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Features

Hooked up on sex

Jenny Taylor, Donna Freitas and Catherine Pepinster

The sexual revolution may have brought more tolerance, but Jenny Taylor, Donna Freitas and Catherine Pepinster believe the over-sexualisation of society is now oppressive - particularly for women and young people.

 

JENNY TAYLOR, founder of Lapido Media

I was a very secular journalist for some years. All through my late teens and twenties I lived a typical hack's life and smoked a lot, drank a lot, slept around and bought the whole package about free love: sex is good, it's healthy. Not just that, it's actually politically good, and through it you can make a political statement about suppressed women and about your freedom as a thinker. That was very exhilarating. Germaine Greer was my hero.

I bought into all of that until I discovered it was doing me no good at all. I was very much on a downward spiral which I didn't understand. It is actually how I became a Christian. I became a believer through the writings of St Paul which I stumbled upon about the body, and discovered that I could actually get my life together through some power not of my own.

I kept bumping into journalists or TV producers who couldn't believe that there was a young journalist woman who really did believe in the virgin birth, and who really was trying to practise sexual continence, abstinence. So I found myself, and I still find myself, being put on panels or on television programmes or interviewed by Jenny Murray. I got asked to write a book. I've never volunteered to do this, and I really want you to know that. I respond to requests to do it because I just think that it is so terribly important.

The ideological aspect of sex is something that concerns me very greatly. And I discovered in Christianity a tradition that taught me that the body is something very honourable, and very good. There's a very high view of the body in the traditional Christian thinking which I had not come across before, and it enabled me to get my life together. I would say it saved my life.

I want young girls today to know that sex does not form persons as Freud taught and as even the Church of England today teaches. It is, I believe, abstinence that forms persons. Your character becomes stronger through sexual continence. That creates stronger societies. It is the seed, the germ of civilisation.

Both my parents were virgins when they got married. That was actually the norm. But ten years ago one survey showed only 1 per cent of women were still virgin when they married. That is a massive change. Another survey showed that the happiest people are the never-married women of all categories. Now, is there a correlation there?

Freud really did set religion against sex. He said that it was only the weaklings who colluded in the delusion of religion by not having sex, by trying to justify constraints and restraints. I would say that it's not that religion is anti-sex, but that the Christian religion has a high view of sex and the body, and understands the need for protection. Jesus himself said, 'The spirit gives life.' The body counts for nothing in terms of real fulfilment. And we have turned that absolutely on its head.

Jenny Taylor founded Lapido Media to promote 'religious literacy' among journalists and opinion formers. She is the author of A Wild Constraint: The case for chastity (Continuum, 2008).

 

DONNA FREITAS, author of Sex and the Soul

I got into the business of talking about 'hook-up culture' in the United States because my students there were grappling with it. A hook-up is a brief encounter that involves some form of sexual intimacy, anything from kissing to sex, with the idea that you can walk away unattached. I had one class in particular that staged a revolt against hook-up culture one semester. These were students who for the most part were rather sexually active during their college years, and I was surprised to find that they wanted to take a step back from being sexually active.

So I decided to go around talking to college students all over the US, asking them about how they felt about sex on campus. One of the things that came out of that study is that hook-up culture is the norm on college campuses in the US at private, secular, public and Catholic institutions. Another was just how much angst there is around hook-up culture.

Many students explained that it's not so much the hook-up that is the problem, but living in a culture where there is no real alternative. The situation seems to exhaust your average college student. Even students who want to be sexually active, and who are interested in getting into relationships, tend to suffer over the long term in hook-up culture.

This is a culture saturated with sex. About 80-90 per cent of students, depending on the college, said that you have to be casual about sex. About half of those students would add: 'And I wish you didn't have to be.' Hook-up culture is often about social capital - about appearing to be a successful person, an attractive person, someone popular. One of the things that the students don't seem to ask is: 'What do I want from sex?' They don't know where their own desire is in all of this. So there's lots of pressure to have sex, lots of bravado around sex, but very little reflection on what is sex, and a lot of ambivalence about it.

One of the things that's missing from hook-up culture is communication. If you communicate, you might start to like the person, which then gives complications. So you learn not to communicate around sex, which is a disaster for sexual health.

I think it is important for high school students, and ideally their parents too, even if this embarrasses them to death, to have a conversation about what they want from sex before they go to college and what they might expect when they get there.

Whether or not someone's faith tradition will affect their boundaries around sex will really depend on how they practise their faith. So if they were, say, nominally Catholic, they would just laugh at the question, so there was a complete separation. But evangelical students could not think about sex without thinking about faith. Their lives were all about boundaries. How can I live the boundaries that are expected of me? And for some of those students it was incredibly empowering to have those boundaries, for some students it was incredibly crippling.

Donna Freitas is a visiting associate professor at Hofstra University in New York, and the author of Sex and the Soul: Juggling sexuality, spirituality, romance and religion on America's college campuses (OUP, 2008). She blogs at http://donnafreitas.blogspot.co.uk

 

CATHERINE PEPINSTER is the editor of The Tablet

I've been a journalist for 30 years or so. I came to journalism after university and studying social science and politics. And before I was at university I was educated by nuns. A couple of doors down from my convent school was a bookshop where I purchased my copy of Greer's The Female Eunuch, which I was fascinated by. Germaine Greer was also educated by nuns, to whom she has paid tribute on several occasions.

She's said of these nuns that they impressed her with their communal living, their contemplation and their conversation. And she went on to say: 'The one thing the nuns don't do is take sex for granted or trivialise it or turn it into a sport. The nuns wanted us to know that sex was something very powerful and that you fooled with it at your peril.'

Like Greer, my experience of nuns was of women who impressed upon us the belief that we had minds that should be nurtured, and were not just there to become wives and mothers - we had a role to play in the world. At the same time of course there were other children for whom life was not so good; when I was at school there were men like Jimmy Savile who were grooming children, and there was abuse going on in some schools, children's homes and institutions run by the Catholic Church. There is no 'golden age' - the sexualisation of young people has gone on for years.

However, one of the things that has changed in our time and really concerns me is the extent to which young people are now sexualised not just by people that they encounter but by what goes on in their own homes via all kinds of media. That is the most tremendous change. Young people now have access to pornography, for example. We are talking about what is on your smartphone, what you are gaining access to all the time.

One thing I think is really peculiar about the time in which we live is that we are both puritanical and incredibly easy-going. We are quite easy-going about their early sexual experience, and we're allowing them to be sexualised. But we are also so careful about children that we do not let them walk down the street to go to school. When kids now think about going to university they take their parents with them to open days - something that never used to happen. So we're both very protective and infantilising of young people but at the same time we are happy for them to be sexualised from such a young age and reticent to interfere. And I'm very puzzled by that strange conundrum.

Clearly the major thing that has happened in the last 50 or 60 years is that the connection between sex and procreation has been broken. Many people would say that that is a good thing and that they wouldn't want to see women having so many children that their health is broken. But once you have broken that connection between procreation and sex it leads you down a path to a place where sexual activity becomes another form of entertainment.

The vast majority of people would have the view in our society that the most important thing in life is to be fulfilled. But hook-up culture is not providing people even with that.

 

These perspectives are edited extracts from the Westminster Faith Debates (www.faithdebates.org.uk), available in full in Religion and Personal Life: Debating ethics and faith with leading thinkers and public figures, edited by Linda Woodhead (DLT 2013).