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by Donna Freitas
Oxford University Press, 2008
Review by Hennie Weiss on Apr 19th 2011

Sex and the Soul

"Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America's College Campuses" by Donna Freitas is a collection of face-to-face interviews and surveys used to analyze and understand how American college students grapple with their sexual encounters, sexuality and sexual identity in connection to their spirituality and religion.

Freitas visited seven college campuses around the United States, distributed surveys and interviewed students to discern cultural, religious and spiritual patterns of sexual activities and beliefs. In doing so, Freitas distinguish between the spiritual colleges and the Evangelical colleges in their approach to sex, sexuality, spirituality and religion.

Freitas found that spiritual colleges are governed by a "hook-up" culture consisting of parties, alcohol and largely unrestricted sex. Sexual experience is valued over virginity, but students, especially women, walk a fine line between having too little sexual experience, or too much. Dating and romance are often absent in this campus culture whereas religion and spirituality are seen as private and separated from sex, and therefore rarely discussed together. In the Evangelical schools, the Christian purity culture acts as a model for accepted sexual behavior where religion and sex are connected in the campus culture, although often negatively charged. The religious campus culture is deeply embedded into campus life at these schools.

No matter the level of spirituality or religiosity on college campuses, the men and women in Freitas study all encounter both physical and mental concerns when dealing with sex and sexual experiences. In the spiritual colleges, the "hook-up" culture often leaves students feeling guilty, ashamed an unsatisfied with their sexual encounters. Dating, romance and meaningful relationships is something that men and women yearn, but is not part of campus life. In the Evangelic schools, students are expected not to engage in any sexual behavior before marriage. If doing so, one is jeopardizing his or her purity and relationship with God. These students have to battle with feelings of shame, embarrassment, regret and disgust if they do not conform to their religious practices. Students who manage to refrain from sexual behavior and encounters often feel torn between their internal sexual needs and urges and their religious wows to abstain from sex. 

The intended audience can range from students to teachers in diverse academic programs such as psychology, sociology, gender studies and human sexuality, where it could be used as a text or workbook. The book is written in a way as to be very accessible to the general public, as Freitas points out in "A Practical Guide to Sex and the Soul: Three Musts for Your College To-Do List: What to Say to Your Child, Student, Parishioner, Friend".

The level of technicality of the writing is formal but also easily understood. The author describes her ideas and findings in general yet detailed ways and provide helpful definitions and explanations of terminology. Freitas use of language helps captivate the audience during the very interesting face-to-face interviews.

By utilizing interviews and having students write journals on sex and sexuality, Freitas is able to gain a very interesting and deeper understanding of the struggles and concerns of American college students across America. A major strength of the book is also the focus on the differences between males and females concerning norms and accepted sexual behavior, providing an interesting gendered nuance to the issue. Sexual identity is also examined as the author observes the challenges and conflicting emotions of lesbian, gay and bisexual students. The difficult issue of sexual assault and rape is presented as women discuss their experiences with Freitas.   

Where Freitas reasoning becomes a little difficult to follow is in her beliefs about the importance of community in the lives of students. At the Evangelical colleges, the religious basis of the culture permeates all aspects of campus, and the students are very religiously involved. At the spiritual colleges, the same sense of community does not exist, is not as tightly bound, and therefore, the students engage in "hook-up" sex much more often than the Evangelical students. Even though Evangelical students may be able to unify sex and the soul, they often do so with anguish, remorse, regret and doubt about their own personal relationship with God. At the same time, spiritual students do not seem to be satisfied with the lack of spirituality in connection to sex. Although Freitas expresses concern with the spiritual schools being too negligent, and the Evangelical schools too strict in their approach toward sex and the soul, one still gets the feeling that Freitas would prefer the Evangelical approach to sex and the soul over the spiritual one due to the sense of religious community shared even though students express anxiety and confusion.

Freitas focus on spirituality and religion could also be confusing to grasp for students who do not consider themselves to be spiritual and/or religious, especially since Freitas is concerned with the connection between spirituality, religion and sex. 


© 2011 Hennie Weiss


Hennie Weiss is a graduate student in Sociology at California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism. 


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