Rampant casual sex among swaths of young people is nothing new—there was plenty of free love in the '60s, no? But Benjamin Nolot's documentary Liberated: The New Sexual Revolution warns us that the current crop of college students are so immersed in media and pornography that when it comes to sex, it's not just about free love anymore—sex is now just free.
Liberated focuses on the mating habits of heterosexual, cisgender college students, only magnified through the promiscuous, anything-goes environment of spring break at various travel destinations such as Florida and Cancún. Hedonistic sex and heavy drinking go down as easy as Jell-O shots there, of course. But there's something more sinister afoot that isn't shown on television. Sexual assault, violence, rape and harassment happen frequently to young women who only want to party on the beach and have a good time. Even Nolot—who had previously made a film on sexual slavery and advocates for causes looking to end human trafficking in his home base of Missouri—was shocked by the nastiness. It caused him to rethink his original project, which was a broader look at college hookup culture. "Our goal in starting the project was to film many aspects of the sexual culture today, and we actually did," he says. "We also shot footage discussing slut shaming, bikini baristas and the porn industry. We got back and came across all this footage of girls being groped and felt like, 'We need to go back.'
"It felt like this was the story we needed to tell," he adds. "When we tried to edit in other scenes, it just felt like it was deviating from this storyline."
It took Nolot and his team more than four years to produce Liberated, having to wait every year to return to a new spring break—and in the end, it was a smart decision. Expert sociologists and authors on modern dating weigh in on the topic, but being immersed in B-roll footage and man-on-the-street interviews with partygoers is the most convincing proof of the film's greater points. Following along with various groups of young men and women, we're fully absorbed into the frank, transactional nature of hooking up, no Tinder or dating apps required. "So it's basically like, 'Hi, how ya doin'? . . . Wanna have sex?'" Nolot asks a group of Milwaukee students.
"We're not that smooth," they respond. "We usually go in with a chat and compliment the girl on how good-looking she is . . . and she'll just fall for it."
Let's pause for a second. If you're reading this with the reaction of "What's the big deal with casual sex?" it's important to acknowledge that the problem isn't so much about the act itself, but the inherent expectations of both male and female genders to perform antiquated, sexist ideals of what it means to be masculine or feminine, as well as how it quickly progresses to sexual violence and rape culture. Narrow definitions of masculinity are muscle-bound, suave conquerors looking to score, displayed in media, porn and, well, everywhere. Nolot asks a young Frat Bro Wannabe hanging out poolside what it means to be a man; he hems and haws before describing it as "scoring with as many chicks as I want—like that girl over there." Frat Bro Wannabe then tries to pick up a woman lounging with her friend and—surprise, surprise—strikes out.
Meanwhile, media and pop culture rigidly define femininity as being a sexual object for the male gaze, just as Homer did with Helen thousands of years ago. We follow two college-age best friends as they approach spring break with a bucket list of things to try, including a sexy dance contest. The girls take turns dancing erotically while onstage, as the crowd chants to take their top off. In an upsetting twist, the contest MC cheers along and eggs each girl to take her top off—after reassuring the contestants backstage he wouldn't pressure them to do so only moments prior.
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While universities struggle to protect students from campus rape and narratives of college rapists being acquitted for sex crimes persist, it's Nolot's goal to screen Liberated at these spaces to enlighten and inform students on this ongoing phenomenon. He also wants to raise conversations on where we're at, sex-wise, as a culture, as well as how to break out of the molds of gender and sexuality. "The hope is," Nolot says, "to adopt an empathetic way of being in the world so that we can truly be free."
Liberated: The New Sexual Revolution was directed by Benjamin Nolot. Screens as part of the Newport Beach Film Festival at the Lido Theatre, 3459 Via Lido, Newport Beach; www.newportbeachfilmfest.com. Sat., 8 p.m. $15.