Sex and the Soul: Judging Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America's College Campuses
by Donna Freitas
Oxford University Press, April 2008
336 pp. $19.99

I teach a course on the sociology of sexuality, and my students are surprisingly open about their fears and hopes surrounding sexuality. For the most part, they confirm Donna Freitas's latest research: While students at evangelical schools struggle to know how to live with sexual desire, they are at least looking for their faith to inform their entire lives, including their sexual choices.

Freitas, who taught a course on dating at St. Michael's College, interviewed 111 students and received more than 2,500 responses to an online survey on sex and spirituality. What emerges in Sex and the Soul (Oxford University Press) is a disturbing yet hopeful picture of the sexual and spiritual lives of today's college students. Freitas studied two evangelical universities, two Catholic universities, two private nonreligious schools, and one public university. Since stark differences emerged between evangelical schools and the rest, she clustered observations using the terms evangelical and spiritual schools. (Freitas assumes all schools are somewhat rooted in spirituality, hence her book's title.)

The idea for Freitas's research project emerged from a classroom conversation about hookup culture, defined as casual sexual encounters unencumbered by the burden of love or commitment. Freitas's research confirmed the ubiquity of her class's response: Hookup culture may be prominent on many campuses, but not because the majority of students want it that way.

At the spiritual schools, religious beliefs did not influence sexual choices much at all. Seventy-three percent of students at the Catholic schools said they had experienced oral, anal, and/or vaginal sex; 79 percent reported the same thing at the private nonreligious schools; and 85 percent reported this at the public school. At the evangelical schools, students, too, have sex (35 percent said they had experienced oral, anal, and/or vaginal sex). But they were more likely to have sex within committed, loving relationships—and to later feel guilty about it.

Freitas's book effectively debunks the notion that hooking up empowers women because it encourages them to express their sexuality. Women may feel powerful by attracting attention with their bodies, but they figure out eventually that it is respect they want. These women often feel stuck trying to balance participating in hookup culture, in hopes of finding love, with not wanting to acquire a reputation. Men also feel pressure to participate in hookup culture and prove themselves through sexual conquest. Being a virgin casts suspicion on one's masculinity, but few men Freitas interviewed fit the Animal House caricature of a sex-crazed male.

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Life looks different on evangelical campuses, where it's still true that "hooking up" means going out on dates. But if the extreme at the spiritual college is frequent casual sex, the extreme at the evangelical college is the suppression of sexual expression and not helping students heal or find wholeness when they fall from grace. I italicize these terms partly because Freitas treats them as italicized notions. She finds some value to them, even if they do seem a bit quaint to her. But Freitas (a Roman Catholic) doesn't quite "get" evangelicals, and caricatures emerge from her observations.

For instance, while a lot of evangelical students would like to find a spouse before they graduate, not all of them believe they will have failed at college if they don't. Many evangelical women would be insulted to be told they believe college is primarily about finding a husband. And most of my students do not believe their first kiss should be on their wedding night. This highlights a weakness of Freitas's study: While her individual sample size was strong, her campus samples were limited. Two evangelical schools do not reflect all of them. But Freitas gets more right than wrong about evangelical schools. At the end of the day, she praises evangelical schools for giving students boundaries, a sense of right and wrong, and a place to find forgiveness.

Freitas criticizes spiritual schools' failure to help students think about sex or spirituality. Still, she believes that evangelical and spiritual schools have something to offer each other. Freitas believes that premarital abstinence is too limiting; the spiritual schools offer an ethic of sexual freedom that gives students the possibility of saying "yes" to responsible sexual experiences.

I'm stodgy enough (so Freitas might say) to imagine that if evangelical schools embrace sex in the context of committed and loving relationships before marriage, we wouldn't move toward the balance Freitas seeks. Instead, we would move toward the very hookup culture she criticizes. But more significantly, evangelical schools believe that faith has an implicit connection to sexual behavior. This is why evangelical schools are evangelical. If they adjusted scriptural understandings of sexuality to the latest recommendations, they would lose the essence of the faith that characterizes them.

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Freitas is right: Evangelical schools do need to create more safe places for conversations about sexuality and faith; we need to find ways to talk about truth and extend grace to each other. A challenge for Christian students is to figure out how to be sexual while single. We need to help students realize that embracing relationships that have nothing to do with sex is part of being created for relationship. And we need to better prepare our children by giving them a sexuality rooted in faith—not as a boundary to obey, but as a relational longing reflecting God's very nature.

Lisa Graham McMinn is a professor at George Fox University. She is the author of many books, including Growing Strong Daughters (2007) and Sexuality and Holy Longing (2004).

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today interviewed Freitas about sex and campus culture.

Sex and the Soul is available from and other retailers.

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