The following is a guest post from Kari-Shane Davis Zimmerman, who teaches moral theology at College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University.
This post’s title is a catchy line from one of several flashy advertisements that appears on the “StudentCity.com” website. A quick tour of the contents and one has instant access to this year’s top spring break destinations. From Cancun to Panama City to the snowy slopes of Telluride, “StudentCity.com” promises help planning the ultimate spring break trip. You can book your flight, cruise, or bus and hotel all in one place. There is even an option to purchase a “party pass”! For those low on funds, the site also offers a convenient list of spring break trips “on a budget.” This is important given that a stereotypical spring break story often goes something like this. Six to eight young adults cram into a large, gas-guzzling vehicle with the goal of completing an insanely long drive in record time so that they can park themselves on a sunny beach for as many days as is physically possible before they must report again to class. To accomplish this feat, many will display a more flexible, less self-centered side of themselves. For example, they often agree to split the cost of gas, lodging, alcohol, etc. They also do a relatively decent job of looking out for each other by agreeing to travel in large groups so that no one is left behind. Yet, despite their exemplary attention to detail in planning the trip and navigating group dynamics, few spring breakers take into account the emotional and physical risks associated with the stereotypical “spring break experience.” Let me explain.
“StudentCity.com” is just one example of an entire industry aimed at “helping” students take a much-needed break in the middle of a hectic semester. However, this kind of service only makes it easier for students to gather and consume insane amounts of alcohol leading to “mild” side effects for some, but to severe alcohol poisoning for others. Even more disconcerting is the level of sexual activity that typically comes into play in this kind of alcohol-induced atmosphere. More often than not, strangers will have sex, leading to emotional battle scars for some as there is “no condom for the heart” according to Laura Sessions Stepp, author of Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both. Similarly, there are physical risks to consider as these same strangers may be too intoxicated to protect themselves or they will fail to discuss any “medical math” with their soon-to-be hookup partner. This failure to communicate can turn deadly for some.
The above illustration of the typical spring break experience indicates there is an enormous gap between what some of our students will experience this coming March and the teachings of sexual ethics. Given this, I think we need to brainstorm ways to communicate across this divide that are more effective. One such approach taken by many colleges around the country is to offer an “alternative” spring break experience in hopes that students will choose a different kind of venue to chill out in and take a break from their everyday routine. At my school, for example, students have the opportunity to travel outside the state (in this case Minnesota) and serve others less fortunate than themselves in a non-toxic, life-giving atmosphere. These students often return to campus profoundly influenced and inspired to make a difference. Still, I wonder about those students who are lured by the incessant advertisements and the immense cultural pressure to party hard and head to the beaches of south Florida or the slopes out west? What can we offer them? I suggest the following two approaches as a starting point.
- I think we need to make a more concerted effort to talk more openly with our students about what it means to practice forming and maintaining just and healthy relationships. Whether it is in our classrooms, through directed workshops or retreat experiences, we need to engage our students more on the practice of relationships. If they are required to take classes to learn how to drive, is it not evident given the hookup culture, uncouth Facebook posts, or vulgar YouTube videos that many young adults today actually are not in control of their relationships? Put differently, many twentysomethings are incompetent when it comes to the practice of relationships, and we further contribute to their incompetency when we fail to help them understand that personal relationships require good work—not the kind of work displayed by cast members of Jersey Shore.
- Given the above, a second suggestion I would offer is this. We need to move beyond a simple reiteration of the “rules” and talk more in terms of principles young men and woman can apply to any relationship situation. I think Margaret Farley does this well when she discusses the principle of “do no harm” in the context of human personhood. Farley explores the question of what is human personhood in an attempt to better frame a sexual ethic that considers more than simply whether a particular sexual act is morally good or morally unsound. She expands the conversation to include more discernment as to when is sexual expression “appropriate, morally good and just,” regardless of context. This latter approach can open the door to more frank conversations with persons across the belief spectrum as to the nature and purpose of the sexual act. Those who want to advocate for abstinence until marriage can have a place in the conversation as well as those who do not necessarily condone premarital sex but are searching for others way to tap into and effect students’ moral compasses.
A typical spring break experience can include real threats, including but not limited to, the real threat of rape and sexual assault, for women and men. We need to help our students understand what it means to embrace their moral agency so that no matter the relationship situation they find themselves in, they can employ their conscience and discern a justice-filled and healthy way forward rather than simply acting on impulse. In the coming weeks, I know I will make every effort to talk to my students about their spring break plans so that “what happens on spring break…” leads to little to no Facebook gossip!