[Editor’s Note: Jennifer Beste holds the Koch Chair in Catholic Thought and Culture at the College of Saint Benedict. She received her Masters of Divinity degree from Vanderbilt Divinity School in 1997 and her Ph.D. in Religious Ethics from Yale University in 2003. Beste’s latest book, College Hookup Culture and Christian Ethics: The Lives and Longings of Emerging Adults, builds on the reflections of 126 undergraduate students who set out as sober ethnographers to observe and analyze peers at college parties. She spoke to Charles Camosy about her work.]

Camosy: Your book is unlike other works of moral theology in that much of your research comes from college students’ observations and analyses of college parties and theological and ethical reflections on their social reality. Can you say more about your methodology here?

Beste: Many millennials have internalized the message from popular culture that hookup culture is fun and liberating, while Christian narratives of sexuality and relationships are not. Year after year in my classroom, Catholic students have described their Church’s teachings on these topics as sex-negative, judgmental, or simply irrelevant to their lives.

Because most college students react skeptically to any authority that minimizes their own lived experiences, I chose a research methodology that would place college students’ own analyses of their social reality at the center of the discussion.

(Credit: OUP USA.)

What happens when 126 undergraduates at a Catholic university set out as sober ethnographers to observe and analyze peers at college parties? Part I of my book allows students to share what happens at parties, why they believe their peers act the way they do, what sorts of power dynamics are at play, and their conclusions about peers’ happiness and fulfillment in this culture. Students’ disillusionment with party and hookup culture sets the stage for the remaining chapters.

Part II, which explores the theological reflections of 150 college students at a different Catholic university, maintains my commitment to honor the voices of undergraduate “insiders” when it comes to understanding party and hookup culture. After my students read Johann Metz’s Poverty of Spirit, I asked them to imagine encountering Metz’s “fully human” Jesus, who has returned as a sophomore transfer student at their university.

Their conversations with Jesus in this assignment about what it would be like to embrace poverty of spirit, along with the cultural obstacles they would face in following Jesus’ way of being in the world, are revealing and insightful.

Part III draws on students’ ethical reflections and culminates in a call to action. My final chapters describe obstacles to sexual justice on college campuses, identify key commitments necessary for change, and envision how undergraduates can work to create the college culture they truly desire and deserve.

Everyone goes into such research with some expectations about what they will find, but I imagine you encountered some surprises as well?

First, I was shocked to learn that hookup culture and sexual violence are more intimately linked than I initially understood. Predatory behavior and sexual assault, more prevalent and normative than I expected, were described repeatedly every weekend students observed parties.

I was also surprised by the extent to which college students are dissatisfied with party and hookup culture and wish they had a range of other social options. When I began this research, I suspected that a significant percentage of students with high social status on campus would enthusiastically endorse this culture.

What I did not expect was that most ethnographers would privately express discontent with party and hookup norms. I say “privately” because I would have known almost nothing of their emptiness, loneliness, and pain if left to glean impressions from class discussions. Semester after semester, I noticed that many of the students who were nonchalant or positive about alcohol and hookups in class discussions would contradict their statements when writing privately in journals, papers, or emails.

If you had to choose the central take-away from what you learned about hook-up culture, what would it be?

Students’ ethnographic, theological, and ethical reflections reveal a serious contemporary crisis of authenticity, vulnerability, and relationality in college culture. Interestingly, even on Catholic campuses where administrators, faculty, and staff seek to foster students’ holistic development, undergraduates continue to struggle in both their day and night lives to become fully human and follow Christ’s countercultural example.

And yet, there are signs of hope that college students are able to disregard toxic status quo norms on a personal level and strive to create more sexually and socially just communities on their campuses.

For instance, after reflecting on Metz’s Jesus becoming fully human, a significant percentage of students reported in anonymous course evaluations that the course fostered personal growth and enabled them to make positive changes in their relationships and lives. Among the most common changes they made included 1) going out of their comfort zones to ask someone out on a date, 2) relating to their partner more justly by considering their full humanity, and 3) ending relationships that were unjust, abusive, or otherwise unfulfilling.

Disillusioned students longing for more can take hope in countercultural movements across the country that are confronting the dehumanizing and violent aspects of hookup culture and establishing best practices for transforming college campuses into the places they deserve and desire. There are definitely ways (explored in the final chapters of my book) to collaborate and channel our collective wisdom, energy, and creativity in the service of greater social, sexual, and relational justice.

What has been revealed in recent weeks about our broader culture of sexual harassment and violence is just horrific. Does it have a relationship with hook-up culture? 

Hookup culture is sadly just one manifestation a larger crisis of gender inequality, sexual harassment, and interpersonal violence in U.S. society and throughout the world.

By age 18, most undergraduates have already been heavily influenced by toxic elements of U.S. sexual and gender socialization, popular culture, and pornography. It’s not surprising that they conform to norms that tolerate and even eroticize harassment and sexual violence.

Many factors contribute, but two of the biggest drivers in a culture of sexual harassment and assault are our society’s social construction of masculinity and the way in which pornography has become mainstream in our culture. According to my students, “what it means to be a college man today” includes a number of traits antithetical to the characteristics revealed by a “fully human” Jesus.

Can you say a bit about what you consider a replacement culture? What can resist the powerful forces which built and now sustain hook-up culture?

A culture that can rise above the powerful forces that perpetuate hookup culture needs to tap into and fulfill college students’ deepest desires for affirmation, joy, and fulfillment. The students at both universities where I conducted my research expressed the following longings and desires:

First, to be free to express who they truly are, and to be accepted by their peers for who they are.

Second, be freed from narrow gender, social, and sexual norms, and to have socially acceptable alternatives for pursuing happiness and fulfillment.

Third, to experience loving relationships marked by authenticity and vulnerability.

Students favor a sexually just culture where their community respects their choices and values, as long as their choices don’t harm themselves or others.

In order to create a social movement that makes strides toward greater sexual justice, students need to become educated about pluralistic ignorance (most peers do not personally prefer hookup culture) and recognize that they are not alone in their dissatisfaction.

It is also helpful for students to explore religious traditions’ understandings of sexuality and relationships within their broader vision of a fulfilling life. For example, imagining a conversation with Jesus about becoming fully human made it easier for my students to name their own obstacles to fulfillment and also understand why Jesus’ “way of being” in the world gives them a much better chance at joy and fulfillment than the “way of being” in party and hookup culture. In short, countercultural Christian priorities including vulnerability, interdependence, and neighbor love (explored in my book) can loosen the grip of hookup culture and light an alternate path to joy for those who wish to follow Jesus’ way of being fully human.

What can Catholic communities and institutions do to help achieve these goals?

If we wish to create a more sexually just culture, I believe we must commit to the following:

  1. In the spirit of Pope Francis, who advocates for cultures of encounter and dialogue, the Catholic Church must embrace a new way to educate Catholic children, adolescents, and young adults about sexuality and relationships. College students have taught me that emphasizing purity and abstinence to captive audiences (many students’ experience in Catholic schools and parish religious education) simply fails to be effective long term. Rather than a moralistic, judgmental characterization of premarital sex as impure and taboo (which often makes it more enticing), we must situate issues of sexuality and relationships within a broader framework of what it means to follow Jesus and experience genuine joy and fulfillment.
  2. Before our youth can make healthy sexual choices that cohere with their faith, core values, and sense of self, we need to help them deconstruct and critically reflect on popular culture’s story of gender, sexuality, and relationships. First, since hypermasculinity fuels and perpetuates hookup culture, Catholic institutions need to provide a compelling countercultural account of what it means to “become a man.” Redefining masculinity—using Metz’s Jesus as a model, for example—is absolutely essential to fostering holistic development and ending sexual harassment and violence. Next, Catholic parents, teachers, and religious leaders need to engage in honest conversations with adolescents and young adults about what is so attractive and compelling about pop culture’s narrative that hookup sex is exciting and liberating. We then need to deconstruct this narrative by comparing it to young people’s actual experiences of hookups and hookup culture. After adolescents and young adults have an opportunity in a non-judgmental space to reflect critically on pop culture and their peer culture, they will be more open to considering life-giving insights from the Catholic tradition and other religions about life’s purpose, fulfillment, sexuality, and relationships.
  3. Since hookups mimic sex in the popular scripts of pornography (where individuals are unattached, unemotional, physically aggressive, and usually focused on the male’s pleasure), Catholic institutions also need to help parents, teachers, and religious leaders educate our adolescents as young as 12 about the negative effects of pornography and the hallmarks of healthy relationships.
  4. In order to form young people’s consciences to care about relating to others justly and create a culture in which sexual harassment and sexual assault are not tolerated, we need to cultivate empathy more effectively. To do this, it is important to dispel rape myths and educate adolescents about sexual assault and its serious traumatic effects. We also need to foster discussion among our youth about what beliefs enable perpetrators to dehumanize their targets and assault them, and what beliefs allow communities to tolerate sexual violence. Most importantly, Catholic high schools and universities must adopt an affirmative sexual consent standard and develop clear policies and sanctions so that sexual harassment and assault will not be tolerated in their communities.

In order for any of these efforts to be successful, the overarching goal of faith and moral formation must be to empower Catholic children and adolescents to “own” their faith and values. Possessing a strong sense of agency will enable them to reject toxic social and sexual norms.

My book fosters students’ critical reflection, discernment, and agency. It is in this dialogical space where priests, youth ministers, teachers, and parents can share what they find insightful about Catholic teachings on life’s purpose, fulfillment, sexuality, and relationships.