It’s been a rolling, roiling story that’s been unfolding for over a year: the riveting and, at times, explosive exposure of ongoing and often long-standing sexual abuse and harassment of both male and female victims by mostly men in various positions of power. So, don’t be surprised if the idea of sexual harassment crosses your mind at camp this summer. To think that camp exists in some kind of bubble, where sexual interest is somehow left at the front gate, is, after all, naïve. Yes, I know most directors say, “Sex doesn’t belong at camp!” And, of course, that’s true when it comes to any sexual behavior, including gossip or talk, in front of or with campers, even if you as a staff member are the same age or near the age of some of the older campers. But what about nights out and time off? Even if you are at a single-sex camp, we all know you find ways to “meet up” with staff members from other camps. What then?
A Nuanced Approach
Let’s face it: sex can be confusing. First of all, it encompasses everything from fantasies, flirting, language, and jokes to “hooking up” — a vague term encompassing everything from touching and kissing to sexual intercourse. Secondly, healthy sexual interest is inherently a part of who we all are. So how do you suddenly turn off what you have been hardwired to think about so urgently and frequently — something that pop culture constantly immerses us in through songs, advertisements, and media? By addressing unwanted or nonconsensual sexual overtures, advances, language, or gestures of any kind, let’s take care not to disparage healthy sexual interest in general. As Daphne Merkin, a writer for the New York Times, points out, “Expressing sexual interest is inherently messy and, frankly, nonconsensual: one person . . . bites the bullet by expressing interest in the other — whether it happens to be at work (camp) or at a bar” (Merkin, 2018). Indeed, while we all need clear guidelines for what constitutes harassment or unwanted sexual behavior, it serves no one to make every behavior that expresses a natural interest in others “pathological” or offensive. What is needed is a nuanced approach — one that can help distinguish between healthy interest and unwanted overtures or worse.
It’s Not Just Behavior, It’s the Camp Culture
We now have good evidence that tells us that, when it comes to reducing unwanted sexual behaviors, it is the entire camp culture that needs to be looked at (Kearney, Rochlen, & King, 2004). To actually prevent or interrupt unwanted sexual behavior at camp at any level of offense, you as a member of staff will need to create a culture in which everyone is treated with respect and, in the case of coed camps, where women are treated as equals.
The good news is that camp is — or should be — all about creating a culture of civility and respect. After all, all camps share the awesome responsibility for the care and well-being of other people’s children. If a camp does not have a culture of care and respect, the campers aren’t going to feel safe, make friends, or engage wholeheartedly in the camp program and thrive as a result. What is great for the kids should be just as great for you, and the key is to take proactive steps to establish and maintain a culture where all staff, regardless of their position or status, treat one another with care and respect.
Cultivate a Camp Community with Respect and Civility
One of the most powerful ways for all of you as staff to ensure greater emotional safety at camp for everyone is to encourage respect for everyone else at camp. This is something you can discuss together during orientation once everyone is settled in at camp and there has been some time for new people to get more comfortable with their surroundings.
Brainstorm a list of respectful behaviors you all might exhibit toward one another. Pass around large (5 x 7) Post-It pads and a bunch of fine-point Sharpies. It is important to identify what respect and civility look like in practice, such as:
- Noticing the contributions others make
- Praising one another’s efforts with campers
- Sharing and acknowledging breakthroughs with campers
- Refraining from interrupting one another
- Sharing information and power at camp
- Including new people in staff-only activities
- Agreeing to disagree with respect
- Listening to one another’s ideas
- Trying the new ideas that new staff members offer
- Teaching new staff members the camp’s songs, prayers, or other rituals
- Avoiding multitasking during conversations
Place your examples of respectful behavior on a wall or bulletin board for everyone to see.
Discuss the connection between creating a community that respects all of its members and sexual harassment. As a researcher named Fran Sepler tells us, “Workplace incivility often acts as a ‘gateway drug’ to workplace harassment. These exercises can remind you of the specific skills needed to act respectfully and to intervene when you observe disrespectful or abusive behavior. In short, this approach is designed to stop improper behavior before it ever rises to the level of harassment” (Sepler, 2017).
As a member of a camp community, you are also a potential bystander. We know that the most effective way to reduce or eliminate unwanted sexual behavior of any kind is by empowering bystanders. If everyone who overheard or witnessed an off-color or unwanted advance, comment, or suggestion spoke up, everyone else would be safer (Sepler, 2017). By empowering one another to speak up you are simultaneously establishing an understanding as a community as to what constitutes respectful behavior, and you are helping to overcome the power difference that usually exists between someone displaying unwanted advances and the person on the receiving end. You know, it is the more vulnerable person at camp who may be new, have less status, or who is shy that is more easily intimidated by the staff member who is more popular, has been at camp longer, or who may be favored by the director.
We also know that members of the community are more likely to speak up and stop harassment if they have simple, practical tips to practice (Miller, 2017). Furthermore, what careful research tells us about bystander training is that it is much more effective to empower everyone at camp with the tools of speaking up than it is to talk about people as perpetrators or victims — two roles with which no one at camp will want to identify (Rawski, 2017).
What empowering bystanders looks like:
- Avoid a direct challenge to the harasser in the moment because it can escalate the situation and/or put you, the bystander, or even the target, in jeopardy.
- Say something like, “That joke wasn’t funny,” or, “I don’t think she is interested,” or, “I wouldn’t want to think that you were being disrespectful right now,” or, “I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about you. They might think you were bothering him with that gesture/comment/joke.”
- Another option is to disrupt or interrupt the situation, such as by clearly asking the targeted individual if they would like a drink, or would they want to come join the group over here, etc.
- Talk to the harasser later by asking questions but not lobbing accusations: “Were you aware of how you came off in that conversation?” It might be even better if you had another person who also witnessed the offensive behavior join you. Having someone with you lessens the probability that the offender will threaten you or deny his or her behavior.
- If you are witnessing inappropriate behavior in the moment, talk openly with others about it by asking colleagues: “Did you notice that? Am I the only one who is seeing this?”
- Circle around later to anyone who has been the target of unwanted behaviors. That person might feel isolated or shamed by the perpetrator’s conduct. You can always say, “Hey, I noticed what happened a few minutes ago. Was that okay with you? Are you okay?” Simply checking in with someone who may look uncomfortable may help empower them to speak up if the unwanted behavior happens again. If they say they were not okay with what happened, you can offer to help them approach the proper person on camp leadership for assistance later.
- Discuss any behavior or concern with a trusted member of staff leadership. Your camp director may identify at least one person on leadership as a “camp safety” person. And, of course, if that is not someone you trust, go to the person on leadership you do trust.
Because of the power difference that can exist at camp, a person who is being targeted by unwanted advances or comments can question their own judgment. Simply affirming to the targeted person that they did nothing wrong or that what happened was not okay can validate them and help set the tone of what is “acceptable” behavior at your camp.
While it is true that bystanders are unlikely to be present when the most egregious sexual offenses happen — for example, when two people are alone on a day or night off — one researcher explains that harassers often test how far they can go by starting with inappropriate comments or touches and then escalating their advances over time (Miller, 2017).
This is much like the “grooming behavior” that has been reported in many child abuse prevention awareness programs. A strong, positive camp culture and bystander response can stop the grooming or testing behavior before the offenses escalate into something worse, like forced sex.
When you are alone with someone else, the fact that you might like to kiss or touch does not automatically mean you might want to go further. Consent is an ongoing proposition. At every step of a sexual encounter you have the right to say no, and your partner has the obligation to take no for an answer! The best, short depiction of ongoing consent that I have seen to date is Tea Consent (Blue Seat Studios, 2015), a YouTube video that I would strongly encourage you to watch (youtube.com/watch?v=fGoWLWS4-kU).
Another great video is The Coworker, produced by David Schwimmer, of TV sitcom Friends fame. It shows just how an offender “grooms” their victim in subtle but progressive ways that eventually put the “target” in an extremely uncomfortable position (#ThatsHarrassment, 2018). Watch it and encourage your fellow staff at camp to do the same (youtube.com/watch?v=MV7a-oetsB0).
Be Smart, Be Safe
One last word. We know that there are certain risk factors that increase the chances of an unwanted sexual advance or encounter. One of the biggest is alcohol. If you are drinking and you are with people who are drinking, know that alcohol not only lowers inhibitions, including that of a potential offender, but also lowers their sense of the impact of their behavior on others. I say this not to blame a potential victim, but to encourage you to be safe.
Sex is a natural part of life. Keeping it a safe, fun, healthy experience for everyone requires a community-wide effort. Most camps have done an admirable job of creating environments for campers that are increasingly emotionally and physically safe. Now it is time to make sure we are all doing the same for you, the staff. The recent #MeToo movement and all of the tragic and upsetting revelations that have led to it only underscore this need. It is too bad that it took this movement to get us to talk more seriously and in more effective ways about emotional and environmental safety for everyone. Now is a great time to start.
Blue Seat Studios. (2015, May 13). Tea Consent. Retrieved from youtube.com/watch?v=fGoWLWS4-kU
Merkin, D. (2018, January 5). Publicly, we say #MeToo. Privately, we have misgivings. The New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes.com/2018/01/05/opinion/golden-globes-metoo.html
Miller, C. C. (2017, December 11). Sexual harassment training doesn’t work. But some things do. The New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes.com/2017/12/11/upshot/sexual-harassment-workplace-prevention-effective.html
Rawski, S. (2017, January). The effects of identity threat reactions to sexual harassment training on training outcomes. Journal of the Academy of Management Proceedings. Retrieved from http://proceedings.aom.org/content/2017/1/14668
Sepler, F. (2017, October 4). Harassment prevention and creating respectful workplaces for all. US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Retrieved from https://eeotraining.eeoc.gov/profile/web/index.cfm?PKwebID=0x25479b9f&varPage=attendee\
#ThatsHarassment. (2018, January 22). The coworker. Retrieved from youtube.com/watch?v=MV7a-oetsB0
Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. For more information about the author, visit BobDitter.com.