At the Intersections: Sex & the Christian Campus

Many good people work at the intersections … of feminism and Christianity, of ministry and justice, of religion and politics, of gender and society, of race and inequality, of everything and then some.  I’ve invited a few people to tell a story from their work at the intersections, and will be sharing their stories from time to time here.

Today’s story comes from Katie, who teaches at a Christian college in the Midwest.  She writes about the difficult conversations around sex that emerge even at Christian colleges and universities that might rather ignore the issues.  She calls it, “What We Are Talking About When We Aren’t Talking About Sex.”

Towards the end of this spring semester, a  young man at an evangelical college was found dead of autoerotic asphyxiation.  At almost the same time, the chaplains at my evangelical college organized what was swiftly dubbed, “The Sex Chapel.” Titled, “Breaking the Chains,” it consisted of a panel of administrators, professors, and student leaders answering text questions during boy and girl-separated chapels. All of the questions were about sex—from how to know how to make better sexual decisions, to how to overcome sexual abuse. The moderators answered in one of two ways: read (insert book title), and pray more. When another text asked for practical ways of addressing sex, one panelist added they could write encouraging notes to themselves on their mirrors.

Sex can be a dicey topic at any university, but especially for the evangelical Christian universities that adhere to an overt ‘no sex, no drugs, no alcohol’ lifestyle agreement, and an unspoken emphasis on traditional gender roles and conservative social policy. Some universities argue these topics for years.  Others do not, however, because the unwritten rule is that we all agree, and if you don’t agree, you are welcome to work or study elsewhere.  Such is the case where I work.

This attitude has not prevented students with both heterosexual and homosexual leanings and actions from attending the university, and often loving it.  Some come because they are forced, while others come for a specific degree, a program, or the indescribable but upbeat and caring campus atmosphere.  Some understand their sexuality very well as freshman, while others do not until after graduation. They learn how to blend in with the vocally conservative Christian majority, but that doesn’t keep their fellow students from noticing them. When one of my students was helping with the spring play, she realized many of her coworkers were gay. Shortly thereafter she felt compelled to write her argument essay on the treatment of homosexual students at Christian universities.  Outside of class, she told me she wanted to do more to help these new friends. “I mean I don’t agree with the lifestyle,” she said, “but they feel  they aren’t being treated well.  They’re so scared.”

I forgot about this until June, when I was in Spain with a small group of students.  After Mass one Sunday, I was having coffee with them, discussing our “liberal” English department. One student asked if I read another advisee’s senior poetry project, saying, “it was real graphic.”

“As in gay?”

“Oh yeah. If you know him, and you know anything about poetry, you knew what he was talking about.”

I thought how this student skipped meetings or arrived nearly in tears, failed classes, dropped classes so he could qualify to move off campus and “get out of the dorms,” and finally plagiarized assignments in several classes. I spent most of the year wanting to ask him what was wrong, and didn’t.

“Is he . . . active?”

“Oh yeah.”  A few minutes later he added, “If people knew, could he get kicked out just for being gay? That seems like it can’t be right.”

I didn’t have an answer.

Neither did my colleague when a male student sent her poems about falling in love, against the backdrop of the growing anti-gay climate in our state.  Neither did I when one of my students moved to the West Coast and in with her boyfriend (when I asked her about it she said, “Yeah, we waited until we left the Midwest to avoid the judgment”). Neither did any of us when our campus Chick-Fil-A re-opened over the summer just for its infamous appreciation day.

I once heard that millennial students do not care for the opinions of adults, professors included, opting instead to trust their peers and their experiences. But they are asking our opinion when they pick their essay topics, send us poems, and tell us stories about their classmates.  They are testing us like rocks on a riverbank, seeing if we give way or help them to the next stepping stone.

So far, those of us being “asked” aren’t saying anything, usually because we want to keep our jobs. As a result, we might be the last rock at the edge of a river.  Many of my students know that I know their lifestyles, their questions about sex, gender, faith, and a God made in conflicting images. But they are keeping their choices to themselves while I comment on the structure of their writing, not the ideas they almost confess. When they graduate, they will move far enough away to live as they want, and their parents (and professors) will be shocked their Christian education didn’t influence them differently.

However, my fear is that our silence is telling these students that we aren’t talking about sex because there is no way to reconcile it to our faith.  My fear is eventually, students are going to believe they have to choose between faith and sexuality, and they are going to choose the community that has embraced them the most.  My fear is, ultimately, students will think that sex and faith have nothing to do with each other, and my fear is that when we don’t talk about sex, that is precisely what we are telling them.

The image above is of Donna Freitas’ book, Sex and the Soul.  In it she shares the results of interviews with and surveys of students at colleges and universities around the country.  Stories of sex, sexuality, religion, and how they intersect in expected and unexpected ways.

About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.


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