The Magazine

Campus Confidential

Loving to learn, and learning to love, in America.

Dec 29, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 15 • By EVE TUSHNET
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Sex and the Soul

Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on
America's College Campuses

by Donna Freitas

Oxford, 328 pp., $24.95

Recently, Charles Murray and others have argued that too many people go to college. If enough parents read Donna Freitas's fascinating, flawed, and provocative new book, that problem will solve itself.

Freitas takes an in-depth look at the sexual and spiritual cultures of seven colleges-two Catholic, two evangelical, and three nonreligious-and paints a picture that should disturb even the most complacent chancellor or alumnus donor.

Freitas grouped the nonreligious and Catholic schools together as "spiritual" schools, because no religious ethos pervades or even chastens their students in the sexual realm. These are the schools of "hookup culture," where oral sex is less intimate than handholding and undergraduate women attend theme parties in which, no matter whether the men are "CEOs" or "Sports Pros," the coeds are always some variation of "ho." And interestingly, these are the schools where very bright students become incoherent or clichéd when asked to describe how their spirituality and their sexuality interact.

But Freitas doesn't spare the evangelical schools, either. She delineates the gossip culture common to both evangelical and "spiritual" schools-even though, for the evangelicals, such gossip ought to be as sinful as premarital sex. She gives poignant examples of the anxieties and confusion caused by the evangelical colleges' "senior scramble" for (in what's become a campus proverb) "ring by spring or your money back!"

Freitas is keenly aware of how the evangelical-college pressure to find a spouse by graduation falls most heavily on women. She notes that evangelical women do find ways to evade or subvert the passivity they're assumed to embody-even a Sadie Hawkins dance offers more diverse gender expression than these women's dating manuals and campus culture!-but she doesn't detail those methods, preferring to emphasize the fears and silences which make it hard for evangelical college women to date, and nearly impossible for them to understand how they might respond to a premarital sexual encounter.

Sex is treated as a marker of Extreme Sin in a way that many other sins aren't, Freitas argues, and this creates a campus culture of quiet neurosis, in which repentance and forgiveness are rarely modeled and therefore rarely practiced.

So far, maybe so obvious. But despite Freitas's obvious discomfort with ring-by-spring culture, it's hard not to think that the Catholic and nonreligious colleges come off even worse in her account.

At the "spiritual" colleges, the promise that sexual liberation would walk hand-in-hand with women's liberation has been effectively debunked. Students of both sexes long for romance, but since dating is so dated, their only path to romance is through anonymous hookups which leave them conflicted at best. Freitas argues that the hookup culture is maintained largely through embarrassed silence: Although most students don't feel great about it, they have no language for confronting it, and a great deal of shame over not being sufficiently good-time-girl or stud-guy about it, and so everyone assumes that hookup culture is as good as it gets.

Moreover, and perhaps more troubling even for anything-goes deans and college presidents, Freitas found that students at the "spiritual" colleges were shockingly inarticulate when they tried to grapple with the interaction of body and soul. The evangelical colleges at least produced students who could discuss sex, bring their intellects to bear on their impulses. The spiritual colleges produced students who fumbled and fell back on clichés.

The one area where "spiritual" colleges' students found their voices was in their rejection of any religious authority, especially or perhaps most emblematically the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Freitas several times describes evangelical students as "smug." But a similar air of self-satisfaction can be discerned in the "spiritual" students when they say things like, "I decided that it is perfectly plausible that people developed the idea of a Higher Being because of the fear of the unknown. .  .  . I think that a man like Gandhi or Jesus did not act virtuously because of a belief in a higher being, rather they were virtuous because that is the best thing to be."

Freitas portrays "spiritual" students as prone to exoticism, glib in regard to the traditions in which they were raised, intensely misogynist despite their best efforts, and-most poignantly-utterly tongue-tied when asked to connect sex and God.

Fortunately, Freitas is willing to give practical advice to both evangelical and "spiritual" colleges and their likely customer bases. She offers a series of questions with which parents, professors, and administrators might fruitfully challenge colleges of both stripes.

Her fundamental position is in favor of intellect, in favor of open discussion, in favor of explicitly and rigorously connecting the spiritual and sexual realms. Anyone with any interest in mentoring young people should read this book and its recommendations, because there's great hope and wisdom in them.

Perhaps her greatest fault in Sex and the Soul is that Freitas doesn't bother to articulate her own sexual and spiritual ethos. She assumes a standard of sexual "health" which seems to mean something like "ability to find meaning in one's sexual choices, whether that means sex in a loving and demi-committed relationship or whether that means no sex 'til marriage."

This is really not up to any standard of intellectual rigor, and it's sad to find it at the heart of a book otherwise so passionately in favor of the body, the mind, and the soul. How I feel is conditioned in large part by my society and its messages-the very thing Freitas wishes to combat. It's conditioned in large part by my biology, by wishful thinking, and by pride.

The culture of "committed relationships"-as journalist and recent graduate Helen Rittelmeyer puts it, "Like marriage, only smaller"-seems more like an underspiced, self-comforting mix of these influences than a sign of spiritual depth.

In his introduction to The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis described two kinds of religion: the apprehension of the Numinous-the fear and awe of the sublime-and the following of a moral code. And he noted how bizarre it was that Judaism and Christianity had brought the two together:

We desire nothing less than to see that Law whose naked authority is already unsupportable armed with the incalculable claims of the Numinous. Of all the jumps that humanity takes in its religious history this is certainly the most surprising. It is not unnatural that many sections of the human race refused it; non-moral religion, and non-religious morality, existed and still exist.

In Freitas's "spiritual" interviewees, the numinous and the moral have re-separated, to the benefit of few. In her evangelical interviewees, the moral may crowd out the numinous. Getting these two elements back together would be the most intellectually stimulating "hookup" of them all.

Eve Tushnet, a writer in Washington, blogs at eve-tushnet.blogspot.com.