“Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” (2015)
When asked about my favorite childhood memories, my summers at Jewish sleepaway camp are always the first to come to my mind. Attending camp every summer felt like I was escaping whatever horrible things were going on in the world to enjoy a long vacation from reality. I loved camp’s welcoming and loving atmosphere and especially enjoyed Israeli dancing before lunch and dinner, singing so loudly at Shabbat song session that I would lose my voice, and eating waffles and ice cream for breakfast when we had camp-wide color wars. By “unplugging” from technology for a few weeks every summer, we could be our natural selves, as camp was a place to discover our passions and learn more about Judaism.
However, there is one large part of Jewish summer camps nationwide (for the older campers at least) that camp directors do not advertise: the hookup culture. While camps are happy to promote the love stories that bloomed at camp, hookups at camp are not openly addressed. Hookup culture, which has become a growing and socially accepted phenomenon, encourages casual, meaningless sexual activity between partners. As Occidental College Professor Lisa Wade writes in her book American Hookup, hookup culture itself is not an inherently bad phenomenon as it allows people to explore their sexuality, feel liberated to express their true selves, and focus on their lives and careers without feeling held back by a significant other. Hooking up at camp is so prevalent that as Emily Shire at The Forward put it, “Today, hooking up at camp is a hallmark of the American Jewish youth experience.”
But hooking up becomes negative and turns into rape culture when people are pressured to partake in sexual activities that they do not want to do. Rape culture is visible in our everyday lives, such as in the songs we listen to (i.e.: “Blurred Lines”) that discourage consent, when girls are slut shamed for wearing short skirts, in the fact that women feel less safe than men walking alone, and other everyday scenarios that normalize victim-blaming. Respect for a partner’s boundaries and privacy needs to exist in order to create a healthy hookup culture that does not lead to rape culture.
To be honest, I did not understand the implications of hookup culture at sleepaway camps nationwide until a couple of years into college when I was no longer a camper or on staff. I am currently a senior at Occidental College (Oxy), a school that has been in the news regarding its sexual assault policies. Students and faculty have protested to create better policies to prevent sexual violence and protect students who have been sexually assaulted. These protests have opened up discussions on campus about topics like consent, sexuality, how to be an active bystander, and how to have positive sexual relationships. After talking to my college friends about their experiences at various Jewish summer camps around the country and reading previous articles about camp hookup culture nationwide, I have realized that the pressures and negative implications of this atmosphere were not healthy. If I had had these conversations while I was at camp, I could have potentially helped to eliminate the pressure of the hookup culture and make it a healthier environment for everyone. With this unique perspective of experiencing the hookup culture firsthand and learning about sexual assault and violence, I can provide recommendations on how staff can prevent the hookup culture from turning into rape culture.
Thanks to the movie “Wet Hot American Summer” (2001), a common stereotype exists that kids attend Jewish sleepaway camp to explore their sexual interests because no parents are around to stop them. When talking to my friends about their summer camp experiences, a common theme emerged in our discussions: the pressure of the hookup culture would begin before we even stepped foot at our various camps for the summer and felt prevalent from the first day of the session. The conversations that female campers would have in their bunks were all the same: Which boys do you think are cute? Are there any boys you want to hook up with? After spending every day with the boys bunks in their age division and with no technology available for campers to use, we recognized that some of our female bunkmates would become “boy-crazy” and unintentionally created a heteronormative culture of only talking about their male crushes. These discussions pressured people who did not feel ready to participate in the hookup culture, and excluded campers who did not identify with this heteronormative culture.
Hookup culture only became stronger as campers grew up. At some camps, campers created a “hookup list,” which was a record of all of the couples who had “hooked up” during the session. Everyone wanted to be on the list at least once to increase their popularity status in their bunk and earn respect from their older siblings who deemed hooking up to be “cool.” Campers normalized this list because camp is an isolated bubble with no technological distractions so they are constantly thinking about relationships with others. As a camper, I did not recognize the harm of publicly displaying people’s private business and the pressure and competition it created between boys and girls to go the farthest sexually. As someone who matured at a slower pace than most of my fellow campers, my name never made it on the hookup list, but I constantly felt like I should just hook up with a guy so that I could fit in with my bunkmates. I was a unique exception because as my college friends have told me, many people at their camps would succumb to the pressure without understanding their own limits because no one had talked to them about consent, establishing boundaries and expressing their feelings to a partner. As I have learned more about these topics in college, I have realized that the pressure to be on the list could lead to sexual assault as it could cause someone to take advantage of another person if popularity is given priority over concern for the other camper. While the perpetrator could publicize the hookup to gain popularity, the list could serve as a constant reminder of the incident to the victim. I am therefore embarrassed that I helped to normalize this nationwide camp tradition, rather than try to stop it.
Additionally, one friend told me about how she felt the hookup culture further forces campers who are trying to understand their sexuality to conceal it out of fear of not fitting in. Because sexuality and gender identity do not often fit into the Jewish learning agenda created by directors, many campers have little to no understanding of homosexuality and assume that everyone at camp is cisgender and heterosexual. As a counselor, my friend noticed her campers acting homophobic as they made comments, such as: “Don’t look at me when I change!” and “You’re being dumb - don’t act gay.” Camp may be in the process of becoming a more open environment, but this lack of discussion about sexuality and gender negatively impacted the queer community as it may have closeted them, pressured them to participate in camp’s heterosexual hookup culture, and/or made them want to leave camp altogether.
The hookup culture has been allowed to persist because staff have turned a blind eye to its existence. My college friends who had gone to Jewish summer camp shared that their counselors would ask their campers who they had crushes on and tell them that they couldn’t get in trouble if staff didn’t catch them sneaking out. These comments have negative consequences because counselors are no longer a confidant to campers if they experience sexual violence. Staff need to ensure that campers feel comfortable talking to them about any issue and not hide a sexual assault or harassment to avoid the consequences of having snuck out. While some camps have tried to address the hookup culture by telling campers to stop making things like the hookup list, the feeling of rebellion and attachment to these unofficial camp rituals has only encouraged campers to continue these traditions.
Rather than just tell campers to stop, staff instead should show campers the stress that the list causes many people; counselors can present potential scenarios created by the hookup list in skits and ask campers to come up with solutions to these problems. Seeing the implications of the list acted out may allow campers to realize its negative implications and encourage them to determine solutions themselves on how to create a healthy hookup culture.
Parents also have a responsibility to talk to their children about these issues that may arise before camp begins. Counselors and parents assume that everyone at camp shares important “Jewish values” that emphasize being kind to our neighbors and families and helping to seek justice in our world. These beliefs lead to the greater expectation that Jewish campers would never intentionally hurt fellow members of the community. Rather than assume that Jewish values alone teach campers right from wrong when it comes to sexual relationships, camps need to be honest about the existence of the hookup culture and address it in camp education programs.
Camp directors can start by working with the parents - in the many permission slips and forms that parents sign, the directors can provide conversation openers on topics relating to sexuality and sexual violence so that kids can be aware of these issues before camp starts. Camp directors should then provide staff with education on sexual assault and violence to plan programming on these topics.
Camp directors and counselors can also talk about sexual violence and consent by bringing The Talk Project to camps. Many of The Talk Project Peer Educators attend camp themselves and already understand the hookup culture. Learning about these topics from their peers through The Talk Project may effectively prevent the negative consequences of hookup culture because campers may be more responsive to their peers teaching them about the subject.
Staff members can thus create a more open and safe community where campers are willing to talk about any issues that arise, rather than stay quiet out of fear of getting in trouble. A combination of parent discussions and camp education can instill the values of consent and safe sex in campers’ minds so that if a camper chooses to participate in the hookup culture, they understand how to prevent sexual assault and create a safe environment.
Despite the pressures of the hookup culture, sleepaway camp is still an amazing place to attend every summer and hookup culture should not deter a kid from going to camp. Camp directors nationwide must realistically work to ensure that their campers who choose to participate in the hookup culture can do so safely by asking for consent, listening to and respecting boundaries, and knowing how to say “no” when they feel uncomfortable with where things are going. Working to solve these issues will only make camp an even more positive, memorable experience for future campers where they can truly thrive.
Elise Sugarman is a senior Politics major and Urban and Environmental Policy minor at Occidental College. She is currently interning at the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles with The Talk Project. She is passionate about fighting to protect women’s rights and after graduation, she hopes to pursue a career in social justice advocacy.