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Staff Sexual Assault: Prevention and Intervention
It's 10:30 at night, and you're tired. The campers have been in their bunks for a little less than an hour. The staff is thankfully quiet. All in all, it has been a good day. Just before you leave the camp office, two figures approach. One is your girls' program director; she has her arm wrapped over the shoulder of a female counselor. You can tell that the counselor has been crying.
"We need to talk," the program director tells you. You can tell by the tone in her voice that this is serious. She gently pats the counselor on the shoulder as a sign that she should begin. The counselor looks down at the floor. Her voice is so low that you can barely hear her words. "Mark (a counselor in boys' camp) tried to rape me."
What do you do?
Sexual assault is an inclusive label that subsumes many sexual acts. These typically include forced sexual contact (e.g., fondling, kissing, and petting), attempted rape, and completed rape. The common factor is that a person is touched in an unwelcome sexual way. Many camp directors, when faced with an accusation of sexual assault, respond in one of two contrasting ways. In the first, the camp director simply fires the accused. The risk here is that the accused is innocent of the charges. In the second, the response is to minimize the dilemma. The accused might be told to not do it again and then put back into the camp community — the consequence is merely a proverbial "slap on the wrist."
Both responses affect the entire camp community. Because of the intimacy inherent in a camp environment, news of a sexual assault is bound to spread. An immediate termination risks a reputation of unfairness for the director. The marginal punishment, on the other hand, is evidence to staff that the camp director does not take the issue of safety seriously. If one staff member can sexually attack another member without repercussions, what else will staff members get away with? Of course, in particularly egregious cases, an immediate termination along with police involvement is a necessity. In others, a minimal response is sufficient. Many camp directors unfortunately have a tendency to rely on one of these two responses. However, each case of sexual assault is different; no one solution will work in every case. Camp directors need the appropriate information that allows them to respond in a reasonable, efficient, timely, and defendable manner in incidents of sexual assault between staff members.
Sexual Assaults in Camps
The American Camping Association's The CampLine presents an annual account of calls to the ACA hotline for camp-related problems. For the summer of 2002, there were three allegations of staff-on-staff sexual abuse (Scanlin, 2002). The 2003 edition reported no such allegations. The overwhelming majority of incidents of sexual assault that occur in the United States is never reported. Camps that experience such behaviors may have purposely refrained from reporting the incidents. Another more likely reason for the lack of reporting is simply because these occurrences did not come to the attention of camp administrators.
While a sexual assault by a stranger may occur on camp property, we have a much more realistic concern with such violence occurring within a relationship. In fact, most cases of sexual assault take place within the confines of a pre-established relationship. These relationships can be between friends, romantic partners, or just a passing acquaintanceship. Rarely do they occur between individuals who had no prior contact. In most cases of forced sexual activity, we are referring to a victim as a female and a perpetrator as a male. Because of the size difference between males and females, females are the common victims in reported sexual assault cases. It is difficult for a female to be intimidating to a male if she is smaller, weighs less, and is less strong.
A Developmental Perspective on Sexual Assault
It is difficult to be partial when a victim of sexual assault is describing an attack. One will naturally be inclined to have sympathy for the victim and disdain for the accused. While it might be tempting to slip into polarized thinking at this point with an easily identified victim and villain, the reality is that such thinking may be more harmful than helpful for all involved parties.
It is likely that the cause of a sexual assault between staff members in camp is that a male misinterpreted a female's cues concerning sexual activity. There are three underlying reasons for such an occurrence. First, males and females do not typically enter romantic relationships with the same set of interpersonal skills. As the result of often vastly different experiences in childhood, romantic relationships are frequently tumultuous. Research has found:
Because of such segregation, boys and girls grow up with different experiences of the world and learn different interpersonal skills. These different skill sets assure that there will be misunderstandings and complications when the two sexes interact. This often vast difference in interpersonal skills is particularly complicated when it comes to sexual interactions.
The second underlying reason is that in many cases there is no direct request for sexual activity — much of the initiation of sexual activity between two people occurs through indirect means. Males may treat a date to a very expensive meal, attempt to ingratiate themselves, and profess love to partners that they in no way actually feel. A study by Greer and Buss (1994) found that the most successful tactic to engage a female in sexual activity is to invest time and attention as well as profess love and commitment. In regards to females, Perper and Weis (1987) found that females also have an armory of techniques to express sexual interest including talking (e.g., laughing, complimenting, sexual talk), environmental signaling (e.g., seductive clothing, dancing, creating a "romantic atmosphere"), touching (e.g., holding hands, caressing), and kissing.
While it would certainly be easier to directly ask a person for their interest in participation in sexual activity, the reality is that many couples rely on less direct methods. It is the ambiguity of the indirect methods that is often the root cause of a sexual assault that occurs in camp. Males in particular tend to misinterpret even the most neutral signals as sexual invitations. Likewise, males often misinterpret a female's protestations as mere token resistance; in some males' eyes, a woman's statement of "no" is a façade in effect so as not to appear too sexually available.
There is one final additional complication to the already complex mix of interpersonal skills, differences between the sexes, and the ambiguities of sexual signaling and interpretation — sexual arousal affects the functioning of the human brain. Sexual arousal can interfere with judgment and self-control. Such arousal may not only lower one's inhibitions and lead to the use of coercion but additionally reduces awareness of the reactions of one's partner. Long-term consequences are minimized or out-and-out ignored during moments of passion.
In summary, when a staff member reports a sexual assault, it is highly unlikely that the alleged perpetrator is a sexual psychopath. A more realistic appraisal is that a male may have misinterpreted mutual sexual interest on the part of a female. However, this does not excuse his behavior.
Prevention and Intervention
A director is legally obligated by federal law to intervene to stop sexual harassment in a camp. An isolated sexual assault on a co-worker would likely not be classified as sexual harassment as it is delineated in the regulations of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency established to deal with workplace discrimination. An assault committed by a supervisor, however, is always sexual harassment. In the case of camps, I recommend that all camps take a sexual harassment prevention perspective even when the assault occurs between co-workers. It offers not only a recognized legal model for intervention but also makes practical sense in coping with the aftereffects of an accusation. A singular incident of unwanted physical contact may indicate an environmental problem with a camp. Maybe it is less safe than the director believes. Maybe there are numerous unwanted sexual behaviors occurring that remain hidden from the administration. This supposedly isolated incident may reveal troubling undercurrents.
The following are several guidelines for a camp director to keep in mind when a sexual assault is reported.
1. Stay calm.
2. Give the victim partial control of the situation.
Some aspects need to be considered in regards to police investigation. First, every state now has a mandatory reporting protocol in place for child abuse. If the victimized staff member is under the age of eighteen, the director may be obligated to report this to a youth protective agency. Second, some camps have a policy that requires police to question all cases of sexual assault even if the victim declines such involvement; this is done not so much for the protection of the victim but rather to have a written record on file for the camp's own legal security. The downside to mandating police investigation is that it might deter a female from reporting less severe incidents to the administration if she knows that she will have to speak to police.
It is recommended that all directors contact their local police and youth protective agency to ascertain their requirements for incidents of sexual assault.
3. The camp director is not a judge.
A problem that naturally arises in situations of sexual assault is how to respond to the accused. How can a director act on an accusation of assault if he or she is not making a determination of guilt or innocence? Some assaults are particularly violent and/or occur in the presence of witnesses. Such physical harm of another camp participant is undoubtedly against your camp policy — this behavior is grounds for immediate termination even if the victim in the case declines police involvement. Most occurrences of assault that occur in camp though will be less obvious. Instead of a female presenting bruises and torn clothing, a more common case will present no evidence of physical harm. For example, a male and female staff member go to a bar on their night off and then return slightly intoxicated; the male in question begins to make sexual advances upon the female including groping her and using obscene language. She quickly leaves and reports the incident to her immediate supervisor.
The crux of the dilemma is how one is to weigh the welfare of the victim and ramifications for the camp's reputation against a wrongful termination. It is here that an investigation by the director will occur with the sole purpose of collecting information that will lead to creating a harassment-free environment. If the male in question is too much of a risk to the camp environment for future harassment, a decision to terminate may be made. Variables such as frequency of the act, severity of the act, and intentionally intended harm versus unintentional interactions all play a role in the decision to terminate, discipline, or do nothing. Incidentally, the victim in an incident does not have to be completely satisfied with the outcome of an investigation. If she seeks a decision of guilt and resulting punishment, this is the responsibility of the legal system. A camp director instead must be reasonable and effective in dealing with the alleged sexual assault. A decision on how successful a camp director is in his or her response to an accusation of assault is based on the reasonableness, effectiveness, and expediency of the investigation and intervention, not the complete satisfaction of the victim with the consequences for the offender. It certainly helps the process though if the victim is kept informed of the investigation and given an opportunity to offer an opinion on whether a proposed intervention will work.
A successful intervention simply needs to be one that stops future unwanted behaviors. An assault intervention can be approached as would most interpersonal problems at camp including remedies such as problem solving, education, consciousness-raising, and boundary setting. For the latter in particular, keep in mind that it has only been in the past fifty years that males and females have worked together. Males and females are still attempting to learn each other's boundaries. Sadly, society has offered few positive role models for males on respecting female boundaries.
4. Find legal counsel.
The Best Intervention Is Prevention
The best intervention for sexual assault (as well as all harmful sexual activity) is prevention. A camp's response to a sexual assault should come as no surprise to camp staff. It is assumed that at this point all camps have formulated a sexual harassment policy that will specifically mention unwanted physical contact. In addition, staff should be informed in writing and during a staff-week orientation what specific procedure will occur if a sexual assault is reported. They should know the camp's stance on refusing to determine guilt, police involvement, and possible consequences. They should also know that the obligation of the director in such a case is to implement changes that would lead to a safer and harassment-free environment. This might or might not entail punishment for the offender, dependent on the details of the incident.
Another significant step to decrease the chances of a sexual assault is to monitor the use of alcohol. A significant minority of sexual assaults occurs while one or both parties are under the influence of alcohol. The ever-increasing use of random alcohol screening with invariant consequences for its use will go a long way in deterring such assaults.
Even with the best prevention plan, incidents will happen. Instead of reliance on the common responses of immediate termination of the accused or minimal intervention in the incident, the director should undertake an investigation with the ultimate goal of increasing camp safety for all participants. And in the unlikely situation of an extremely violent assault, it is reassuring to know that the camp director does not need to have all of the answers.
Michael Shelton, M.S., C.A.C., C.F.T., is a consultant, trainer, and the director of Camp William Penn, a camp owned by the City of Philadelphia Department of Recreation. He is the author of Coaching the Camp Coach and the soon-to-be published Secret Encounters: Addressing Sexual Behaviors in Group Settings.
Originally published in the 2004 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.