Spring Break Documentary Shows the Brokenness of Casual Sex Culture

Every year, literally thousands of young men and women congregate on Panama Beach for a week of drinking, dancing, bikini contests, and hooking up. Spring break for college students is notorious for being a time rife with casual sexual encounters, mostly with strangers. In addition, sexual abuse, unwanted touch, and even rape are not uncommon. The Netflix documentary Liberated: The New Sexual Revolution shows the firsthand experiences of college students partying over spring break on Panama Beach.[1] While on the outside, one might view the partying lifestyle to be completely innocent, a time of “letting loose” and being free of all restraints and responsibilities, the film was made in order to uncover the ugly underbelly of casual sex, hookup culture, and the painful lies our culture tell about masculinity and femininity. Breaking free of these lies is real “liberation.”

Shay Ryan Douglas, a young Australian man featured in Liberated, came to the United States on a soccer scholarship and went to Panama Beach over spring break with a group of friends. While there, they met the film crew who were working on Liberated and let them document their week of partying and hooking up with girls. Now, years later, Douglas speaks across the world on masculinity and how his wild behavior shown in the documentary came out of a place of deep woundedness and insecurity. After college, he went on a journey of self-discovery and sought to understand why he had chosen a life of promiscuity, indulgence, and narcissism. Because Douglas changed so dramatically since the filming of the documentary, he was understandably embarrassed when it premiered. However, he chose to take responsibility for his past life and use the story as a catalyst for discussion around the topics of masculinity, adolescence, and sexuality. His honesty and courage have touched hundreds of young men’s lives.

Recently, Dr. Anthony Bradley of The King’s College interviewed Douglas and asked him what he thought drove him to this kind of insecure, wild lifestyle. In a nutshell, Douglas behaved the way he did because he felt a deep-seated need for validation and affirmation. “Looking back I can see how much I was yearning for that deeper connection, and the acceptance, and the approval.” Douglas said. “Gaining a sense of approval, acceptance, and belonging in my tribe and community.” He went on to explain that, in his own journey, coming to a place of feeling unconditionally loved was what really effected so much of his personal healing. Instead of seeing the release of the film as an occasion for deflation and shame, Douglas decided to take it as an opportunity to grow more resilient and depend ever more deeply on his newfound sense of security. He chose to take responsibility.

Often we hear of people living dysfunctional lives due to a profoundly broken upbringing, but the crisis of masculinity (and femininity) is far more endemic in Western culture. It happens all the time to people like Shay, who grew up with both a mother and a father and lived in a stable community and neighborhood. Growing up, we are all instilled with messages contrary to human flourishing.  Liberated tells the story of what happens when young men seek affirmation and validation by the culture’s perverted terms. The culture and mainstream media would have young men believe that to be masculine is to reject their emotions, act tough, and sleep with as many women as they can. It would have women fall for the lie that their worth is tied to their bodily sex appeal. When wounded and vulnerable young men and women buy into such cultural narratives, the consequences are horrifying. Shay Douglas is a brave person to have owned his own participation in such a broken system and advocate for mature and self-giving masculinity.

To end on a personal note, the documentary was as convicting as it was illuminating. While I have never partied on Panama Beach, I stand in need of forgiveness for the ways I have objectified women and used them to meet my own emotional and physical needs. This is ultimately a problem of the heart. Viewing pornography or looking at a girl with the sole intent to objectify her are also ways of contributing to this dehumanized system of belief and behavior. As Dr. Bradley, Shay Douglas, and the creators of Liberated show us, that sort of narcissism isn’t what it means to be a man.

[1] Viewer discretion advised: drinking, partying, and scantily clad women are depicted in this documentary, although nothing overly graphic is shown.

Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground.

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