When Rape Culture Infiltrates Summer Camp

If you know me well, you know that I had a life changing experience at summer camp. I worked there for four years — first as a junior counselor, then as a counselor, then as an administrator. I made the most incredible friendships, learned to be a leader, and found the strength I needed to be confident in myself and my beliefs. I have no doubt that I would not be the same person today if it were not for my time at camp.

Summer camp is also where I learned to be proud to be a feminist and where I first came face to face with socially enforced rape culture. I was 20 during my final year at summer camp, and I was working with the most extraordinary group of women. All four female administrators were under age 30, and we worked together with a 40-year-old man who was camp director.

In my previous years at camp, I’d come to know it as a liberal and progressive environment, in which everyone was accepted and listened to. This particular year, we had decided as a staff to take a hard stance on bullying — any reports of bullying or harassment and you’d be kicked out of camp immediately. We’d already expelled one camper after a controversial incident, so it was obvious to all of the administration that we weren’t going to tolerate bullying of any type. Or so I thought.

It was a sunny afternoon when a counselor came to three of us — the youngest three administrators — and told us one of her campers needed to talk to us. Sally*, the camper, was on the oldest girls floor, which was comprised of 15 and 16 year olds. She sat on the bed in her room and told us that one of the teen boys on the opposite floor, Thomas, had grabbed her butt during a game of four square. We were stunned. We told her we’d deal with the situation and immediately went to find Thomas’s counselor, Luke. Luke said he’d talk to Thomas about the incident, then send him to the main office.

When the two administrators and I spoke to Thomas later that day, he was in tears. He had no idea what we were talking about. He swore up and down that he had no recollection of the incident. He wasn’t a particularly conniving or clever kid, so we tentatively believed that he was baffled. We told him that he needed to be more aware of his actions and watch his body more carefully, since he was making girls feel uncomfortable and unsafe. We made our stance on bullying and harassment clear to him and explained that even unintentional actions could count as harassment. Thomas apologized profusely and told us he’d be more aware. We didn’t bring the issue to the camp director because Sally wasn’t comfortable with him knowing.

Two days later, another girl, Mackenzie, approached us and said that while standing in line during a camp BBQ, Thomas had cupped her butt. The three of us were outraged. We informed her that we took her report very seriously and would handle it immediately. We called a meeting with the camp director and the other administrators and office personnel.

“Thomas’s parents need to come pick him up,” we told the other administrators after we explained what had happened. The women nodded in agreement, and the office manager began searching for his file. Our male director, who had blown the previous bullying incident out of proportion, didn’t seem to be on board. He asked to hear the accounts of what had happened multiple times before responding, “Well, boys will be boys. He’s only 16. I’ll have a stern talking-to with him.”

The women in the room were dumbfounded. We simultaneously started spewing information about sexual harassment and assault. One at a time we barraged him with our own stories of teenage harassment, trying to convince him that yes, it was a big deal, and yes, we did need to do something about it.

Actions have consequences, we told him, and both the butt-toucher and the teenage girls needed to know that. If we do nothing, we told him, the girls will see that even in a liberal and accepting environment, boys can get away with whatever they want. If we “give him a stern talking-to,” we explained, he’ll understand that harassment gets you a slap on the wrist, and the girls will understand that their comfort and safety doesn’t matter. If they, god forbid, get assaulted down the road, they won’t tell anyone. They’ll think that silence is safer and speaking out does nothing. They’ll tell their friends, and the cycle of institutional rape culture will continue.

For 40 minutes, our boss argued with us, claiming that this wasn’t as severe of a situation as we were making it out to be. Eventually, we wore him down. He called Thomas’s parents. Since they lived 4 hours away, though, and camp was ending the next day, he agreed they could just come get him at the normal scheduled pickup time. As a punishment instead, Thomas wouldn’t be allowed to attend the final dance, our boss told us.

There was clearly nothing we could do to change the situation, so we told the director that Thomas would need to sit in the nearby lounge so we could keep an eye on him. “Well that’s not fair,” our boss responded, “he’ll feel like a zoo animal being watched by all the other campers.” Again, we were shocked — Thomas was already barely getting a punishment at all; the least we could do was put him in a place where the staff could see him and Sally and Mackenzie could know that he wasn’t going to bother them. Our director thought that Thomas’s embarrassment was more important than the girls’ fear and discomfort. We finally got our way, but we fought tooth and nail every step of the way.

This was the first taste I got of the fight I’d need to face anytime I spoke out about sexual assault and harassment. It’s a fight we women see every single day. There has been an outpouring of stories about sexual assault and harassment in the news recently, but it’s important to remember that this is something all women — whether they’re famous or not — deal with every single day.

*All names have been changed

Featured Image: Flickr / Petra Bensted