I recently read Mark Regnerus’s Forbidden Fruit, and found it unsatisfyingly lacking in good stories; I have had the opposite problem with Donna Freitas‘s Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses. Like Regnerus, Freitas is interested in exploring the intersection of religion/spirituality and sex in America’s youth, though she focuses on college students where Regnerus’s book was more interested in teenagers. She conducted interviews with students at different types of universities – Catholic ones, evangelical ones, regular public ones – about their spiritual and sexual lives and those of their community.
Many good stories here – college students are so much more interesting and articulate than high school students, or maybe I just got that impression because Freitas quotes from her interviews so extensively. The chapter dedicated to “Evangelical Purity Culture” freaked me out, just as those things always do. Purity: it’s a weird thing to want. Here is a paragraph that does my head in.
A number of women I interviewed had detailed fantasies about the role a promise ring would play during her engagement, on her wedding day, and throughout her marriage. One young woman explained how one of her friends “melted down her chastity ring and put it into her husband’s wedding ring,” which she thought “was pretty cool.” Another had moved her promise ring to her right ring finger when she got engaged, and had plans to present it to her husband after the marriage ceremony as a special token of how she’d “saved herself” for him. This same young woman also spoke of her promise ring as a kind of “purity heirloom” that her husband would someday pass on to their daughter.
I have just reread the paragraph twice and I cannot get my mind around why you would want to a) wear a purity ring, and b) describe yourself as “pure” because you haven’t had sex like sex makes you dirty, and c) have your husband pass on your purity ring to your daughter like Here, honey, this is a symbol of your mother’s purity, now please live up to it and don’t be filthy and sully yourself by having sex until I specifically give you away to someone. Ick! This father-daughter chastity thing is so ickily Freudian to me. Fathers are not the guardians of their daughters’ sexuality prior to marriage. That is weird.
There were loads of good interview stories all throughout the book, which I liked because people can tell you more (obviously) about their motives and beliefs than surveys seeking statistics. However, I would have liked to see some comparisons between the interviews Freitas excerpts for us, and statistics from studies on a broad scale regarding college students’ sexual behaviors and adherence to religion or whatever. As much as I was interested to see what the students were saying about themselves and their peers, I would have liked some helpful statistics to provide context. Then I wouldn’t have gotten all skeptical-face about some of her conclusions and complained about how just because those people at those colleges said it didn’t make it true of everyone (as I’m sure she well knows).
Sex and the Soul raises questions about colleges’ roles in creating open, frank dialogues for their students regarding sexuality and religion. Evangelical colleges, Freitas points out, provide a structure for how sexuality should go: rigid and unflinching as the structure may be, they are discussing it – giving their students a framework for navigating their sexuality. She is bothered by the fact that institutions of higher education offer so little room for the personal, which “is not rigorous enough to warrant a place in the curriculum”. Despite the lack of helpful contextualizing statistics, which made it seem like the author was leaping to conclusions (I am not sure about its academic rigor), I thought Sex and the Soul was most interesting, all thought-provoking and full of different portraits of college life.
Freitas has also written a book called Killing the Imposter God, about Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books. The idea apparently being that Philip Pullman is actually writing a Christianer book than he thinks he is. Except I need to reread the Philip Pullman again, as it’s been ages since I read them last.