I just finished reading Sex and the Soul by Donna Freitas.
My time in higher education has left me indelibly interested in the lives of young adults and the process they follow as they leave the nest and transition to adulthood. Now, as a youth group leader (again) and more importantly, as a mom, I have some very good reasons to stay on top of a subject that so definitively shapes us as human beings.
Freitas does a great job of getting a lot of information. She conducted broad surveys at different schools and then did interviews with a percentage of each of the surveyed students. Her surveys and interviews were done at a variety of schools: public, private secular, Catholic, and evangelical Christian. Her observations are troubling and she soundly chastises those in higher education (faculty and administration) at what she calls “spiritual” schools (which includes everything but the evangelical Christian schools) for failing to help students process the role of faith in their sex lives. She points to abysmal failure among Catholic educators, parents and clergy. The majority of the Catholic students interviewed weren’t sure what the Catholic church taught about sex, but were pretty sure it was irrelevant to their lives.
She hits hard the “hookup” culture and discovers that most students are not happy with it, find it deeply unfulfilling, and yet don’t see any alternative to finding relationships. She is deeply disturbed by the male-dominated campus culture where parties typically involve females dressing up (or undressing) to play roles of cheerleaders, secretaries, barmaids to the males executives and power figures and performing sexual acts on them with no benefit to themselves.
Freitas early on reveals the difference in culture between the evangelical schools and all the others. She states that at the “spiritual” (a completely misleading term for me) colleges, it is assumed you are having sex unless you state otherwise. At the evangelical colleges, it was assumed you were not having sex unless you specify differently. She is positive about aspects of this sexual ethic at evangelical schools but has concerns about other aspects.
In particular, she finds the standards for evangelical students unrealistic. She thinks the pressure of marriage weighs too heavily. Women feel a tremendous burden to graduate with at least an engagement ring. Males are afraid to date because of the weight these serious expectations place on them. Her statistics also find that a third of these students are having sex, but it is guilty sex. They are full of shame and often don’t feel they have anyone they can talk to as they work through their feelings.
I tend to agree with her partly. I think there is often an unrealistic pressure on Christian women to find a spouse, or rather to “be found.” A Christian sexual ethic and a culture that says that sex is the highest thing and must be experienced war with each other and create a nearly impossible tension. And because most students at Christian evangelical colleges also have a Christian view of marriage, the stakes are high. The guys should feel tremendous pressure to make the “right” choice and I don’t blame them for not wanting to go on a date with a girl when so much rides on every move. (And this pressure begins at 18 or 19 or even sooner.)
I differ from Freitas in a couple of areas. One is that I think she overlooks that many females are in the same boat as the guys, concerned they will make the wrong choice or that their chastity will come under fire if they aren’t careful. I know just as many women who are/were terrified of dating and relationships, as I do men. (I was one of them.) And one thing I’ve seen is that women unfairly bear the burden of maintaining chastity in a relationship. My experiences with Christian colleges led to a concern that women are blamed for lust in men, to the point of stupidity. This has contributed to the false idea among many women that they won’t like sex and that it will be something they must endure in order to be in a relationship.
Freitas initially thought little of the term “born again virgin.” Then she met one young woman who changed her mind. The woman described herself in this way and Freitas shot back with “How long did it take you to regain that virginity?” The girl replied that while she was completely aware that she could never have it back in the physical, it had taken a year and a half for her to regain it in the spiritual. What she had that many of the evangelicals filled with remorse did not, was a mentor, a woman just older than her who worked with her and prayed with her as she struggled. This woman was now mentoring a lot of other women who felt they could be honest and get sound counsel from her because of her past. Freitas noted that many of the evangelicals were isolated from positive counselors and were so guilt-ridden that they had (or were) walking away from their faith.
Freitas concludes with telling the “spiritual” schools that they should learn from the connections that are made between faith and sexuality at Christian schools. She noted positively that faculty and administrators offered themselves as role models for students and that evangelical Protestants are not in doubt of what their faith says about sex. In fact, Freitas commends them for knowing that there is a “right” and a “wrong” and for drawing those distinctions.
Then, she loses me. She turns around and tells the Christian colleges that they should learn from the “spiritual” schools that everyone deserves to have a loving and fulfilled sexual relationship and blasts them for their understanding of faith’s authority over sexual behaviour and an understanding of right and wrong that she just commended them for. Sadly, Freitas is okay with notions of right and wrong when it means protecting women from being used; but she isn’t ok with saying that our faith, and our notion of a Creator with an intentional design means that some of us (unmarried, homosexual) can’t have sex. And in so doing, I wonder if she really doesn’t see that it is possible to lead productive and happy lives without it.
In the end, I have to say that Lauren Winner (who wrote the foreword) has a lot more to say, particularly to Christ-followers. But at least Donna Freitas has started the discussion. And maybe some academics will listen to her.