- “Socially speaking, the ideal Christian male at [this university] is both a partier and a churchgoer.” Tweet This
- Students I spoke to mentioned that such an intense focus on marriage can play a role in sexualizing dating, especially for impressionable freshmen who are usually not ready for marriage and ill-equipped to adopt the “all in or all out mentality.” Tweet This
- One story I repeatedly heard was that many young men at this university are terrified to ask young women on dates, or to initiate relationships in general. Tweet This
Modern young adults face a barrage of sexual messaging, from social media content to pop culture influences. Meanwhile, many struggle to find partners and form stable relationships. Recent studies show that unmarried young adults are increasingly likely to avoid dating and many are having less sex, especially defenders of premarital abstinence.
With their higher concentrations of marriage-oriented students, Evangelical universities may provide interesting insight into these trends. I recently interviewed 8 college students from one such school to get their takes on the campus sexual culture.
These interviews included a sample of five young men and three young women currently enrolled in the institution, including two freshmen, two sophomores, three juniors, and one senior. All but one respondent identified as Christian, but the students held manifold perspectives on sex. Most affirmed the Christian ideal of waiting for marriage but varied in how they expressed this belief.1
One young man, a freshman, put it bluntly, “Sex is for marriage. There’s nothing else to say.” Others were more moderate, such as one young woman, a junior, who said, “Personally, I wouldn’t participate, but it’s hard to judge. It’s not so black and white.” Some were more openly permissive: another freshman guy said, “I’ve hooked up before, and I get why people do it. Sex can be very affirming.”2
Even with this variety, common themes recurred in the interviews, which are worth exploring here.
Here for the Party
Despite a prominent Christian presence, hookup culture is undoubtedly alive at the university. Most respondents were surprised by the casual boldness with which their peers discuss sex. They mentioned that many young men attend parties where “the whole goal is to get laid” and later banter competitively about their sexual exploits.
However, this behavior is not restricted to males. One sophomore described her first day in the dining hall freshman year where a group of girls “started comparing how many boys they’d slept with in high school.” Meanwhile, one senior recounted walking past a male dorm room and hearing one young lady proudly proclaim, “I’m the last one who had sex!” For an institution that claims to uphold the value of waiting for marriage, surely these stories are cause for concern.
But perhaps they should not come as a surprise. In Paying for the Party, sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton explore how various “pathways” have emerged at colleges across America. Among these, the “party pathway,” characterized by drinking, partying, and casual sex, has become especially rife.
In my own interviews, when I asked why students hook up, I consistently heard, “it’s the college experience,” confirming the precedence of the “party pathway” even at this Christian university. This disjunction between evangelical belief and behavior is consistent with David Ayers’ IFS findings on evangelical young adults’ sexual behavior before marriage, which showed that 51% of evangelical 18-22 year olds who attend church weekly have had premarital sex, and about 56% of young men and 54% of young women who say that their religious beliefs are “very important” have had premarital sex.
Sexual permissiveness is prevalent, even among Evangelical young adults, a finding that was confirmed in my interviews with Evangelical university students. In fact, I heard several stories about students partying, hooking up, and then going to church together the next morning. Whether this attendance was motivated by contrition, or a sense of self-justification, these students embody the sentiment expressed by one junior male: “socially speaking, the ideal Christian male at [this university] is both a partier and a churchgoer.”
Moreover, the pull towards the “party pathway” seemed even stronger at this university, given the more sheltered backgrounds of many of its students. Living apart from their parents for the first time and surrounded by an array of potential partners, they may see their newfound freedom as a chance for sexual adventure and join in with others who arrived more intentionally primed to party.
The Limits of Hookup Culture
However, the prevalence of a hookup culture does not necessarily translate to lots of people having lots of sex. Without a consistent partner, the average partier may not actually have much sex at all. And when hookups do happen, they may leave participants feeling lonely, hurt, and disconnected from the relationship we naturally seek as human beings. Consistent with Christine Emba’s argument in Rethinking Sex, most of my respondents emphasized that casual sex is not actually casual. It tends to muddy the waters of one’s relationship to themselves, their partner(s), and their peers.
Moreover, this university’s strong Christian networks seemed to keep the party pathway at bay when compared to other, more secular institutions where, according to American Hookup by Sociologist Lisa Wade, “there is no escaping hookup culture.” Sentiments including, “it depends where you look” were common in my interviews. One sophomore girl even remarked, “a strong majority do participate, but many don’t.” In other words, there are viable social alternatives to hookup culture at this university. Here, hookup culture is less of a dispersed “fog” and more of a restrained blaze, defining the “college experience” for many, but not all, students. Those who do not participate are not “opting out,” but focusing more on academics and alternate forms of socialization.
Whereas many students arrived on campus excited for love (regardless of whether they were marriage or party-oriented), they later find themselves alienated from the opposite sex and minimizing the prospect of marriage.
“Ring by Spring” and the Slippery Slope of Premarital Sex
Casual hookups, though, are not the only setting where premarital sex occurs. Some students may view sex as a normal part of dating relationships. However, such a belief is less prevalent at this school, generally supplanted by efforts to quickly locate “the one” and partner off in marriage. As noted by Emma Waters in a recent article, this “ring by spring” mentality is common at many Christian universities, helping some students streamline the process of locating a partner and getting married young.
However, the students I spoke to also mentioned that such an intense focus on marriage can play a role in sexualizing dating, especially for impressionable freshmen who are usually not ready for marriage and ill-equipped to adopt the “all in or all out mentality” mentioned by Waters in her article. Still, eager to be in romantic relationships, many of these students are already grappling with the topics of marriage and sexuality. With many still waiting for their “sexual debut,” the realization that marriage is likely several years away may loom in their minds. Whether they are in serious relationships or still trying to locate a partner, they may start to see dating and marriage primarily as matters of social evaluation and exclusion.
Eager to have that “all in” relationship, students may wrestle with competing pressures of wanting to be married, but also wanting to experience the social ease of their partying peers. Caught in this tension, beliefs can start to crumble, and at some point, sex and marriage get mentally decoupled from one another.
As sexual boundaries collapse, students who were originally looking for a spouse start to resemble those looking for a party. As one freshman young man put it, “Marriage starts to seem so distant. People think, ‘I’ll figure that out later. I just want to experience things now.’” These students enact a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that their distant perception of marriage enables behaviors that contribute to its delay.
What is particularly disheartening is that these students are not really looking for a hookup but the relational connection and inclusion that both marriage and sex seem to entail. Regardless of the intention, though, the result of these premarital flings is often just as bad, if not worse, than hookup sex. While some couples do go on to marry, many find themselves disillusioned when things don’t work out the way they had anticipated.
Pressures From Within and Without
Even if sex isn’t involved, relational disappointments in the early years of college (along with all the pressures of college life) can make the whole process start to feel burdensome, leading many students to opt out of romance altogether. This pattern was embodied by several of the older students I interviewed, who had been going on “casual dates” but were very hesitant to jump into committed relationships after previous disappointments.
This relationship avoidance was not only present among older students, but also more broadly among non-partying males. One story I repeatedly heard was that many young men at this university are terrified to ask young women on dates, or to initiate relationships in general. As a result of their hesitation, some young women feel the need to seek alternative pathways for romance, such as partying or online dating—settings dominated by men shallowly focused on acquiring sex. For example, one young woman in her junior year shared that after she cautioned a friend to be careful on a Tinder date, the friend responded, “It has to happen somehow! Don’t worry, I won’t go all the way to intercourse or anything.” Unfortunately for her, and many others in similarly compromising situations, hypothetical boundaries don’t always pan out. So, while hookup culture may contribute to broader patterns of relationship avoidance, male hesitation to enter the dating pool can also push girls towards settling for less.
However, despite the presence of premarital sex in these various settings, students at this university, especially older students, often avoid romantic relationships altogether and have little (if any) sex. Although this premarital abstinence may sound like a positive, we should not miss the larger issue at play. For many students, these patterns of avoidance ultimately represent a failure to integrate romance into their lives. Whereas many arrived on campus excited for love (regardless of whether they were marriage or party-oriented), they later find themselves alienated from the opposite sex and minimizing the prospect of marriage.
What is most striking about my conversations with students is how consistently hopeful many remain about marriage, despite all these challenges.
All Is Not Lost
Although elite, Evangelical universities produce large numbers of engaged or married graduates (who also tend to have greater marital stability), my interviews revealed that tensions around sex, dating, and marriage persist—at least at this university. Between hookup culture, marital expectations, and the general responsibilities of college life, the whole romantic landscape can become difficult to navigate, and many, unfortunately, choose to opt out altogether.
Yet what is most striking about my conversations with students is how consistently hopeful many remain about marriage, despite all these challenges. Even those who do not firmly profess Christian belief acknowledged that committed relationships are the ideal setting for sex and that it is possible, if difficult, to wait until marriage.
In summary, there is a lot of work to be done at this university to improve the romantic climate for students. While respondents agreed that it is not primarily the job of the institution to regulate its students’ sexual behavior, several mentioned that administrators can do more to promote charitable environments both on and off campus.3 While Title IX trainings may help students understand legal boundaries around sex, they do not do much to promote a positive vision of sex, especially when many students already approach the topic by asking what is “off limits,” instead of pursuing what is ideal.
Moreover, students need to know that they don’t have to conform to dominant narratives about what success looks like in sex, dating, and marriage. In the face of loneliness and disappointment, there are alternatives to the extremes. It is possible to find individuals, couples, and communities that treat romantic relationships as matters of connection and commitment, rather than exclusion and exploitation. Here, lives are naturally woven together when the time is right. Bringing this kind of ethic forward will certainly be key to creating a sustainable future for marriage in America.4
Riley Peterson is an undergraduate studying Religion and Sociology at Baylor University.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.
1. Respondents held a wide range of relationship statuses, including one student who was engaged, 1 who was currently in a committed dating relationship, 3 who were going on casual dates or “talking,” 2 who were single after recent breakups, and 1 who was currently single, but acquainted with hookup culture.
2. Respondents also held a wide range of political perspectives, including 3 who identified as more conservative, 3 as moderate, and 2 as more liberal.
3. Cohabitation and premarital sex are technically against this university’s code of conduct, but according to respondents, actual enforcement of these policies is limited.
4. This study observed students of a relatively large, private, evangelical university, populated by students who are mostly Christian, and with a large portion of students coming from affluent backgrounds.