Surprising Research Finds More Sexual Activity on ‘Mostly’ Catholic Campuses
A “lukewarm” faith has never been good for Christians (Rev. 3:16), and a new study suggests it’s not very helpful with regard to a college’s Catholic identity, either.
College campuses that students characterize as “mostly Catholic” have higher rates of sexual “hookups” than colleges that are both more and less religious, according to the author of Faith with Benefits: Hookup Culture on Catholic Campuses.
Jason King, professor of theology at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Penn., studied students’ perceptions of the strength of the Catholic identities of Catholic colleges in the U.S. and the correlation to casual sexual encounters on the college campuses. In an interview with The Cardinal Newman Society, he said he found evidence of a strong correlation, but not in all the ways one might expect.
King also recently published a condensed explanation of his study at First Things.
Many reports have lamented the so-called hookup culture on college campuses, but there is limited research about Catholic colleges, as Dr. Christopher Kaczor found in a 2012 study for The Cardinal Newman Society. King says he was intrigued by the Newman Society’s efforts over the years to assess the problem, but he was especially inspired by his own students, in whom he saw a desire for good and chaste relationships.
Surprising results of study
King, who teaches a Christian marriage and family course at Saint Vincent College, is “astounded” by the dominance of the hookup culture as a mental framework through which many college students pursue romantic interests, engage in relationships or merely talk to someone new. He defines a hookup as “sexual interaction with no expectation of a subsequent relationship.”
Students think that “there’s just no viable alternative,” King told the Newman Society. “It stuns me that everyone assumes either you hook up or you’re totally out of the social world. Even on very Catholic campuses where by far most people do not hook up… students still felt like they have to wrestle with [the hookup culture] and explain their rejection of hooking up, even though it wasn’t on their campus.”
Despite the prevalence of this cultural mindset, however, King said that most students “don’t like the random, anonymous hookups; they want something more meaningful.”
Still, many students on Catholic campuses do have casual sexual encounters, King’s research shows, and Catholic identity is not always a predictor of a better campus culture.
He measured Catholic identity by students’ perceptions, which he described in his First Things article:
- On campuses characterized by students as very Catholic: Eighty percent of students identify as Catholic; three classes are required in theology; Mass is celebrated every day of the week; few if any residence halls are co-ed; and strict limits are placed on co-ed visitation.
- On campuses characterized by students as mostly Catholic: Seventy-five percent of students identify as Catholic; two classes are required in theology; Mass is celebrated most days of the week; most residence halls are co-ed; and some limits are placed on co-ed visitation.
- On campuses characterized by students as somewhat Catholic: Sixty-eight percent of students identify as Catholic; one class is required in theology; Mass is celebrated on Sundays; all residence halls are co-ed; and minimal limits are place on co-ed visitation.
There seems to be a clear gradation of Catholic identity: students’ stronger perceptions of Catholic identity generally indicate larger portions of Catholic students and more required theology courses, Mass availability, dorm privacy and bedroom privacy. But the same gradation doesn’t apply to sexual activity, King found.
“I expected a simple scale—the more Catholic a college was, the less hooking up there would be—a linear relationship,” King told the Newman Society. Instead, as he described in First Things:
On very Catholic campuses, less than 30 percent of students hook up. Given that very Catholic campuses have such low rates of hooking up, one would expect somewhat Catholic campuses to have the highest rates of hooking up. They do not. Less than half of the students on these campuses—45 percent—hook up. While this rate is higher than that on very Catholic campuses, it is lower than that on mostly Catholic campuses, where 55 percent of students hook up.
Factors in hookup culture
Why the surprising differences? King found that numerous factors impact a college’s hookup culture, including the students’ devotion to the Catholic faith and the college’s residential life, core curriculum and liturgical schedule. While these seem to distinguish “very Catholic” colleges, something else seems to be at play in “mostly” and “somewhat” Catholic institutions.
King believes that the difference at “very” Catholic colleges lies in the religious devotion of the students. “Catholic identity frames students’ thinking and acting on campus,” he writes in First Things. At “mostly” Catholic colleges, most students are open to sexual activity—but unlike much of the hookup culture on secular campuses, many students hope that hookups will lead to meaningful relationships. At “somewhat” Catholic colleges, devotion to the Catholic faith and morality may be less, but many students come from disadvantaged families and are focused on getting a degree.
“They see hooking up as too risky, jeopardizing their education and their future,” King writes, which explains the lower sexual activity despite colleges’ weak Catholic identity.
For colleges hoping to challenge the hookup culture, King told the Newman Society that the most important factor is the number of Catholic students on the campus.
“The more students on a campus who identify as Catholic, the more Catholic the campus ‘feels’ to the students,” King said.
Students’ perception of a college’s Catholic identity is incredibly important to the development of their relationships, he said. Although Catholic campuses in general have lower rates of hooking up than their secular counterparts, the Catholic campuses where 80 percent of students identify as Catholic have the lowest rate of students hooking up.
Catholic colleges should also focus on the things that students encounter frequently and over the course of time, King said. By focusing on “classes, Masses and dorms,” college leaders can support a culture of chastity and healthy relationships. This suggests Catholic classes in the core curriculum and offering daily Masses in addition to Sunday Mass.
Additionally, the residence life of a college matters, King explained, because students spend a significant amount of time in their dorms, and it is the primary place where students make friends. Having clear residence life policies regarding dorm configurations (i.e. single sex or co-ed) and visitation hours can support students who want to live responsibly.
“That mixture of students and their friend networks are important,” King told the Newman Society, “and the residential life and core curriculum and liturgical schedule factor into making a particular Catholic identity and how it functions.”
Last year, the Newman Society named virtuous residence life practices as one of the signs of renewal at many Catholic colleges in America. According to students at faithful Catholic colleges, single-sex residences and privacy policies for bedrooms are having a lasting impact on the campus culture and are cultivating a college environment that supports chastity and growing in virtue and friendship.
Students finding alternatives
King was impressed by the students he talked to during his research, who he said have creative ways of working around the hookup culture.
“Lots of students don’t want to participate,” King told the Newman Society, so they come up with alternative options. “That was really heartening for me. Whenever I could, I found ways of highlighting these [in the book],” King said. “These students come up with these great ideas, but they don’t get shared widely.”
For students considering a Catholic college, King recommends they talk to the students. “See what the students are like, what they’re doing. Get a sense of how they live, how they take their faith,” he suggested.
“I see a lot of potential and promise,” King said. “The students seem unhappy with the stereotypical hookup culture, and so many are finding so many ways to work around it, and it’s ripe for significant change pretty soon. It gives me hope, and I’m happy to encourage it.”