Tom Wolfe wrote chillingly about the college “hook-up” culture of casual and crude sexual encounters a few years ago in his novel I Am Charlotte Simmons. Donna Freitas studies the same phenomenon for real in Sex and the Soul, in the hope that the increasing numbers of students identifying themselves as “spiritual” or “religious” might be using their faith to help them climb out of the sexual miasma. Alas, what she uncovers is how well Wolfe’s novel imitates life. Freitas collects a commendable amount of data, from online polls, student journals, and face-to-face interviews at a cross-section of secular and religious campuses around the nation. She identifies a clear divide between Evangelical students at Evangelical schools, who identify themselves as “religious,” and those at all other schools, public and private (including Catholic colleges), who label themselves “spiritual.” The book is free-ranging and includes lots of anecdotes and interviews with students along with Freitas’s own commentary. Graphs helpfully illiustrate some of the data.
As a former denizen of a state university residence hall, I found Freitas’s research both familiar and depressing. Most of the thirty-two women I lived with on the Third Floor did something stupid in the name of sexual liberation. The hook-up culture isn’t new. What’s depressing is that hooking up has become more vicious, both in its prevalence and in the blurring of the lines between consensual sexual encounter and sexual degradation or even assault.
Consider: Thirty-five years ago, my floormate Sue was invited on a date by a hot New Guy. When New Guy arrived, he announced that the “date” would include a Russ Meyer porn flick. Sue angrily called it off—we all heard it because we kept our doors open most evenings—but even if Sue had waffled, we certainly would not have let her go on a date like that. The guy endured a “walk of shame” down that long hall to the stairwell, while we stood in our doorways commenting loudly about what a pig he was.
In today’s hook-up culture, the “walk of shame” refers to what women do in their rumpled night-before outfits the morning after a hook-up. Women at most of the colleges Freitas visited willingly, if not eagerly, attend large parties, sometimes with themes like “CEOs and Ho’s,” which require them to dress the part (not of a CEO) to get in. The hook-up culture is replete with language like “dirty girls” (known carriers of STDs) and “yes girls” (who will perform any sexual act demanded, often publicly). This is not the language of people with healthy attitudes about sex or women. This is the language of a culture fueled by too much alcohol and the Hustler fantasies of Freitas’s “alpha males,” who demand sexual servicing and resent women who expect anything deeper, such as “spending time with them during the day.” Some students are ashamed by this behavior, but they keep their misgivings to themselves.
Freitas’s accounts of Evangelical colleges also sound familiar. We of the Third Floor saw places like Bob Jones University as factories for Stepford Wives, where women were taught more comportment than composition, more submissiveness than sociology. Freitas reports that Evangelicals have tightened the leash on sexual behavior as the hook-up culture has burgeoned elsewhere. Evangelical colleges push a new standard of purity betokened by chastity rings and ceremonies in which girls pledge never to kiss any men but their daddies and their husbands. In short, Evangelical campuses guard against the hook-up culture through total amputation of any sexual or romantic activity, even kissing and hand-holding.
The Evangelical students offer some surprises, though. One lesbian says her college helped her form an LGBT student group, though one wonders whether the group will provide real support or simply allow the Evangelical college to round up LGBT students in order to throw nostrums like “just say no” at them. Sex aside, however, Freitas admires the way Evangelical colleges help students integrate faith and life in general, something entirely missing at non-Evangelical colleges.
The “spiritual” quest among Freitas’s non-Evangelical students sounds a lot like our old Third Floor search for the meaning of life, a pastiche of Hesse’s Siddhartha, Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex, and bits from the odd sociology or anthropology course. We did not, however, like Freitas’s students, compartmentalize our spirituality, and it did guide our sexual behavior—often into rationalizations and regrets. It took years for some of us, but when “real” life kicked in, most of us returned to more conventional religions, albeit with the more critical eyes of adults.
Freitas’s book ends by encouraging students, parents, college faculty, and administrators to question the hook-up culture and offers good points to ponder. But she does not call for outright sexual abstinence. She talks about “good” sex outside of marriage, and this will disappoint many readers who will, rightly to some extent, point out that tolerating sex outside of marriage opened the door to the hook-up culture in the first place. But hammering on abstinence alone isn’t going to help kids break the hook-up culture, either.
Catholic parents should pay special attention to Freitas’s interviews with Catholic students. Mostly they complained about being “forced” (Freitas notes that this verb crops up again and again) to go to Mass, to learn prayers and rubrics by rote without much explanation. Most also know that the church condemns premarital sex, and some also believe the church teaches that married people are supposed to abstain unless they want a baby. But few recall anyone ever talking to them about any of this. If Catholic parents ever struggled with sex and faith as young people and shared that with their children, Freitas’s research does not reflect it. We of the Third Floor have let our kids down.
Frankly, Freitas’s book should scare Catholic parents into asking some honest questions early and often: To what extent have Catholics “compartmentalized” their own sexual teachings? Do kids simply hear piecemeal rants against gay marriage, abortion, and birth control within marriage? Or do they obtain a more positive “big picture” approach to sex and faith that emphasizes God’s love for his creatures and our sexual responsibilities in the context of that love? Do Catholic parents and directors of religious education create youth groups and ministries that are clique-free, where any kid in the parish feels welcome and valued? Do they acknowledge that teenagers have sexual feelings and provide kindly and positive information? Or do they simply offer that double-edged scare tactic of sin and STDs? Do Catholic parents feel their kids are sexually “safer” at large parties than on dates, even though Freitas contends that on dates kids learn respect and friendship that the big parties, part of the hook-up culture, don’t afford? Do Catholic parents inadvertently model behavior that fuels the hook-up culture by winking at their own drinking excesses or by talking more about their appearance than their struggles with their faith and character?
Freitas has opened those dorm rooms a crack and allowed us to hear how we’re doing. We need to listen up.