How does religion and spirituality play a role in the hookup culture? This was the question Donna Freitas, a visiting scholar of religion at Boston University and author of “Sex and the Soul” (Oxford University Press, $24.95), wanted to sift through the minds of students at college campuses across the country.  

In her survey of more than 2,500 undergraduates at seven colleges and universities she discovered that students were overwhelmingly eager to share their experiences of dating, relationships and sex and to talk about how spirituality fit into the equation. Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Freitas to find out what they had to say. 

Our Sunday Visitor: How do you characterize a hookup? 

Donna Freitas: Generally, I’ve learned, a hookup has three criteria: 

It could be anything from kissing to different kinds of sex. It has some sort of intimate behavior, sexual behavior, but it’s a real range. 

It was very temporary in the sense that it was very casual. It could be anywhere from five minutes to a few hours, and that’s the classic hookup. 

And the third thing — and this is the part that really was significant in the study in terms of this is the one students are really bad at — is that both parties are supposed to remain emotionally unattached. 

OSV: What drives the hookup culture? 

Freitas: I would say, obviously, media, celebrity culture, etc., is a big part of the formation of our psyche, so that’s a factor. But alcohol tends to be the essential ingredient. Alcohol is a very big part of hookup culture. But also this perception that this is what you do in college: Everybody hooks up all the time, and you’re supposed to love it, and so, therefore, I should do it and love it. Even if I don’t, I’ve got to say I love it. There is a lot of pretending going on, and that’s really what seems to sustain it. 

That, and there has been a real silence on college campuses about addressing this particular issue. There are the typical talks about pregnancy and STDs and sexual assault, and those are very important conversations, but often that’s where conversation about sex ends on college campuses. Having a conversation about sexual intimacy and relationships beyond the sort of “how-to’s” and what to prevent is pretty absent. Essentially, we leave our students high and dry when it comes to offering a broader conversation about these important issues. 

OSV: What do students experience emotionally in the aftermath of a hookup? 

Freitas: As students begin to talk about the hookup culture, what becomes clear is that living in the context of the hookup culture, over the course of however long, tends to throw students into a crisis of meaning. So, there were a lot of students saying that one morning they woke up and called everything into question. They woke up one night after a particularly intense party or the hookup didn’t go well, or they’re sad and begin to take stock of their college experience and think, “What am I doing?” “How did I get here?” It causes them to ask all those big questions about meaning and purpose. 

OSV: Does the religiosity of a campus affect its hookup culture? 

Freitas: [In the course of writing “Sex and the Soul”] I went to four campus types: secular private, and public, Catholic and evangelical, and you would think that they would break up by religious affiliation, but they didn’t at all. 

The only college type that stood out, and stands out as I give different talks at places, are the evangelical campuses. The hookup culture is really hard to find at evangelical colleges, and the two biggest reasons for that are: they take faith really seriously and there’s no alcohol, no drinking on evangelical campuses. You take away alcohol and center everything on faith and you really don’t have hookup culture — at all. 

At Catholic colleges faith was often off in the corner. It was there. People, students, knew that there was a church on campus, they saw priests walking around, but it was far from the center of how they lived their lives, and, essentially, Catholic colleges looked nearly identical to private and public secular colleges in terms of the hookup culture. 

OSV: So attitudes about the hookup culture are drastically different on Catholic campuses than they on evangelical campuses? 

Freitas: Yes and no. I would say the rules are the same. You’re not supposed to have sex before you get married, whether you’re evangelical or Catholic. But the conversations about the rules and who is having those conversations is completely different. So, at a Catholic college there was no conversation. Students could care less about chastity for example, whereas you couldn’t find a student at an evangelical college who didn’t know about chastity and purity and premarital sex. 

I would say the traction of the religious conversations about sex was completely, completely on different planets. 

One of the biggest markers of that when I asked Catholic students about sex was that they had this sense that there were these rules that came down from on high and that this was ridiculous, and this didn’t have anything to do with their lives and helping them apply this. So there was a real sense of abandonment and being talked at by their faith in ways that had complete irrelevance to them. 

OSV: What needs to change on campuses to address the hookup culture? 

Freitas: One thing is really basic: Just having all sorts of conversation, programs where we are offering students — or students offer each other — space for different kinds of dialogue. … I would include programs that are not about the dangers of sex or just the “how-to’s” of sex, but programs about basic stuff like, “How do you ask someone out on a date?,” “How do you know if someone likes you?” 

Those are the kinds of questions students really want to talk about and want answers to, but it hasn’t occurred to anyone that just the basics of dating are missing. How to ask someone out when you’re sober is a really good question for most students. They’re terrified. They don’t know what to do, but they also want to know. 

OSV: What are three things you would tell college students about the hookup culture? 

Freitas: First, don’t believe everything you hear. Also, slow down. Take time to figure out what you want from your relationships on campus before you engage in anything. And ask the big questions early on about meaning and purpose and why you came to college. Hold onto them really tight. Those seem to be the first things to go. 

Stephanie Kornexl is OSV assistant editor.