Large differences in “hookup culture” between Catholic/Secular college students and Evangelical ones

21 Nov

Dr. Donna Freitas, perhaps the nation’s leading expert on university hookup culture, has being doing research among college students and on college campuses regarding sex, the hookup culture, and student religiosity for several years.  She has produced many scholarly publications and studies.  One consistent finding she has observed is that evangelical college students are significantly less likely to hookup than any of their counterparts (Catholic or secular).  Why?  An excerpt from an interview:

The attitudes toward sexuality on evangelical campuses were remarkably different from everywhere else. Everyone is struggling with sex, but they do it in very different ways.

It’s impossible on an evangelical campus to have a conversation about sex without also talking about faith. This is simply because, at evangelical campuses, the Christian tradition stands at the very center of who the students are. Every decision is made by consulting that core identity. They don’t think about sex except in light of their faith. It’s just who they are: they are Christians. For these students, you cannot even think about choosing your major without consulting your faith. This is empowering, in many ways. These students have a strong sense of who they are, and where to go for advice. Most of the time, this is really great. But with regard to sex, it can be exceedingly stressful.

The opposite is true of all the other campuses I visited for the study, and it holds true even for the forty-five or so other campuses I have visited since the book was published. Whereas evangelicals cannot think about their sex lives without religion, students at secular or Catholic institutions cannot think about their sex lives with religion. The notion that religion would have anything important or useful to say to them about sexual decision-making is almost impossible to take seriously.

She also finds this:

  • Those who hookup are mentally and emotionally worse off
  • Students in general feel trapped when it comes to the hookup culture.  They know something isn’t right, healthy, but have a hard time pointing to solutions.  “I would say that, across the board, students were unhappy with attitudes toward sex on their campus, unhappy with the level of conversation on campus about sex, and either alienated from their faith tradition with regard to sex or feeling incredibly pressured, as though the stakes set for them are far too high to manage. “
  • She also found that while students at non-evangelical campuses have dispensed with dating and are heavily sexually active, they also express a strong desire that religion be used to help them make sense of their sexuality and make it healthier, as is practiced among evangelical schools (that’s obviously hard to do in secular universities).

Why such strong differences between evangelicals and Catholics?  From another summary of her work:

The only exception Freitas found to the “hook-up” culture was at evangelical colleges: “Life at an evangelical school is, in a sense, enclosed by the Christian faith in a manner suggestive of what sociologist of religion Peter Berger calls the ‘sacred canopy.’” Like the moral communities that Burdette and her colleagues identify, Freitas discovered that “evangelical campus culture is religiously infused on every level.” Students who attend evangelical schools tend to expect that their peers are Christian, attend church, study the Bible, and pray often. Within evangelical student campus culture, the focus is on courtship and marriage while emphasizing chastity. Freitas says that “a quest for purity and chastity reigns supreme on these campuses.”

In contrast, when Freitas talked with students on Catholic campuses, she found a general sense of apathy toward the Catholic faith and its teachings on sexuality. Many responded with laughter, noting the “impractical,” “unrealistic,” and “archaic” nature of the Catholic teaching on contraception and pre marital sex. Unlike evangelical students, many Catholic students enter college without a strong foundation in Scripture, and many lack knowledge of Catholic moral teachings. While many evangelical students have a lifetime of Bible camps and strong Christian schools, few Catholic students bring a similarly strong catechetical background with them to college. Weakened teaching in theology or Scripture at the Catholic elementary and high school levels have left many Catholic young people ill-equipped to deal with the culture that greets them on a Catholic campus. And while this does not excuse the problems on Catholic campuses, it is clear that evangelical students arrive on campus much more biblically aware—and better-prepared theologically and scripturally—than most Catholic students are when they arrive on campus.

From another study (cited below*), we find that religious feelings are not an important factor in sexual purity among college students.  What appears to matter is religious practice and teachings (spiritual disciplines).

I would also just like to point out, by way of encouragement, to evangelical parents a major implication of her research.  Biblical Christianity works.  To a significant degree, spiritual discipline and diligence by parents and churches in inculcating Christian teaching and practice among their youth is used by God to produce greater purity (and happiness).  Apparently, there is empirical truth to the proverb (Prov. 22:6): Train up a child in the way he should go and he will not depart from it later in life.

*Penhollow, T., Yoiung, M., & Bailey, W. (2007).  Relationship between Religiosity and Hooking Up Behavior.  American Journal of Health Education, 38(6), 338+.



2 Responses to “Large differences in “hookup culture” between Catholic/Secular college students and Evangelical ones”

  1. Laura F November 30, 2013 at 7:26 pm #

    I would love to know which Catholic campuses Dr Freitas visited to talk with students. A list would be greatly appreciated!



  1. Large differences in “hookup culture” between Catholic/Secular college students and Evangelical ones - November 26, 2013

    […] Presbyterian Church (PCA) with his wife, Natalie, and three children, Caleb, Noah, and Sarah Ann. This article first appeared on his blog, The Reformed Mind, and is used with […]


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