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Sex & The Soul

Sex & The Soul

Sean McDowell


For those of you who care about young people today, Sex & The Soul is a must read (Donna Freitas, Oxford Press, 2008). Freitas is a professor at BostonUniversity who became interested in how college students relate religion to sexuality. She interviewed hundreds of college students from public, private, and evangelical schools and amassed data from thousands more through online surveys. What she founds was eye-opening, alarming, and yet hopeful.


One of the most significant findings of the book is that dating, as is typically conceived, is virtually non-existent on college campuses (with the exception of evangelical schools). She says, "According to students…most relationships develop like this: one night after a party, two people hook up, then it happens again, then it becomes a regular thing, and eventually they find that they are in a relationship…If any coffees, dinners, or 'just talking' romantic encounters occurred with these students, these experiences typically happened after  multiple hookups and the decision to become a couple…Students don't see many avenues to committed relationships aside from hooking up" (139). Thus, most students go on dates only after they've been sexually intimate for quite some time. At most universities the hook up has replaced the first date. The old formula was dating first, and then sex. Now it's sex first, and then dating.


One of the most popular (and growing) college activities is theme parties. They have become a campus tradition at many schools. They are often labeled, "naked parties," "maids and millionaires," "lingerie parties," "professors and schoolgirls," and "jock pros and sport ho's." At theme parties, male students dress up as CEOs, sports jocks, and millionaires, while girls dress suggestively as whores. At some parties, reports Freitas, many girls have to wear lingerie or "next to nothing" to get in. The explosion in the growth of these parties can be directly linked to the wide accessibility of porn. While there have been "wild" college parties going on for some time, theme parties drop the bar of sexual standards to a new low.


While the hook up culture is rampant on college campuses, it was surprising to read how many students, according to Freitas, are deeply unsatisfied with it. Many think hook ups hurt their ability to form lasting relationships and healthy friendships. In fact, 41% of students used words such as regretful, shameful, disgusted, miserable, used, dirty, awkward, empty, alone, and duped when describing their experience (152). If they are so unsatisfied, then why do many continue? One reason is that hook ups seem easier than steady relationships as students are simply so busy today with school, sports, work, friendships, and partying. It takes effort (and potential heartbreak) to begin a relationship. Second, students simply see no alternative to their behavior. Their professors, parents, and church leaders either avoid the subject entirely, or seem hopelessly out of date.


What role does religion play in the sex lives of college students? According to Freitas, the answer is none. Many students were shocked at the question itself, and others laughed that religions would have anything to contribute to sexuality. College campuses today (with the exclusion of some evangelical schools) are predominantly secular. Students compartmentalize any faith commitments they have during their college years. And the professors reinforce this view. "Regardless of its origin, students at nonreligious institutions experience a separation of church and college" says Freitas, "an expulsion of religion from the public square that is so extreme that many of them are rendered mute on the subject" (35). Freitas says, "The dominant but implicit attitude on campus, not just among students but also perceived among faculty and administrators, is that spirituality and religion are private-not matters for public consumption" (217). Religion simply does not inform the sexual decisions of the vast majority of college students today.


Implications for Christians


Sex & The Soul raises two important concerns for how we teach sex education to teens. First, there continues to be considerable confusion among teens over what constitutes sex. We often tell kids to wait until marriage to have sex, but do we define exactly what we mean by sex? When does a touch become sexual? A number of students who have had oral sex and anal sex still consider themselves to be virgins. And some even consider themselves sexually "pure." Consider what one girl wrote to Freitas:


I want to clarify that the one time I had intercourse has been with my girlfriend who I am more than close with…. We are both devoted Christians who are devoted to virginity until marriage. We fell to temptation and for ten minutes lay together, me inside of her. We did not move or create physical pleasure for it hurt her too much to move. We stopped before we had sex but we did engage in intercourse, at least this is how we have come to see it. We are devoted to virginity now stronger than ever as a result (120).


Second, Freitas commends evangelical colleges for helping students set sexual standards and to wed their religious commitments with their sexual behavior. Yet, she says evangelical schools must do a better job of fostering open space for students to discuss their sexual desires and histories with honesty and acceptance. In fact, many kids crave such space. According to Freitas, many evangelical students face considerable pressure to live up to certain ideals, which can make them feel overwhelmed, stressed, and guilt-ridden if (and when) they fail. As important as they are, Promise rings and chastity talks are simply not enough to truly help young people come grips with their sexuality.