FEBRUARY 2011 | VOL. 11 NO. 6  
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Empowering College Students to Integrate Ignatian Spirituality Within Their Sexual and Relational Lives
 Jennifer Beste, PhD
Associate Professor, Theology Department, 2010 Conway Fellow
Xavier University

When I began teaching Christian Sexual Ethics in 2003 at Xavier University, I naively assumed that my students’ social reality more or less mirrored my own social reality in college. Class discussions, however, along with anonymous student papers on sexual decisions, “friends with benefits,” and hookup culture quickly robbed me of such notions. I discovered that empowering this generation of students to become who God created them to be—persons who make life-giving choices about sexuality and relationships and who flourish physically, psychologically, relationally, and spiritually—was far more challenging than I dreamed. Of course, while casual sex was not absent on my campus twenty years ago, neither was it the dominant social norm: participation in hook ups was never the determining factor with regard to achieving social acceptance or beginning a romantic relationship. Today, by contrast, our secular culture’s and the media’s constant depiction of casual sex as thrilling, expected, and “no big deal” makes young adults feel ashamed of their human needs to connect authentically and to love and be loved.

As I began to delve deeply with my students into literature on hookup culture and listen to their experiences and perspectives on hookups, I was struck by the dramatic chasm between many college students’ positive expectations of “wild” college life (fueled by the media and pop culture) and their actual experiences of hookups, which are described by most men and women in anonymous papers as empty, unfulfilling, and/or psychologically damaging. A substantial percentage of college women experience a dramatic psychological downward spiral, leading to loss of self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress symptoms, even when hookups don’t result in sexual violence.

My concern for the wholistic flourishing of all college students grew significantly upon constantly hearing from students that hookup culture is so “tame” at Xavier compared to their friends’ reports from other colleges and universities across the nation. Such a chasm between expectations and actual experiences led me to press my students with an obvious question: “If the consensus among most of you (college juniors and seniors) is that hookups don’t make you happy and are often harmful, why is this culture perpetuated year after year?” The answer, according to my classes, was no great mystery: “The hookup culture is perpetuated only because there’s a new crop of freshmen each year who are clueless and think that hooking up is expected of them.”

If this is correct, the key to undermining the predominance of hookup culture on college campuses is to break the cycle by giving first-year college students a dose of reality that includes perspectives of sophomores, juniors, and seniors along with the space to reflect critically about what they really want in regard to sexuality and relationships. Indebted to many Xavier students who courageously shared their actual experiences of hookups via video interviews, I created a DVD with students’ own accounts of hookups, hookup culture, and ideas for a healthier and more just sexual culture. All Xavier first year students were required to attend a fall “Hooking Up?” event in which I showed three sets of video clips on hooking up, explored the relationship between hookup culture and sexual violence, and shared ideas about how to create a more just sexual culture on campus. Between the video clips, students at the event discussed their reactions and ideas in small groups led by peer leaders.

While I felt positive about this event’s impact on students and the way I inspire students in my courses to deconstruct hookup culture and create their own sexual ethic that is healthier and more consistent with their theological and ethical convictions, I still felt that something was missing. Given all the subtle ways in which the media influences us to objectify sex, bodies, and our very selves, and stunts our imaginations about how to envision and realize healthy sexuality and relationships, I felt students needed a deeper spiritual foundation to ground their sense of what they really desire in regard to sexuality and relationships, and give them the strength to refuse to settle for less when it comes to what they deserve and what God desires for them.

The 2010 Conway Fellowship, funded by Xavier University’s Ruth J. and Robert A. Conway Institute for Jesuit Education, enabled me to develop further programs for fostering conversation about Ignatian spirituality and particularly Ignatian insights about integrating human dimensions of sexuality and spirituality. Inspired by St. Ignatius’ core conviction that we can discern God’s desires for us through human experience and in our daily lives, my first goal was to interview more students about hookups and their immersion in hookup culture. I drew on these interviews to revise the hookup DVD that was shown at Xavier University’s second annual “Hooking Up?” event.

Besides organizing faculty and staff lunches about how we integrate Ignatian Spirituality and values into our teaching and programming and how to empower students to create a more sexually just culture, I embraced what was perhaps my favorite project, a “Sexuality and Ignatian Spirituality” retreat for undergraduates. Inspired by Donna Freitas’ claim in Sex and the Soul that college students are starved for opportunities to explore how to integrate spirituality and sexuality, I invited students to commit to a five-session retreat during which they would interact with diverse Ignatian spiritual directors and faculty about how to experience God and identify God’s presence more deeply within their daily lives.

After delving into their image of God and relationship with the divine, twenty six students explored the resources that Ignatian spirituality offers in regard to discerning which desires regarding sexuality and relationships will lead to consolation (genuine happiness and wholistic flourishing) and which desires, by contrast, lead to desolation (emptiness and suffering). Ultimately, students wrestled with what it means to be a deeply relational and vulnerable human being, capable of wounding and being wounded, as well as loving and being loved by God and others in a deeply fulfilling way. They were highly engaged in listening to spiritual directors’ and faculty members’ frank stories and their ideas of how Ignatian spirituality affects them as sexual and relational beings. Challenging spiritual directors with insightful questions, students openly explored together what such integration might mean for their present and future selves.

A primary goal of my Conway Fellowship is to offer resources to foster honest conversation among students, faculty, and staff at all Jesuit colleges and universities about Ignatian spirituality, hookup culture, and healthy relationships. Presently, faculty, staff, and students can visit Xavier University’s Conway website to watch a video clip from the “Sexuality and Ignatian Spirituality” retreat. I am also collaborating with Phylis Ravel, a Marquette drama professor, to produce and make accessible a version of the “Hooking Up?” video using student actors.

With the rich resources of Ignatian spirituality and our emphasis on cura personalis and social justice, Jesuit universities are well positioned to empower our students to identify and speak prophetically against dehumanizing and violent aspects of contemporary American sexual behavior. To the degree that students begin rejecting hookup culture and creating more sexually just norms and practices on our campuses, Jesuit universities will remain true to their commitment to challenge and transform students wholistically. With better-integrated intellectual, moral, and spiritual lives, students will enhance their ability to form and delight in healthy relationships with God and others, ultimately leading to a greater sense of flourishing and fulfillment throughout their lives.