Let’s Have (a) Sex (Talk)

MARCH 2012: REVIEW

by Theresa Latini

Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses
Donna Freitas
Oxford University Press, 2008 (paperback 2010)
$16.95 335 pages.

Editors’ note: This month’s review is the second in a set focusing on recent books we believe are essential reading for those who work with young people. In a forthcoming issue, we will also be reviewing Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood by Christian Smith et al.

S. E. X. Whether they are having a lot of it or not (and most of them are), young adults want to talk about sex. They want to make sense somehow of the mixed messages, double standards, and dizzying pressures that they feel to have sex and not to have sex, to be a virgin and not to be a virgin, to be sexy but not too sexy. CoverEven more so, they crave the opportunity to explore the meaning and spirituality of sex. This is the best news in Donna Freitas’s book, Sex and the Soul: college students long for a different kind of sex talk—the kind that contributes to their own wholeness and integration; the kind that their families, churches, and universities fail to provide.

Freitas—who teaches religion at Hofstra University and also writes young-adult novels—has carried out the most extensive empirical research to date of college students’ sexual practices, sexual ethics, sexual confusion, and sexual heartache. Most importantly, her research illuminates the complete inability of these young adults to connect their sexuality and their spirituality in any coherent, meaningful way. Sex and the Soul is the outcome of 1000 extensive surveys, 111 face-to-face interviews, and the collection of 111 journals in which students from seven universities share their thoughts, hopes, and experiences of sexuality, romance, and God. As such, this book is an unequivocal must-read for church leaders, college and seminary professors, and parents.

One of Freitas’s most basic findings serves as an organizing principle throughout the book: college students’ experiences of and attitudes toward sex and religion largely depend upon whether they are “evangelicals” or “spirituals.” Students at Catholic universities and public universities, classified as “spirituals,” largely reject institutionalized religion. They long for life-giving connection to others, self, and sometimes God. Yet they are spiritually alone and without supervision, i.e., lacking input from authority figures or mentors. They live in a hook-up culture that idolizes sexual experience. In contrast, evangelicals follow a clearly (though rigidly) defined sexual code, and engage in public dialogue about a fairly uniform set of religious beliefs and values. These students live in a purity culture that idolizes virginity and marriage between a man and a woman.

In spite of these differences, both evangelicals and spirituals experience significant anxiety and shame about sex. They divorce love and romance from sexual behavior. They do not discuss sexuality and spirituality in healthy, integrated ways. Thus Freitas concludes, “The difficulty of reconciling sex and the soul is acute at evangelical and spiritual colleges alike.”

One of the most distressing and recurring themes in Sex and the Soul, which cries out for theological reflection and action, is the presence of blatant sexism, patriarchy, and abuse of women in both evangelical and spiritual colleges. The evangelical purity culture renders women passive in relationship to God, their fathers, and their husbands. These men guard women vigilantly so that they can present themselves as sexually pure on their wedding day. A woman’s virginity functions like a dowry.

The hook-up culture of spiritual colleges, on the other hand, objectifies women as dispensers of sexual gratification. College theme parties reenact pornographic scenarios in which women are scantily clothed as secretaries, maids, ho’s, and schoolgirls. Little do they know that they have been categorized by their male peers as yes girls, dirty girls, members of the ho train, or girls with a V card. Like evangelical women, they demonstrate virtually no conscious awareness of male domination in their lives. And where there is domination, sexual assault lurks nearby. Freitas presents this strongly substantiated conclusion: “Perhaps most unsettling is how the sexualization of young women seems to be desensitizing college students to sexual assault. Many young women who have been the victims of nonconsensual sexual violations talk of these events without any awareness that they were assaulted.”

To Freitas’s credit, she resists the temptation to label the evangelical purity culture or the hook-up culture as better or worse in comparison to the other. Instead, her book functions largely at the descriptive level, answering the question: What is going on in college students’ experience of sexuality and spirituality? Her interpretations emerge directly from empirical evidence. While certain normative values shape her entire research project, these principles are quite refreshing: spirituality and sexuality are inextricable; educators (and, by extension, church leaders) ought to cultivate students’ capacities to critically and meaningfully reflect on sexuality; women ought to be treated with dignity, respect, and full equality; and educational institutions are responsible for holistic (intellectual, emotional, spiritual, sexual) formation and integration in students’ lives.

Beautifully and poignantly written, Sex and the Soul won’t provide easy answers, quick fixes, or affirmations of a reader’s predetermined sexual ethic. However, the book evokes compassion for the plight of young adults, urges readers toward deeper and more nuanced theological reflections on sexuality and spirituality, and inspires engagement in a new kind of sex talk in families, churches, and classrooms.

Theresa F. Latini teaches congregational and community care leadership at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is parish associate at Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church. She is a member of the Perspectives board of editors.