The Path to Summer Camp Leads Away from Sexual Violence

Christopher Thurber, PhD
November 2016
Teenagers walking on path

"How would I know," asked one high school student, "if I'm with someone, like on a date, and we're hooking up, consensually, and then the person I'm with doesn't want to go any further?"

The groans from his classmates echoed in the auditorium and blithely suggested that he should have known the answer. And yet, he had asked the question sincerely, courageously. What appeared to some teens to be common decency, common courtesy, or even common sense was not just uncommon, it was unclear.

Unwanted Contact

The Q&A per od following a performance of SLUT: The Play (Cappiello, 2015) was designed to address lingering concerns and ambiguities related to the occurrence of sexual assault. Although the play had depicted forceful and unwanted digital penetration of a female high school student by a male classmate in a taxi cab, such assaults are less frequent than, for example, being kissed, hugged, or touched against one's will. In one recent study of 1,086 seventh through 12th grade male and female students, about 51 percent of high school females and 26 percent of high school males reported being kissed, hugged, or touched against their will. By comparison, about 12 percent of high school females and 3 percent of high school males reported being raped (Young, Grey, & Boyd, 2009). In college, that rape statistic climbs tragically to one in five women (20 percent) and one in 16 men (6 percent) (Krebs, Lindquist, Warner, Fisher, & Martin, 2007).

Any percentage of unwanted sexual contact is problematic and upsetting, of course. But note that sexual harassment, such as being told a sexual joke or receiving a sexually explicit text message, is more common than sexual assault. And while not all harassment behaviors lead to assaultive behaviors, some do. Therefore, diminishing the frequency of bothersome, disrespectful behaviors would seem essential to stopping brutal, aggressive behaviors. For that reason, the young man's question about interpreting someone's willingness to participate in an increasingly intimate sexual encounter was key. Social intelligence mitigates social cruelty.

Fuzzy Lines and Felonies

Despite his classmates' signals that consent is clear, this young man was quick to note infamous encounters where what began as consensual turned coercive or what seemed to begin a s consensual sexual activity was later characterized as coercive or disrespectful by one or both participants.

Eighteen-year-old Owen Labrie, for example, was a high school senior at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, when he set up a late-spring rendezvous with a 15-year-old freshman girl. As reported by Jess Bidgood of The New York Times (2015), and Todd Purdum of Vanity Fair (2016), court documents containing their first-person accounts, e-mails, texts, and friends' testimony suggested that both were looking forward to the tryst.

Labrie seems to have viewed the encounter as a conquest, part of an underground and unofficial student tradition called Senior Salute, in which senior boys tried to have sexual relations w ith as many underclass girls as possible prior to graduation. For her part, according to Bidgood, the girl prepared for the meeting by shaving her pubic hair and telling her room mate that she'd be willing to let Labrie finger her vagina. A friend also testified that she'd openly considered the possibility of having oral sex.

There were no witnesses to the encounter, so only Labrie and the girl know exactly what happened. They exchanged friendly messages before and after their date. How coercive the encounter became remains unclear. The girl testified that her sweet-sounding texts ref lected nervousness, perhaps regret. She said she had not wanted to have intercourse, of which they seemed to have had an awkward, sloppy, and potentially forced form. At the same time, she did not want to make a big deal out of the event. The jury in the ensuing trial acquitted Labrie of felony rape but found him guilty of misdemeanor sexual assault and a felony charge of computer-related seduction. (The age of consent in the state of New Hampshire — and 29 other states — is 16. She was 15 at the time. He had asked her out online, hence the Internet charge.)

Like any civilized person, I staunchly oppose manipulative or coercive behavior, especially of the sexual sort. Such interpersonal misconduct can be physically, socially, and emotionally painful and can have lasting traumatic sequelae. And just as the misconduct itself exists along a spectrum — from an unwanted sexual joke to a gang rape — the painful consequences also exist along a spectrum — from annoying to scarring. Even consent itself exists along a spectrum, from explicitly asking for or violently opposing a sexual advance to tacitly allowing or silently resenting a sexual advance. Moreover, if one or both people in an intimate, romantic encounter perceive social pressure to follow through on certain acts, then the date has an added, insidious complication: What will my friends expect me to have done?

Do such relational ranges inevitably create unnavigable seas of gray? I think not. Indeed, several clear pathways toward civil behavior exist. Attending camp is one I heartily endorse. Here's why.

Seven Life Lessons

ONE: CAMPS PROMOTE FACE-TO-FACE COMMUNICATION

First and foremost, traditional day and overnight camps rely on face-to-face communication. The less technology — in the form of phones, computers, and even loudspeakers — the more opportunity there is for young people to refine their communication skills. At camp, we have dozens of individual and group interactions each day where word choice, tone, body language, facial expression, and physical touch all play important roles. At camp, we also get instant, live, spontaneous feedback on whether our chosen combination of syntax and semantics was socially appropriate or not. Young Ben will get one kind of response — from his swim buddy, Silas, and from the head lifeguard — if he wanders off the dock without telling Silas. He'll get quite a different response — from both his buddy and the aquatic staff — if he's honest with Silas in describing how cold he is and suggesting they compromise by getting out together in a few minutes to towel off and warm up.

TWO: PROGRESSIVE CAMPS ESCHEW GENDER ROLE STEREOTYPES

Outdated and unhealthy notions of males as stoic and females as feeble are replaced by the enlightened view that all people, regardless of genetic sex or gender identity, are capable of astute emotional perception, nuanced emotional expression, assertive leadership, hard labor, and respectful affection. At camp, we value kindness, attitude, and dependability, all of which transcend gender. Young Delilah will get one kind of response from her canoe trip partner if she giggles and demurs that she doesn't know how to paddle. She'll get quite a different response if she bravely states that she's excited to canoe for the first time and is eager to learn some stroke basics.

THREE: CAMPS TEACH DELAY OF GRATIFICATION

Contemporary expectations of instant relief from pain, lightning fast Internet connections, pervasive mobile phone connections, expertise without practice, and competence without trial and error all lead young people to harbor the false belief that they can get what they want when they want it. This impatience is quickly tempered at camp, where kids have to stand in line, wait their turn to use shared equipment, anticipate the return of handwritten letters, cope with weather-related activity cancellations, play through bumps and bruises, get hungry between meals, and obey the word "no." Young Malik will get one kind of response for rushing up to the shooting line at the archery range before the command is given to approach the line. By contrast, his peers and leaders will respond with patient instruction and quiet enthusiasm if he waits his turn and obeys range commands.

FOUR: CAMP TEACHES CONSIDERATION OF OTHERS

Unselfishness has been part of camp mottos since the late 1800s, with classics such as "God First; Others Second; Myself Last" gracing grand lodge mantelpieces across North America. Indeed, the notion that camps are fertile grounds for teaching young people how to look out for one another has fueled the camping movement for more than a century. The whole social structure at camp is designed to create healthy interdependence. Meals are served family style; swim buddies are required; canoes take two paddlers; teams give opponents post-game cheers; children and adults live together (at overnight camps) in single rooms; cleanup and inspection of living quarters depends on collaboration; and facilities are shared. This model of community stands in stark contrast to the single bedrooms and other privacies with which most campers grow up. And while comfortably luxurious, such interpersonal insulation retards the development of thoughtfulness. Young Sandy will earn one kind of response for passing the Frisbee only to his athletic teammates, with the sole purpose of scoring goal after goal. By contrast, he will earn praise from staff and respect from peers if he sometimes passes to less coordinated teammates, if for no other reason than to help everyone feel included.

FIVE: CAMP TEACHES PEACEFUL CONFLICT RESOLUTION

Forget ineffective zero-tolerance policies for bullying. High-quality day and overnight camps should welcome opportunities to instruct young people on the best ways to get their needs met in a social environment. Bullying and fighting are evidence of a skills deficit. They are also misguided attempts to make, not break, social connections. So while camp staff should do everything they can to model peaceful interactions, they should also embrace teachable moments. Young Rosanna may get a time out or face consequences for clashing with classmates at school. At camp, however, staff will empathize and guide her through a peaceful process of rethinking how to get her needs met in prosocial ways. Teaching what to do, rather than pushing what not to do is the hallmark of a great camp.

SIX: CAMP TEACHES TOLERANCE OF OTHERS' VIEWS

We've always been global citizens; we just haven't felt as acutely mixed as we do in the 21st century. Skyrocketing geographic and virtual mobility have brought diverse people with differing world views into ever more frequent contact. Our survival as a species now depends on patience and respect, if not outright celebration of those differences. Adopting a solipsistic or prejudiced attitude, or behaving in intolerant and homicidal ways, breeds intractable contempt. To wit: the Israel-Palestine conflict or the ISISWestern Civilization conflict. Young Jacob will stir the ire of staff and campers alike if his ignorance of other cultures, religions, and traditions leads to insulting comments such as, "We'll take Byron on our team. Black kids are fast." or "Of course he knows how much is in his store account. He's Jewish." By contrast, community living — at day or resident camp — provides ample opportunities for Jacob to watch, learn, and ask. Questions such as, "What do you like to play?" or "What's Philadelphia like?" or "What holidays does your family celebrate?" are pathways toward boosting one's multicultural IQ. Great camps conquer prejudice with understanding.

SEVEN: CAMP TEACHES RESPECT FOR OTHERS' BODIES

As I wrote last year in Camping (Thurber, 2015), young people consume large volumes of violent and sexual images without adults present to help them understand and contextualize it. The result is desensitization and distortion, which can lead to unsafe behaviors and emotional distress (Pierce, 2015). By going tech-free, traditional camps give kids a much-needed break from unwholesome content. Better still, traditional camps teach good nutrition, exercise, and hygiene. Best of all, camps teach physical reverence.

In The Book of Woodcraft & Indian Lore, Canadian-American naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton shared his timeless symbol for character education: the four-pointed star (1921). One point — beauty — issues this ray: "Understand and respect your body. It is the temple of the spirit." (A similar verse appears in 1 Corinthians 6:19.) If campers learn to respect their own bodies as temples, then by association they respect others' bodies. Athletic and artistic pursuits improve strength, flexibility, coordination, and kinesthetic intelligence. And realizing what amazing things a human body can do engenders tremendous respect for those bodies.

Camp is also a place where clothes are casual and minimal. Even during the early days of camping, when dress was more modest and swimsuits covered more bare skin than today, camp was a place where skin touches the earth, is exposed to the sun, is warmed by fire, and cooled by night breezes. That exposure enhances respect for both physical differences and the best ways to protect bodies, such as hats, shoes, sunscreen, insect repellant, and proper dress. Additionally, camp is a place where bodies are pushed to their limits and even where injuries occur. Again, respect for the body is enhanced. And camp is a place where bodies are in close proximity, in bunk beds, around tables, in activities, and in affectionate gestures (hugs, high-fives, fist-bumps). Children gain an appreciation for their physical strength, the boundaries of appropriate touch, and the subtle body language that conveys comfort or anxiety, joy or dismay.

Overstated or Overlooked?

Critics of my thesis assert that camp is not a panacea, but that is not my claim. I'm asserting that well-run, traditional camps have always been powerful countercultural vehicles for positive youth development. The choice to combine community living, away from home, in a natural setting, with a recreational premise was intentional and smart. Not only did it provide the ideal complement to the classroom, but it also built character. Some 150 years after camp's founders made this assertion (Dimock, Hendry, & Kilpatrick, 1929, and Krimsky, 2012), authors Wendy Mogul and Richard Louv were touted as inventive thinkers. Both are smart writers, but the notions that physical challenge and outdoor living build character predate even the start of summer camps. The result, as summarized by my friend and colleague, Stephen Wallace, is that young people who have not attended multiple seasons of summer camp are at a relationship disadvantage (2016).

Detractors also assert that I'm being prudish about sex and squeamish about violence. But if our sexually saturated, violence-infused world were working, then why would those very same detractors resort to justifications for unwanted pregnancy and sexual assault by saying, "Of course kids are going to have sex." and "Of course kids are going to drink." To me, defending unhealthy risk-taking as a matter "of course" is a passive stance with a myopic view of youth development. We adults cannot hide behind our failure to provide good leadership by example by saying that "of course" young people misbehave and take unhealthy risks.

Experiment? Yes. Stumble? Yes. But denigrate? Not necessarily. Given a healthy example, young people will usually make healthy choices. The inverse is also true (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1961). As Seton wrote nearly 100 years ago, the reason some youth seriously misbehave is not genetic. Instead, many have "wrong methods of upbringing, and especially, wrong methods of amusement" (Seton, 1927).

So, I choose a vision for youth that recognizes their thirst for play and the power of learning from mistakes (Thurber, 2013). I recognize the normalcy of young people's burgeoning impulse control, nascent spirituality, percolating values, sexual curiosity, and blossoming hypothetical thinking. I understand that risk-taking and maturation go hand in hand. Indeed, this developmental duet is firmly rooted in an evolutionarily advantageous sequence of brain growth (Giedd, 2015). So although it's better for the species to have younger members behaving in a recklessly educational manner, I also expect kind behavior as the default, provided those youngsters have upstanding adult role models. That leadership by example is essential.

It's possible there are a few camps out there where hooking-up is expected, if not encouraged, where bodies are objectified, conflicts are largely ignored, and violence boosts social standing. Perhaps that characterizes the sports camp Labrie once attended. Perhaps not. Generally speaking, however, camps that are intentionally designed, regularly accredited, lovingly directed, thoughtfully staffed, thoroughly trained, and carefully supervised can be powerful antidotes to sexual misconduct and violence.

Although treatment programs cut the re-offense rates of perpetrators by about half, prison time itself does little to stop sexual violence (Przybylski, 2012). In fact, 10 percent of offenders will themselves be sexually abused in prison. And once released, sexual offenders have a higher rate of recidivism than other violent offenders. Clearly, prevention is immeasurably better than intervention. For that approach, consider a time-tested, preventive, institutional alternative to prison: summer camp. Camps have been proven to accelerate social skills, self-esteem, independence, physical and emotional respect, spirituality, an appreciation of nature, and a sense of healthy adventure (Thurber, Scanlin, Scheuler, & Henderson, 2007). Preventing sexual violence is not rocket science, but it is solid social science.

A Terrible Tag Line with an Awesome Outcome

There's not a camp on the planet that boasts how their program will prevent rape. Not only would that be a jarring tag line, it's also based on the assumption that some children — especially boys — grow up to perpetrate sexual violence. That may be a valid assumption, but one no parent would endorse about his or her own child. So where does that leave us? How do we sell this experience for something it does so well for most youth?

In advertising language "camp stops rape" may sound like this: "We offer an experience that is tremendously fun and subtly educational. Our wholesome staff will set a sterling example for your son or daughter that will serve as a compelling alternative to what he or she may have experienced online, in school, or in your neighborhood. Our practices of collaborative problem-solving, physical and emotional respect, and community living in beautiful, natural settings will bolster each child's control of his or her thoughts, feelings, and actions. Our purposeful culture inspires unselfishness, nurtures warm friendships, deepens genuine empathy, and prepares young people to be respectful and innovative contributors to their families and communities."

Camp does not cure all social ills, but its triple capacity to accelerate social skills, model respect, and teach self-restraint helps ensure healthy interpersonal outcomes. On a date, online, in a classroom, or on a sports field, the relational benefits of a high-quality camp experience are clear. I hear some of the groans of the high school boy's classmates not as "you should know better," but as "you should have gone to camp, my friend."

Sexual assault is everything camp is not. That truth will never be a slogan, nor should it be. But it is one of the most important reasons why I keep sending my own children to camp. I firmly believe that everything they are learning about reverence, fairness, kindness, and communication will give them all the sensitivity they need to know right from wrong and to discern whether someone else wants to connect — or not.

REFERENCES
Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575–582. 
Bidgood, J. (2015, August 28). Owen Labrie of St. Paul's School is found not guilty of main rape charge. New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes.com/2015/08/29/us/st-pauls-schoolrape- trial-owen-labrie.html?_r=0
Cappiello, K. (2015). SLUT: The play. The Arts Effect All-girl Theater Company, New York, NY.
Dimock, H. S., Hendry, C. E., & Kilpatrick, W. H. (1929). Camping and character: A camp experiment in character education. New York, NY: Association Press.
Giedd, J.N. (2015). The amazing teen brain. Scientific American 312, 32–37.
Krebs, C.P., Lindquist, C., Warner, T., Fisher, B., & Martin, S. (2007). The campus sexual assault (CSA) study: Final report. National Criminal Justice Reference Service. Retrieved from ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/221153.pdf
Krimsky, P.G. (2012). Reading, writing, and the great outdoors: Frederick Gunn's school transforms Victorian-era education. Retrieved from http:// connecticuthistory.org/reading-writing-andthe- great-outdoors-frederick-gunns-schooltransforms- victorian-era-education
Pierce, C. (2015). Sexploitation: Helping kids develop healthy sexuality in a porn-driven world. London, England: Routledge.
Przybylski, R. (2012). Adult sex offender recidivism. Sex Offender Management, Assessment, and Planning Initiative. Washington, DC: National Criminal Justice Association.
Purdum, T. (2016, March 1) St. Paul's before and after the Owen Labrie rape trial. Vanity Fair. Retrieved from vanityfair.com/news/2016/03/stpauls- owen-labrie-rape-trial
Seton, E.T. (1927). The Birch-bark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians, 21st Edition. New York, New York: Doubleday, Page & Co.
Thurber, C.A. (2013, January). Kids do dumb stuff: The hidden treasure of accidental learning. Camping Magazine. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/resource-library/articles/kids-dodumb- stuff-hidden-treasure-accidental-learning
Thurber, C.A. (2015, November). XXX-posed — how much sex and violence is too much? Camping Magazine. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/ resource-library/camping-magazine/xxx-posedhow- much-sex-violence-too-much
Thurber, C.A., Scanlin, M.M., Scheuler, L., & Henderson, K.A. (2007). Youth development outcomes of the camp experience: Evidence of multidimensional growth. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 36, 241–254.
Wallace, S.G. (2016, January). A cautionary tale: How to handle the hookup culture at camp. Camping Magazine. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/ resource-library/camping-magazine/cautionarytale- how-handle-hookup-culture-camp
Young, A.M., Grey, M., & Boyd, C.J. (2009). Adolescents' experiences of sexual assault by peers: Prevalence and nature of victimization occurring within and outside of school. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 38, 1072–1083.


Christopher Thurber, PhD, is a boardcertified clinical psychologist who enjoys creating and delivering original content to professional educators and youth leaders worldwide. He co-founded ExpertOnlineTraining.com, co-wrote The Summer Camp Handbook, and crafted the ACA's homesickness prevention DVD for new camper families. Contact him through his website, CampSpirit.com.