It’s spring. Many colleges and universities in the U.S. adjourn for a week-long vacation sometime in the months of March and April. Originally intended as a mid-semester break from studies, it has evolved for many students into a ritual of hard partying someplace warm. The travel industry predicts that more than 1.5 million students will take part in this annual migration.
A week of fun in the sun can sound innocent enough, but watch some of the videos of the spring break bacchanals on Youtube or the images on TV shows and in the movies and a darker scene emerges. Thousands of young people, most with a drink in their hands and barely dressed, crowd the beaches and bars. They look like they are having the time of their lives. The women are young and beautiful. The men are hot. The music is loud and the dancing is sexy.
Those images suggest that if you’re not getting wasted and having sex on the beach, you’re missing out. Sadly, going along with the hype means that some young people will lose their self-respect, their idea of their futures, and even their lives on what was supposed to be a fun vacation.
Why? Because what goes on in the hot spots for spring break is often far from innocent. According to a 2006 survey by the American Medical Association, 83 percent of the college women and graduates said that spring break involved heavier-than-usual drinking and 74 percent said the partying often ended up with sexual activity.
Large numbers of students reported getting sick from alcohol and having unprotected sex, sex with more than one partner, or group sex. A night of wild, unprotected sex with a stranger or two may sound like an adventure, but for too many it leads to a lifelong disease (like herpes or hepatitis) or an unwanted pregnancy. Alcohol poisoning can result in a trip to the local hospital and an unpleasant, highly dangerous end to the vacation.
In the last few years more and more students have been traveling to Mexico or Jamaica. The State Department estimates that 100,000 will travel out of the country. The beaches are beautiful. The sun is warmer. The drinking age is lower. But the apparently easy availability of drugs adds another element of danger for the American student. What starts with what seems like an innocent buy of some party drug on the beach may end with time in a foreign jail. Mexican jails are particularly unforgiving. Mexican drug cartels are even less so. Penalties for possession in Jamaica are inflexible and harsh.
Why do otherwise sensible, bright young people end up in trouble on what is supposed to be a dream vacation in the spring? Chalk it up to mob psychology, peer pressure, and the mythology that surrounds spring break. It’s hard to be responsible when all around you seem to be letting loose. It’s tough to be the person who stops at one shot when everyone else is downing 10 or to put on a shirt when the rest of the crowd is baring butts and breasts. It’s hard to leave the mob to saunter down the beach and hang out in a beach chair with the old folks who have fled to a less popular (but still warm) spot. And who wants to be the only one who doesn’t have great stories of unbridled partying when you get home? Partying is what the spring break is all about, isn’t it? Or is it?
It really isn’t a rule that to have a complete college experience, a student has to engage in irresponsible and dangerous behavior during spring break. In fact, despite the scenes on MTV and Youtube, it isn’t even the norm. Participants in a 2009 study of students’ motivations for going on spring break that was done at Penn State showed that most didn’t go to get wasted or to have uninhibited sex. Most students, in fact, reported that they go to vacation spots simply to get away from the usual routine of school, to have a relaxed vacation, to spend time with friends and family or just because they have nowhere else to spend the week their schools shut down.
Safety Tips from Students Who Have Been There
Tips from students who have gone on spring break and had a good time without getting into trouble sound terribly like what any good parent will tell you. Don’t let that stop you from taking care of yourself.
- Tell your parents or other people at home where you are going, who you’ll be with, and when to expect you back. Let them know how to reach you if necessary. Stay in touch to let them know you’re okay. They will worry less. You will be safer. Hopefully you won’t be one of those who drop out of sight. But if you are, it’s important that someone knows where you were supposed to be and who was with you.
- Use the buddy system. When you are in a bar or in a partying crowd, take care of each other. Don’t let yourselves get separated.
- Don’t go anywhere with strangers. No exceptions. See number 2. If you meet up with people who want to show you the town or take you to their homes, don’t.
- Be aware of your surroundings. Take a moment to assess the scene and to decide if it’s where you really want to be. Know where the exits are. Don’t let yourself get isolated.
- Know the local laws, especially if you are traveling outside the U.S.
- Don’t drink to the point that you’re out of control. Don’t drink anything given to you by someone you don’t know.
- Stay hydrated. Alcohol and sun are a bad mix that can result in dehydration and sun poisoning. Use sunscreen and drink plenty of water to keep yourself hydrated. (No, beer doesn’t count for hydrating.)
- Be firm and clear about boundaries. Stay out of situations where your intentions about sex can be misunderstood.
- Don’t have unprotected sex or do anything sexual that is against your own moral principles. When you get home, you’ll still be with the you that was there.
- Don’t carry all your money. Keep your return ticket and some cash in the hotel safe so you are certain you can get home.
And, yes, have fun. Just use the good sense you were born with while you do it and you’ll go home with a nice tan and no regrets.