Sex and the Soul: Hooking Up and Loving Jesus

I had some extra time today while browsing the Northshire bookstore, and I came across a book that “caught my eye” (no pun intended): “Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America’s College Campuses” by Boston University professor Donna Freitas, and a forward by Lauren Winner. The book documents the “hookup” culture of today’s college campuses (and I would add today’s 20’s / 30’s scene), and how this culture is influenced by the religious traditions and spirituality of those campuses. The book is both encouraging and disturbing.

He is 26, and he’s one of the most attractive people I know in Los Angeles. He goes to church regularly and he is a person of sincere and deep Christian faith. But he sees no relationship between his faith and his sexual practices (he does see the connection between faith and economics, equality, worship etc but not sex). He often shares with me about his sexual exploits from the weekend. He will tell me how “hot” it was, and often there are multiple people. He rarely calls them again, and he has no intention of doing so. They know it too. But the same person I know as deeply spiritual also is loosely sexual. It seems not to occur to him that many Christians would find this life incongruent, but he recently described one experience to me as “spiritual”. Yet, when we’re talking honestly about our lives, he will tell me that he wishes that he is in a relationship and that he gets tired of all the one night stands. Last week over lunch, he told me that he thinks there probably is something unhealthy and “wrong” about living this way. Scripture or God isn’t a calculation in his sense of “wrong” about his sexual life (he is a Mainline Protestant)– it’s more of the feeling he has about it, and that he feels his lifestyle may be leading him away from what he truly wants.

These stories encapsule the story told by “Sex and the Soul”. Freitas finds in her book that there is a close relationship between spirituality and sex. Never have college students been more interested in spirituality, and never have they had more sex. Freitas finds that most college students, except for evangelicals, view sex as a private matter apart from spirituality, yet they wish that they had a relationship that was more spiritual than just sexual. Confusing? Freitas documents the hookup culture of today’s college students, regardless of faith background.

The sex most prevalent on college campuses today is “hookup” sex that is usually in the context of excessive drinking or drugs, and often with a random person the student has never met or is not dating. The book documents the rise of a hookup culture, and the demise of a dating culture, on college campuses. As Freitas points out, college students now hook up in order to date; they don’t date in order to have sex. They feel that life is too busy, the demands of working and college are too great, and the broken relationships of parents and others have caused them to be leery of relationships. So why not just have sex until you find your true love, and avoid all the drama of dating and breakups? And who knows? You may just find your true love while hooking up with them. Out with dinner, in with one night stands. Many in this age group also have “friends with benefits”. I suggest that this behavior extends far beyond college campuses to a modus operandi for a great majority of young professionals, and it is even more pronounced in the gay community (that is not a judgment; it is just a fact). Furthermore, chat rooms, dating sites and personal ads add fuel to the fire because anonymous meetings without emotion or obligations are as easy as a click of the mouse.

What I found truly interesting in the book is that there is no statistical evidence of ANY difference in sexual behaviors in college students among students who are at a secular university and those students at a Catholic or Mainline Protestant university. Hookup and party culture was just as dominant at Methodist or Catholic affiliated schools (think Duke, Emory, Wake, etc) than at University of Arizona. I suppose that doesn’t say too much for the spiritual formation of youth or for the teaching of biblical and ethical guidelines by these traditions. In my own personal experience, these traditions often welcome those with sexual lives outside of marriage yet rarely speak of what a healthy and biblical view of sex might be. In this view, sex is a personal thing and the church should have little to say about it. Yet, it seems to me that an Episcopal student should have different sexual practices than a secular student if I understand even the most basic tenets of Christian theology.

No students … religious or secular … showed any difference in their sexual habits … that is, unless they attended an evangelical school (Wheaton, Regent, etc). These students often had taken vows of purity, at least attempted to be chaste, and many hoped to “wait” until marriage. Even 35% of these evangelical students (I dare say more) were engaged in regular sexual activity, while many more admitted that their view of virginity excluded petting and oral sex. So actually the number is probably higher. Yet, there was a marked difference in the aspirations and behavior of evangelical students than among students from other religious backgrounds, or none.

The author found that 2-3 percent of her student sample admitted to being gay, and the percentages were no different at religiously affiliated schools than in non-religious schools (my guess is that gay and “bi” students make up a much larger percentage but they were not attracted to a survey about spirituality, and thus the same is skewed). The author’s research found many closeted gay students at evangelical colleges as well, and she urges these schools to be more honest about this so that students can discuss their development rather than torture themselves in secrecy and shame.

But here is the encouraging news: Whether secular or religious, almost every college student, straight or gay, desired something more than hookups. They want romance. But interestingly, and surprisingly, they view (just like their evangelical counterparts) romance as nonsexual. In fact, girls longed for a true date where a guy would take them on a romantic dinner and not expect anything physical, and guys too viewed romance as something entirely separate from sexual exploits.

They know there must be something more than random encounters. And they feel that “something more” might in some way have a relationship to who they are as spiritual people. They sense that perhaps there is a connection between sex and spirituality, and that it is possible for sex to be an expression of spiritual realities or for it to destroy all spiritual possibilities. In other words, they are looking for someone to show them the connection between being a sexual being and being a person who longs for love and connections to their Creator. They sense that their hookups are doing damage to their own sense of worth, and denigrating the image of God in those they seduce. And it is leading them away from actually finding the love they really want. So they view romance as “nonsexual” and sex as non-romantic.

But the traditional answers of “wait” and “be pure” won’t do for many of these students. They want to have sex. And they also want to honor their deepest selves and their spiritual longings. They know the two don’t mix too well, and so they are waiting for someone to help them make the connection between living a spiritual life and being an embodied human being with sexual desire and needs.

This is a fascinating read, and the last chapter contains excellent suggestions for university administrators, parents and students. It is an honest and enlightening book that should be read by every person whose responsibility it is to serve and love this generation. They are asking some great questions, and easy answers won’t do.

Is there a way to wait for love without repression and shame? Are romance and sex opposites? And is true love possible? If you’re not getting married until you’re in your 30s, is “waiting” the best policy?

According to this book, students without faith, and students with faith, want to know.

2 Responses to “Sex and the Soul: Hooking Up and Loving Jesus”
  1. MLW says:

    Nice post. Thanks for pointing it out.

  2. MLW says:

    Seems that promiscuity is filling my blog reader today. Check < HREF="" REL="nofollow">this<> one out…

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