It took me several years after college to understand what true relationship intimacy was about. I attribute this personal roadblock partly to spending my college years mired in the prevailing unhealthy hook-up scene. Okay, occasionally it was fun in the moment. But for the most part, fleeting dalliances usually left me unfulfilled and unhappy.
Sadly, the pressures and dangers of collegiate hook-up culture have grown exponentially since my salad days. In her recent book Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses, Donna Freitas, assistant professor of religion at Boston University, describes just how much things have changed over the years, and paints an upsetting and paradoxical picture of today’s sexually liberated campuses.
While a smattering of recent books have explored the subject of hook-up culture, Freitas’s work seemingly is unique in its juxtaposition of religion and spirituality with sexuality and its exploration of how the former two affect (or do not affect) the latter.
For her research, Freitas visited a range of America’s colleges and universities — from public to private, Catholic to evangelical — to find out what students had to say about these deeply personal topics. What she uncovered was at once refreshing and disheartening (and relatable): the majority of students she chatted with (including the men) actually resent the highly sexualized social environments so dominant on campuses today, in which sex, alcohol, and misogynistic theme parties such as “Millionaires and Maids,” or “CEOs and Office Ho’s,” abound. But they also feel powerless to go against this social sphere perpetuated by a powerful peer minority. Freitas found this to be equally true at non-religious schools (public and private) and at Catholic schools, where sex cultures are indistinguishable from what she found on secular campuses.
But fear not: Freitas’s tome is no fundamentalist diatribe. In fact, she finds that, while the shared identity and common values found on evangelical campuses are indeed keys to a healthy college experience, the purity ideal at such colleges is severe. The Christian fairy tale common to these schools creates deep anxiety, particularly for women, who feel they have somehow failed if they don’t find a mate and get their “ring by spring” (by the time they graduate).
Freitas’s main concern, however, is with schools that don’t advocate any particular sexual-value system. She argues that college administrations need to engage their communities better on questions about sex, religion, and spirituality. “Right now, students rule the sexual aspect of campus; they’re left on their own to deal with that. In my ideal world, colleges would offer a required first-year seminar, not just about relationships, but also on the ethics of being part of a community,” says Freitas. “It’s important to empower students to reflect personally on their own communities and on themselves inside the classroom.”
Freitas also encourages parents of college-aged kids to start asking questions when they visit prospective campuses. “An institution can have all the prestige in the world and offer the best education,” says Freitas, “but what if this same place has your daughter dressing up as a ‘secretary ho’?”
Sex and the Soul (Oxford Press, 328 pages, $24.95) by Donna Freitas is in bookstores now.