The recent "Senior Salute" revelations that engulfed the prestigious St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, offer a cautionary tale to educational institutions unable or unwilling to directly address campus cultures that propel, or at least tolerate, bad behavior (Bidgood, 2015a). And those likely include summer camps.

St. Paul's experience was a sordid tale about entitled boys propositioning — and likely expecting — younger girls for sexual encounters. The student at the center of the scandal, Owen Labrie, was ultimately found to be not guilty of felony sexual assault but was convicted on charges of having sex with someone below the age of consent (Bidgood, 2015b). Indeed, this type of sexual behavior often constitutes statutory rape.

Questions remain about what school administrators knew of this "tradition" — and when they knew it.

Of course, St. Paul's is not alone. A similarly salacious sexual scandal rocked Massachusetts' Milton Academy a decade earlier (Gonzalez, 2005). And then there's the epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses that led the White House in 2014 to establish a task force to better protect college students from such crimes (The White House, 2014).

The larger context of coercion and conquest again raises issues of character education and how we are raising our boys — and girls. This may especially be the case in the age of a "hookup culture" that has engulfed children at ever younger ages and, arguably, with ever larger consequences.

A New Normal or the Same Old Thing?

In a piece on the St. Paul's spectacle, Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham maintains that, despite our best efforts, perhaps it's the case that boys and young men are no more responsible or educated than they were in the 1950s. She writes, "It's especially dismal for parents of younger kids. Some of us hoped they would be growing up in a more enlightened world when it comes to sex — one where our daughters are more empowered, and our sons more respectful of their rights." Further pressing her point, Abraham says, "We have drummed into our kids that both parties need to give clear, unequivocal consent to sex. They have been told that no means no. As a school prefect, Labrie got extra lessons on that. And yet, he appears to have boasted about overcoming the girl's reluctance, using 'every trick in the book,' according to a Facebook message. So much for training" (Abraham, 2015).

Could Abraham's "retrograde" argument be true? Perhaps. As Lawrence Academy graduate Jake told me, "I think that there has always been a thing with young men, where there is a level of prestige that comes from hooking up with girls. Guys who get with a lot of girls are often seen as being cool in high school." But he offers this caveat: "Now most dudes are super respectful of women. In my experience, most of these guys are perfect gentlemen."

That could be contradictory.

Regardless, 19-year-old Alison, a recent public high school graduate, begs to differ, saying of the Senior Salute situation, "It's bad. The girls are so young and are just being used."

But the same phenomenon may take place the other way around. For example, Jonah, a junior at the Kent School, describes a scenario that unfolded during his freshman year in which junior and senior girls tired of their boyfriends and sought out freshman and sophomore boys for sex. Although Jonah referred to that activity as "ridiculous," he chalked up the rationale to it being high school. "Kids are going to do what they are going to do."

Apparently even when it's illegal.

For generations, boys have been painted as the aggressors. However, research from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), in collaboration with SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), points to changing gender roles in sexual behavior (Wallace, 2013). Teen girls 16 to 19 years old are more likely than boys the same age to say they have ever participated in sexual intercourse (31 percent to 22 percent) and other intimate sexual behavior (40 percent to 29 percent).

It seems clear that young people of both sexes face real or perceived pressure to act on sexual urges in ways that satisfy both internal and external forces, some of which are being exerted earlier than in the past.

Not Your Grandfather's Puberty

Earlier onset of puberty in children complicates the social and psychological dynamics of physiological change and may leave more adolescents struggling with the meaning of intimacy and the vagaries of sexual relationships.

Although changes in puberty for girls (defined as beginning of breast development) have been acknowledged for years, 2012 data from the American Academy of Pediatrics pointed to similar changes for boys, with signs of puberty appearing six months to two years sooner than they did 30 to 40 years ago (Herman-Giddens et al, 2012). For boys, puberty was defined as genital and pubic hair growth and early testicular development, which on average was age ten for white and Hispanic boys and about nine for black boys.

Boys and girls have always wrestled to make sense of dramatic changes to their bodies, emotions, and relationships, but these current average beginnings of puberty have raised many questions about prepping adolescents for this transition and consideration of different reactions to seminal events. How children experience puberty, or at least elements of it, varies for both boys and girls. For example, some girls report feeling excited about their first menstruation, while others report apprehension.

Most at least seem prepared.

On the other side of the aisle, some boys talk about a nocturnal emission ("wet dream") as an accomplishment; others not so much. Thirteen-year-old Brad pumped his fist and said triumphantly, "Yes, finally!" while 12-year-old Jim said his made him feel dirty.

Significantly, and more so than girls, boys seem to receive little, if any, advance warning from their parents about pubertal changes, let alone nuanced conversation about the meaning of personal and physical development. In his book Challenging Casanova, psychologist Andrew Smiler, PhD, shares that while first menstruation is generally talked about by parents, first ejaculations usually aren't because they are equated more with sex than with physical maturation (2012).

Girls, too, may experience difficulty during this time of transition.

While fluctuating moods and dips in self-esteem have long been byproducts of female puberty, there is evidence of surreptitious social change as well. In our society, girls — more so than boys — are expected and encouraged to dwell in the world of feelings. Too often, this comes at the expense of recognizing their nonemotional intellectual capabilities, traits that are often celebrated in boys.

Quixotically, while girls are encouraged to learn the language of emotion, they are often at the same time discouraged from applying it to themselves. This sublimation leaves girls carrying the burden of understanding their own emotionality without the support to express it (Wallace, 2008).

In her New York Times best-selling book Reviving Ophelia, author Mary Pipher, PhD, states that the message many girls receive is, "Take care of others, not you." She explains, "Girls are uncomfortable identifying and stating their needs, especially with boys and adults. They worry about not being nice or appearing selfish" (1994).

Pipher maintains that this dynamic creates pressure for girls to abandon their "true self " in favor of a "false self " more consistent with the expectations of others than of themselves.

That 's sad, and somet imes even dangerous.

Age of Sexual Initiation

Prior research from SADD revealed that while older teens are more likely to report being sexually active than are younger teens, nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of sixth graders report some type of sexual activity other than kissing (Wallace, 2008). In addition, author and psychiatrist Miriam Grossman says 34 percent of girls are sexually active by age 15, and by ninth grade 20 percent of teens have had oral sex (2009).

Anecdotally, I regularly hear stories of boys — and girls — who are either confronted with sexual choices or seek them out before they really want them simply because of the societal push perpetrated through peers and social media.

Acknowledging the challenges of such downward-trending of puberty, Laurence Steinberg, PhD, a Temple University professor and author of Age of Opportunity — Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, says, "Early-maturing adolescents experience a greater gap between when they mature physically and when they mature in other ways. This discrepancy can cause problems, as when an adolescent develops an interest in sex before he can think ahead well enough to carry condoms, or when a girl starts to attract boys before she has the emotional wherewithal to decline their advances" (2014).

Figuring out the nuances of the hookup culture, ushered in by the Millennial Generation and permeating Generation Z, is a challenge facing youth-serving organizations nationwide. Worse, for many camps it's a double dose of potential risk: camp staff, whom I addressed in my Camping Magazine article "It's Complicated. Beyond the Hookup Culture: Taking Initiative and Mitigating Risk" (Wallace, 2015), and camp kids.

Alas, for both campers and counselors it's a brave new world.

Blaming Henry Ford?

Changes on the American sexual landscape really began with the introduction of the automobile back in the 1920s. This liberated romance from the watchful eyes of parents, making unsupervised dating — and the sexual behavior that can result — more of a norm than an exception. Flash forward some 40 years and you have the "sexual revolution" that took the country by storm (Garcia et al, 2012).

Though less avant-garde than the 1960s, today's sexual environment for young people represents a significant shift from their parents' generation and begs questions about long-term physical, psychological, and social ramifications. In part, this is why understanding emerging trends in puberty, sexuality, and sexual behavior is imperative for educators of all stripes.

Such knowledge can go a long way toward the construction of policies and procedures meant to create both a safe, healthy camp environment and contingency plans for when they don't.

Hooking Up: Net Positive or Negative?

According to Jonah from the Kent School, "Hooking up is looked at as doing sexual acts without strings attached. This is quite common and it is usually recreational." Similarly, a report published by the American Psychological Association (APA), "Sexual Hookup Culture: A Review," defines hooking up as brief, uncommitted sexual encounters among individuals who are neither romantic partners nor dating, and states that 70 percent of sexually active 12- to 21-year-olds have engaged in such sexual behavior within the last year (Garcia et al, 2012).

As for the outcomes, the results are mixed. In fact, the report links hooking up among college students with emotional and psychological outfall — not to mention sexual assault — and notes evidence of both embarrassment (27.1 percent) and emotional difficulties (24.7 percent). In addition, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy states that the majority of teens who have had intercourse wish they had waited (, 2015). Other reports note that early sexual experiences may be tied to higher levels of stress, depression, and suicidal ideation and behavior (Wallace, 2005).

Yet the APA report also states that, on average, both men and women seem to have a "higher positive affect" than a negative one following a casual sexual experience. Still, it is interesting to note that the same respondents claim to want more romance.

Acknowledging that "legitimate relationships exist," Jonah explained, "At my school sex is all very secretive. Nobody talks to us about it, and teachers don't report it when it happens. This only increases the level of sexual activity and makes it more about the 'hookup' than an actual relationship. I think schools need to decide if they want to accept the fact that kids are sexually active. If they do, then they can raise awareness of some of the risks."

Risky Business

What are the risks associated with early, intimate sexual behavior among American youth? The best known are those involving infection, disease, pregnancy, and assault — all of which can occur at summer camp.

But beyond the obvious may be significant risks to the types of communities typically forged at schools and summer camps: communities grounded in such constructs as friendship, reciprocity, and common good, and infused with such core values as acceptance, compassion, empathy, honesty, kindness, pride, and respect.

After all, an ecosystem consumed by a hunter-gatherer approach to sexual behavior is not only unlikely to adequately support such fundamentally important characteristics of community, but is also likely to be infused with issues related to exclusivity, damaged relationships, and parental questions about supervision and control.

Relational Citizenship

Culturally, summer camps differ from high schools, boarding schools, or colleges in that those individuals at camp old enough and physically mature enough to engage in sexual behavior make such decisions within a community where younger children reside. That is an important distinction. As Jonah, a former camper himself, said, "I don't believe camp is the right place for sexual relationships, especially with the younger kids around."

Given the dizzying pace of sexual development and decision-making, it may be helpful at your camp to frame an overall approach to handling the hookup culture by referring back to the values that guide your community and the goals that inform your work. For example, common threads among educators are intentional efforts to help children and young adults migrate from an external locus of control (where the adults in their lives direct their behavior) to an internal one (where adolescents self-regulate in their own best interests and the interests of those around them).

This paradigm is now being applied to the similarly complicated — and constantly changing — world of technology that too often leaves us scrambling to keep up with the latest, greatest app or game. Instead, a push for so-called "digital citizenship" allows caring adults in a young person's life to abandon their quest to master ever-evolving technology in favor of coaching life skills related to responsibility to self and community.

According to, digital citizenship is the norms of appropriate and responsible technology use by students and children. It helps teachers, technology leaders, and parents understand what these newest technology users should know to use it appropriately. "Digital citizenship is more than just a teaching tool; it is a way to prepare students/technology users for a society full of technology . . . . Whether it is called digital citizenship, digital wellness, or digital ethics, the issues are the same; how should we act when we are online, and what should be taught to the next generation" (Digital Citizenship, 2015). Clearly, they are advocating for messaging from adults to young people about being responsible for their own, unsupervised behavior.

A similar approach can work at camp.

In fact, encouraging transparency about sexual behavior, explaining communityspecific expectations, and emphasizing "relational citizenship" and character education among campers and staff is an appropriate, educational way to handle the hookup culture.

Editorial Note: The names of the youth referenced have been changed due to privacy considerations.

Ten Things You Can Do to Create a Healthy Social Environment at Camp

  1. Acknowledge the changes in social and romantic relationships for this generation of camp staff and older campers.
  2. Explain how summer camp environments are different from those at colleges or private schools.
  3. Reinforce the risks associated with sexual behavior at camp, both physical and social.
  4. Communicate expectations about acceptable behavior at your camp for campers and counselors.
  5. Discuss neutrality of gender roles at camp.
  6. Educate campers and counselors about applicable laws (for sexual behavior and sexual harassment).
  7. Plan ahead how you will process and respond to reports of sexual behavior taking place.
  8. Act quickly and decisively.
  9. Create a sense of transparency even around these difficult issues.
  10. Empower all members of your camp community to practice "relational citizenship."

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Wallace, S. (2015). It's complicated. Beyond the hookup culture: Taking initiative and mitigating risks. Camping Magazine, May/June 2015. Retrieved from campmag/1505/complicated-beyond-hookupculture-taking-initiative-mitigating-risk
Wallace, S. (2013, May 3). Flip: Changing gender roles in youth risk behavior. Psychology Today. Retrieved from blog/decisions-teens-make/201305/flip
Wallace, S. (2008). Reality gap: alcohol, drugs and sex — what parents don't know and teens aren't telling. New York: Union Square Press/ Sterling Publishing.
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Stephen Gray Wallace, MS Ed, is director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing positive youth outcomes and reducing negative risk behaviors. He has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor and serves as senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association and a parenting expert at and NBCUniversal's For more information about Stephen's work, please visit ©Summit Communications Management Corporation 2016. All Rights Reserved