Sunday, January 22, 2012

Relationships (Part 4) - A Sexual Snapshot of Campus Life: Donna Freitas’ Sex and the Soul

It has been a few years since I lived in the dorms. So I always question whether my perceptions of campus life, acquired over a decade ago at a small, academically rigorous school in western NY still calibrate. In particular, I wondered if my perceptions of the sexual [1] social contracts that dictate campus life comport with my assumptions. But how would you even test something like that.

Fortunately it has been done for me.

Donna Freitas collected 2,500 narrative surveys from seven different campuses and conducted 111 in depth follow up interviews. Results were reported in the very readable Sex and the Soul.

In particular, I wanted to leverage these data to test two hypotheses I had about the sexual landscape of most college campuses, namely:

1. Students are not finding hookup culture fulfilling. And
2. There is much less sex going on than most students think there is.

The research weighed in definitively on both of these hypotheses and then provided two, unanticipated insights, that I thought were worth sharing

Hypothesis 1: Students are not finding hookup culture fulfilling.

This may have been the overwhelming finding of Freitas research. Many women feel trapped in the hookup culture and a surprising number of men, admitted that they wish it was substantially different.

“In public, women maintain a lax attitude about no-strings-attached hookups, but in private, they express ambivalence and even dismay that they allow themselves to be pressure into sexual behaviors that often make them feel used an unhappy.” 99

“When pressed, few students express a desire to hook up randomly on a regular basis – though most accept that hookups are the most likely way to find a long-term romantic partner…and even greater number wish for more respect and awe about sex from their peers.” 156 [2]

Hypothesis 2: There is much less sex going on than most students think there is.

There is this perception that college is the place where everyone has their best and most frequent sex of their lives, and the college years are a scramble to have those experiences before you reluctantly capitulate to the dull sexlessness of marriage. But the people I knew who were actively seeking out sex in college, weren’t doing a whole lot better at having sex than my celibate friends and I were. I’ve always kind of believed that there is a whole lot less sex going on then everyone thinks there is. Freitas’ research confirmed this hypothesis as well. Apart from a couple ‘alpha-males’ it seems most people think that everyone else is having all the great and frequent sex.

“Students typically perceive hooking up as a social norm at college, even if their personal ‘numbers’ are rather low.” 14

Most students admitted to hooking up (a term with semantic range that may or may not involve intercourse) once or twice a semester.

I have this theory about why the sex-ratios in campus ministries (like the one I serve in) are so unbalanced (i.e. there are way more women than men). It is an economic argument (like Starks’ explanation of sex-imbalance in the Church in the Roman empire). The idea is that men are the power players in the economics of college sex. Therefore, in the (relatively) chaste Christian culture, women can find refuge from this kind of degrading objectification…but the cost is simply too high for the men. But, if it is true that most students are hooking up a couple times a quarter, then what are guys really ‘giving up’ by forgoing ‘the college experience’. 8-16 sexual encounters – many of which are just making out or oral sex (which Freitas includes in the definition of ‘hooking up’). So, intercourse with 4-10 women (and according to Freitas statistics, about half will be sober)? You are going to trade in on the experience of robust Christian community for that? Considering that in the first 10 years of a good marriage you will have sex >1000 times that seems like a regrettable exchange.

In addition to weighing in on these two hypotheses I held but did not have the resources to test, this research provided two surprising conclusions that I had never formed hypotheses about.

Unexpected Conclusion 1: Students don’t date any more.

Freitas concluded that the normative path to becoming a couple is a hookup that becomes a regular hookup where mutual feelings develop and then is labeled a ‘couple’.

“The hook up has replaced the first date” 217

“Claudia informs me about what to her is an obvious fact: dating is simply not an option at her school. “I’ve never gone on a date here…I don’t feel like people date anymore.” ‘the date’ is spoken of as a mythical artifact of a bygone era…some students didn’t even know what to make of it “I think girls want to go on dates, I really do…my friends and I have talked about this before. I really want to go on a date to see what it is like…it seems like such an odd idea in our head just because we don’t do that.” 136-7 [3]

“most relationships seem to begin as hookups. How else are relationships to begin if students are largely unacquainted with what they see as the quaint, old-fashioned practice of dating? Numerous students I interviewed said it was almost unheard of for one person to ask another out on anything approaching a traditional date…romantic encounters…typically happened after multiple hookups and the decision to become a couple. Dates just aren’t a common way into a relationship. Students don’t see many avenues into committed romantic relationships apart from hooking up.” 139

And the death of dating is particularly surprising given the second unexpected conclusion:

Unexpected Conclusion 2: Romance is Chaste

Freitas asked the surveyed students to describe their most romantic encounter. She reported that 79% of the students included ‘no more than kissing’ in their report of their most romantic memory [4] and over half didn’t even include kissing.

All students regardless of institution, religion or orientation, describe romance in decidedly non-sexual terms. “Romance, to them is chaste…Hardly ever did a student story about romance include any suggestion of sexual intimacy. At all the participating colleges and universities, women and men alike, regardless of religious affiliation, tended to disassociate romance from sexual intimacy.” 107


[1] Note: There is a lot more sexual content in these posts that there will be in my talk. I cut most of it. There will be very little sexual content in my talk.
[2] However, while most students indicate dissatisfaction with campus sexual culture ‘and they disassociate themselves from the problems that are creating it.” 158
[3] Lauren Winner reports that “Groups such as the Independent Women’s Fourm have taken out ads in college newspapers calling for students to ‘Take Back the Date.”
[4] For a few, where sex was involved, several reported that it was romantic because drugs and alcohol weren’t.

1 comment:

Jansen said...

RE footnote 4 - Ouch!