“The number-one reason I found that parents don’t send their children to summer camp is that parents fear their child will be sexually abused while at camp,” said writer Allison Slater Tate. The gasp was audible as she finished her sentence. A room full of camp directors at the Tristate Camp Conference in 2015 shook their heads and began to murmur. Tate quieted the room and continued to explain how she conducted an informal poll among her friends and acquaintances and shared direct quotes of their responses of fear to her questions about camp.
I found myself asking the same questions I am sure most of the other directors in the room were also asking: “Don’t the parents know we conduct background checks on all of our staff? Don’t they know how much training our staff undergo to look for red flags? Don’t our parents understand that I don’t even feel comfortable being one-on-one with my nephew because it has been so ingrained in me to never be alone with a child?”
Of course, they don’t know these things. While we may be sharing on our staff and parent info pages of our website that we background check all staff, we don’t talk about child abuse and sexual assault training because nobody comes to a camp website expecting to read about these topics. We don’t want to seem overly forthcoming about our training to recognize signs of abuse for fear parents might think we are overcompensating or hiding something.
Given the inundation of allegations that have taken over the headlines in recent months against political, entertainment, and news figures, it is understandable that parents are increasingly skeptical of there being honest, trustworthy youth leaders anymore.
Interestingly, the Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that the rate of sexual assault has actually dropped by 63 percent since 1993 (RAINN, 2017). Camps have a responsibility to empower their campers and staff to have educated and empathetic conversations about consent to continue the downward trend in sexual assault. Many of these crimes are preventable if people are increasingly empathetic and respectful toward one another.
As high-profile rape cases came to light on college campuses across the nation, many schools adopted some kind of “affirmative consent policy.” The University of Minnesota’s policy states, “Affirmative consent is defined as ‘informed, freely and affirmatively communicated willingness to participate in sexual activity that is expressed by clear and unambiguous words or actions,’” and “consent to one form of sexual activity does not imply consent to other forms of sexual activity” (University of Minnesota, 2017). Freshman orientations across the country continue to include seminars on consent with students. Some of your camp staff may have experienced similar lectures prior to arriving to work at camp last summer.
When I was a camp director, I implemented a consent policy adapted from university policies and reviewed this policy during training each year (see sidebar — page 29). However, to truly incorporate consent education into camp, discussions about consent must stretch beyond the staff.
All camps may want to consider implementing consent education in their program this year. Consent education is the process of using specific language and policies to instill in members of your camp community a deep understanding of the concept of consent. It is a system of radical empowerment and empathy, and is a best practice for prevention of sexual assault.
Discussions about consent are not only based around sexuality. There are plenty of opportunities at camp to teach children about consent. Consider teaching consent in the context of permission to touch another person’s body. Every person has the right to accept or deny another person’s touch or personal-space intrusion. Staff are trained to ask for consent from campers prior to providing first aid to a conscious victim. Staff ask for consent when offering to correct a camper’s form in archery or swimming. Given a climbing harness is typically fitted near a participant’s genitalia, staff are coached to ask for consent prior to reaching out and making adjustments on the participant’s harness. You are likely already teaching consent, but consider how much more empowering and impactful your consent education could be.
A camp yoga class begins with the instructor explaining that by each mat is a card. The orange side of the card represents warmth, an openness, and a willingness to talk or engage with those around you. In yoga class, it represents that you are okay with the instructor placing his or her hands on you to help correct or deepen your stretch. The other side of the card is blue, representing a cool tone, a pause, and a desire to work individually. In this yoga class, it represents that you do not want to be touched by the instructor. This choice is a practice in understanding consent as an extension of permission around one’s body.
Consider this example for how those same cards could be used as a tool for campers in another part of camp. Imagine every camper at arts and crafts has orange and blue cards that sit in front of them at their workstations. All campers start with their orange side up as the arts and crafts leader shares the day’s instructions and asks for attention from the group. These cards now also serve as a visual reminder to campers that they should be engaged with the group and listening to the leader. Once the instructions have been given and supplies have been distributed, campers may choose to leave their orange side up if they would like further instruction or help. Or, campers may opt to turn their card over to display blue to represent their understanding of what to do and a desire to try the project on their own. Should a camper want assistance, rather than having to go so far as raising a hand and getting the attention of the instructor, the camper can simply turn their card back over to orange for the next time the instructor does a scan of the room. The instructor may then approach this camper who has patiently waited for assistance.
Take these same orange and blue cards into rest hour and hang them on a hook on each child’s bunk. As campers file in to rest hour, they can turn their card to represent how they are feeling: orange for wanting to spend rest hour with others playing card games or writing notes; blue for wanting personal time to read or sleep. Cabin counselors can instantly read the room and decide about how to structure rest hour to best serve the needs of the cabin.
This may sound like it gives the campers all the decision-making power, and it is important to delineate the difference between consent and cooperation. Cooperation is key at camp, and if there is no true opt-out option, then it is not a discussion about consent; rather, it is a lesson on cooperation and community. Sometimes at camp, campers must perform chores, assist with projects, and work with other campers who are not their friends. However, if these actions ever threaten a camper’s sense of safety or sense of self, then campers should be empowered to speak up and express that they do not consent.
Consider the behaviors that can be eliminated or discouraged based on teaching campers about consent. Tell campers that touching clothing on another person also requires consent. Suddenly “pantsing” others is unacceptable without having to make a specific “no pantsing” rule. Do you have those campers who can’t keep their hands to themselves? If you haven’t gotten consent to touch the other camper, you cannot touch them!
I Respect That
When teaching staff and campers about consent, it is important to teach about asking for consent, and also what to say if you do not receive consent. While there are many options for responding to receiving a “no, you may not hug me,” I find one of the best things that can be said is simply, “I respect that.” Consider this exchange:
Counselor A: Can I touch you here?
Counselor B: No, thanks.
Counselor A: I respect that.
Not only does this response help Counselor B feel like she is being heard and respected, it also dictates to Counselor A how to feel about the situation. Most of us have been taught somewhere along the way that we can respect people with whom we don’t agree. Instead of getting defensive or upset, the default response of “I respect that,” forces Counselor A to step back and think about what “respecting that” looks and sounds like. Imagine the following camper-staff scenario:
Counselor (comforting a homesick camper): When I am sad, it helps if somebody gives me a hug. May I give you a hug?
Counselor: I respect that you don’t want a hug right now. What can I do that would help you feel ready to rejoin the group?
Rejection is scary. People will sometimes not ask for consent for fear of being rejected and the embarrassment and discomfort that comes with what to do next. Unfortunately, that fear can lead to a lot of miscommunication. That miscommunication can lead to a sexual assault where one person did not feel empowered to step up and say, “Hey, I’m not okay with this.”
So much of the fear of rejection comes from fear of the unknown. Someone may think to themselves, “Is it going to be awkward if they reject me? I’ll just avoid the awkwardness and not ask.” If camp staff are equipped with a way to respond when they are told no that feels good, they are much more likely to ask. And a staff member may feel more empowered to say no because they know that boundary will be respected. As the Yale University consent policy says, “Talking with sexual partners about desires and limits may seem awkward, but serves as the basis for positive sexual experiences shaped by mutual willingness and respect” (Yale University, 2017).
Consider building time into your staff training this summer to allow for staff to generate a staff covenant or pact on how they will speak to and treat one another. This is an excellent way to build in a discussion about consent. This open dialogue may bring up painful experiences for staff, so it is important to establish at the beginning that your staff community is a brave space for sharing as well as an understanding that there is a “no questions asked” opt-out option when staff are feeling triggered.
During this discussion, consider introducing to your staff the concept of “calling in” instead of “calling out” when behaviors or language are not appropriate or are offensive. Writer Sian Ferguson described calling in this way: “Calling in is a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes, a practice of loving ourselves enough to know that what we’re trying to do here is a radical unlearning of everything we have been configured to believe is normal” (Ferguson, 2015). Calling-in language serves as an invitation whereas calling out often has a feeling of shame attached. Calling out often occurs as an alert that something has gone wrong (i.e. what you said was racist, sexist, etc.), leaving the person who has made the statement or acted inappropriately on their own to figure out next steps. By calling in the behavior or statement, the community is making a commitment to examining the action or statement, healing from it, and moving forward. For example, a staff member who says, “Let me get a few guys over here to help move this heavy table” may be called out by another staff member who says, “That’s sexist!” A bystander could instead say, “Let’s talk about where you heard that only men can carry heavy things,” or, “I can help carry that table now, and then I’m interested to hear more about how we can empower everyone at camp to help out.”
Introduce the idea of calling in to staff and let them play out scenarios that show how calling out and calling in look different in both staff and camper interactions.
Be the Change
The magic of camp that inspires participants to be their best selves and conquer fears comes largely from the interactions with other people at camp. Summer camp has this remarkable way of bringing people from all kinds of backgrounds to one place and creating its own culture that often makes participants wish the world was a little more like camp. Right now, the camp industry has an opportunity to teach the future leaders of the world to treat others the way others want to be treated. Camp can significantly decrease the pain and negativity that comes when consent is ignored by empowering children and adults to make habits of asking for consent and always responding respectfully.
Sample Consent Policy for Camps
Sexual activity between staff members is generally undesirable in the small camp community. Regardless of whether camp is in session or not and whether participants are present on site or not, sexual activity on camp premises is inappropriate. Should a staff member decide to engage in sexual activity with another consenting adult, consent is required. Consent is defined as “positive, unambiguous, and voluntary agreement to engage in specific sexual activity throughout a sexual encounter.” Consent to some sexual acts does not constitute consent to others, nor does past consent to a given act constitute present or future consent. Consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual encounter and can be revoked at any time. Consent cannot be obtained by threat, coercion, or force. Agreement under such circumstances does not constitute consent. Engaging in sexual activity with a person whom you know — or reasonably should know — to be incapacitated through drugs, alcohol, or otherwise constitutes sexual misconduct and will not be tolerated.
Consent can only be accurately gauged through direct communication about the decision to engage in sexual activity. Presumptions based upon contextual factors (such as clothing, alcohol consumption, or dancing) are unwarranted, and should not be considered as evidence for consent. Verbal communication is the most reliable form of asking for and gauging consent. Talking with sexual partners about desires and limits may seem awkward, but serves as the basis for positive sexual experiences shaped by mutual willingness and respect. Sexual activity without consent may be grounds for immediate dismissal and/or criminal charges.
Adapted from Yale University Definitions of Sexual Misconduct, Sexual Consent, and Sexual Harassment.
Additional Consent Education Resources
- Safe at UNC “Consent” page
- Campus Sexual Assault: Suggested Policies and Procedures, from the American Association of University Professors
- Consent, It’s Simple as Tea, by Frederic Kiefer
- Consent for Kids, by Blue Seat Studios
Ferguson, S. (2015, January 18). Calling in: A quick guide on when and how. Everyday Feminism. Retrieved from everydayfeminism.com/2015/01/guide-to-calling-in/
RAINN. (2017). Scope of the problem: Statistics. Retrieved from rainn.org/statistics/scope-problem
University of Minnesota. (2015, June). Affirmative consent. University Policy Library. Retrieved from policy.umn.edu/operations/sexualassault-appa
Yale University. (2018). Definitions of sexual misconduct, sexual consent, and sexual harassment. Yale College Publications 2017–2018. Retrieved from catalog.yale.edu/undergraduate-regulations/policies/definitions-sexual-misconduct-consent-harassment/definitions-sexual-misconduct-consent-harassment.pdf
Stephanie “Ruby” Compton lives in western North Carolina and has worked in a variety of roles at overnight, day, and school-year outdoor and camp programs. She is also a cohost for the free staff training and leadership podcast Camp Code.