Even on Catholic Campuses, Hookup Sex Prevails: Researcher Donna Freitas Finds College Students See No Connection between Religion and Sexual Behavior

By Berggren, Kris | National Catholic Reporter, May 30, 2008 | Go to article overview

Even on Catholic Campuses, Hookup Sex Prevails: Researcher Donna Freitas Finds College Students See No Connection between Religion and Sexual Behavior


Berggren, Kris, National Catholic Reporter


When Donna Freitas began researching the sexuality and spirituality of college students, she wanted to see what effect, if any, religious affiliation had on these areas of their lives. What Freitas discovered is that except for some evangelical colleges where a cult of purity exists, there is little difference between public, private and Catholic colleges and universities in the "hookup culture" that prevails on campus--one in which students seek sexual experiences with a variety of partners outside of relationships.

Such casual sex is the norm at secular and Catholic institutions alike, even including "theme parties" where women dress up as sex objects, Freitas writes in her new book, Sex & the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America's College Campuses.

Freitas, a Catholic theologian and assistant professor of religion at Boston University, based her book on research involving students at seven colleges. Her research grew out of a class she taught on dating at St. Michael's College in Burlington, Vt., in which students opened up with her and with each other about their dissatisfaction with the predominant "hookup culture" on campus. It eventually led her and five research assistants to survey 2,500 students online, read 500 journals, and individually interview 111 students.

"The theme party culture is probably the most shocking shift," Freitas told NCR of how sexual mores have evolved on college campuses today.

At these theme parties, young men and women role-play "CEOs and Office Hos" or "Millionaires and Maids" or "Golf Pros and Tennis Hos" or some misogynist variation of soft-porn stereotypes. Freitas is particularly disturbed by how such parties objectify women and become a form of social hazing. Most students "feel they have to go along with it to make friends, or to find a guy if they want a boyfriend," Freitas said. Even willing participants often regret their behavior later, she noted.

Erin Spranger, a sophomore at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., not included in Freitas's study, has declined invitations to parties with sexual themes, which are typically hosted by male students off campus, she said. "There are people at St. Thomas who don't look for the hookup atmosphere and are more for the dating scene. However, I do think there is pressure to 'get with' another person at a party," she confirmed.

Part of the poignancy of Freitas' research is how much students often dislike their own sexual behavior. She found that 41 percent are "profoundly upset" about their own behavior. Men and women alike, she says, express regrets about their experiences, and would like more romance and friendship. Overall, she found that 45 percent of students at Catholic colleges and universities and 36 percent at nonreligious private and public schools say that their peers are too casual about sex.

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In an article published last month in The Wall Street Journal, Freitas noted that "with the exception of evangelicals, American college students see almost no connection between their religious beliefs and their sexual behavior."

"This radical separation of religion and sex tells us important things not only about the power of the college hookup culture but also about the weakness of religious traditions in the face of it."

Dr. Sandra Estanek, a former vice president for student affairs at two Catholic colleges, now a faculty member at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., said that in studies over three decades senior student affairs officers consistently say "students' attitudes and behaviors about sexuality" are "the most difficult issues" they face.

Many Catholic college administrators seem squeamish to publicly acknowledge the hookup culture on campus. Administrators at six Catholic colleges or universities, five of them well-known, declined to be interviewed for this article or did not respond to requests for interviews. …

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