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Can Sex and Spirituality Coexist at College?

Year in Review: 2008

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Donna Freitas says most college students are not comfortable with the sexual behavior they see on their campuses. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Through December 24, BU Today is looking back at the mostpopular stories of the year. We’ll be back with new stories for the newyear on Monday, January 5. Happy holidays!

Each weekend, on college campuses across the country, young men and women will dress up for parties with themes that would make their parents seriously queasy: “maids and millionaires” is a popular one, or “golf pros and tennis hos.” They’ll drink; they’ll dance; they’ll make out with someone; maybe they’ll go home with someone.

And, according to Donna Freitas, a College of Arts and Sciences visiting assistant professor of religion, the majority of them will regret almost everything about the party and what followed, although very few will ever let on as much.

It’s all part of the curious dynamic that drives what Freitas refers to as “hook-up culture,” the anything-goes attitude toward sex that she sees on today’s college campuses. That permissiveness has left many students looking for something that might just bring parents back from the ledge: boundaries, and a moral and spiritual structure that offers the chance at real, meaningful connection.

Freitas is the author of Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses (Oxford University Press, 2008). Funded by a grant from the Louisville Institute, she spent five months talking to students at colleges of all types and sizes. Those discussions revealed a stark dissonance between what the students told her they wanted for themselves — meaningful relationships, romance (which they construe as asexual) — and what they felt everyone else wanted: partying and hooking up. 

“There’s the peer campus culture, where students assume that what everybody wants is this sexually permissive culture,” Freitas says. “But the vast majority of the students who promote and buy into this culture don’t like it for themselves. They think people don’t take sex seriously enough. They’re not comfortable with the behaviors they see on campus.”

That dissatisfaction, she thinks, is at the root of a trend cited in recent studies: a resurgent interest in religion and spirituality among college students. Freitas had noticed it among her own students, particularly in a popular religion and gender studies class she taught at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt., in 2005.

“The word spirituality often appeared in the titles of papers,” she says, “but I found that lots of students were resisting traditional religion in many ways. They felt the teachings didn’t make sense in their lives and in what they were experiencing on campus. They were latching on to spirituality as a space where they could hang on to meaning or search for it.”

Their search for meaning took different forms, Freitas says, but it often revolved around struggles with sexual identity, with gender roles, and with what they were doing, and seeing others do, sexually. When she explored the dynamic between religion and sex on other college campuses, a remarkably consistent picture emerged. Sex and the Soul is made up of interviews with students at public and private universities, including Catholic and evangelical schools. The book reveals that with the exception of evangelicals, students everywhere are encountering campus cultures that feel far too sexually explicit, but they fear the consequences of standing against that culture and lack the guidance that might come from an open dialogue. Some students look to spirituality to help them navigate these waters, but privately; spiritual beliefs are rarely discussed in public.

In her CAS courses on spirituality and sexuality in American youth culture, Freitas encourages students to talk about what they believe or don’t believe and to find an anchor in those discussions. “Part of what I do is provide students with possible structures around which to build a spiritual identity, some of which involve staking claims and drawing boundaries,” she says. “I see in students an attraction to boundaries, even though that’s what kicked them out of traditional religion in the first place.”

Evangelical universities, with their expressly religious missions, allow students to assert their beliefs in a very public way, and Freitas believes secular institutions could learn something from that openness.

“The ivory tower still doesn’t look very favorably on inviting personal experience, whether it’s that of the professor or the student, into the classroom,” she says. “I think that’s doing a disservice to students. There’s so much angst about sex, so much desire with regard to religion and spirituality. As a teacher, my impulse is to address it.”

Bari Walsh can be reached at bawalsh@bu.edu.

This story originally ran April 16, 2008.

3 Comments

3 Comments on Can Sex and Spirituality Coexist at College?

  • Stavi Nguen on 12.17.2008 at 6:23 pm

    Sex & Soul de-polarized

    Kudos to Donna Freitas. Will look for it. This sounds like the nonfiction version of _Flight a quantum fiction novel_ (by Vanna Bonta) that came out a few years back. Just saw Bonta on History Channel with incisive comments about sex and space so great to see now this nonfiction a much needed look at integrating and rescuing sex and soul from previously polarized positions! Nice post.

  • Stavi Nguen on 12.17.2008 at 6:26 pm

    more thought Sex and the Soul, Freitas

    FYi what struck me about flight was the humorous viewpoints of a first timer on Earth being hit on. Quips like “Totally genetic” (about sex devoid of ‘soul’) and calling it ‘merging’ …pretty cool. Even an evolved mammal gets in on the integrated viewpoint. Sex and the Soul is welcome by a population for sure. Thanks.

  • Usiku on 12.17.2008 at 10:04 pm

    The search for something more

    It’s encouraging to know youth are seeking something more and seeking that in spirituality. Seeking to be a little closer to themseves through a connection with something more pure and greater.

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