“Hooking Up”

A study finds that young women attending Catholic colleges and universities are almost four times more likely to have engaged in casual sexual encounters during college than their counterparts at secular colleges and universities.

A recent national survey of the dating behavior of college students reveals that young women attending Catholic colleges and universities are almost four times more likely to have engaged in casual sexual encounters than their counterparts at secular schools. The data indicate that attending an institution of Catholic higher education dramatically increases the possibility that female students will engage in casual sex during their college years.

In “‘Hooking Up’ at College: Does Religion Make a Difference?,” an article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion that appeared late last year, sociology professors Amy Burdette, Terrence Hill, Christopher Ellison and Norval Glenn describe the results of a comparative study of the dating behavior of college students. Drawing from a national sample of 1,000 college women, the sociologists surveyed female college students in an effort to analyze the influence of both individual and institutional religious factors on engaging in casual sexual encounters. The results reveal that women enrolled in Catholic colleges were much more likely to have “hooked up” while at school than women at colleges with no religious affiliation. And although college women on secular campuses, like those on Catholic campuses, report high rates of sexual activity, female college students enrolled in evangelical colleges have much lower rates.

The study reveals that “hooking up” has replaced traditional forms of courtship on college campuses and appears to be a reflection of the changing norms in the dating and sexual behaviors of college students. Although the goal of study was to determine whether or not religious affiliation and activity would make a difference in the students’ decision to participate in casual sex, the authors of this study offer some clues about the impact of the campus culture on sexual activity.

In their study, Burdette and her colleagues point to the role that “moral communities” have historically played in the lives of students. They hypothesized that those communities with shared moral convictions—like the Catholic campuses of the past—would have a strong moral influence on students. Predicting that Catholic campuses would have a moralizing influence on their students, Burdette and her colleagues were surprised to learn when they analyzed their survey data that this was not the case on Catholic campuses and they began to question the “moral communities” thesis.

On closer inspection, they concluded that “not all religiously affiliated colleges and universities constitute moral communities.” In fact, on most of the Catholic campuses they studied, the moral community was completely missing.

While “hooking up” can refer to a wide range of sexual behaviors, the defining characteristic is that the sexual behavior is casual and lacks commitment. Burdette and her colleagues note: “Students generally use the phrase to refer to a physical encounter between two people who are largely unfamiliar with one another, or otherwise briefly acquainted.” There is often moderate to heavy alcohol consumption involved and no anticipation of a future relationship. Increased sexual activity by college students on most college campuses has been a growing problem since the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Dramatic increases in premarital sexual activity by college-age students have been well documented for decades now. What has changed is the increasing incidence of “hooking up” on most college campuses.


But the question remains: Why are female students on Catholic campuses four times more likely to engage in casual sex than female students on secular campuses? For those who might prefer to believe that the dramatic differences in the rate of “hooking up” by Catholic college students (when compared with their peers on secular and evangelical campuses) are anomalous, they can take little comfort in the results of additional data gathered by other scholars which report similar findings. A book titled Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses by Donna Freitas, assistant professor of religion at Boston University, reveals disturbing data about the coarsened culture on many campuses—including Catholic campuses.

Describing campus parties with themes like “pimps and ho’s,” “CEOs and offi ce ho’s,” and “golf pros and tennis ho’s,” Freitas helps readers understand the culture that has emerged on Catholic campuses over the past few decades. Rather than relying on the anonymous survey data compiled by the sociological authors of “Hooking Up,” Freitas visited seven of America’s colleges and universities—public and private, Catholic and evangelical—surveying 2,500 students and interviewing 111 about religion and sex.

These students’ stories of sexuality and spirituality combine with the quantitative data collected by the sociologists to reveal that on many campuses— including Catholic campuses—the culture is dominated by casual sex. Worse, Freitas found that on Catholic campuses a surprising number of students “see little connection between sex and religion.” It was only at evangelical colleges that religious beliefs played a role for students in determining their sexual behavior.

Sadly, Freitas found that in her conversations with students on both secular and Catholic campuses, female students are longing for a different kind of culture—a culture that respects their dignity. They are not happy with the culture of casual sex on their campuses and “they want religion to speak to them about what they should do and who they should try to be—not just what they should avoid doing.” These students want the culture of casual sex to change, but none of them have an idea of how to change it. One thing they do know is that despite the “appearance” of Catholicism on campus through religious iconography and campus programs for community service and social justice, the culture and the curriculum have become so degraded that many students on these campuses claim that they hardly even recognize that they are attending a religiously- affiliated college.

Students are exposed to the corrosive eff ects of this degraded culture through, among other things, “theme parties” and problematic speakers who justify abortion, contraceptives, and gay and lesbian relationships. A few years ago, Larry Flynt, the notorious publisher of Hustler magazine, was a guest speaker at Georgetown University. Georgetown also provided funding for “Sex Positive Week” so that students could present sessions on “Virginity and Losing It,” “Disability and Sexuality,” and “God and the Erotic.”

Georgetown was also among 14 Catholic colleges and universities that were listed as holding a production of the play The Vagina Monologues. Catholic colleges (most of them Jesuit) that hosted the play this year included Barry University, College of the Holy Cross, College of St. Benedict, College of St. Rose, DePaul University, Fordham University, John Carroll University, Loyola University of Chicago, Regis College, St. Mary’s College of California, Seattle University, Boston College, and the University of San Francisco. Some colleges have become more creative in providing access to the play for their students—while steering clear of the controversy. For example, the University of San Diego does not host the play on campus but for years has provided students with transportation to view the play at a neighboring campus. San Diego students are also invited to a “Monologues” dinner and a faculty-led discussion about it.

Beyond student affairs, there are tenured faculty members on many of these campuses who seem determined to destroy the authority of the moral teachings of the Church in the eyes of their students. It is clear that a vibrant and celebratory gay and lesbian community exists on many Catholic campuses. Replete with gay and lesbian dances and events, these campuses send the message that Catholic teachings on gay and lesbian behavior are irrelevant. In 2005, DePaul University, the nation’s largest Catholic university, became the first Catholic campus to offer a minor in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) Studies. In 2006, the Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students named DePaul University one of the “Top 100 Best Campuses” in the United States for LGBT students. Citing its “Queer Kiss-In,” as well as its annual “Coming Out Ball,” “Springtime Drag Fest,” and support services for students “transitioning from male to female or female to male,” the editors note that DePaul has long been known as an “extremely progressive campus for LGBT issues.”

Support for Catholic moral teachings— beyond a vaguely defined “social justice”—is difficult to find on a Catholic campus. Most pro-life student groups are student-initiated and receive little funding from student affairs budgets—and even less support from the administration. Last year, when Notre Dame gave President Obama an honorary degree and the privilege to present the commencement address to its senior class, it did so without providing a rebuttal of his radical proabortion stance.

Recent data released from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate indicates that there are significant declines in Catholic students’ support for Catholic moral teachings on abortion, marriage, and sexuality after four years at a Catholic college or university. On some of these measures, Catholic college students indicated greater increases in support for abortion and same-sex marriage than those on secular colleges during their years on a Catholic campus. Only 7 percent of Catholic college students increase their attendance at religious services upon arrival, while 32 percent reduce attendance. Further, 12 percent of Catholic students leave the Catholic faith while attending a Catholic institution.

It is not surprising that students on Catholic campuses are becoming involved in unfulfilling and destructive sexual relationships. There is little in the culture of the Catholic campus to discourage this behavior. As the authors of the “Hooking Up” study demonstrate, there is an absence of “a moral community” on many of these campuses.


The only exception Freitas found to the “hook-up” culture was at evangelical colleges: “Life at an evangelical school is, in a sense, enclosed by the Christian faith in a manner suggestive of what sociologist of religion Peter Berger calls the ‘sacred canopy.’” Like the moral communities that Burdette and her colleagues identify, Freitas discovered that “evangelical campus culture is religiously infused on every level.” Students who attend evangelical schools tend to expect that their peers are Christian, attend church, study the Bible, and pray often. Within evangelical student campus culture, the focus is on courtship and marriage while emphasizing chastity. Freitas says that “a quest for purity and chastity reigns supreme on these campuses.”

In contrast, when Freitas talked with students on Catholic campuses, she found a general sense of apathy toward the Catholic faith and its teachings on sexuality. Many responded with laughter, noting the “impractical,” “unrealistic,” and “archaic” nature of the Catholic teaching on contraception and pre marital sex. Unlike evangelical students, many Catholic students enter college without a strong foundation in Scripture, and many lack knowledge of Catholic moral teachings. While many evangelical students have a lifetime of Bible camps and strong Christian schools, few Catholic students bring a similarly strong catechetical background with them to college. Weakened teaching in theology or Scripture at the Catholic elementary and high school levels have left many Catholic young people ill-equipped to deal with the culture that greets them on a Catholic campus. And while this does not excuse the problems on Catholic campuses, it is clear that evangelical students arrive on campus much more biblically aware—and better-prepared theologically and scripturally—than most Catholic students are when they arrive on campus.

In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI called upon educators to “create an atmosphere favorable to the growth of chastity so that true liberty may prevail over license and the norms of the moral law may be fully safeguarded.” While the authors of the “Hooking Up” study note that despite the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s clear teaching that “sexual relationships must take place exclusively within marriage and that sex outside of marriage always constitutes a grave sin,” it appears that little has been done to convey this to students.

The authors of the “Hooking Up” study list several ways that religious colleges can create an environment that helps to build a moral community—one that is “less conducive to casual physical encounters.” For example, while most evangelical colleges require their faculty to sign a statement of faith, only a few Catholic colleges require a statement of fidelity from their Catholic faculty.

Erin Lovette-Colyer, director of the women’s center at the University of San Diego, says that alcohol use has been “contributing to decisions students are making around sex.” The authors of the “Hooking Up” study note that most Catholic schools have permissive alcohol regulations, in contrast to evangelical colleges. For example, at Notre Dame, students are allowed to have beer or wine in their dorm rooms.

Religious colleges may also attempt to “regulate opposite-sex interactions through specific university policies,” such as limited visiting hours and bans on coed dorms. But at many Catholic colleges, the visiting hours of members of the opposite sex extend from early in the morning until very late at night— or, as Kathleen Bogle, author of Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus, notes, on many Catholic campuses, “young men and women have unrestricted access to each other.”

Although these simple strategies may begin to address the problem on Catholic campuses, there will be little progress in creating a moral community on campus unless Catholic colleges and universities begin to address the degraded student culture and curricula that confront their students. Creating a moral community on a Catholic campus demands that all members of the community— including students, faculty, and student affairs personnel—respect Catholic moral values about life and the dignity of the person. Unfortunately, most Catholic college presidents and boards, caught up in a misguided quest for “diversity,” are simply not interested in requiring this ethos.


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About Anne Hendershott 101 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.  She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Sophia Books, 2020)