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 Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses

Donna Freitas
Oxford University Press, 2008
349 pages 



In her own work on college campuses, Freitas discovered the disconnect students often feel between their sexuality and their faith, especially in relation to the rise of hookup culture on college campuses. Freitas collected qualitative and quantitative data from students across the country at four types of institutions: Catholic, evangelical, non-religious private, and public. She presents the stories from her data to argue that institutions of higher education should incorporate conversations around faith and sexuality into classrooms in order to promote the exploration the whole self: body, mind, and soul.


In the first section of her book, “The Varieties of College Religious Experience,” Freitas describes the religious and spiritual identities she encountered through her interviews with students. Many students identified as “spiritual but not religious,” and discussed their separation from church during college, while struggling to have some kind of spirituality or faith of some kind.

In section two, “The Romantic Ideal,” Freitas highlights a particular theme that came through in her interviews with evangelical students who identified a "purity culture." Students who did not identify as evangelical, outline a different ideal among the commonplace pressures of hookup culture. For evangelicals, purity is of the utmost importance, whereas non-evangelical students hope for romance as a respite from hookup culture.

Section three, “The Truth About Sex on Campus,” again presents a notable difference in worldview between students coming from evangelical culture and students from all other self-reported designations. On evangelical campuses, Freitas found that hooking up was extremely rare. Students, particularly women, were concerned with finding a husband before graduation, and wondered if their peers were more pure than them. On non-evangelical campuses Freitas found that both women and men feel pressure to participate in hookup culture, in large part due to systemic issues such as the sexualization of women’s bodies.

Section four, “Reconciling Sex and the Soul (or not) on Campus,” presents the thoughts students report about sex and where their relationship with God fits in their sexual lives. Freitas presents and discusses the compartmentalization most students experience when talking about sex and spirituality. It is not often that both topics come up in the same conversation. In the concluding section, Freitas argues that colleges and universities should work to incorporate discussions around spirituality and sexuality in the classroom. She argues that students do not have outlets to discuss these important issues in relationship to one another and that the administration of colleges should offer the education of the whole person, mind, body, and spirit. 


Donna Freitas has taught at Hofstra University and Boston University, and is currently a research associate at the Center for Religion and Society at Notre Dame. In the introduction of Sex and the Soul she tells the story of teaching a dating class at a college through the religious studies department, and how the class was incredibly successful in its discussion of campus culture including topics of spirituality and sex. Freitas’ experience as both a professor and college student administrator, give her credibility in advocating that colleges and universities should incorporate more about sexuality and spirituality in the classroom, although she acknowledges the likelihood that it will not happen. Those readers who come from a collegiate ministry background may see an opportunity to pick up the responsibility for these conversations. Though Freitas does not address the role of campus ministries, her research supports the importance of offering safe space for students to wrestle with both spiritual formation and sexuality.


The theological norms presented in the book do not come from Freitas directly, but through the stories of the students Freitas interviewed. She offers the data without critique. The theological views of the students vary depending on their spiritual identity. One overt theological norm is Freitas’ assertion that sex and the soul should be reconciled within the worlds of sexuality and spirituality of college students in America.


Freitas is mostly conversational about what is happening on college campuses regarding sex and spirituality. She discusses her research and tells the students' stories about the sexual and spiritual aspects of campus culture. In the later chapters of the book, she addresses her hope that students can reconcile their ideas about sex with their ideas about faith.

In chapter eight Freitas describes two types of students: The Godly and The Secular.[1] The Godly view sex as a gift from God and as such should only be experienced within the confines of marriage; sex is always religious, and never a personal decision.[2] The Secular divide sex and religion into two different spheres; for these students, sex is secular, influenced by popular culture. Sex is personal, not communal.[3] 

In chapter nine, Freitas dives in to the divide students feel between sex and the soul. She talks to students who identify as Catholic, Protestant, or spiritual. Many of the students were able to give some kind of information regarding what their church taught about sex, though many were personally disconnected from the ideas they reported. Freitas found that students at evangelical and non-evangelical colleges all struggled with four dilemmas regarding sex and the soul: they are anxious about sex, they identify romance as asexual, they don’t know where to turn for advice, and reconciling sex and the soul is not only extremely difficult for them, it’s rare.[4]  The students she attributed to having some signs of reconciling sex and the soul she labeled as heroic virgins, sexually active seekers, and born-again virgins.[5] However, Freitas argues that these methods are simply short-term fixes for deeper problems, but because students don’t have an environment to explore sexuality and the soul, the systemic issues will be perpetuated without question.[6]


Strengths: The stories presented in Freitas' data are incredibly insightful. Freitas ties the stories from her research to independent data in order to verify that the feelings or experiences of students in her interview pool are shared by a wider sample of college students. The use of hard data and stories was very engaging, and opened the door for questions and wondering. Freitas reported on her data with little to no outright moral judgment of the students involved. 

Weaknesses: As a reader, I was unable to locate my own college experience within Freitas' data. Although her data was eye opening and no doubt truthful, there were times when she asserted facts as absolutes that simply did not resonate with my own experience. Despite my personal opinions about her data, it is clear that college students are indeed wrestling with issues pertaining to "sex and the soul." This book is a valuable resource to campus ministry programs across the United States and is a useful tool to augment discussions with students regarding issues around sexuality and faith. Freitas makes a strong case for making a space available for students who are working out conflicting views about sex and faith.

[1] 173- 175.

[2] 173.

[3] 173.

[4] 216.

[5] 221.

[6] 223.

Review by Katherine Norwood