Sunday, August 10, 2008

Book Review: Sex and the Soul

Freitas, Donna. Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

“Hooking up’s defining characteristic is the ability to unhook from a partner at any time,” declares Laura Sessions Stepp in her 2007 book Unhooked. Sessions Stepp, a Washington Post reporter who often writes about youth trends, goes on to define hooking up in terms of detachment: it can range from a single kiss to intercourse; occur in public or in private; involve close friends or complete strangers; and spark a relationship or simply be the relationship in itself. The practice of hooking up among high school and college students certainly isn’t new, but Unhooked was the first book-length study devoted to hook-up culture.

Mainstream media quickly picked up on Sessions Stepp’s argument that hooking up was detrimental to young women. Yet her work fails to justify such attention. Though there are references to several scientific studies, she profiles just nine girls, all of them from similar economic and geographic backgrounds. Equally as limiting is her tone, which at points is unnecessarily scolding to young women. As Rob Horning wrote about Unhooked last year, “[W]hatever young women choose to do sexually needn’t be pathologized automatically; it seems that the search for explanations for whatever sexual behavior a woman exhibits is ultimately an attempt to wrest it from her.”

This is why Donna Freitas’ new study Sex and the Soul is a welcome arrival. Freitas shares many of Sessions Stepps’ concerns, and finds that hookups often do not help college students “discover the thrill of sexual desire or romantic passion, of falling madly in love and expressing this love sexually.” What’s different is that she maintains a consistently feminist stance by contending that it requires a community effort for students to have a healthy sexual environment. Freitas also presents an impressive amount of qualitative evidence in exploring how hookup culture affects both young men and women on college campuses.

Indeed, methodology—presented within clear and concise writing—is the heart of Sex and the Soul. Freitas’ research questions involve whether religion and spirituality might help bring about positive changes for campus culture. Over 2,500 students at seven different institutions took part in her online survey about “sexual experiences and religious and spiritual commitments.” From that group, she interviewed more than one hundred students, and their responses comprise much of the book’s content. There’s little to criticize here; the schools range from small evangelical colleges to large public universities, and the distribution of students by gender, race, and sexual orientation is fairly diverse.

While the results of Freitas’ investigation “defy easy summary” (in the words of foreword author Lauren Winner), there is plenty to consider. The two main categories of difference that ultimately emerge are “evangelical” and “spiritual.” At evangelical colleges, students share a public faith, and mostly view sex and religion as “inseparable” from each other. Conversely, those at Catholic and other private and public institutions tend to be more privately spiritual than openly religious, and tend to keep their sex lives and spirituality separate from each other. Evangelical schools promote a culture of sexual purity and chastity, while hookup culture has a strong presence at “spiritual” schools.

These categories appear to be a bit too binary at first, but Freitas observes common traits and nuances between them. Many of the self-identified spiritual students that she interviews express unhappiness with how hooking up makes them feel about sex and romance. In fact, spiritual students, much like evangelical students, largely define romance as being free of sexual intimacy. Yet the same problem exists with purity culture as well. As Freitas writes, “The depth and intensity of…stress and anxiety around sex, sin, and shame among [evangelical] students are hard to overstate.” The only real exception is LGBT students, who instead face the “more basic” question of “what it means to be a sexual being with a minority sexual orientation.” Ultimately, no group is getting what it really wants.

What causes this discomfort, regardless of whether one is spiritual or religious? Freitas identifies peer pressure as a major factor. At spiritual schools, even though students say they want romance, they have perpetuated the practice of hooking up to the point where “the first hookup seems to have replaced the first date.” And there is a great deal of sexism involved in this change, for the language and activities of hooking up often emphasize male pleasure and female subservience. By stressing abstinence outside of marriage, purity culture also lapses into misogyny; men become the pursuers when it comes to relationships, while women—who face more pressure to remain virginal—become the pursued.

Yet the rigid gender roles of purity culture point to an additional factor—namely, that college campuses themselves are also responsible for the state of things. For example, evangelical students aren’t the ones who create strict rules and guidelines on their campus that often result in resentment and mistrust. And when spiritual colleges emphasize personal freedom over a specific value system, then there shouldn’t be much surprise when some students end up floundering. In this regard, Freitas thinks that evangelical schools have a slightly healthier model that their spiritual counterparts. Nevertheless, she thinks that both types of colleges can do better in helping students achieve a healthier connection between sex and the soul.

So what, then, are some plausible solutions to counteracting hookup culture? Unfortunately, this is where Freitas’ analysis lags a bit. It’s understandable that she criticizes the lack of overarching values systems at spiritual colleges. But how do those colleges address that problem when they face increasing competition from new educational providers? If anything, they will likely default more to a type of “pluralism as its own value” model as a means of attracting applicants. Or—to pose another question—are there historical examples for colleges to follow that would allow them to remain pluralistic and promote a plausible set of values for their student bodies?

Similar questions arise regarding evangelical colleges. In her conclusion, Freitas presents Lauren Winner’s work as a positive alternative to the sexism of purity culture. And it’s true that Winner’s 2005 book Real Sex sharply critiques some of the more egregiously false claims that purity culture has embraced. Yet her study also presents a quite orthodox approach to Christian sexual ethics, where any sex outside of heterosexual marriage is sinful. The point is that even if the values systems and community-based approach of evangelical campuses are admirable, will they really allow students more wiggle room when it comes to sexual propriety? It’s highly doubtful. The point is that as unique as evangelical approaches are, their particular religious grounding simply doesn’t translate well to other colleges.

But Freitas does present a quite reasonable solution at the end of Sex and the Soul—a small guide for parents, counselors, and other adults as a means of staying attuned to students’ concerns about sex, religion, and spirituality. This suggests that while it will take more consideration to develop system-level solutions to hookup (and purity) culture, there are approaches on an individual level that can make a difference. And it’s important to remember that she does best at critiquing the disjunction between students’ sex lives and their spiritual awareness. Thanks to her host of statistics, interviews, and analysis, any future research on this topic will have to start with her work.

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