Sex is a topic that elicits such strong emotions in people that it often becomes difficult to have a clear, calm, rational conversation about it. When that conversation concerns the sexual behavior of children and teens, things get even more emotional. Lynn Ponton, a well-known adolescent psychiatrist in San Francisco who wrote the popular book The Romance of Risk (Basic Books, 1997) on adolescent risk-taking behavior, once told me how she unwittingly stepped into a maelstrom of controversy and criticism when she followed her best seller with another book titled The Sex Lives of Teenagers. "Suddenly, I found myself fending off the accusation that I was advocating that teenagers have sex rather than merely reporting on that aspect of their lives. It took me by total surprise! I never knew it was such a charged topic in this country!"
This article is partly a report about what middle and high school-aged campers are experiencing — what they are watching, witnessing, hearing, thinking, fantasizing about, and actually doing when it comes to sex. By reporting my findings, I am not approving or disapproving of what kids are doing. I am simply trying to ascertain and share "what's out there." I believe camp professionals should be educated about and aware of the sexual environment children grow up in these days and the typical sexual experiences children have outside of camp that they inevitably bring into camp in some way or other.
Unless you think campers leave their sexuality — by which I mean their curiosity, wonder, fantasies, and actual experience — at the front gate of camp, then sex is on the minds of your campers. Their natural curiosity and inquisitiveness is bound to "show up" at camp in some form or other. What you as a camp professional need to think about is where you see yourself entering the conversation about children and their sexual behavior as it manifests itself at camp — whether that conversation is with campers, their parents, your staff, or yourself.
In the most comprehensive study completed to date on sexual behavior over time, Brooke Wells followed 269,649 young people over four decades to see what changes or trends she could detect in the typical sexual behaviors of young people (Wells & Twenge, 2005). One of the things she found was that in the late 1960s, during the time of the so-called "sexual revolution" in the United States, the average young woman lost her virginity at age eighteen. By 1990, the average age at which a young woman first had sexual intercourse had dropped to age fifteen. That means that women of the "Boomer" generation started having sex in college while women in the "Millennial" generation started having sex in high school.
Indeed, a report published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2010 found that 46 percent of females and 43 percent of males ages fifteen to nineteen have had sexual intercourse, and that about 45 percent of both males and females have had sexual intercourse by age fifteen (Abma, Martinez, & Copen). This is corroborated by a Kinsey Institute report (Mosher, Chandra, & Jones, 2005) published in the same year that shows the percentage of teens that have had sexual intercourse by age. Those findings are summarized in the chart, "Percentage of the Population That Have Had First Sexual Intercourse".
Finding information on the sexual activity of children younger than fifteen is more difficult, although the well-respected Guttmacher Institute in New York published a report in September 2010 titled, "Sexual Intercourse and Oral Sex Among Public Middle School Students," that found that 9 percent of children ages eleven to fourteen have had sexual intercourse, while 8 percent of them have engaged in oral sex (De Rosa & Kim, et al.).
One of the challenges of getting a more accurate picture of sexual behavior in young people has to do with definitions of sexual behavior. When you ask a young person today whether they have "had sex," many of them think you mean sexual intercourse. Therefore, if they have engaged in other forms of sexual activity, such as heavy kissing, rubbing up against one another, touching genitals, manually masturbating a partner, or even oral or anal sex, they will often say "no." One study done by researchers at the Guttmacher Institute found that 55 percent of young women and 54 percent of young men ages fifteen to nineteen reported having had oral sex at least once, and 10 percent of both men and women ages fifteen to nineteen reported having had anal sex (Lindberg, Jones, & Santelli, 2007). In a paper published in the American Journal of Public Health, it was noted that heterosexual adolescents who are "virgins" (defined as never having had vaginal intercourse) ". . . are often sexually active and may behave in ways that put them at risk for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)" (Schuster, Bell, & Kanouse, 1996).
While most studies agree that teens are actually waiting longer to have first sexual intercourse, down by about 6 percent for both males and females between 1995 and 2006 (Guttmacher Institute, 2010; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2010), the overall level of sexual activity among teens ages fourteen to nineteen has undoubtedly increased significantly in just the last five years. Much of this sexual activity is referred to loosely by teenagers and young adults as "hooking up," also known as casual sex or the now infamous "friends with benefits" (a term popularized by the New York Times Sunday Magazine in 2004 and no longer used by young people themselves) (Denizet-Lewis). Indeed, the term "hooking up" is itself vague and therefore difficult to assess in terms of differentiating between "first sexual experience with another person" and "first sexual intercourse."
This is because hook-ups are sexual encounters that cover the full range of sexual behavior, from kissing to sexual intercourse. "Hook-ups" are most often short-lived (most are one-time encounters), non-exclusive, and emotionally shallow (Fogerty & Daniel, 2007). One could argue that the phenomenon of hooking up reflects the changing attitude of young people toward sex in general. In her book Generation Me, Jeanne Twenge's (2006) brilliant work on the so-called "Millennial" generation, she quotes young people as they talk about sex. Many of them view sex as an experience to be enjoyed like any other human experience. One young female said, "Sex is like anything else — it takes practice to be good at it" (p. 163). Another young woman said, "Marriage should not be the reason why someone chooses to have sex — love should be" (p. 164).
One might argue that hooking up has love as its least important component. Indeed, what would be more accurate is to say that many teens see sex as recreational — something to be enjoyed like a good meal, game, or sport. As one young man told Twenge, "If two people really like each other then it's all right for them to have sex even if they've known each other only a short time" (p. 168). As Kate Fogerty at the University of Florida has found, 60 percent of sexually active teens and 87 percent of sexually active college students will hook up — that is, have casual sex — with someone they are not dating (Fogerty & Daniel, 2007). Whether you as a camp professional are comfortable with this state of affairs is another question, but the reality is that a large majority of young people today typically use one another for fun and pleasure and view "hooking up" as a normal phenomenon.
Enter Technology: Online Matchmaking, Sexting, and Internet Pornography
One of the major changes affecting the sexual behavior of young people today is the fact that they can find one another online, either through "chat rooms" specifically designed for the purpose of hooking up, or through social networking sites like Facebook. Teens have anecdotally told me that they will often say something provocative or daring online or in an instant message or text that they wouldn't say in person, including making the suggestion that they "hook up." Once they find one another, they call each other on their own cell phones thereby totally side-stepping any parental awareness or involvement!
As one young man said, "You can just do what you want to do!" (Twenge, 2006, p. 169). Indeed, in an online survey conducted by the Society for Adolescent Medicine (2004), while 60 percent of parents reported being concerned about the consequences of adolescent sexual behavior, the majority (84 percent) did not believe their own child was sexually active. Given the numbers of adolescents who have either actually had intercourse or another first sexual experience, we know how out of touch parents are about their child's sexual activity!
Not only can young people find one another online, they can find one another in great numbers and across great distances. I was once seeing a thirteen-year-old young man in my psychotherapy practice in Boston who had, unbeknownst to his parents or me, "friended" a young man from New York five years older than himself through Facebook. Even though my patient identified as straight, over a period of several months of online "dating," they "became an item" (i.e., were "going steady"). About four months into the "relationship," they met in person (the young man took a bus up to Boston) and "hooked up." I have spoken to many adolescents who have "friended" kids from other cities, towns, or states, and have had sexually explicit conversations with them online. As one youngster said to me, "The idea is to have as many 'friends' on your page as possible." According to the way many young people see things, once you become "friends," hooking up always presents itself as a possibility.
The Internet truly does bring the world into a child's bedroom. In a study conducted in 2007, it was found that 42 percent of all Internet users ages ten to seventeen are exposed to online pornography of various kinds. 14 percent of all Internet users ages ten to seventeen actively seek out online pornography on a regular basis (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2007). In a previous Camping Magazine article, I referred to a case of a fourteen-year-old boy at a camp in California who had downloaded various clips of pornography onto his iPhone and was "renting" it out for a fee during rest hour to eager younger boys (Ditter, 2010). This is a situation that was simply not technologically possible just a few years ago.
Another aspect of technology and adolescent sexual behavior is the practice known as "sexting" — sending nude or semi-nude photographs or images via text message. Though data for sexting seem to vary widely, partly because there is a wide range of views on the practice among teens themselves, the most recent figures come from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. The study notes that by spring of 2010, 75 percent of children ages twelve to seventeen owned their own cell phone, compared with only 45 percent in 2004 (Lenhart, Ling, Campbell, & Purcell, 2010). These days upwards of 58 percent of twelveyear- olds have a cell phone, compared with 83 percent of seventeen-year-olds. Of all children twelve to seventeen who have a cell phone, 31 percent report having received a "sext" message, while only 19 percent admit to having sent one. Frequently, those images get re-sent to recipients they were not originally intended for after two people break up or after one has a quarrel with the other. In a certain high profile case of bullying in Massachusetts, a boy surreptitiously photographed a girl he had sex with then turned against her and sent her image to several people in her high school, thus inflicting great shame on her. She eventually committed suicide (Cullen, 2010).
The View from Camp
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence from my visits to camps in the last year to suggest that sex is very much on the minds of campers of all ages. At a coed resident camp, counselors took me aside to ask me earnestly what they should say to campers who are clearly experimenting with sexual practices well beyond their years. "They are doing things at thirteen and fourteen that I wouldn't have dreamed of doing until I was at least twenty!" one concerned female counselor lamented. "I'm really worried about some of these kids," said another male staff member. "I wonder if the hooking up and casual sex doesn't make it harder later to truly feel special about someone," he continued. "How can these kids experience intimacy when they are so casual about sex at such an early age?"
At another coed resident camp, I talked with counselors of a twelve-year-old girl who had been telling a rapt audience of her peers in exquisite detail just how to go about having "oral" with boys, with special instructions about how to engage in this activity while in a car. When confronted by her counselors, the girl became angry — claiming that her counselors were "singling her out." She insisted that talking about this as she had was "no big deal — everyone does it!"
Then there is the group of eleven-yearold boys at camp who had been playing strip poker during rest hour. The game "progressed" into a kind of "spin the bottle" game of dare where some of the boys put their mouths on the private parts of other boys for "extra points." One wonders where the counselors were during this pastime.
My point in mentioning these real-life camp examples is that sex is increasingly on the minds and in the repertoire of children these days. Talk to camp professionals around the country and you hear about increasingly sexualized language, more open swapping of sexual stories, and so on. As I mentioned before, unless you think sexuality magically disappears when youngsters set foot in camp, it's there. Depending on how you as a camp professional see your commitment to camping (e.g., Do you strictly provide recreation? Are you an educator? Does your program address character development, values clarification, and/or offer guidance?), where you enter the conversation will vary.
Here's what we know:
- Even middle school children are hungry for information they can trust about sex, and they don't always trust doctors or parents as a place to get it (Fogarty & Wyatt, 2007).
- Fifty to sixty percent of teens do not talk with their parents about sex (Fogarty & Wyatt, 2007).
- Most parents (ninety-five percent) agree that responsibility for sex education should be shared by the school and home (or some other trusted child-centered entity) (Fogarty & Wyatt, 2007).
- Twenty percent of parents say they never talk with their children about sex (Wilson & Donenberg, 2004).
- When parents share their own escapades — past or present — with their children, it increases the likelihood that those children will engage in sexual behavior at an earlier age and will engage in riskier sexual behavior (Wilson & Donenberg, 2004). (This has ramifications for counselors who think sharing their own sexual experience with campers is helpful or "cool.")
- While young people fifteen to twenty-four comprise less than twenty-four percent of the sexually active population in the U.S., about forty-eight percent of all 18.9 million new annual cases of STDs are reported from this age group (Weinstock, Berman, & Cates, 2004).
- Parents and especially mothers who share their values and talk openly with their children about sex significantly delay the onset of sexual activity in their children and reduce the risky behavior they might otherwise engage in (Fogarty & Wyatt, 2007).
Many camp professionals hesitate to address sexuality at camp, partly because they worry about what parents will think, and therefore carry on as if sexuality just doesn't exist (except among staff) because it feels safer to avoid it. The only time many directors acknowledge sexuality in any direct way is when confronted with it if a situation arises at camp. In some ways, camp professionals may also mirror the feelings of a lot of parents who don't want to think about their child being sexually active because it means 1) he or she is growing up; 2) there is a major aspect of his or her life parents are shut out from; and 3) for some fathers in particular, it causes a confusion about feeling tender toward their child who is suddenly a sexual being. These are all reasons why camp professionals, as dedicated as they are to the welfare of children, just don't think about sexuality as part of a child's development. The problem, of course, is that it is an integral and essential part of all of us. If there is anything young people today seem to have achieved with regard to sexuality in general, it is that they are much more comfortable and matterof- fact about it than most of their parents. They may have other challenges with sexuality, but they see it more as a central part of life worth talking about!
There are choices in just where you as a professional can enter the conversation. One is to educate yourself as much as possible so you can speak credibly with parents, campers, or staff as individual situations might require. Another is to discuss camper sexuality more openly and directly with your staff during staff training week. Another might be to share with parents through a camp e-letter books or articles they might want to read (this article being one possibility!). Yet another would be to have a guided dialogue with your oldest campers about values and relationships — something you would do with parental consent. Having a discussion led by a trained professional doesn't have to be sex ed. It can simply be a place where your oldest campers share their feelings and beliefs. If you are truly brave, you could include a course on sexual issues and values or morality as part of your camp curriculum.
What Can You Do?
The following are suggestions for trusted adults who talk to teens about sex (or any other important matter!). (Excerpts taken from Fogarty & Wyatt, 2007 and Ponton, 2000, September/October.)
- Share your values, not your stories!
- Have two-way conversations, not lectures! Even when I want to make a point with adolescents I will often "wonder out loud" about it and then ask them what they think.
- Use conversational skills such as asking open-ended questions (like, "Tell me more about that . . . ."); being non-judgmental; disagreeing respectfully; making suggestions.
- Keep the dialogue going over time rather than having "the big talk" about sex in one sitting.
- Watch for danger signs like other high-risk-taking behavior or hanging with a "fast" group of peers.
- Use simple but clear terms for body parts or activities.
- The more comfortable you are the more comfortable teens will be.
- Don't make the mistake many adults make, which is to think that adolescents know more about sex than they actually do.
- Don't make the same mistake 84 percent of parents evidently make, which is to presume young adolescents are not sexually active.
As people who have dedicated themselves to working with young people, camp professionals should remember that having clear, open conversations with adolescents about sex has been shown to greatly reduce their risk-taking behavior and delay the onset of their first intercourse. As camp professionals, each one of us must decide at which point we wish to enter the conversation.
Abma, J.C., Martinez, G.M., Copen, C.E. (2010). Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Child Bearing. Vital Health statistics (23). The National Center for Health Statistics. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.
Cullen, K. (2010, January 24). The untouchable mean girls. The Boston Globe.
De Rosa, C.J., Kim, D.H., et al. (2010). Sexual intercourse and oral sex among public middle school students. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 42(3), 197-205.
Denizet-Lewis, B. (2004, May 30). Friends, friends with benefits and benefits of the mall. The New York Times Sunday Magazine.
Ditter, B. (2010, November/December). Culture clash. Camping Magazine, 83(6), 42–45.
Fogerty, K., & Daniel, C.L. (2007). Hooking up and hanging out: Casual sexual behavior among adolescents and young adults today. University of Florida, IFAS Extension, publication FSC 2279.
Fogarty, K., & Wyatt, C.H. (2007) Communicating with teens about sex: Facts, findings and suggestions. University of Florida, IFAS Extension, publication FSC 2251.
Guttmacher Institute. (2010). Facts on American teens sexual and reproductive health. Retrieved from www.guttmacher.org/  pubs/FB-ATSRH.html
Lenhart, A., Ling, R., Campbell, S., & Purcell, K. (2010). Teens and mobile phones: Text messaging explodes as teens embrace it as the centerpiece of their communication strategy with friends. Pew Internet and American Life Project. Pew Research Center.
Lindberg, L.D., Jones, R., & Santelli, J.S. (2007). Non-coital sexual activities among adolescents. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 43(3).
Mosher, W.D., Chandra, A., & Jones, J. (2005). Age at first intercourse. Kinsey Institute Report.
Ponton, L. (2000). The sex lives of teenagers: Revealing the secret world of adolescent boys and girls. New York: Penguin.
Ponton, L. (2000, September/October) Teenagers and sexuality at camp: Understanding teen sexuality and tips for talking with them. Camping Magazine, 73(5), 20–24.
Schuster, M.A., Bell, R.M., & Kanouse, D.E. (1996). The sexual practices of adolescent virgins: Genital sexual activities of high school students who have never had vaginal intercourse. American Journal of Public Health, 86, 1570-1576.
Society for Adolescent Medicine. (2004). Parental involvement in adolescent sex ed. Journal of Adolescent Health. (online survey)
Twenge, J. M. (2006). Generation me: Why today's young Americans are more confident, assertive, entitled — and more miserable than ever before. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 159-179.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2010). Teenagers in the United States: Sexual activity, contraceptive use and childbearing. National Survey of Family Growth 2006–2008, Vital and Health Statistics, 23(30).
Wells, B., & Twenge, J. M. (2005). Changes in young people's sexual behavior and attitudes, 1943-1999. Review of General Psychology, 9, 249–61.
Weinstock, H., Berman, S., & Cates, Jr., W. (2004). Sexually transmitted diseases among American youth: Incidence and prevalence estimates, 2000. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 36(1).
Wilson, H., & Donenberg, G. (2004). Quality of parent communication about sex and its relationship to risky sexual behavior among youth. Journal of Child Psychiatry, 45(2), 387–395.
Wolak, J., Mitchell, K., & Finkelhor, D. (2007). Unwanted and wanted exposure to online pornography in a national sample of youth internet users. Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 119, 247–257.
Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. For more information about the author, visit www.BobDitter.com .