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Early research into hookup culture on Catholic campuses indicated that Catholic campuses were just like secular campuses. In Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus (2008), Kathleen Bogle found Catholic colleges and universities to be no different from other schools. In Sex and the Soul (2008), Donna Freitas surveyed Catholic schools as well as evangelical schools, large public universities, and smaller private colleges. Like Bogle, Freitas found that students hooked up at Catholic colleges as on any other campus, with only evangelical schools standing out. In “Hooking Up at College: Does Religion Make a Difference?” (2009), Amy Burdette and her colleagues found that hooking up was more frequent among students who identified as Catholic. So it is not surprising that in 2011, the Cardinal Newman Society’s survey of the literature on hookup culture and Catholic campuses concluded: “[T]he reality is that hooking up has become the dominant script for forming sexual and romantic relationships on Catholic and secular campuses.”

For Faith with Benefits: Hookup Culture on Catholic Campuses (2017), I surveyed more campuses and more diverse campuses than all the previous studies combined. I suspected that there might be some difference in the hookup culture on Catholic campuses, especially at those Catholic colleges and universities that emphasize their religious identity. What I discovered is that Catholic identity does affect hookup culture—but not in a simple or straightforward way.

The complexity arises in part from the fact that is that there is not one “Catholic identity.” From the perspective of students, there are three, and each emerges from multiple factors.

First and foremost, the number of Catholic students on campus matters. The more students on a campus identify as Catholic, the more Catholic the campus “feels” to the students. A distant second in importance are several institutional factors: the number of required classes in theology, the frequency with which Mass is celebrated, the percentage of dorms that are co-ed, and the policies governing co-ed visitation. These institutional factors seem to affect students because students connect them with Catholic identity, and because students encounter them almost daily.

When combined, these factors yield three different Catholic cultures:

  • On campuses characterized by students as very Catholic: Eighty percent of students identify as Catholic; three classes are required in theology; Mass is celebrated every day of the week; few if any residence halls are co-ed; and strict limits are placed on co-ed visitation.
  • On campuses characterized by students as mostly Catholic: Seventy-five percent of students identify as Catholic; two classes are required in theology; Mass is celebrated most days of the week; most residence halls are co-ed; and some limits are placed on co-ed visitation.
  • On campuses characterized by students as somewhat Catholic: Sixty-eight percent of students identify as Catholic; one class is required in theology; Mass is celebrated on Sundays; all residence halls are co-ed; and minimal limits are place on co-ed visitation.

On the surface, this looks like a simple gradation of Catholic identity. That might be the case, if these factors’ effects on hookup culture were likewise ones of gradation. They are not.

While it is difficult to be precise, the studies (see here, here, here, here) on hookup culture in general indicate that around 70 percent of American college students hook up in a given year. My research indicated that Catholic campuses have lower rates of hooking up—but how much lower depends upon the particular type of Catholic identity.

On very Catholic campuses, less than 30 percent of students hook up. Given that very Catholic campuses have such low rates of hooking up, one would expect somewhat Catholic campuses to have the highest rates of hooking up. They do not. Less than half of the students on these campuses—45 percent—hook up. While this rate is higher than that on very Catholic campuses, it is lower than that on mostly Catholic campuses, where 55 percent of students hook up. Thus, mostly Catholic campuses have the most hooking up, very Catholic campuses have the least, and somewhat Catholic campuses are in the middle. There is no simple, inverse relationship between Catholic culture and hookup culture. Different Catholic cultures affect the hookup culture differently.

Very Catholic campuses not only have a significant number of Catholic students, but these students are pretty devout. They attend Mass several times a week, pray almost daily, and volunteer almost twice a month. This student body, coupled with the institutional factors, produces hardly any hookup culture at all. On very Catholic campuses, Catholic identity frames students’ thinking and acting on campus.

Mostly Catholic campuses affect hookup culture differently. If hooking up is defined as a) sexual interaction with b) no expectation of a subsequent relationship, then students on mostly Catholic campuses embrace a) but not b). They seek sexual interaction—but do so in order to pursue relationships. Instead of preventing hookups, as on very Catholic campuses, the Catholic culture on mostly Catholic campuses changes hooking up so that it becomes (or so the students hope) a way into a relationship.

Somewhat Catholic campuses have a different effect still. These schools are either large, urban universities or small, rural colleges. They tend to serve the economically disadvantaged and to have the greatest diversity of students. In general, these students do not hook up. They see hooking up as too risky, jeopardizing their education and their future. The Catholic identity of these campuses does not change this disposition, either to encourage or to prevent it. Instead, its role is to support students’ aspirations for an education that will get them a job.

Catholic identity affects hookup culture, but it does so in diverse ways. It can hinder hooking up, change its meaning, or direct energy away from it. Its effects depend on how an institution supports Catholic identity, and on the students’ own Catholic faith.

These conclusions should not be seen as problematic. They simply mean that, when we think of Catholic identity, we should not think of it as a platonic ideal, but as an incarnate reality implicated in the complexities of campus life. When we do, we will see the impact Catholic identity already has on hookup culture—and the potential it has to do more.

Jason King is professor of theology at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, PA.

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