A group of teenage girls from Atlanta go to summer camp, and, unbeknownst to the adults, two of them make a bet as to which one will lose her virginity first, with all the girls in camp betting money on the contest. The girls involved in the contest are opposites and rivals: cynical, suspicious and streetwise poor girl Angel Bright (played by Kristy McNichol) and naive, prissy and romantic rich girl Ferris Whitney (played by Tatum O’Neal). The rest of the girls divide into two “teams”, each rooting for and egging on either Ferris or Angel. The two girls then choose guys they want to lose their virginity with. Angel targets Randy, a boy from the camp across the lake, and Ferris attempts to seduce Gary Callahan, the (much older) camp counselor.
The girls also engage in typical teenage camp behavior, like food fights and singing around a campfire.
Both girls discover that sex is not what they thought it would be.
Ferris thinks of sex as love and romance and wine and flowers and poetry. She imagines herself swept off her feet by Gary. When she lies about “making love” with him, the biological aspect manifests itself in Gary getting in trouble for having sex with a fifteen-year-old. She discovers that physical sex can have ugly consequences. Her attitude is now more grounded in reality; she has become more like street-wise Angel.
Meanwhile, street-wise Angel approaches the same issue from the other side and learns the opposite lesson. She views winning the contest as a purely biological act, “no big deal” and “nothing,” as her mother told her. But when she tries to do “it” with Randy in a boathouse, she becomes confused by scary feelings she did not know she had. She behaves defensively, like she doesn’t want it. Randy, now also confused, is put off by her recalcitrance and leaves.
Angel sees that sex is more than just a mechanical function she can cynically turn on and off. It involves feelings and caring and love. Sex is important, and something she deeply wants. As Randy leaves, she tearfully protests, “But I like you!”
She meets Randy a few days later with a much improved attitude—one closer to Ferris’s. This time she pays attention, not to condoms and clothing, but to Randy and her feelings about him. As the novel describes it, “All her fear and resistance melted as they kissed. Soon, she didn’t know who was touching whom, only that it was wonderful and right and fine.”
Angel has sex in the boathouse, but doesn’t tell the other girls. Ferris remains a virgin and lies about an evening of romantic passion (“We had chilled Chablis; the darkness enveloped us.”)
In the end, Ferris discovers that sex is not just a fantasy of poetry and flowers and moonlight or something from a novel, that the biological aspect is not necessarily romantic, and Angel discovers that biological sex involves powerful emotions that touch her deeply and transform her soul. Neither girl is quite ready for the emotional aspects that sex brings; When Randy seeks her out, Angel admits that while she likes him, she is not ready for that kind of a relationship (he says they can start over, but Angel observes that it’s too late and wouldn’t be enough), and Ferris apologizes to Gary. Together, the girls talk with the Camp Director and confess the situation, saving Gary’s job.
Angel and Ferris, the two outsiders, discover they are more alike than different, and as they return home to their parents, they become best friends.