the countless, although usually unreported, sexual assaults and rapes that we can expect in such a climate.

As crass as this sounds, this alleged rape comes at a very opportune time for the local officials and residents who have been tossing around the idea of “eliminating” spring break here each year due to all the dangers that accompany this springtime college ritual. This move has created anxiety for hospitality/ restaurant industry workers and business owners who depend on the springtime influx for much needed jobs in a county with a high unemployment rate and skyrocketing housing costs.  Simply stated: spring break is a large part of Bay County’s much lauded tourist industry –with the “Best Beaches in the World — and officials and residents who oppose it have no alternative means to generate income at this juncture. (The defense industry is the largest employer in the county, I believe.) Common wisdom suggests if PCB curtails open containers on beaches and under 21 drinking ages in clubs, spring breakers will simply take their business elsewhere, hence eliminating it here altogether.

There’s much to say about the spring break population’s demographics, which includes families too, but suffice it to say that this is the South, and PCB’s spring break demographic includes many Black youth.  I say this to preface my remarks on spring break rape culture with a clear awareness that here and elsewhere a large part of the “debate” about spring break has always had racist overtones, coded as discussions about crime rates. That the men charged in this particular rape are Black should be inconsequential to the larger debate about rape culture and its spring break variations (except for when it comes to who gets charged and prosecuted.) But here in good ole’ Florida — the home of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and before them Panama City resident Martin Lee Anderson who was ran to death by officers in a now closed juvenile boot camp facility —   the fact that the alleged perpetrators in this high profile and highly sensationalistic alleged crime are young Black men will certainly bear out in its own racist manner. Meanwhile, the local sheriff’s department will claim it is simply seeking justice for the victim. Yeah, right. How about the videotaped, and uncompensated, victims in Joe Francis’ “Girls Gone Wild” videos? (See more below.)

This event will no doubt add fuel to the growing movement against campus sexual assault and our generalized rape culture, especially regarding how desensitized (drunk?) spring break onlookers appeared to be as the alleged rape of the possibly drugged woman was occurring in front of them. But this kind of decontextualized and ultra-sensationalized media story only pours salt in wounds and further polarizes us instead of promoting any form of healing. A recent Panama City News Herald article  about the alleged rape addresses this mounting tension between anti-spring breakers and PCB workers/business owners. Fittingly, a PCB City Council Meeting was packed with people wearing “Save Our Jobs” t-shirts the day the charges against two young men in the alleged rapes were announced, leaving the Sheriff fuming that those wearing the t-shirts should be “in jail right along with” the alleged perpetrators.  What? So now people who want to survive should be jailed? (Read it for yourself, weep for Bay County.)

Many spring breakers arrive here and don’t rape people, shoot off guns, and litter our beaches with beer cans and tequila bottles.  But PCB itself is undergoing a big class demographic shift, as smaller mom and pop seaside hotels and businesses are disappearing in favor of shinier developments like the Pier Park outdoor mall, a new mid-beach Wal-Mart destination, and sprouting strip malls. These eating and shopping destinations require workers who can not afford to live beachside. In fact, many are foreign hospitality workers on short-term work visas (Jamaicans), or they commute from towns up to one hour away (and longer if they take the public trolley system, which doesn’t run on Sundays although the Chamber of Commerce boasts that this is a tourist town.)

No good will come from this case — locally. As national media outlets feed the frenzy of this particular event, please remember that just four years ago, in April 2011, Joe Francis, the mastermind behind the “Girls Gone Wild” video series, was tried and acquitted by an all-woman jury in Panama City Federal Court.  The charges against Francis? Causing emotional damages to the anonymous plaintiffs when he featured them topless without their consent in his video series.  Francis, who represented himself in court, was quoted in the News Herald, and in newspapers as far away as the Sydney Morning Herald, regarding his defense strategy: “”I shook them like a tree until all the fruit fell out, and I shook them violently.” What? Come again?

Who’s raping, who’s videotaping, who’s shaking (!?) and the connections between racism, sensationalized individual rape cases, and rape culture — not to mention the basic math of spring break profits — should be the angle for any responsible media outlet to take if they really want to illuminate who pays, who plays, and who stays in PCB’s notorious spring break rape culture. Sure there’s a difference between videotaping a real assault and videotaping and selling images of topless, drunk, and frequently underage young women, but these behaviors exist together on exactly the continuum of social attitudes and practices that undervalue and defile all women’s bodies and lives. The term “rape culture” is intended to capture exactly this continuum, which is why the term still circulates and will not go away until rape does.

Michelle Renee Matisons, Ph.D. conducts research, writes, and inadvertently lives in Bay County, Florida. She can be reached @ michrenee@gmail.com, that is, if she’s not out enjoying the emptying beaches in this post-spring break white sanded and turquoise-watered springtime wonderland.

Michelle Renee Matisons, Ph.D. can be reached at michrenee@gmail.com.