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Sexuality Education in the Camp Setting: A Thirty-Four Year Retrospective
Thirty-four years ago I came to camp for the first time as a member of the advisory/staff training team. I was a young mother, had finished graduate school a couple of years earlier, was a certified sex educator, and had been actively involved in sexuality education for about six years. The last time I had been in the camp setting, eight years previously, I had a very different perspective. I was single, had not yet finished my BSW, and had not yet developed my own clear conceptualizations of educational principles.
When I came back to the camp setting, I had both credentials and the perspective that comes with distance and training. I looked at what was happening in terms of adolescent sexuality at my particular camp, and I was concerned. Kids at the camp were openly engaged in hugging, kissing, and fondling. Swimwear was frequently speedos for the boys and bikinis for the girls. Staff was open about their relationships with each other, and sometimes were having relationships with campers, even when they knew it was unacceptable. Swearing and sexual talk was rampant. Sexual ignorance was no less than when I was growing up. I had found my mission.
Over the next couple of years, my husband and I developed both an educational policy and a curriculum for different age groups, based on the stages of bio-psycho-sexual development as well as Jewish values. We did programs for different age groups, and created a dialogue for staff. For a number of years, we co-taught a class for staff on sexuality and Jewish values. There was a change in the camp. The public behaviors quickly became more appropriate; a consciousness was raised; and a dialogue began that was to last for many years. However, after a number of years of successful programming, I found myself the only advisor/staff trainer for the camp. There was less urgency around the issues of sexuality, because public behaviors had changed. There were many competing needs in the camp, and gradually the formalized programming and staff training on this issue diminished and then disappeared.
It was time for a new approach, which again came in response to visible displays of adolescent sexuality in the camp. And so for many years, night after night, I was invited into bunks to answer questions about sexuality, using the opportunity to teach Jewish values, with the questions of the campers as my vehicle for informal sex education. I was called the “sex lady,” the “Dr. Ruth” of the camp, and many other things. For the most part, the kids enjoyed the talks, although they were always interspersed with a lot of limit testing. There were many teachable moments over the years, and I am still surprised by the occasional comment by a former camper (now a camper parent) about how much was gained from these conversations with me.
Over the past many years, we have built up various formats of staff training — based in psychology, social work, and education; however, no one else has ever taken ownership over this important area of adolescent development and education. There have been the occasional programs responding to initiatives by staff or campers, but no serious rethinking of what the needs are and how to meet them.
Have Children and Their Needs Changed Over the Last Thirty-Four Years?
Kids are still kids. Bio-psycho-sexual development of adolescents has not changed. Adolescents still go through the same devel¬opmental changes, physically, socially, and emotionally. But the world has changed. Fifty years ago, adolescent boys were perusing Playboy magazine, but there was no full genital exposure. Stimulation was provided by fully exposed breasts. Throughout the years, the nature of “soft” porn has metamorphosed. Full genital exposure is standard. From magazines and air-brushed photos we have moved into the era of e-media and photoshop. We are bombarded with sexual messages and images through the media — more so than ever before. There is more sexual awareness today, women are vocal about their rights, and yet the media continues to objectify women in ever-increasingly degrading and fantastical ways. Pornography that was once considered “hard-core” is now considered “soft” — and it’s rampant. And although it is often “disguised” as advertising and entertainment, erotic stimula¬tion can be found in stories, television shows, and movies geared toward the teen population. Both adolescent boys and girls swear with ease, use sexually inappropriate language, and engage in eroticized behaviors, oblivious to the ways in which their behaviors affect others and reflect on them.
Our society has become highly sexualized, but although teens have the benefit in school of “health education,” it is questionable how often the issues of age-appropriate behaviors and creating a sexual value system are ever broached in the school or home setting. Our children are exposed to sexual messages, encouraged to explore and experience, but are we teaching them about boundaries, decision-making, and the appropriate contexts for sexual intimacy?
Opportunities for Sexuality Education at Camp
In the context of the summer camp setting, we have a unique opportunity. In camp sessions, no matter what the length, there are opportunities to be proactive, reactive, and find numerous teachable moments. Because of the social norms in the general population, behaviors are often seen as normative by young staff, and are not brought to the attention of the advisors/staff trainers unless the behavior becomes extreme in their eyes, meaning that it is beyond their own personal comfort zone. Often when exploring such a situation, we discover that it is only one behavior in a series of instances that the staff did not identify as being inappropriate, because “it’s always been that way in camp.” Institutional memory is very short term, and so “always” means “this is how it was when I was a camper,” perhaps two to five years ago.
The challenge for us is to take advantage of the unique opportunity we have to ad¬dress an issue that is crucial in adolescent development in helping to define future adult choices and behavior. We see children at that critical juncture when behaviors, attitudes, and values are being formed and internalized. To fully take advantage of the educational opportunity that we are being presented with, there are a number of steps that we need to take:
- Clarify the core values that we want to teach the children in our care. An example of a core value still relevant today can be found in the Jewish tradition in a document that we used to teach from the thirteenth century called “The Holy Letter” (Iggeret Ha-Kodesh in Hebrew), which is attributed to Nahmanides. This document is as contemporary as it is old, stressing the positive aspects of sexuality as well as the significance of context and boundaries.
- Identify those values that specifically relate to the areas of sexuality.
- Teach staff what those values are, through consciousness raising and discussion, and by creating clear policies and guidelines. For some additional ideas and guidance, refer to Ethan D. Schafer’s May/June 2006 Camping Magazine article, “Training Your Staff to Manage the Challenges of Adolescence.”
- Empower staff to recognize inappropriate behaviors and to create boundaries and environments that will allow children to feel physically and emotionally safe in their cabins and with their peers. One interesting model for doing this is presented by Jay Jacobs in his September/October 2002 Camping Magazine article, “Starfish Values Program.”
- Empower staff by teaching strategies for setting these limits and facilitating discussion on this sensitive but important topic.
- Assist staff in recognizing teachable moments, and provide them with the tools to make the most of those opportunities.
- Make it a priority to help staff understand the importance of developing a personal and community sexual value system, and choosing the behaviors that most reflect the values of the community.
In sum, our foremost goal is to create a healthy community, with a clear and consistent set of values. The world changes,
and we must evolve and change with it. But to raise a future generation of mindful adults able to make good decisions for themselves, we must create an environment that clearly presents them with a set of core values to help them navigate the world in which they are living. And among those values, it is imperative to emphasize the centrality of limits, personal space, respect for oneself and others, and the appropriate contexts for exploring and expressing one’s sexuality.
We are faced with the continuous challenge of helping young people move from a values vacuum to a values imperative, unlearning what has been programmed in by an environment of societal indifference, mixed messages, and over-sexualization by the media. Our aim is to re-educate to a more thoughtful stance of consideration and deliberation before action. We want to encourage our adolescent staff to buy into our values model, one in which our actions do reflect on who we are, and our decisions are based on mindful choice.
Fantasia, H. C. (2008). Concept analysis: Sexual decision-making in adolescence. Nursing Forum, 43(2).
Fischhoff, B., Crowell, N. A., and Kipke, M. (Eds.). (1999). Adolescent decision making: Implications for prevention programs: Summary of a workshop. Retrieved from www.nap.edu/catalog/9468.html
Ganzel, A. K. (1999). Adolescent decision making: The influence of mood, age, and gender on the consideration of information. Journal of Adolescent Research, 14(289). Retrieved from http://jar.sagepub.com/content/14/3/289
Moore, S. & Rosenthal, D. (2006). Sexuality in adolescence: Current trends (2nd ed.) New York: Routledge.
Cohen, S. J., ed. (1976). The holy letter (Iggeret ha kodesh). New York: Ktav Publishing House, Inc.
Schafer, E. D. (2006). Training your staff to manage the challenges of adolescence. Camping Magazine, 3. Retrieved from www.ACAcamps.org/members/knowledge/human/cm/0605schafer
Jacobs, J. (2002). Starfish values program. Camping Magazine, 5. Retrieved from www.ACAcamps.org/members/knowledge/participant/cm/029starfish
Perito, J. E. (2008). Adolescent sexuality: Too much, too soon: Spiritual and sexual guidance for parents. Millennial Mind Pub.
Reyna, V. F., & Farley, F. (2006). Risk and rationality in adolescent decision making: Implications for theory, practice, and public policy. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 7(1), 1–44. Retrieved from http://psi.sagepub.com/content/7/1/1.abstract
Garr, R. & Garr, M. (2006). Establishing clear limits. Camping Magazine, 6. Retrieved from www.ACAcamps.org/members/knowledge/participant/cm/0611limits
Minda Garr lives in Jerusalem, Israel. She recently retired from the teaching faculty of the Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Garr received her BSW from the Hebrew University and her MSW from the University of Iowa.
Originally published in the 2012 March/April Camping Magazine.