Jennifer Beste begins College Hookup Culture and Christian Ethics with an observation made by one of her students. According to this student, the distance between the world of “academic researchers” and the real-life experiences of college students often makes academic work seem irrelevant and unhelpfully out of touch, especially when it comes to sex (1). While such student reactions are fairly common, what’s interesting is how Beste chooses to respond. Instead of dismissing the student’s view as ignorant or naïve or otherwise challenging them, Beste takes the criticism seriously, turning her attention toward developing an approach to Christian sexual ethics that is intentionally grounded in the lived experiences of college students. College Hookup Culture and Christian Ethics weaves together original ethnographic research, theological reflection on full human living and loving, and a justice-oriented analysis of sexual norms and campus culture in a way that is engaging, insightful, and thought-provoking even if, at times, it is also unsettling and uncomfortable.
The book is organized into three main parts. The first part focuses on students’ observations of and reflections on hookup culture. Over the course of five academic terms, Beste tasked students in her Christian sexual ethics seminar with developing ethnographies based on their observations. As ethnographers, students observed their peers partying, drinking, dancing, and attempting to hook up. They then analyzed these behaviors with key questions about motives, power dynamics, and perceived degrees of happiness in mind. Revealing her commitment to treat “students’ reflections on their experiences and social realities as a legitimate source of knowledge” (4), Beste presents an engaging analysis of her students’ findings. Hearing from students directly provides rare insight into how students perceive themselves and their peers. Their analysis reveals the complex needs, desires, and pressures that are at play in party culture in ways that outsiders might miss. Readers will no doubt see things in a new light after hearing from the students themselves.
Part 2 highlights the relevance of theological ethics for emerging adults, who are often in need of resources that can help them to think more deeply about their lives. For this section, Beste reveals the way that an encounter with reflections on the meaning of Christ’s humanity in Johann Metz’s 1968 work Poverty of Spirit inspires students to strive for authenticity and self-acceptance in the context of their relationships with God and others. Pulling from course assignments from a different university, Beste again emphasizes student voices in this section. Their reflections reveal the strength of Metz’s critique of dominant cultural norms that inhibit full human living and loving. At the same time, they don’t shy away from recognizing the complexity of the struggles experienced by many millennials. Students acknowledge wanting to experience greater depths of embodied human life and relationships, while also feeling tremendous pressure to conform to individualistic and competitive cultural scripts.
The final section of the book focuses on sexual justice and the distressingly common problem of sexual assault on college campuses. After introducing students to Margaret Farley’s norms for sexual justice, Beste asks students to reflect further on what sex characterized by justice, equality, and mutuality looks like. An especially valuable feature of Beste’s approach in this section is the opportunity to hear students reflect on the desirability of equal, mutual sex. Beste’s analysis shows that equal, mutual sex is desired by many of the college students she has come to know over the years. Despite this, a culture of injustice remains on college campuses. Students’ own analyses of college party and hookup culture show that students can identify ways that they suffer as a result of this culture. Beste’s exploration of the prevalence of sexual assault and the damaging effects on survivors and communities in the final chapters of the book is a powerful reminder of the need for all members of a campus community to address this suffering, and to work toward a more just future.
In College Hookup Culture and Christian Ethics, Beste uses what she has learned from her students to enhance Christian ethical reflection by grounding it in the lived experiences of students, and by allowing their voices and reflections to contribute to shaping a way forward. In addition to the sometimes uncomfortable encounters with student behaviors and reflections throughout the text (including the voices of survivors and perpetrators of sexual assault), readers are likely to have some lingering questions about Beste’s approach. College Hookup Culture and Christian Ethics could have benefited from an additional appendix addressing the inevitable ethical issues that emerge when students-as-ethnographers find themselves observing potentially harmful behaviors. It would be helpful to know how students were prepared beforehand to think about their obligations as ethnographers and observers, and to learn more about how the author helped students process their observations. There are some other limitations, of course. The “emerging adults” whose voices we hear represent the views of predominantly white students with Christian backgrounds who are attending private liberal arts institutions. Most of the observations were about heterosexual sexual activity taking place between (presumably) cis-gendered individuals. Beste admits that she had to rely on a convenience sample for this project because of resource constraints. Clearly, these students cannot speak for all students everywhere. Their insights do offer a valuable starting place, however. Insofar as her work is intended to serve as a “call to action,” it appears that there are ways for others, inspired by Beste, to have the courage to learn from their own students’ experiences and to work toward establishing sexual justice on their own campuses (304). For anyone interested in learning more about student experiences and working toward creating more just and supportive environments for college students, College Hookup Culture and Christian Ethics is an engaging and worthwhile read.
Abbylynn Helgevold is Instructor of Applied Ethics and Humanities at the University of Northern Iowa.
Date Of Review:
July 30, 2018
Jennifer Beste is Professor of Theology and holds the Koch Chair in Catholic Thought and Culture at the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, MN. She is the author of God and the Victim: Traumatic Intrusions on Grace and Freedom (Oxford University Press, 2007). Her research interests include trauma theory and Christian theology; ethnography and Christian ethics; sexual ethics; feminist ethics; and children, justice, and Catholicism.
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