Sex Education

DONNA FREITAS

In the next three weeks or so, most college-bound high-school seniors and their families will be deciding which institution of higher education should receive their tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars.

Parents might want to ask themselves these questions: Do you know whether your daughter will be encouraged by her future peers to role-play a whore at parties at the college of her choice? Or if your son will regularly play a pimp? Did you miss that part of the campus tour?

Would today's college kids rather date the old-fashioned way?

Now, in addition to all of the other coarse behavior on college campuses, students can look forward to parties with themes like "CEOs & Office Hos," "Golf Pros & Tennis Hos" and "Millionaires & Maids" at schools around the country. I'd be surprised if students haven't already added Politicians & Prostitutes to their list of weekend possibilities, with the Eliot Spitzer scandal fresh on their minds.

Oddly, though, it seems that this atmosphere does not reflect what most students would like to see on campus. And many are even unhappy with their own behavior when it comes to dating, romance and sex.

After conducting a national college survey of over 2,500 students, I found that among those who reported "hooking up" — a range of sexually intimate acts, from kissing to intercourse, that occur outside a committed relationship — at Catholic and nonreligious private and public colleges and universities, 41% are profoundly upset about their behavior. The 22% of respondents who chose to describe a hook-up experience (the question was optional) used words like "dirty," "used," "regretful," "empty," "miserable," "disgusted," "ashamed," "duped" and "abused" in their answers. An additional 23% expressed ambivalence about hooking up, and the remaining 36% were more or less "fine" with it. And 45% of students at Catholic and 36% at nonreligious private and public schools say that their peers are too casual about sex. Not a single person at these schools said that their peers valued saving sex for marriage, and only 7% said that they felt that their friends wanted to reserve sex for committed, loving relationships.

When last semester I taught Wendy Shalit's A Return to Modesty, in a class at Boston University called "Spirituality & Sexuality in American Youth Culture," I assumed that my mostly left-leaning students would reject her arguments about the terrible effects that the hook-up culture has on young women and the positive effects of traditional religion and morality on young women's well-being. Instead, my students ate up her critique and were fascinated by her descriptions of modesty as a virtue, especially within the context of faith. One student said that she felt empowered to stop tolerating vulgar remarks about sex made by peers in her presence.


I assumed that my mostly left-leaning students would reject her arguments about the terrible effects that the hook-up culture has on young women and the positive effects of traditional religion and morality on young women's well-being. Instead, my students ate up her critique and were fascinated by her descriptions of modesty as a virtue, especially within the context of faith.


The class was equally attracted to some evangelical dating manuals, like I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris and Real Sex by Lauren Winner, that I asked them to read. They seemed shocked that somewhere in America there are entire communities of people their age who really do "save themselves" until marriage, who engage in old-fashioned dating with flowers and dinner and maybe a kiss goodnight. They reacted as if these authors describe a wonderful fantasy land. "It would be easier just to have sex with someone than ask them out on a real date," one student said, half-seriously.

Interestingly, most of the study respondents do identify with religious traditions that have rules about sexuality. But, with the exception of evangelicals, American college students see almost no connection between their religious beliefs and their sexual behavior. This radical separation of religion and sex tells us important things not only about the power of the college hookup culture but also about the weakness of religious traditions in the face of it. Perhaps the various church leaders would be interested to know that their young people are longing for the kinds of guidelines and rituals for dating that religion can offer. It might make them more willing to actually explain church teachings on sex and engage the students in honest discussions about how to foster healthy, fulfilling romantic relationships.

The overwhelming majority of students interviewed in my study (78%) saw romance as virtually asexual. They listed "just talking" and "talking for hours," often alongside some star-gazing, watching the sunset, or maybe a long walk. It's no wonder, then, that college students fantasize about the restraints that certain models of religious identity place on sex and dating. These models tend to be chaste to the extreme — first kiss at the altar for some.

The question remains, though, why students who feel bad about hooking up, who wish their peers would act less casual about sex and who dream of living with at least some restrictions on their sexual relationships then choose to act as they do. The answer lies in community. Most campuses do not provide an environment where acting on romantic desires, rather than sexual ones, is feasible. It takes a village to set standards for dating.

So, parents, you may have done an excellent job raising your kids with good morals, strong boundaries and high expectations when it comes to romance and sex, but it would take an 18-year-old of superhuman strength to stand up to the pressures of most college environments. In other words, find out about the dating lives and party habits of students at your child's dream school, or whether hooking up has replaced dating altogether. As students told me time and time again, romantic relationships — the good, the bad and the ugly — can make or break the college experience. Before you mail that check, do your research.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Donna Freitas. "Sex Education." The Wall Street Journal (April 4, 2008): W11.

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

THE AUTHOR

Donna Freitas is Assistant Professor of Religion at Boston University. Freitas is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance & Religion on America's College Campuses. She can be contacted directly through her website at www.donnafreitas.com.

Copyright © 2008 Wall Street Journal



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