Secret Lives of Students

Article excerpt

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. …