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Even on Catholic campuses, hookup sex prevails: researcher Donna Freitas finds college students see no connection between religion and sexual behavior.

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.


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.

One who did respond, Erin Lovette-Colyer, director of the women's center at the University of San Diego, said, "Hookup culture [has] been part of the national conversation for the past several years. Everything from theme parties to the hookup culture to, obviously, alcohol has always been at the forefront of issues students are experiencing and contributing to decisions students are making around sex."

Many administrators agree that colleges have inherited the problems nurtured by a sexually saturated popular culture. "They go to a college or university and bring .all that baggage," explained Jesuit Fr. Julio Giulietti, president of Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, W.Va., and an expert in religion and psychology. "You can instruct, discuss, try to dialogue, but you don't run a prison. You don't run a seminary."

Most colleges do offer programs addressing sexual decision-making and healthy relationships. Lovette-Colyer said the University of San Diego is enlisting multiple campus organizations, including residence life, university ministry, the women's center and the health and wellness center, to promote a campus-wide conversation about values-based behavior.

"How do we encourage them to think about community standards at 2 a.m. and 2 p.m.?" Lovette-Colyer said of the university's students.

Estanek drew on a baseball analogy to describe ways to change students' mindsets: She advocates a "small ball" approach--hitting sacrifice flies, stealing bases, bunting--rather than counting on home runs. In other words, it takes one conversation, one relationship, one small group, one retreat, at a time to diminish the excess of theme parties, binge drinking or hooking up.

Young adults, Giulietti said, "are seeking words about what it means for them to be a young woman or man at age 18 to 22. How do you come to love yourself?. How do you come to love another?"

Freitas said Catholic colleges have become adept at turning a blind eye to hookup culture partly for fear of losing applicants and their tuition-paying parents. Her prescriptions for advancing change include a list of questions she encourages parents of prospective students to ask.

"Ten [of those questions] are about sex and hookup culture," she said. "Parents have to buck up and look beyond the ivy. My theory is the parents and applicants hold all the power. When students are in the middle of it, they don't know how to get out of it."

[Kris Berggren, a freelance writer, lives in Minneapolis.]

Embracing sexual ethics on campus

Here's the extent of Catholic sex education according to many of the Catholic students Donna Freitas interviewed in her research for Sex & the Soul:

* Don't be gay.

* No premarital sex.

"A lot of Catholic youth feel there is nothing [in their religious tradition] for them when they are young, except for volunteering and social justice. Especially with regard to sex. They find it laughable," the author said recently.

Catholicism has more to offer, those who work with students say, It's just that the students don't know it. Suggestions for shaping healthier attitudes about sex include promoting a constructive Christian ethic of dating, helping young people to understand sexuality as part of the whole human experience, and tapping into their interest in social justice.

Students passionately advocate for fair-trade coffee and against exploitation of the poor, so why not extend that conversation to personal relationships, suggests Sandra Estanek of Canisius College. "Campus ministers and student affairs professionals I have talked with say, 'We think that has an opening for a conversation [about responsible sexual behavior]. How do you live respectfully? What does it mean to use someone?'"

Jason King, chair of the theology department at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., says limiting discussion of sexuality to the context of marriage and courtship is irrelevant for most teenagers and college students. He would frame "dating [as:] a practice in discipleship" in which two people learn about one another's differences and interests as well as how to treat one another. "It is a concrete example of how to love your neighbor."

"Most of the language of the church is about what you can do and what you can't do," acknowledges Jesuit Ft. Julio Giulietti, president of Wheeling Jesuit University. He added that college students are seeking to discover who they are in all aspects of their human experience, including their sexuality. "Our church--you and I--have to be able to talk about this kind of humanity as part of a religious and spiritual experience."

"People only want to boil it down to sex," says King. "I find this frustrating. You are really cutting off a conversation. My bent: The truth can take care of itself. Let's have the conversation."
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Author:Berggren, Kris
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 30, 2008
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