In the documentary Liberated: The New Sexual Revolution, released in 2017 by Magic Lantern Pictures, director Benjamin Nolot investigates today’s young adult hook-up culture as he follows the journey of college students on Spring Break (the Australian equivalent being Schoolies – a time when Year 12 students celebrate the end of their schooling years). The film provides shocking insight into attitudes and behaviours regarding sex, the normalisation of sexual violation, and the struggle against conceptions of gender and sexuality shaped by the media.
Nolot had previously released a documentary on the slavery and abuse rampant in the sex industry, leading him to want to understand the origin of some of the attitudes that drive the industry. His social research led him to the shores of the West Coast of the United States during Spring Break, a journey rife with sexual exploitation, degradation and so-called “liberation”.
Liberated is an uncomfortable documentary to view, because it shows, first-hand, what it’s like to be a young man or woman living in today’s culture: where masculinity is defined by the number of sexual encounters you can have in a night, and femininity by how “sexy” you look onstage in a bikini contest.
The behaviour graphically displayed in the documentary ranges from groups of young men openly celebrating their sexual conquests, groping women as they pass by, peer pressuring young women to skull beer before group-chanting “show your titties”, to women meeting men for the first time and within 5-minutes disappearing to a bedroom behind closed doors. All of this is showcased within an environment of excessive alcohol consumption, almost unconscious, semi-coherent behaviour, a tragic lack of self-worth and desperate desire for affirmation among the young women, and a very jolting sense of male entitlement to women’s bodies.
At one point during the filming, a group of young women are asked if they feel safe on Spring Break, to which they answer an immediate and unapologetic “no”. Other women stated how they feared for their life, but shrugged it off as an inescapable reality specific to the environment.
Spring Break as depicted in Liberated may be a particularly concentrated and confronting portrayal of hook-up culture, but it is indicative of the sexually exploitative attitudes encouraged by the media and entertainment industries that permeate throughout our society and affect the way men and women view and treat sex, relationships and each other.
Take, for example, the misogynistic culture purported by the music industry through songs like Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, the “romanticised” sadomasochism of the 50 Shades of Grey film franchise, or the sexualised advertisements that we are bombarded with on a daily basis.
If what Nolot uncovers in Liberated about Western society is true, how can we turn the tide on issues like sexual harassment that give rise to movements like #MeToo? How do we foster real equality between men and women when society and the media breed inequality?
A society that feeds on and normalises the consumption of sexually explicit entertainment cannot also be one where women are valued for who they are, not just for what they can be exploited for. Why? Because encouraging the consumption of pornography and promoting the sexualisation of women (in music, television, film, advertising etc) as acceptable and normal, is to support the objectification and commodification of women.
Similarly, a society that encourages men to seek out the prostituted services of women, cannot be one that simultaneously champions equality for women. Why? Because it supports and buys into an industry of sexual slavery disguised as a “profession” of "liberation" at the service of male sexual satisfaction.
A society that fosters any form of sexual exploitation – seeing women merely as vessels for another person’s gratification – is a society that can never view, uphold and treat women as equal. A deeper cultural shift has to occur, so that degradation in all its forms, is always seen as objectionably unacceptable and inexcusable.
Finally, the information we are fed from the mainstream media and from supporters of the sex and pornography industries which supposedly “empower” women, must be held up to scrutiny and vigorously challenged, because the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
Movements that combat the objectification and sexualisation of women such as Darling Magazine, Women’s Forum Australia, Fight the New Drug and many more, are invaluable in changing the tide, one magazine, one mind, one person at a time. For this is where authentic, lasting change begins.
Silvana Scarfe is a freelance writer from Sydney.
Liberated can be viewed exclusively on Netflix.