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Countering ‘hookup’ culture

Evangelical students resist campus trend

By John W. Kennedy

According to new research, evangelical Christian schools are unique in avoiding a 21st-century trend of immoral sexual behavior on campuses.

Hookup culture — in which students engage in random sexual encounters — has become the pervasive method in which collegians meet socially. Researcher Donna Freitas, author of Sex & the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America’s College Campuses, defines hooking up as having a physically intimate encounter with another person with whom you are not in a long-term relationship. Often the participants are inebriated and have just met, for what used to be termed a “one-night stand.”

Many administrators and faculty at secular schools as well as religious schools not in the evangelical tradition avoid dealing with the hookup culture that pervades social functions on their campuses, maintains Freitas. Her research included extensive in-person and online interviews with more than 2,500 students at seven universities, including two evangelical schools.

Many campuses today largely are devoid of one-on-one traditional dating, romance and opportunities to form a meaningful relationship with someone of the opposite sex. In their place, a no-strings-attached sexual lifestyle weakens a person’s self-respect.

Freitas, 35, notes the only exception to hookup culture is on evangelical campuses, where the atmosphere is much different.

“Students pray regularly, share certain Christian beliefs, do Bible study, go to church on Sundays, went to youth group in high school and hope to someday marry a good Christian with whom they can start a family,” Freitas writes in Sex & the Soul. “A quest for purity and chastity reigns supreme on these campuses.”

Focus is on a mate for life, not a sexual partner for the evening.

Indeed, G. Robert Cook Jr., executive vice president of the Alliance for Assemblies of God Higher Education, says a student’s decision to remain pure starts long before college. He credits frank youth pastors and the camaraderie of the abstinence movement for helping teens, both individually and corporately, withstand a slide into depravity.

“The whole issue of spiritual formation is what sets us apart from secular schools,” says Cook, 58. “Our faculty members are committed to more than just academic development.”

Attendees at AG colleges and universities understand that they have a responsibility to God, to others and to themselves on how they use their bodies, Cook says. They realize that God has purity standards and that the Holy Spirit will provide a way of escape from temptation, he says.

Although AG schools have eased restrictions from the days when male-female conversation was verboten, specific codes of conduct of what constitutes unacceptable behavior are in place to counter common practices on secular campuses. North Central University in Minneapolis, for example, excludes members of the opposite sex in dorms after 11 p.m.

“NCU expects all members of the community to refrain from any form of sexual immorality, including but not limited to adultery, promiscuity, any form of extramarital sexual activity (touching of intimate parts with or without clothing), homosexual behavior or viewing pornography,” the school’s sexual behaviors policy states. “Cohabitation is also considered unacceptable. Discretion is expected in the public display of affection.”

Valley Forge Christian College in Phoenixville, Pa., further declares, “Lap sitting, resting one’s head on the lap of another person, and extended periods of hugging and kissing are not appropriate.” When members of the opposite sex are visiting student residence halls, the door must remain open and the couple isn’t allowed to lie down on a bed.


Christian students certainly aren’t immune from changing mores regarding sexual behavior. Cook believes television, movies and especially the Internet are responsible for loosening standards of students — and churchgoers in general — on everything from how much skin they expose in public to wondering whether God really is against homosexual marriage.

Some Christian students now believe that anything short of sexual intercourse really isn’t sinning.

“The ideas and thoughts of college students are completely different from what they were only five years ago,” says Nate Ruch, university relations executive director at NCU.

Large quantities of alcohol often fuel lecherous actions. At numerous state universities and private colleges, drinking for hours on end has become a ritual every weekend. Students gather for Friday night and Saturday night parties that have multiple kegs on hand to go with scantily clad fantasy costume themes such as pajamas or lingerie. Typically, women gain entrance for free while men pay $5.

“Theme parties are about sex and power, with guys in the dominant positions — the CEOs and the sports pros — and girls acting the part of the sexually submissive, sexually suggestive, sexually available and sexually willing,” Freitas writes.

The party scene at many higher institutions involves students drinking in residence halls before going to the bash, which is publicized on Facebook or some other social networking site. Although some teens are immersed in a party lifestyle while in high school, college days take it to another level, according to Freitas, assistant professor of religion at Boston University.

“Both men and women need to realize this isn’t a culture that promotes human dignity,” Freitas told TPE. “These archetypes come straight from the pornography world.”

“Sexual immorality is often the consequence of something a person would never do if not inebriated,” says Cook, a former college professor who notes that alcohol is banned on AG campuses.

Ruch says students with overprotective parents sometimes are susceptible to the party scene because being away from home for the first time gives them the first opportunity to explore previously prohibited behavior. On the other hand, teens whose parents have been uninvolved — relying on institutions to set the boundaries — also may be in for a shock.

“Kids who have no family rules on morality often adapt to their peers’ views on sexuality,” Ruch says.


Both Cook and Ruch say healthy dialogue exists on AG campuses about sexuality in venues such as chapel services, academic classes, dormitory small group devotions and campus seminars. AG faculty, administrators and student leaders instill boundaries for students plus provide a scriptural sense of right and wrong, according to Cook and Ruch.

Ruch, 37, says AG schools must be proactive in training not only because of the media but also because of pro-homosexual groups such as Soulforce visiting campuses trying to alter fundamental thinking about sexuality.

“Boundaries will keep being tested,” says Ruch, a former youth pastor and college professor. “If AG colleges aren’t proactive in addressing what’s going on in culture, the dominant morality of the age will become the dominant morality of our students.”

The pervading faith atmosphere and common values on evangelical campuses help students solidify their walk with God, Freitas found. Unlike secular schools, which advertise tolerance of virtually any kind of behavior, Freitas says evangelical schools are specific in their commitment to making sure Christian standards are integrated into a student’s life.

While there is an expectation of high moral standards, Freitas found that 17 percent of students on evangelical campuses have a disconnect between what they claim to believe (sex outside marriage is always wrong) and how they act. As opposed to secular schools, where young people often brag about their sexual activity, those at evangelical schools keep quiet about their exploits, fearing both ostracism from peers and disciplinary action from the school.

Christian students who mess up sexually are more likely to feel remorse because, unlike non-Christian students at secular schools, God is part of the equation. Students who fail are susceptible to a crisis of faith.

Yet those who truly seek repentance will find forgiveness in the body of Christ, Cook believes.

“There always will be some self-righteous people with pharisaical attitudes around, but the church believes in the doctrine of the second chance,” Cook says.


Freitas says students with faith who attend a secular or nominally religious institution quickly learn to compartmentalize their beliefs because spiritual views aren’t welcome on campus.

“The average college student, male or female, is still ashamed to admit to being a virgin,” Freitas says. “This is especially true during the senior year.”

On the other hand, students immersed in the hookup lifestyle often end up carrying baggage with them after graduation. Some are confronted with an unwanted pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease. They must contend with the fact that adult relationships in the real world don’t consist of drinking themselves into a stupor every weekend as a prelude to sexual activity.

Some AG students vow not to date anyone until marriage and to only socialize in groups, which vastly improves the odds of remaining pure. Yet the notion of young people saving themselves for marriage is gaining momentum at even some of the nation’s most liberal universities in response to the prevalent hookup culture. For example, undergraduates at Harvard and Princeton have banded together to form purity clubs.

Instead of being deemed nerdy or old-fashioned, virgins today are viewed as counterculture chic on many campuses. Students band together by making abstinence pledges, wearing promise rings and holding each other accountable.

Freitas, meanwhile, finds herself as the messenger to make naïve parents aware of the need to change hookup culture. She says it’s imperative for parents of prospective students to ask questions about the dating scene and sexual behavior while touring a campus. There won’t be anything in campus promotional literature about students taking their clothes off at drinking parties.

Since her book’s publication last year, Freitas has lectured on the topic at three dozen other schools. She has found theme parties are more ubiquitous than ever. Yet Freitas believes she is making progress. Everywhere she visits, she finds students wanting to escape the disrespectful hookup lifestyle and the accompanying lack of meaningful relationships.

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at Midlife Musings (

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