What happens when religious beliefs confront the so-called “hook-up culture” – the pervasiveness of casual sex – on college campuses?
New book by Donna Freitas.
Boston University Professor Donna Freitas explores this culture clash in her new book, “Sex and the Soul.” Among Freitas’ findings:
• Many campuses are dominated by the hook-up culture of casual sex;
• A surprising number of students see little connection between sex and religion;
• Catholic schools suffer from these same problems. Only at evangelical colleges is religion an important factor when deciding whether or not to engage in sex;
• In general, students are not comfortable with the prevalence of casual sex, and they want religion to speak about what they should do and who they should try to be -- not just what they should avoid doing.
“Hook-up culture” first came to off-campus attention in Tom Wolfe’s 2004 novel, “I Am Charlotte Simmons.” In the book, Charlotte, a first-year student at the fictional Dupont University, complains about living with a promiscuous roommate in a promiscuous school: “She leads a wanton sex life! The whole place does! Girls sexile each other! Rich girls with fifteen hundred SAT's cry out, 'I need some [sexual activity]!' 'I'm gonna go out and get [it]!'… What am I to do . . .”
Charlotte could have been describing the reality faced by Jackie, a 21-year old senior at The George Washington University. “Random hook-ups are expected and accepted behavior, and many times preferred over real relationships,” says Jackie, who describes herself as a liberal Jew. “[Hook-ups enable students] to see other people, satisfy their needs, and still maintain their independent life. It’s hard to balance [romantic] relationships with your single friends who still enjoy random hook-ups.”
Jackie speaks from experience. As a college freshman, and virgin, she was eager to explore her identity without parental interference. Admittedly, she would go to parties, drink alcohol and flirt with boys. But she maintained the personal conviction that premarital sex was not for her. Then, she met her boyfriend.
“I believe that love changes things…” she now says. “When you love someone, sex can be a beautiful thing, and something many people believe is necessary before tying the knot.”
A 2006 survey of U.S. teens by the Guttmacher Institute found that more than half (6 in 10) of 18-year-old women and 5 in 10 18-year-old males were sexually active. It also found that American teens are “more likely” than their European peers to engage in intercourse before age 15 and to experience “shorter and more sporadic sexual relationships.” Brief sexual encounters have become more prevalent, or at least socially acceptable, among teens and young adults.
The pregnancy of 16-year-old Nickelodeon star Jamie Lynn Spears and the alleged “pregnancy pact” among students at a Massachusetts high school provide high-profile illustrations of this increased sexual activity among teens. In response, a number of faith-based organizations have introduced abstinence programming for young people, including Negiah.org, designed by Rabbi Jack Abramowitz for the Orthodox Union’s youth movement.
Hooking-up is a rising trend on college campuses.
Rachel, a 23-year old program associate for another national Jewish youth organization, works with 11 to 18 year olds and says that young people are experimenting with sex at an early age. “So, by the time they get to college, they believe sex is a meaningless act,” she explains.
“We want young Jewish teens to date, to kiss, to have awkward sexual encounters with their clothes on,” Rachel says. “We do not want them having sex. We do not want them going to a place that is beyond their maturity.”
At the college level, Hillel professionals provide a Jewish perspective on sexuality to students on hundreds of campuses around the world. Rabbi Saul Perlmutter, the executive director of University of Massachusetts, Amherst Hillel, has led discussion groups with Jewish students on campus, including members of the Sigma Delta Tau sorority. He says the local SDT chapter invited him to speak specifically on sex and Judaism. What was scheduled as a 45-minute conversation lasted an hour and a half. Following a Hillel Shabbat dinner, Perlmutter engaged a co-ed audience on the same topic.
“Students commonly ask about homosexual relationships and birth control,” he says. “When they come to the program, they’ve already made up their minds about premarital sex. They are either having it or they are not.”
Perlmutter stresses that decisions about sex should be viewed in the context of the relationship and he hopes open discussion with a clergy member will help students find a meaning in Judaism as it relates to sex. Rabbi Sharon Stiefel, associate director at University of Minnesota Hillel, concurs.
“If people are to have premarital sex relations they should be conducted with the highest ethical principles,” says Stiefel. “A student once explained to me [the hook-up concept known as] ‘friends with privileges’ and I don't see that as a healthy relationship. I would hope that there was an intimacy between people [who are sexually] involved of the utmost ideals.”
Stiefel stresses that sexual relations, premarital or otherwise, should always be conducted at the proper time, in the proper context. What is the proper time and context?
“The committed loving relationships are on the top of the scale and rape is on the bottom. Everything else is in between,” says Stiefel.
University of Minnesota Hillel has encouraged open dialogue on the topic including inviting Scott Fried, who is Jewish, gay and HIV-positive, to speak with students. Stiefel admits it can be challenging to hold one view in a pluralistic Jewish organization.
“I see our role at Hillel to do both: teach traditional Judaism, the value of abstinence and also to protect students both emotionally and physically if they are having sex."
“I think it's really hard for Jewish kids to strike a balance between their spirituality and their sex drives,” says GWU student Jackie. “It's important for kids to realize that there's more to spirituality than religion. It’s a personal decision. You are the only person who should decide if premarital sex is something you can live with, something you embrace or something you would regret for the rest of your life.”
MTVu: Sexual Health
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention: College Health
4 College Women
Learn Something Jewish: The Sanctity of Sex
Sex in Judaism
Jewish Sex: What the Sages Say
Related Hillel articles:
In Judaism, Sex Can Be Kosher (Daily Trojan)
Daily Double: Sex and Chocolate (Harvard Crimson)
Jewish University of Montana Student Supports Abstinence