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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Theological Notebook: Sex & the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on... 
10th-Jul-2008 10:55 am
Lois and Clark/Suspicious Minds
I saw this article Tuesday night and grabbed the book from Raynor Library's browsing collection on Wednesday. So far it's compelling reading, but also kind of heartbreaking as an attempt to look at the currents of campus culture for my students: this is neither the respect for or empowering of women that I seem to remember being the goal of the feminisms of my student years nor the inheritance from any forms of chivalry. Eek: I'm starting to talk as a member of a different generation! Sex & the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America's College Campuses isn't bleak or hand-wringing, though, just honest. I can immediately think of half a dozen friends I'd like to read it with, though, who would have some professional interest in the topic, whether pedagogical, psychological or cultural.

Myself, seeing how the book itself arose out of a Spring 2005 course by the author at Saint Michael's College, this book has really got me thinking in terms of designing either a similar course on "Sex, Dating, and Spirituality," or perhaps having it as one major component of a "Faith and Contemporary Culture" course. I couldn't help but notice how my students last semester, while enjoying all or parts of my "Theology Through the Centuries" course, and reading the classic texts that made the bulk of that syllabus, were particularly involved in, or just plain excited by the reading of Joseph Ratzinger's/Pope Benedict XVI's Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures. The reason for this seemed to be because of the immediate, even practical, nature of the theological questions being discussed: suddenly they saw all the stuff we had been reading suddenly becoming important and useful in the shaping of contemporary culture, politics, worldviews, economics, and the like. So maybe a whole course that addressed contemporary issues of different sorts, or from different angles, but all rooted in theological discourse. It would have to be a course where the students had already been exposed to some of the Tradition and its sources, and had begun to learn to reason in such ways. But anyway, I'm thinkin'....

Author sees wide gap between college students' faith, campus culture

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Author Donna Freitas held her breath when her book, "Sex & the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America's College Campuses," was published this spring.

She was nervous that the book's frank discussion of the pervasiveness of casual sex on today's school campuses, Catholic colleges included, would not be warmly received by college leaders.

But while she was bracing herself "for the worst," as she put it, Freitas said she received an unexpected "outpouring of positive response" from people "who care deeply" about today's college students and who want to help them, including professors at Catholic colleges.

Freitas, a Catholic theologian and assistant professor of religion at Boston University, said she was encouraged not only by how "open and supportive people have been" but also by their willingness to "engage in positive conversation rather than run away" from an issue many might not want to discuss.

While Freitas was attending the Catholic Theological Society of America meeting June 5-8 in Miami, she said, several theology professors told her they plan to discuss her book in courses they are teaching this fall.

The author also has been contacted by countless parents asking her to recommend a college campus where the frequency of casual sex, or as she terms it, "hookup culture," is less prevalent.

In a recent telephone interview with Catholic News Service from her home in New York, Freitas said it's important for parents to talk to their children "way before college" about the type of school environment they might encounter.

Freitas started talking with college students about their views of sexual behavior and how these ideas or practices connected, or not, with their faith during a course she taught on dating several years ago at St. Michael's College, a Catholic college in Colchester, Vt.

In discussions with students she realized that many of them did not see how their faith had much to say about the issues they faced.

Freitas was determined to find out if this small group of students reflected a larger trend and that became the impetus for "Sex & the Soul," published by Oxford University Press.

Data for the book is based on responses from students at seven U.S. colleges and universities, a mix of public, private, evangelical and Catholic institutions. More than 2,500 students responded to an online survey and more than 100 students were interviewed by Freitas on how their faith helped them or failed to give them direction in sexual relationships.

The book, focusing on a variety of different student experiences, shows how today's students -- with the exception of some at evangelical schools -- were not unlike her initial sample group, because they similarly lacked the ability to make a connection between their religious traditions and modern-life issues such as sexuality.

She said her research and the dozens of presentations on college campuses she has given since she finished the book reveal that students feel "real pain and dissonance" between what they want and what they think is expected of them.

At campus presentations she repeatedly tries to drive the message home: "All of you think all of you love the hookup culture, but really all of you don't."

In other words, just because casual sex takes place on campus, it doesn't mean students have to be part of it.

She acknowledged that any effort to "shift the culture" seems overwhelming, but one way to start is to take the first step of actually talking about what happens after class hours on today's campuses, coupled with a discussion about what faith traditions have to say to modern challenges.

"People need to meet these students and hear what they're saying; they need to have this conversation," she said, noting that campus ministry leaders, teachers, administrators and parents need to get more involved in addressing issues college students are facing today.

Freitas' advice to parents includes suggesting questions they should ask during the routine college tour to get a more accurate picture of campus life. She said parents should not only ask about class sizes, sports programs and academics, but about the school's party atmosphere, campus-sponsored programs offered about religion and love, and ways the school addresses traditional hazing rituals.

"We have an opportunity to do something" about the environment on many campuses, she said, instead of pretending it doesn't exist.

But "we have to be willing to start with the messiness" of talking about the often taboo subjects of sex and spirituality, she said.
10th-Jul-2008 04:24 pm (UTC)
Interesting article.

I think the message of a Catholic Upbringing, i.e., "DON'T", is particularly unhelpful.

Here are messages I got about sexuality:

Don't touch yourself.
Don't touch others.
Just don't.
Look at priests, they don't!
Until you are married and then it will be awesome/spiritual/amazing/perfect you'll see if you just wait....
"Boys only want one thing, you have to be the gatekeeper," as if girls don't have desires....
"Birth control is evil and all you need to know is that it sometimes fails and doesn't protect you from icky diseases so if you have sex you'll get icky diseases and die and go to hell....", ie, abstinence education...


Especially in a culture where we don't get married even into our 30s....

I'm having a hard time finishing my thoughts on this, but this was a part of Catholic Teaching that didn't help me at all when my hormones were raging and I was in loooooooooooooooooooooove in a new place with new freedoms.

10th-Jul-2008 04:34 pm (UTC)
I agree....sounds like a bad approach. So, what is a good approach? What would have worked better?
10th-Jul-2008 04:44 pm (UTC)
Here's what my future children will grow up knowing:

  • Sex isn't evil, but it is powerful and like all powerful things it can hurt you if you have it with people who don't love you or when you don't love yourself.

  • Go ahead and touch yourself.

  • Here is all the medical information about how you can protect yourself and your partners against diseases and unwanted pregnancy.

  • Your church and your community and your parents want you to wait until marriage. But we also don't want you to marry the first person you are hot for at the age of 17, and the truth is that we, your parents, and your grandparents, and pretty much everyone ever wanted to have sex when they were teenagers, and we get it. We really do. While we want you to wait until marriage, the most important thing to us is that you take care of yourself and others and behave ethically and responsibly. Sexual exploration and desire is natural and human. Date people who treat you well and who respect you. Respect them in turn. Treat others as you want to be treated. Take care of each other's hearts.


  • Go ahead and be gay if that's what you are, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Gay people have existed from the beginning of time and you deserve all the good things that go with love.

    Edited at 2008-07-10 04:48 pm (UTC)
  • 10th-Jul-2008 04:50 pm (UTC)
    That kind of rules-based reasoning is definitely always weaker in itself. I certainly don't see anything like that in serious Catholic discussion, but certainly that might be the length and the breadth of what you would get in the generally poor catechesis I had growing up. What I find more compelling in discussion with students is when people get more psychological/social "functional" in their talk: the purpose of sexuality, not so much in the individual sense of pleasure as in the social sense of unifying people – that sex can build upon and reinforce love. What strikes me as freakish so far in reading this study is to see the extent of the reported despair among students in our campus "hookup culture" that sex can have anything to do with love. It's only increasingly perceived in terms of achieving a certain kind of social acceptance or status, with everyone feeling compelled to say how great partying is, but in private reporting how disappointing and how lonely it leaves them. It's more a situation of sex being reduced to pure instrumentality instead of being recognized to be intrinsically personal. In these interviews, rape isn't even being recognized as such once you reduce things to that sort of instrumentality: you just hear people (mostly women) reporting "well, at least I'm not alone...." It's so different from my own dating experience, where I can still be friends – with husbands even welcoming me – years later.
    10th-Jul-2008 04:32 pm (UTC)
    Interesing, I just printed out some articles by Janet Smith, another college professor who has focused much on this issue. There are numerous secular writers, as well, (e.g.Laura Sessions Stepp) who are concerned. (I am still trying to keep my youngest from embracing the culture on this.)

    Bloom bascially said it all when he referred to the analogy of the hive and the herd. In the ancient view, the hive was to be favored, whereby there was a division of labor and all working for the good of the whole, vs the modern view of the herd, where individuals occasionally leave the herd, fornicate ("hookup" in today's vernacular), and then return to the herd.

    Some of the blame goes back to the rejection by American theologians of Humanae Vitae, does it not? According to Smith, it could not even be discussed at most seminaries. Now, all of the consequences of what Pope Paul VI warned of have manifested themselves in spades.

    I think your idea of forming some sort of course on this would be great. No doubt it would be well received. Peter Kreeft has an excellent talk called "sex in heaven." I always thought college students would love to talk about that, as well.

    A little exposure to JPII's theology of the body would also, it seems, be a good part of such a course. Also philosophical outlooks on the meaning of love: Platonic, romantic, agape, tristian, etc.

    You could have a field day with it.
    10th-Jul-2008 04:55 pm (UTC)
    Eh, I've never found Humanae Vitae's argument to be sound or convincing. Interesting, but strong only in being circular, which isn't a strength at all, really. I wouldn't take that tack in following this line of argument: I'd be starting with Song of Songs spirituality. Some of those philosophical approaches you mention would be good for starting to build a new vocabulary, definitely....
    10th-Jul-2008 05:20 pm (UTC) - sound or convincing
    I did not either the first time I read it. But, it makes more sense now, though, I think that JPII's theology of the body provides a far broader and deeper explanation of the whole matter.

    Is is an extremely difficult area, one often full of deep emotion. And, the thinking is often very subtle. It is tough to grasp, perhaps because of our fallen nature? I do think, though, that it is at the very heart of who we are as persons.
    10th-Jul-2008 05:38 pm (UTC)
    BTW, Humanae Vitae (as you know) was merely re-affirming what was always the church's teaching. I think it is important to recognize that.
    10th-Jul-2008 04:53 pm (UTC)
    I wonder if the casual sex culture is more common in American universities than British because of the prevalence of self-contained (or nearly so) campuses in America?
    10th-Jul-2008 04:55 pm (UTC)
    Seriously? What's the difference Over There? I'd have thought we'd be pretty much alike....
    10th-Jul-2008 05:55 pm (UTC)
    I think the difference in dating culture will also affect it - over here it's distinctly unusual to be dating more than one person, so you probably get more unmarried pairs (and perhaps more 'one-night stands'?) whereas in the US there would be more dating around, and so possibly 'sleeping around' that falls between those two extremes.
    10th-Jul-2008 05:19 pm (UTC)
    Fascinating. Speaking as one who saw a multiplicity of feminisms collide in a women's college at the height of Britney Spears' reign, I'm not sure that there's a single solution. Though I'm inclined to promote anything that gets people to think about their choices rather than mindlessly follow *any* edict (whether from "good" institutional structures or "bad"). But then, I'm a contrarian and a hopeless idealist (and close to agreement with magdalene1, in broad strokes).

    The problem is that there's "bad catechesis" coming out of so many "sides" of the debate, rather than the sort of truly life and dignity-affirming thought and discussion that I like to think would go a long way. Sadly, too many authorities and partisans of all stripes are teaching young people (now you've got ME talking like an elder!) to reject essential parts of their humanity even as they all claim to be supporting "healthy choices" ("health" of course being a loaded term that few try to satisfyingly define before bandying it about). Sadly, one way or another, someone's going to accuse you of being "broken," "backward," "immature" -- regardless of the choice made. Which is why, while I don't regret my personal choices, I tend to veil them as No One's Business But Mine.

    Random aside: teaching where I do now, I'm fascinated by the sexually-active students I have who recoil at the bawdy, life-affirming humor of Tristram Shandy, which delights in the messy contradictions inherent in sex, love, death, and above all, humor. My future seminarian got the joke.
    10th-Jul-2008 05:50 pm (UTC)
    Oh, sure – certainly along the lines of magdalene1's bad experience, I never take my classes into a mode where I'm telling anyone what to do: that's just setting me or any instructor up for failure. As you say, to encourage a culture of thinking and talking seems a paramount goal. One thing I did tell my high school students when they would ask me questions about sexuality is "If you can't bring yourself to talk about it, you're not ready to doit." There's a reason we stand up in Church and announce we're going to jump into bed together – that public affirmation of taking responsibility for what you're doing, and of being ready to....
    11th-Jul-2008 09:33 pm (UTC)
    ..this is neither the respect for or empowering of women that I seem to remember being the goal of the feminisms of my student years nor the inheritance from any forms of chivalry

    I think I'm getting old. I wish I could frame my thoughts on this better but they lack rigour.. just that feminism seems to have become so much about absolute equality and homogeny rather than parity and respect.

    But "we have to be willing to start with the messiness" of talking about the often taboo subjects of sex and spirituality, she said.

    The stuff of life, not just college campuses.
    13th-Jul-2008 12:21 am (UTC) - Article on college students and sexuality.
    Man that sure caused a lot of discussion. Fascinating. As a long ago teacher of college human sexuality class and ever-present evangelical christian I found myself wanting to make much comment. But I think I'm going to read the book first.
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