Saturday, June 4, 2011

Sex, BU, and the Soul

I arrived on Boston University's campus in August of 2008 a depressed and disillusioned eighteen-year-old underwhelmed by the idea of going to college. The past year of my life had seen so many tragic twists and turns, romantic and otherwise, that I was veritably tired of feeling. Still in the clutches of a long-term, long-distance relationship with the pressure for it to become life-long, I had neither the time, the energy, or the inclination to participate in the party-scene. As I emerged from my shell-shocked state into the world again, the inclination never returned. Thus, in my three years of college party experience consists of one benign frat party, a couple of dry club outings, and two counts of being tipsy.

As I read Donna Freitas' book Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America's College Campuses, I found myself reacting almost as a shocked parent might to her descriptions of the seemingly ubiquitous "hook-up culture." Of course, I am not so sheltered or naive to have been unaware of this culture, but hearing stories of your friends' night out in a social setting is one thing, and students honestly and openly talking about their sexual and social regrets in private is another.

Freitas, a Boston University professor, conducted both online surveys and in-depth personal interviews with college students across the nation who attended a wide variety of schools, public and private, religious and secular. After Freitas conducted her research she divided the schools into two broad categories: spiritual colleges, which included both secular and catholic schools; and religious schools, the evangelical colleges. What emerged from her interviews with students from both types of schools was two systems for dealing with sexuality and the soul, both flawed, skewed, and often painful for those involved.

In her exploration of sexuality in evangelical christian schools Freitas uncovered a culture in which chastity is the ultimate marker of social status and religious purity. Most evangelical students come from strict evangelical backgrounds in which they are taught that sex before marriage is the apogee of sin. Men and women are taught to do battle against their sexual nature, sometimes not even kissing before they are married. Most of the pressure to protect a couple's purity falls on the christian woman. Many of the female students that Freitas interviewed had fantasies of giving their virginity as a gift to their husbands on their wedding night, an image I found strangely disturbing. In many cases this attitude on dating and sexuality led to early marriage, in most evangelical college students described a senior scramble to find a spouse before graduation.

Those that reach marriage with their virginity intact are revered as purity "princesses" or "warriors", those that partake in sexual activity before taking their vows face regret, and social opprobrium. Such is the stigma of premarital sex, that many students are afraid to openly share their feelings and remorse with their peers, professors, counselors, and religious leaders. Despair and shame are faced alone, without guidance.

The view of sexuality in secular and some catholic schools is widely disparate. The campus party scene is hyper-sexualized, represented by popular theme parties with names like "CEOs and Office Hos." Women, sparked by the media's portrayal of sex, are taught to cater to men's raunchy fantasies, using their bodies as poker chips in a high stakes game for potential intimacy. Many of the women Freitas interviewed portrayed casual sexual activity as the only way to a long-term relationship. One student likened sex with a stranger to getting to know someone before spending time and resources on a date. Students at these schools tend to completely separate God and sexuality, viewing sex as a requisite of the college experience and reacting against religious mores against lust.

Which brings me to our own Boston University. BU is amazingly diverse; multiple realities exist on our mile-long campus. My experience at Boston University is very different from the perspectives of many of the students Freitas interviewed. During my three years of college, I have been in one long term relationship and am in the process of committing to another. I have friends and acquaintances who range across the board in terms of romantic situations. Some are celibate, some single and part of the hook-up scene. I know people who are still dating their high-school sweethearts, and others who met their partners in college.

Many of us came to BU for its diversity. We hoped to learn from those who think and act differently than we do. Why then, does Donna Freitas write of a lack of communication about sex and religion on secular college campuses? Why is sex a taboo on our campus? Freitas calls for open conversation on sexuality and religion. I second her motion. We can learn so much from each other. Why don't we start?

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