Loving to learn, and learning to love, in America.
Dec 29, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 15 • By EVE TUSHNET
Sex and the Soul
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."