Secret lives of students

How sex and spirituality relate (or fail to) on campus.

Sex & the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America's College Campuses By Donna Freitas Oxford University Press 299 pp., $24.95

It began in a college course on dating, where students’ honest feelings dribbled out about the sexual ethos on campus. Most were quite unhappy with the “hookup culture” – the casual sex many felt pressed to participate in but secretly hated. That class at a Roman Catholic college gave birth to a national research project and to this candid, disturbing, yet ultimately hopeful new book by Donna Freitas: Sex & the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses.

Freitas, now an assistant professor of religion at Boston University, raises a clarion call. Her engrossing book captures the poignant, intimate struggles of students at a variety of colleges and universities, many of whom find that their religious upbringing has not given them the resources to navigate a destructive social environment.

Today’s college students are intrigued with religion and spirituality – particularly spirituality, studies show. Yet Freitas found that her own students – students at a religious college – saw little or no connection between their faith and their decisions on sexual behavior. She wondered if it might be different on other campuses.

Selecting seven different colleges and universities – public, private, evangelical, and Catholic – Freitas conducted surveys of 2,500 students and then interviewed more than 100 (63 women, 48 men). The students also journaled about their spiritual and sexual lives.

What quickly became evident was a clear distinction between evangelical schools and the others. At the two evangelical colleges, a strong “purity culture” prevailed, where students were expected not to have sex (or sometimes even kiss) until marriage. A vibrant sense of community supported this culture. At all other schools, hookup culture was rampant, and they were on their own in dealing with it.

“Though many students at non-evangelical colleges profess an interest in ‘spirituality,’ most have no idea what to do about either spirituality or religion, or where to find the resources for living a more spiritual life,” she writes. “They tend to hide their religious and spiritual longings deep inside themselves.”

Those calling themselves “spiritual but not religious” frequently had difficulty defining spirituality. And Catholic students, she says, sometimes “laughed out loud” at their church’s teachings on sex.

On most campuses, the hook-up culture has displaced traditional dating, and many students feel they must engage in casual sex to have any prospect for a long-term relationship. Yet long-term relationships elude them. One male student even expressed disdain at the idea that he should spend time with a woman “during the day.”

Most disturbing is the development on the campus party scene of theme parties with names like “Millionaires & Maids,” and “CEOs & Office Ho’s” (whores), which reflect pornographic scenarios. The old double standard has morphed into something rather ugly.

“Instead of simply watching porn ... college men get to re-create these fantasies live ... among women with whom they go to class,” Freitas says. The sexualization of American girls has left many entering college without an idea of where to draw the lines.

While the evangelical schools offered a more integrated and supportive environment, students who lapse from the purity culture often feel cut off, that they’ve failed everyone, including God. Reminiscent of the 1950s, women are expected to be totally passive, yet to have an engagement ring by senior year.

Yet Freitas found that young people on all campuses long for boundaries and guidelines that could foster healthy relationships. The ideal of romance appealed strongly to women and men, and they defined it in asexual, almost old-fashioned, terms – long talks and walks, watching the sunset, genuine communication, and emotional connection.

Then why doesn’t this prevail? Because campus environments don’t encourage it or even provide avenues for discussing spirituality and its relation to life choices, Freitas says. Social life is run by a powerful peer minority.
What is hopeful is that “the hook-up culture, though pervasive, does not appeal to the average student,” she writes. “This means student life ... is only a small step away from transformation – the beginnings of change lie in the[ir] willingness to openly discuss what they really desire....”

A community sets standards, she adds, and colleges need to foster discussions that enable students to better communicate on spiritual matters and sexual behavior.

Throughout this beautifully written book, Freitas presents students’ feelings and experiences in an unflinching yet compassionate way. You care about these young people and their struggles. This book is a great service to students, parents, and those at colleges and universities who want to prepare young adults not just for the workplace but for healthy and fulfilling lives.

Jane Lampman is a Monitor staff writer.

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