MTV’s “Spring Break” special has portrayed the college recess in a tropical atmosphere that is filled with alcohol, drugs and sexual temptations. Fast forward to 2005 when high school senior Natalee Holloway mysteriously disappeared during a spring break trip to Aruba — and the stigma of the college trend became known for more than just drunken fun in the sun.
Though safety risks always exist while traveling, the social narrative of a malicious stranger who preys on an innocent woman is not the statistical reality.
“In terms of things like abductions, those are very unlikely,” said Alan Bruce, the director of the criminal justice program and an associate sociology professor who specializes in crime and media. “I don’t want to give the impression that because something is very, very rare we shouldn’t be concerned about it. At the same time, we need to say, ‘Well yeah, this could happen, but what is the real likelihood?’”
An estimated 1,125,000 U.S. college students travel during spring break each year, according to Classes and Careers, a college advisory website.
Many students travel to unsupervised tropical destinations where they engage in risky behaviors such as binge drinking, drug use and sex with strangers.
“[The reputation] has changed somewhat from being about ‘party time’ to there being heightened emphasis on the possibility of more criminal activity, in particular of abductions, and warning against those dangers,” Bruce said.
Since Holloway’s highly publicized disappearance, many media organizations have reported on the perils of spring break activities. This has led many to adopt the social ideology that college women are in more danger than college men while vacationing on spring break.
Senior Chris D’Ascanio will travel to Panama City, Fla., for spring break. He says he believes women face different risks than men while vacationing.
“Girls are more vulnerable, they are lightweights,” D’Ascanio said. “Guys are more in control of what they do and girls can be more influenced by other people.”
According to a University of Michigan study in 2011, men were more likely than women to engage in dangerous behavior while on spring break. The study found that 29 percent of men said they would get drunk, while 18 percent of women said they would reach the point of intoxication. In addition, four times as many men as women said they had plans to have sex with a stranger.
Senior Elizabeth Palmer has plans to visit South Padre Island, Texas, during spring break. She says while certain dangers do exist for men, women have a higher chance of being taken advantage of.
“Not only are we more likely to get something slipped in our drinks, but if something happened to me I don’t think I would be able to fight back as well as a guy because I’m smaller,” Palmer said. “I know my parents are much more worried about me and my friends traveling alone than my younger brother and his friends for these reasons.”
While spring break dangers may be different for men and women, Bruce says safety consciousness should be a priority for all students — despite their gender.
“Everybody needs to be more careful. I think it’s unfair to place that burden on women alone. It says to women you’ve got to behave in a certain way, whereas guys, you’re off the hook, you can do whatever you want,” Bruce said. “I think it’s unfair to frame [safety] that way.”
While the potential for crime always exists, being aware of probable occurrence is important, according to Bruce.
In 2006, the American Medical Association conducted a survey which found that women who went away on spring break did engage in some dangerous behaviors.
The study said 53 percent of women who went on spring break regretted vomiting from too much alcohol, 21 percent regretted blacking out from drinking and 20 percent regretted engaging in sexual activity.
Sophomore Molly Noonan plans to travel to Barcelona, Spain, over spring break. She says while safety risks depend on the travel location, women face more danger than men on average.
“I think for girls, it’s definitely harder to keep yourself safe because I feel like guys are always after girls, especially on spring break when they’re drinking and having fun,” Noonan said. “I feel like boys are less likely to be targeted.”
While women are victims of violence every year, anonymous attacks are not the norm.
The majority of all female victims knew their attacker in all cases of stalking and sexual violence, according to the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.
While social deviants like Holloway’s suspected killer Joran Van Der Sloot do exist, Bruce says media outlets exaggerate their popularity.
“I think without a doubt, the media overemphasizes the idea of people being evil,” Bruce said. “They do overemphasize the likelihood that someone will be victimized by a person like that because while they do exist, they are very, very rare.”