Jennifer Beste is Professor of Theology and holds the Koch Chair in Catholic Thought and Culture at the College of Saint Benedict. She is the author of God and the Victim: Traumatic Intrusions on Grace and Freedom.
Susan Sink recently interviewed her about her second book, College Hookup Culture and Christian Ethics: The Lives and Longings of Emerging Adults. The book gives a detailed account of students’ own analysis of the college party scene at two Midwestern Catholic colleges and discusses the alternative presented by Catholic theology that is focused on mutuality and justice.
In your book, you utilize an imaginative pedagogical approach by sending out students to act as ethnographers of the party scene they were already involved in. What they reported was quite unnerving. How would you summarize the hookup culture they observed and analyzed, particularly the difference between how male and female students approach the party scene?
According to my student ethnographers, partying on college campuses does not begin at the actual party but with “pregaming” rituals. Men typically spend ten minutes getting ready to go out, then drink and hang out with their friends prior to the party. Women, on the other hand, will often spend 2-3 hours downing shots as they fix their hair, apply makeup, and seek their friends’ advice about which outfit looks the sexiest or “sluttiest.” When they arrive at the party, both men and women proceed to drink more alcohol as men scope out and evaluate the women. Men want to gain their “bros’” opinions of women’s level of “hotness” before pursuing particular women and grinding with them on the dance floor. Interestingly, men and women tend to interpret motivations for grinding differently: while most men believe that grinding indicates that a woman desires sex, women usually grind in order to attract male attention and approval, fit in with their peers, or simply have fun.
The student ethnographers’ analyses reveal that men and women are expected to conform to narrow gender roles. Men are described as the sexual pursuers and initiators, while women are relegated to the passive role of appearing as sexy as possible in the hope of attracting men’s attention and pursuit.
The observations of my student-ethnographers corresponds pretty closely to what scholars are seeing. They described many college men as sexually aggressive. They also described incidents of sexual assault. Especially unnerving was how normalized this behavior had become for my students. Semester after semester, they used terms like ‘hunters,’ ‘prey,’ and ‘targets’ when describing men’s aggressive tactics, and this was simply accepted as the way things are.
The student ethnographers said things like, “All his or her morals went right out the window” at parties. Did the students’ understanding of “morals” or morality change over the course of the semester?
Yes, a key theme among my 126 ethnographers is that students often adopt an entirely different persona on party nights, which includes shedding sexual morals they appear to hold during the day. In the quote your reference, “morals” seems to imply that being moral in this context means that one follows a set of rules that prohibit certain sexual actions. Sexual morality is fairly compartmentalized from other features of one’s life, and it mostly has to do with prohibitions.
I seek to expand students’ conception of morality by examining sexuality and relationships in the light of what it means to become fully human as Christ was fully human, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. I especially try to challenge students who identify as Christians to integrate their commitment to follow Christ in all aspects of their lives instead of separating their sexual selves from their spiritual selves. Following Christ’s way of being in the world also calls us not only to relate justly to other persons sexually, but inspires us to create sexually just communities where each person’s dignity and right to bodily integrity are protected.
I’m happy to say that in anonymous evaluations each semester, many students indicated that they grew significantly in their capacity to identify injustices in personal and social contexts and to act more consistently according to values.
You introduce students to German theologian Johann Baptist Metz’s Poverty of Spirit after they explore the dynamics of party and hookup culture. The word “poverty” seems like a tough one for college students. What do they respond to in this text?
You’re right, “poverty” in our culture symbolizes things like failure, misery, and lack of control, so the idea that being poor in spirit is important to a joyful and fulfilling life seems absurd at first. As my students delve more deeply into Metz, however, they begin making connections to their own college culture and identifying obstacles in their own lives to becoming fully human.
For example, students have already experienced pain, emptiness, and disillusionment in connection with things that the dominant U.S. culture taught them to pursue at all costs: independence and self-sufficiency, competition, winning, success, wealth, social status, egoism, and the like. As they read Metz, students learn not only that “poverty” implies vulnerability, interdependence, simplicity, solidarity, and dying to egoism, but that these “ways of being” in the world really can translate into happiness. “Poverty of spirit” also asks us to love ourselves by accepting our limits and embracing our unique calling, encountering our neighbors as distinct others, loving them “as ourselves,” and seeking solidarity with even the most marginalized. All of these are facets of Jesus’ fully human “way of being,” and I find that many students are deeply attracted to and inspired by this vision.
The search for authenticity seems to me a perpetual goal for young adults. In your book, you argue that by participating in hookup culture they are settling for a socially acceptable identity even though it doesn’t make them happy. How do you recommend that students break from the norms of their peers?
I encourage undergraduates to step back from their fast-paced social reality, slow down, and reflect on the following questions: What dynamics would I change about party and hookup culture that would make me the happiest? How do I feel about myself in the morning after I drank excessively and/or hooked up? What does it mean to feel and be empowered in my social reality? What do I most deeply desire when it comes to expressing myself and my sexuality with another person? What relationships in my life truly affirm who I am and help me grow and become more whole?
I also find that, for many students, knowledge is power. When students learn that most college peers are dissatisfied with party and hookup culture and a significant percentage of students opt out of hookups and parties and choose other social alternatives, they feel less pressure to conform to party norms. Many students, for instance, express joy about being in a committed relationship, while others say they find it more fun to hang out and drink casually with a close group of friends rather than attend large parties. This is news to many students.
For students to break from behaviors that they themselves identify as destructive and/or unfulfilling, they must develop the confidence and courage to ask hard questions about their social realities and their acquiescence to party and hookup norms, and then to trust their honest answers about what really brings joy and fulfillment, even when these prove counter to the culture they find themselves in.
In the final section of the book, you raise the issue of justice in the context of hookup culture. How can students—with the support of university administrators, faculty, and staff—create a more sexually just culture?
It is striking that the majority of my students perceive hookups to be sexually unjust because of the absence of respect, consent, a sense of equality, and mutuality. Apart from the commonality of being drunk, hookup partners don’t know the other person well, so students in these situations are not motivated to care about equality, mutuality, or the well-being of the other person. When asked to envision a sexually just culture, students consistently identified three major themes in their reflections.
First, students emphasize that, in order to relate to their partner justly, both partners need to freely consent to any sexual activity without feeling pressure or being incapacitated by alcohol or drugs. They acknowledge that, since it is not always possible to know if a drunk person is incapacitated, consent is questionable unless your partner is sober or only slightly buzzed. In order for free consent to actually happen, it is also essential to adopt an affirmative consent policy. In a “yes means yes” consent framework, both partners view each other as equals, and the assumption is that both will be active in communicating and consenting to sexual activities.
Second, universities need to become cultures of zero tolerance for sexual assault. In order to reduce the high prevalence of rape on their campuses, students consistently express the need for severe negative consequences in cases of sexual assault. After my students studied the phenomenon of sexual assault and understand its traumatic effects on survivors, I asked them anonymously what the most just sanction would be for a student found responsible for rape. The vast majority anonymously recommended expulsion.
Third, undergraduates need to free one another from the narrow sexual, gender, and social norms that exist in party and hookup culture. When asked what, if anything, student ethnographers would change about college parties to make themselves personally happier, only 1 out of 126 ethnographers responded that he liked parties the way they are. The rest expressed one or more of the following themes. They would be happier: 1) if women did not feel pressure to conform to a highly sexualized ideal and could dress more comfortably; 2) if men showed respect for women and treated them like equals; 3) if students felt comfortable interacting with their peers without needing to get drunk; and 4) if they were freed from the social expectation to hook up by the end of the night.
Overall, students express that they want to be part of a community that respects their own and others’ values, desires, and choices as long as these don’t harm others, and they desire freedom from norms that go against their comfort level and cause them to feel diminished. This is their vision of a sexually just culture.