'Sex and the Soul'

April 15, 2008

On matters sexual and soulful, colleges can be divided into two categories, the “spiritual” and the “evangelical” -- the former the domain of hookup culture, the latter of purity culture, according to Donna Freitas, an assistant professor of religion at Boston University and author of the new book, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America's College Campuses (Oxford University Press).

“I think probably most people would expect the logical division to be between religiously-affiliated schools and nonreligiously-affiliated schools,” says Freitas, who, in researching the book, interviewed and collected online journal entries from 111 students and surveyed more than 2,500 undergraduates at seven different colleges described as Catholic, evangelical, nonreligious private and public (the institutions are not identified in the book, other than by affiliation, geographic location and size).

“Catholic schools, they may as well be public institutions, in terms of attitudes about sex and religion. Evangelical colleges were just completely different."

Despite research showing that the overwhelming majority of college students consider themselves “spiritual,” Freitas finds that students at the private secular, public and Catholic colleges (the “spiritual” institutions in her classification system) generally treat sex as a secular act. "They're secular only in the sexual aspect," Freitas writes. "Given the large percentage of students self-identifying with religion and/or spirituality, one might reasonably expect students to make meaning of their sexual lives via these resources. Yet religion and spirituality have almost no influence on student behavior related to romance, love, and sex at the spiritual colleges."

At Catholic colleges, Freitas writes that many students were apathetic about faith traditions and some “literally laughed out loud” at the church’s teachings on sex. And at Catholic and nonsectarian public and private colleges, hookup cultures -- hookups are defined as physically intimate encounters occurring outside long-term relationships -- dominate the social scene.

But Freitas finds that many students who participate in the hookup scene do so with serious qualms – and “suffer in silence.”

“It seems like students feel the need to hide their belief systems,” Freitas says. “You’re pretty much just floating…If you’re already floating and you’re afraid to stand anywhere because you might get left out, people might not like you, people may reject you, you float where everybody floats and if it happens to be toward hookup culture, that’s where you end up.”

By contrast, she finds that students at evangelical institutions are extraordinarily well-anchored. “Religion and sex are inseparable. You can’t even begin to think about sex without grounding that reflection in God and your Christianity.” But, Freitas points out, for students who feel they can’t live up to or fit into the pervading purity culture, the anchor weighs them down – sometimes tragically.

“It's like you're failing everyone at once and you're failing your faith tradition and you're failing God. You can almost go down in an instant with one night of having sex. That is a pretty precarious way to live,” says Freitas.

Women at evangelical colleges are expected to wait passively but at the same time are under “extreme” pressures to marry – the so-called “senior scramble” describes “the mad dash to find a husband by graduation." The experiences of gay and lesbian students at evangelical colleges were mixed. Freitas recalls, for instance, one breezily bisexual female student, known by the pseudonym “Molly Bainbridge,” who had found her own community, one she called “Heretics Anonymous.” Yet, another evangelical college student, "Steven Parsons," was probably, Freitas says, her most heart-breaking interview. Attracted to other men though he didn't want to accept it, “he was an example of someone who was just shattered by his sexual identity not fitting into what’s being preached.”

“On the flipside at evangelical campuses, what I saw that I didn’t see at other places was a level of integrated community. Talk about educating the whole person. I’ve never seen anything like it," Freitas says. "Watching a community build itself around shared values was pretty extraordinary and I think really fulfilling for most of the students even if it can be stressful."

"It's not like I'm advocating, 'You all should become evangelical colleges,' but I do think the way campus community is formed is pretty fantastic," Freitas continues. "One of the things I saw at other [spiritual] campuses was such a yearning to express the personal, [for students] to express themselves -- and meeting up with such roadblocks."

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