Meeting Donna Freitas: A Review of Sex and the Soul and an Interview

By Harris, Heidi | Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview
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Meeting Donna Freitas: A Review of Sex and the Soul and an Interview


Harris, Heidi, Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought


Meeting Donna Freitas: AReviewof Sex and the Soul and an Interview Heidi Harris Review Donna Freitas. Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America's College Campuses. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 299 pp. Hardcover, $24.95; ISBN: 978-0-19-531165-5

Returning from spring break in 2005, Dr. Donna Freitas, assistant professor of religion at St. Michael's College, a small Roman Catholic school near Burlington, Vermont, witnessed an epiphany in her "Dating and Friendship" course. One by one, her students admitted to themselves and to each other their profound disappointment in the sexual culture of their school-the "hook-up culture." They were tired of juggling reputation and desirability. They noticed that it was practically impossible to find a respectful and long-term relationship and equally impossible to find any romance at all. And finally, they wanted to figure out how so much could be going on at frat parties that flew in the face of what they supposedly believed. After discussing the larger issue, Freitas's students determined that there was an essential dialogue missing from their everyday campus lives. Conversations about sex were pervasive within peer groups, and campus priests and professors spoke often about spirituality, but Freitas discovered that her students wanted to "have conversations about sex in relation to the soul" (12; emphasis hers).

Thus began Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America's College Campuses. Freitas took her students' questions and shaped them first into a cross-country study and, second, into a critically acclaimed book. Sex and the Soul explores the pressures experienced by students across varied college demographic situations. Her research includes seven campuses, each classified within her system as either Catholic, Evangelical, private secular, or public. However, although she makes these technical distinctions throughout the book, Freitas concludes that there is little difference between the spirituality of sex in Catholic, private, and public schools, eventually lumping them into a more general "secular" label. The outliers in her "spiritual" category are the Evangelical colleges in which the "hook-up" culture was practically non-existent and where students worked within the framework of their own complex "purity" culture.

Sex and the Soul quotes extensively from the more than 2,500 student interviews Freitas conducted as well as daily journals kept by selected study participants describing everything from their party schedules to their wardrobes to their feelings at mass. As Freitas moves between her chapter-by-chapter review of students' romantic ideals, peer anxieties, and spiritual connections, readers become acquainted with individuals like the popular but conflicted Amy Stone or bisexual and Evangelical Molly Bainbridge (pseudonyms). Using the words of the students themselves, Freitas stays connected to the campus scene and the various peer pressures found in both her "secular" and "spiritual" schools.

Sex and the Soul takes a balanced approach to its explorations of both hook-up and purity culture. Though the majority of the book focuses on the varied experiences students have in reconciling sex and spirituality, Freitas is able to identify how all of her subjects are alike in their sexual and spiritual dilemmas regardless of their campus affiliations. First, they are all highly invested in their spiritual identities, whether the construction of those identities is primarily institutional or strictly personal. Second, all of her respondents experience sexual desire and long to act on it. Third, students generally agree that "romance" is mostly an asexual experience and that finding it is a life priority. Yet, finally, all have difficulty reconciling the three, regardless of their campus affiliations.

Sex and the Soul distinguishes itself not only as the first major study to explore young adults' experiences negotiating their spirituality and sexuality, but also in its call for action and practical solutions.

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