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Sex and the Soul: An Interview with Author Donna Freitas

I have a confession to make… the catchy title of the Sex & the Soul blogathon is NOT an original creation of mine.  I ‘borrowed it’ from someone I met a few years ago.

Donna Freitas, author of Sex & the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses, came to our campus to share about her research… and the connections she found between sex, sexuality and faith.

It was one of the best attended events I have seen on our campus.  Close to 500 students were crammed into an over-capacity hall… and completely silent for her 40 minute presentation and 10 minutes of Q & A.

At some point during Donna’s presentation I sensed God tapping me on the shoulder, encouraging me to take note of what was happening and to find ways to create  more space for similar things to transpire.

In 2010 we held our first Sex & the Soul week on campus.  The week was designed to explore… yep, you guessed it, the intersection(s) between sex, sexuality and faith.

Again, great attendance and lives being changed.

At the end of this month we will be hosting our second annual Sex & the Soul week on campus.  We’ve got some great guests coming to campus to speak with our students.  I’m excited about how God will move in our midst!

So, it’s probably not too much of a stretch for you to see why I decided to host a blogathon around this same topic. If our college students are thinking about sex (obsessively) than we ought to be as well — you know what I mean.

And it only made sense to me to go back to Donna, as one of the catalysts of it all, to get some further insight into her research and how it should inform our work on campus with our sexually charged college students.

The following is a Q & A I conducted with author Donna Freitas.

Guy:  Donna, can you tell me what was behind your desire to research the sexual practices of college students?

Donna: Well, I will clarify and say their spiritual and/or religious and sexual practices, and how those two things influence each other or don’t. I became interested in this subject both because I was given no guidance on these two issues when I was younger (how the spiritual and/or religious influences/effects sexual identity, practices, decision-making, etc), and then I discovered that my students were enormously interested in having this discussion, too. It was during these discussions that I also learned how unhappy they were about hookup culture on campus, and it was that unhappiness that really sparked me to travel the country talking to college students about these topics.

Guy: What were some of the substantial “finds” for you in your research analysis?

Donna: Like the students that inspired the study, everyone, everywhere, both women and men are unhappy with hookup culture—deeply so. Students at Catholic, private-secular and public universities wish their peers were less casual about sex. At Christian colleges there isn’t hookup culture at all—there’s purity or chastity culture—and students are certainly less casual about sex, but this makes many of them unhappy, too. Many students at Christian colleges comment that they wish people would be less judgmental about sex and that they had more sexual freedom, too, though not necessarily to engage in sexual intercourse. Chastity is a value across the board among students at Christian colleges.

Guy: Was there anything that really stood out to you, or even surprised you, in your findings?

Donna: I would say that some of the most surprising findings are about men—we misjudge young men so much! We assume they are more sexual than they are, more predatory you could say, and this really makes life difficult for men and often silences them when it comes to their real desires. Just like we assume about women, men want romance and relationships, they just don’t believe they are allowed to say this out loud, unfortunately.

Guy: What advice would you give to those of us who walk alongside college students?

Donna: My absolute number one piece of advice: avoid being judgmental, avoid hammering them with do’s and don’ts. That is the quickest way to shut students down. Students do want our advice and guidance, but they want our help most of all finding tools for good decision-making, and for many of them, doing that decision-making within the context of their faith tradition.

Guy: Do you have any predictions, based on your research, about what we might see in the next 10 years as it relates to college students, sex, sexuality and faith?

Donna: One of the things I think will change the most in the next 10 years at Christian colleges in particular has to do with attitudes about LGBTQ students/identities. There is a massive generation gap right now in terms of opinion on these issues between (and I am speaking generally, of course) the “adults” on Christian campuses and the students. Students tend to be far more accepting of their LGBTQ peers and how they fit in a faith-based context. This issue of there being a generation gap seems to come up a lot when I speak to students at Christian colleges—they are hungry for the opportunity to have a safe space for conversation on this subject.

Providing students safe spaces to talk about sex in all contexts is so important. Students yearn so deeply to be listened to, and for honesty from all of us.

Thanks, Donna, for this!

  • What strikes you most about Donna’s comments/research?
  • How does it fit with what you’re seeing on your campus?  With your students?
  • What questions would you have for Donna if you had the chance to sit with her for a spell?

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  • MJ

    Thanks for your participation, Donna! I have some questions. If college students are already dissatisfied with the hook-up culture, how do you anticipate LGBTQ impacting that? Won’t this just lead students in an ever deepening labyrinth of sexual experimentation that will leave them even more frustrated and empty than before? How can we address these sexual identity issues without exacerbating the angst that already seems so overwhelming?

  • Derek_Roe

    Thanks to Donna and Guy for this eye-opening interview! I wholly agree with your observation that dialogue about LGBTQ issues is the next horizon on Christian college and university campuses. It seems to me that making room on campus for this dialogue is bound up with prayerful (re)assessment of core Christian values and what it means to be a Christian school (i.e. what is the core of faith; God’s universal love for all or a prohibition against LGBTQ lifestyles?). I would love to hear your thoughts on how you foresee the LGBTQ conversation affecting schools that have it (and the ones that refuse to have it).

  • Jdwaltjr

    A question I would ask has to do with sexual norms. Can we have meaningful conversations around sexual norms and how can this happen without inferring some sense of do’s and donts that are necessarily implied with “boundaries?” And can this conversation happen in a cultural environment that eschews do’s and dont’s, practically equating them with judgmentalism?

    One more and forgive my ignorance– what does the Q stand for in LGBTQ?

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