Jason King, a participant in the Collegeville Institute’s 2014 workshop A Broader Public: Writing on Religion for a Secular Audience, recently published a study of sexual behavior at Catholic colleges and universities: Faith with Benefits: Hookup Culture on Catholic Campuses (Oxford University Press, 2017).
In this interview, Laura Kelly Fanucci talks with King about his new book and how today’s college students are navigating decisions about the “hookup culture” of sexual activity without the expectation of commitment. The term “hooking up” is intentionally ambiguous, as King discusses below, ranging from flirting or kissing to sexual intercourse—leading to a wide range of perspectives and sub-cultures around sexuality and relationships on college campuses.
What first interested you in the subject of hookup culture as a site of interaction between sexuality and spirituality?
When I was still in graduate school, Donna Freitas and I were thinking about the relationships we were in at the time and decided to do a presentation on Christianity and dating. This led to a paper on the theology of dating that led to a book. I began teaching courses on friendship and marriage. Students were looking for practical advice, so I started listening to them talk about their struggles to find good relationships.
Donna went on to write Sex and the Soul about hookup culture, which helped me gain a better sense of what was occurring on campuses. Religion had a funny role in this literature, however. On the one hand, highly religious students tended not to hook up and ended up on the fringes of social life. On the other hand, hooking up was the same on Catholic campuses as it was everywhere else. Thus, the religious identity of an institution of higher education seemed to have no effect.
As I pried into the data, though, I found the samples of Catholic students and Catholic campuses limited. So my project was to look at more students on more campuses: over 1,000 on 26 different Catholic campuses.
Why do you think students on somewhat Catholic campuses have lower rates of hooking up, even though they believe the campus has a stereotypical hookup culture? What are the implications for students?
Most students don’t like anonymous or random hookups. One leading cause of regret after a hookup is hooking up with someone they just met. This indicates that the students want a hookup to have some meaning or connection. (Part of this is also a desire to ensure that the hookup is safe.) My quantitative data and interviews back this up: almost every student said that they did not like hooking up. They wanted the hookup to mean something, and so it had to be with someone they knew, trusted, and were at least somewhat interested in.
On mostly Catholic campuses, the Catholic culture provided a connectivity that facilitate students’ knowledge, trust, and interest in each other. Somewhat Catholic campuses did not have this common culture. These campuses tend to be one of two types: either large urban universities or small rural colleges founded by women’s religious orders. While different on the surface, they are similar in mission: they both educated marginalized, often economically vulnerable, populations.
The result is that these somewhat Catholic campuses tend to have the most religious and racial diversity. While positive, this also means that these institutions struggle to have a common culture binding students together. A thick Catholic culture, like those at very and mostly Catholic campuses, cannot unite this diversity of students. (I would argue that these institutions do have a strong Catholic identity, but that it is rarely recognized as such because it is focused around service and ministry and not explicit religious activity. In the book, I call it an “accompaniment Catholicism,” borrowing the term from Pope Francis.)
Without a common culture or other factors fostering connectivity between students, students are hesitant to hook up with one another. They hear that college students hook up and assume it is happening on their campus, but they believe that they and their group of friends are not a part of it. Without a culture facilitating connection between students that would enable students to know, trust, and become interested in each other, most students avoid hooking up.
Historically, when did hookup culture develop as part of collegiate culture? When did institutions start paying attention to their students’ changing attitudes towards sexuality?
After the 1960s, there was a shift where the social scripts of dating were jettisoned and weren’t replaced. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it left no clear expectations or scripts to follow about how to pursue someone you might be interested in or begin a relationship. Hooking up expanded into this vacuum and became the only clear expectation for sexual behavior on campuses.
For me, the concern is not hooking up per se but rather that it seems to push out every other option for college students. There is no tolerance for those who don’t hook up. If students do not adhere to this expectation, they are socially marginalized. Some do form anti-hookup cultures, but these are always on the defensive, having to explain their opposition. This was even true on very Catholic campuses where the vast majority of people didn’t hook up.
The other way students negotiate it is to hide within the term “hooked up.” I think it is supposed to be ambiguous so that students who don’t really want to hook up but also don’t want to be marginalized can hold hands or kiss and still say that they “hooked up.” The ambiguity helps to preserve their sense of belonging on campus.
Your research focuses on heterosexual students who share a similar socioeconomic background. How might students with different sexual orientations or relationships to privilege (for example, LGBTQ students, racial minorities, or first-generation college students) experience hookup culture at the kinds of institutions you studied?
One of the central issues I’m dealing with in Faith with Benefits is the way stereotypical hookup culture marginalizes all differences. If students want to hook up frequently with no expectations of relationships afterwards, that is up to them (as long as there is no coercion). However, those who don’t want this—roughly 80% of students—should also be allowed to pursue their interests and not suffer social penalties. The research in the book partly spoke about how to support highly religious students (measured by frequency of Mass attendance and strength of beliefs) who did not want to hook up and students who wanted relationships instead of a stereotypical hookup. The hope was to create space for them, greater tolerance, and more diversity.
But the push for more tolerance and greater diversity can also help LGBTQ students, who are marginalized by stereotypical hookup culture. Their experience can be more precarious; worrying about personal safety and fighting for one’s basic human dignity outweighs the feeling that one’s beliefs are not being respected. With this caveat though, LGBTQ students experience similar forces of marginalization and tend not to hook up. This is partly because LGBTQ students are unsure that they would be welcomed in environments where hooking up occurs or that their participation in hooking up would be accepted by others. Thus they often find themselves pushed to the fringes of campus social life by the assumption that stereotypical hookup culture is the norm.
Your book discusses several ways that institutions of higher learning might support alternatives to hookup culture (for example, establishing residential learning communities of like-minded students who don’t want to hook up). What could be implications from your findings for educators and administrators who work with college students? For parents? For students themselves?
What I would recommend for administrators, parents, and students is to listen to students. Most students want good, healthy, meaningful relationships, and most find ways to pursue them. The challenge is that they so often feel alone or isolated in doing so. Thus the work is to support these endeavors, find ways to expand their reach, and let students know that they are not alone in this work. All of this begins by just listening to what students are thinking and doing.
How has your research affected your interactions with your own students?
Much of the interest in this material came from my students, so the research has reinforced my desire to do right by them. If it has changed anything, it has made me even more impressed with students, both their insights and their creativity in how they negotiate the social scenes on campuses.
What could be long-term effects of the hookup culture—on Catholic institutions and on students’ personal relationships?
Part of me is pessimistic. So often Catholicism comes across as a series of “do not’s.” This approach not only doesn’t help people to have good relationships, but it also doesn’t help students negotiate campus life. When students are forced to choose between church teachings and relationships, many will chose relationships. Faith will seem irrelevant to their lives. This can become the first move away from faith.
However, this isn’t the whole picture. Students ultimately want genuine, loving relationships, and Catholicism has resources on the nature of love to help with this. These are the deeper truths, so my optimistic side thinks that this will be the future: people desiring to love well and finding wisdom on how to do so.