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Sacramental Sex?

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Last month, Donna Freitas, author of the 2008 book Sex and the Soul, addressed residence hall staff and the campus community at Notre Dame in a talk entitled: “Catholicism and a Culture of Consent.” In the process of her research on sexuality and faith, Freitas conducted hundreds of interviews with students on a variety of college campuses.  Based on these interviews, Freitas compiled a working definition of the circumlocution often used to describe sexual encounters among college students: the hook-up.

By Freitas’ definition, a “hookup” is:

1. Some sort of sexual intimacy: anything from a kiss to intercourse.

2. It is brief: five minutes, one night, and no promise or intention of continuance.

3. Finally, and most importantly, there is a lack of emotional investment. The ideal feelings for a hook-up would be a laconic nonchalance. She who shows the least interest wins.

Because lack of caring about the other is part of hookup culture, in the midst of this self-absorbed quest to cease to care about the other person, the initiator might lose sight of the needs and desires of the other person. In fact, in trying to divest their sexual encounter of emotional engagement, they might not notice when their partner is no longer engaged, interested, happy, or even when their partner might refuse further intercourse. In shutting out their attentiveness to the other person, they may in fact, not hear their “no.” The not-caring of the hookup culture actively fosters a callousness that lies at the root of sexual assault.

Sexual assault has become a small epidemic in American universities. A cursory search of the Department of Education’s website reveals that there are Title IX cases currently open everywhere, from elite institutions on the East Coast to small community colleges in the Midwest.

Ubiquitous scandals have made it imperative for universities to take sexual assault seriously; thus, programming about consent, awareness, and preventing sexual assault have sprung up on campuses around the country. Conversations about consent and the importance of eliminating sexual assault are legion. But, according to Freitas these conversations only “scratch the surface,” since the vast majority of conversations about sexual assault ignore the milieu of the hookup culture on campus.

“This effort is far too surface in order to make the sea change in our culture.” If our conversations do not address the underlying virus of the hookup culture, they will fail to eradicate its manifestation in sexual assault.

By its very premise, which is a rejection of a holistic and integrated understanding of sexual intimacy, the hookup culture fosters an environment in which sexual assault can flourish. In fact, sexual assault seems to be the logical conclusion of the hookup culture. If the only referent for hooking up and sex are myself, and my social status, then naturally the other person’s wishes and feelings are irrelevant. “Hook up culture is incredibly narcissistic,” said Freitas, as “it teaches people the only person who matters when it comes to sex is ME.”

As an antidote, Freitas offered Catholic Social Teaching as a paradigm for engaging in the conversation of sexual ethics. She referenced Simone Weil’s idea of creative attention. Love of our neighbor manifests itself fully in our attentiveness to their well-being, taking notice of their suffering, their pain, their joys, their entire person. Freitas called on students to understand social justice not just as an “export” of campus, that is taken to soup kitchens and spring break immersion trips; but as a blueprint for campus culture itself. The principles of Catholic Social Teaching ought to govern a campus community.

These invite deeper reflection: how do we love the socially awkward student in our section: do we extend an invitation to him as well? Do we stand in solidarity with those in pain in our community? Do we treat classmates, dining hall employees, and professors in a manner that honors their human dignity? Do we carry that call to honor human dignity into our Friday nights?

Through the paradigm of Catholic Social Teaching, Freitas sought to elevate the discourse regarding sexual ethics to a deeper level than merely safety or consent. But the Church herself elevates sexual ethics beyond the level of social teaching to a sacramental level. Freitas was inviting us to understand sex as an act governed by just social practice, but the Church invites us to understand sex as an act governed by sacrament.

How does the Catholic sacramental imagination figure into our discourse on the hookup culture and sexual assault? When asked a question about the Church’s teaching on marriage, Freitas responded that the Church’s teaching on sex only in the context of marriage was an “unrealistic” gospel to preach to college students.

Most of the good news is, to human understanding, startlingly unrealistic. God as human? This human God suffering death? The God-man coming to us as bread and wine? None of this seems realistic. This is not readily comprehended, easily mastered good news.

But this is the good news that was preached to us. And, unrealistic and impractical as the Incarnation appears, it answers a deep longing of our hearts. How, then, can this revelation impact our understanding of sex? Beyond simply a social justice towards our neighbor, which requires us to treat them with compassion and dignity, how does our image of one another as sacraments of the Trinity, how does our participation in the life of God through Christ transform our understanding of sexuality?

Freitas is correct. Divorced from the context of sacramental imagination, the Church’s call to abstinence seems simply obsolete. It seems unrealistic. But if the conversation about sex is not engaged on this sacramental level, then our efforts to change the culture of sexual assault will ultimately fail.

Renée D. Roden

Renée D. Roden is a Master of Theological Studies student at the University of Notre Dame and a graduate fellow of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.