Let’s talk about sex...on Christian college campuses

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Risk vulnerability. It is what many millennials are unwilling to do in their sexual relationships, despite the fact that good sex, from a Christian perspective, requires it. Vulnerability is also what is required of readers who engage Jennifer Beste’s College Hookup Culture and Christian Ethics: The Lives and Longings of Emerging Adults, which brings us unabashedly into the social and sexual lives of students at two unnamed Catholic universities. Beste incorporates and examines the reflections of students in her sexual ethics courses, some of whom functioned as ethnographers, whose fieldwork required (sober!) observation of students at college parties.

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College Hookup Culture and Christian Ethicsby Jennifer Beste

Oxford University Press. 376p. $34.74

Student revelations present a discouraging, even frightening, picture: drunken sex, purposefully devoid of personal and emotional connection; social and sexual interactions, as well as students’ self-identity, plagued by distorted gender norms; widespread consumption of porn that intensifies hypermasculine attitudes and behaviors; sexual violence and rape (though too often not named as such); and acute social pressure to participate in a party and hookup culture at the risk of social exclusion. Thankfully, Beste is willing to delve directly into this messiness with her students, inviting them—and, in turn, us—to think critically about it, analyze it from a theo-ethical perspective and move toward more promising ways of being in relationship.

Student testimony discloses mixed thoughts and feelings about the prevalent party and hookup culture. On the one hand, drinking and flirting at parties and hooking up are identified as ways to blow off steam amid daily pressures, garner attention and feel wanted, (sometimes) have pleasurable sexual experiences and (again, sometimes) attempt to find someone to date. On the other hand, drunken hookups often leave students feeling used, regretful and disingenuous. As the book title suggests, many of these emerging adults long for more than what current social and sexual environments provide. They both willingly participate and wish things were different, recognizing social and sexual pressures on them that they feel ill-equipped to escape.

Helping emerging adults negotiate college hookup culture demands frank and multilayered conversations, including on topics such as anthropology, sex, economics, gender, race and social media.

Beste creatively utilizes the work of theologians, such as Johann Baptist Metz and Margaret Farley, to help students consider how Christian discipleship opposes many of the values and behaviors of the hookup culture. Examining their experience in conversation with theory and one another, students are prompted to discern concretely how (as embodied and beloved of God) they are called to authenticity, fullness of life and just and loving relationships. Overall, Beste provides careful theological analysis of the reflections of her students and of the social and sexual realities of college students more broadly, providing a helpful resource for those interested in creating safe and just campuses and in supporting emerging adults in families and in the church.

As a teacher of Christian sexual ethics at a Catholic college myself, I admire Beste’s gritty, informed and ultimately hopeful approach to what may appear hopeless—not only upon first glance but under the surface where complexities are exposed. Helping emerging adults negotiate this culture demands frank and multilayered conversations, including on topics such as anthropology, sex, economics, gender, race and social media.

Kudos to Beste for taking such an approach in her classrooms; as a reader I saw her students benefiting from it, rejoicing in their “aha” moments and hoping for resultant new ways of being and living. Yet students alone cannot bring about necessary changes, and Beste does well to conclude by exhorting faculty, staff and administrators to collectively work to create spaces for students to critically discern how to become authentic and flourishing embodied selves. Surely College Hookup Culture and Christian Ethics will be a valuable resource in that effort and a valuable read for anyone interested in the lives of young people.

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