Austin, a 25-year-old in San Antonio, can pinpoint the exact moment his life changed. He was 13 years old at a Texas summer camp, spending his first night in a tent with three other boys. It was a balmy evening, and the group had been whiling away the hours talking about movies, school and cars.
Suddenly, though, they were interrupted by a strange noise.
One of the boys, Ryan, had begun moving around mysteriously under the covers. His face was down, but his backside was wafting upward ominously. The boys looked on, confused. “I’m masturbating if you must know,” he said, when he finally became aware of their stares. “What? Don’t any of you masturbate?” Then he went back to humping, completely undeterred.
The summer camp experience is a mythical, esteemed rite of passage in American culture. In a pandemic, however, that kind of experience elevates to the divine. Now that so many of us are confined to the same four walls, with our sex lives on hold and our outdoor ventures closely guarded, summer camp feels like the antithesis of reality — a long lost world of dirt, youth, dappled sunlight, clammy flesh and fancy-free fucking under the stars. We may have felt wistfully nostalgic for the summer camp experience before the virus struck, but we’re all dying for it now.
It’s big business, too. Each year, around 14 million U.S. campers — the majority being older children and teenagers — pack up and spend the summer in one of the country’s many immersive outdoor getaways. There are academic camps, religious camps, weight loss camps, spy camps, space camps and even zombie camps. And while the programming is diverse, the premise is always the same: Parents get a break; kids get a chance to run free; and older teens — many of whom head to camp as counsellors and apprentices — get a chance to have abundant, post-pubescent sex in a variety of sandy and/or mosquito-ridden locations.
“[You will have] sex in the washroom back closet, sex in the dining room, sex in the bus, sex in the senior staff girls room, sex at the Friday night campfire ceremony,” says one Reddit user of the summer camp experience. “You will never have a better summer.”
People who went to summer camp love to talk about it, too (“One time at band camp…”). On Reddit, there are reams of ex-campers going starry-eyed over their adolescent adventures, even decades after the fact. In the more pure corners of the discourse, there is talk of lost virginity, braided grass love tokens and late-night lesbian erotica readings. One guy talks tenderly about his experience sleeping beside a girl for the first time, and “giving her heat from [his] balls.” Another remembers his first IRL sighting of teenage boobs, a memory he continues to cherish even years later: “To that 13-year-old boy who had never seen boobs in real life before, it was like [stumbling] onto the holy grail. I will never forget that.”
Clarissa, 26, attended summer camp in 2009 as a 15-year-old apprentice counsellor, and the memories remain deeply ingrained in her psyche. “Me and the other apprentices were completely unsupervised at night,” she says. “I had one camp crush. We didn’t have end up having sex, but we would make out and feel each other up at night. I could always hear other people doing the same thing. Once or twice a couple of people would just go off into the woods together for more serious stuff. I felt like I got no sleep at all that summer.”
Summer camp horniness is so potent, in fact, that not even the good lord can stop it. That is, at religious summer camps, teens are deep in sin, too — on the blog Total Frat Move, one former Christian camp attendee writes that, in between all the group prayers and bible studies, there would be plenty of late-night drugs, drinking and sex: “Counsellors at this small Christian camp [were] fucking more than I did at college.”
He goes on to mention “camp goggles,” a widely used term which — like beer goggles — refers to the heightened attraction you feel toward campers you wouldn’t normally find hot. According to Urban Dictionary, the on-site horniness is quite literally as intoxicating as alcohol, and compels you to have sex with them anyway.
But, why? What is it about the summer camp experience that makes it so sexy and memorable? And, more importantly, could it ever be possible to bring some of that magic back to our boring, sterile, plague-ridden lives?
“Summer camp is usually the first time these kids have been away from their parents’ supervision, which gives them sudden freedom,” explains sex and dating expert Kate Taylor. “Also, peer-pressure features a lot in these camps, which might spur people to take risks they’d usually avoid.”
The experience also offers a temporary suspension of reality, a chance for teens to break away from the shackles of school, old friendship groups and family traditions, and to reinvent themselves as whoever they’d prefer to be — something we rarely get to do in our adult lives. “It allows kids to act out their fantasy selves, or try on a different, less inhibited persona for a while,” Taylor adds.
Austin, who attended summer camp for three years as a young teen, tends to agree. “Summer camp is a unique environment where you’re away from home with minimal supervision, and you’re hanging out with friends you don’t normally sleepover with or see undressed,” he explains. “You’re talking about sex and masturbation in a completely different way, and talking about your urges without anyone laughing at you or saying you’re gay. Everything was a new sensation that we each wanted to learn about and try.”
Of course, it’s not all starlit kisses and soft-focused tent humping. There are plenty of campers who dive too deep into this suspended reality, returning with harrowing war stories of stale jerk-off socks and misplaced tampons. And sometimes, as Austin learned, the emphasis is less on sex with your tanned and toned campmates, and more on self-discovery. “Every night, me and my campmates jacked off in front of each other,” he remembers. “We all considered ourselves straight, but those summer camps saw us compare our junk, demonstrate our masturbation techniques and compare pubic hair. We also learned how to frot, or get naked and rub our penises together.”
Another big factor in all of this is the total shitshow of teenage hormones. Research suggests that dopamine (the “feel-good” hormone responsible for feelings of pleasure and satisfaction) is released in much higher levels when you’re going through puberty, making experiences like sex, love and even social media likes much more exhilarating as a teen than as a jaded, leathery adult. Your heart pounds, your appetite drops and your brain goes giddy.
Dopamine is also released when we experience something we never have before. This combination makes summer camp a hotbed for the hormone: a throbbing hub of teenage bodies in a new environment, exploring their sexuality for the first time.
All of which can help explain why these early experiences stick so intensely in our memory, even as we grow to have much more satisfying sex in our adult years.
Not surprisingly then, there are plenty of adults who refuse to let the dream go. In 2016, an adult version of summer camp was launched for people who want to “play like a kid and party like a grown-up.” The project is driven by millennials, perhaps as a way to deal with the grief the generation feels over its dwindling youth (something that was historically remedied by having kids, which none of us are doing).
But while it would be hard to ever replicate the summer camp experience as an adult, it is possible to manufacture teenage-like dopamine levels. According to Taylor, the secret lies in novelty. To reawaken the footloose feelings of camp, she suggests adding a touch of “newness” or “danger” to everyday events: “Kiss on a motorway bridge; have sex in a completely random room in your house; spend a whole night together without talking, just touching.” (Maybe some light docking would do the trick?)
That said, for most people, having the opportunity to quietly relive the camp experience — in the privacy of their own sordid little mind, or with fellow ex-campers — is more than enough. “From chatting with friends, I think a lot of guys do all kinds of weird self-discovery stuff during summer camp,” says Austin. “Your summer camp experiences are definitely a rite of passage, like an era of puberty. It’s private and intimate, but still something buds-y guys can do before they get too far in their sexuality. Because what happens in the tent, stays in the tent.”