Pepper Schwartz asks us to consider the role of bystander institutions and individuals. Credit: Devon Buchanan Creative Commons
Pepper Schwartz writes about bystander institutions and individuals. Image credit: Devon Buchanan Creative Commons

Pepper Schwartz’s column, “Who enables spring break rapes?” appeared Thursday April 16, 2015. We share it here timed with release of the CCF Online Symposium on Intimate Partner Violence.

The viral video of an alleged gang rape in Panama City Beach, Florida, during spring break has everyone talking about the apparent crassness of onlookers who stood by as the alleged incident unfolded.

Predictably — and appropriately — there is a lot of hand-wringing about both crowd indifference and the rape culture that allows this kind of beastly behavior. No question, it was hideous — but, personally, I think we are all implicated. For years, we have all stood by watching as spring break has turned into an opportunity for mob behavior.

We know what can happen in fraternities and at house parties, for example, when the event gets frantic and alcohol addled brains turn primitive and predatory. We know that when adolescents and 20-somethings party, those drunken events have a high likelihood of getting hormonally heated and desire can turn dangerous. How many times have we heard of a woman passing out (or being drugged) and publicly violated? Can anyone be surprised anymore that drunken spectators lose their judgment and their moral compass?

So, when we turn a blind eye to huge drunken parties and leave beach behavior to the mob, what do we think is going to happen? A tea party?

I  am not saying that spring break turns every man into a rapist. Most men, no matter how drunk they are, do not fancy getting into a rape train that violates a comatose woman, victimized because she is passed out or otherwise rendered helpless.

But on the other hand, we know there are men who have never learned to respect women, who think that any woman who can’t protest is “fair game” and that, in that moment of drunken lust, all other rules or emotions vanish.

Why men involved in gang rape would want to wallow in another man’s semen, why they want to do this as a performance before the crowd, and why a light doesn’t shine in that only minimally intact brain to remind them that this is a felony, is something I can’t quite explain in this space.

What I do know is that we have let mobs of young people build and overpower the beaches, concerts and frat or party houses of this country and we have let partygoers become so soaked in alcohol and adrenaline that watching a gang bang becomes an interesting (and perhaps erotic) performance rather than a moment for compassion, outrage and heroism aimed at saving the victim.

My guess is that there are a lot of spectators that are massively ashamed of themselves right now — as of course, they should be. If they indeed stood by while an assault like this occurred, they have been accessory to a crime.

How about the rest of us?

We should take a good look at our own responsibility. We should demand that institutions — cities, universities, concerts venues and clubs — never let these events gather this much steam accompanied by intense alcohol consumption. We can’t monitor all social events, but there is no reason we cannot demand and enforce stricter rules about alcohol use when the events are in public spaces or in land owned by municipalities and other institutions.

We are not blameless in this horror show. But we could make it much less likely to happen if we really give a damn and do something to change the rules, and nature, of these kind of events.

Pepper Schwartz is professor of sociology at the University of Washington and the author of many books, the latest of which is “The Normal Bar.” She is the love and relationship ambassador for AARP and writes the Naked Truth column for She is also a senior scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families.