When writing about emerging adults it is inevitable that the issues of sex and relationships must come up. This is one area that numerous studies, including Christian Smith and Patricia Snell’s in Souls in Transition, have found that emerging adults differ from their parents.
Emerging adults believe that settling down is for later, now they are in a time of life that is “free, fluid, tentative, experimental, and relatively unbound” (56). Perhaps you have heard the expression “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” For most emerging adults, the same applies to this whole time period in their life: whatever happens in their early twenties they believe will stay in their early twenties. In other words, “When it comes to romantic relationships and sex, many – if not most – emerging adults see little connection between the lives they live now before settling down and the lives they will live later after having settled down” (57). Smith and Snell did find that there is one exception to this: having babies changes everything, forcing emerging adults to settle down and grow up quickly.
It is difficult for emerging adults to define the type of relationship they are in now, for “old, clear-cut labels, like ‘just friends,’ dating, courting, and engaged, for instance, are too black and white for the way many emerging adults relate today” (58). There is a lot of gray area here, and into this gray area steps the phenomenon “hooking up.” Smith and Snell found that most emerging adults have heard of hooking up, have friends who routinely hook up and many hook up themselves. The problem is, few can explain what “hooking up” actually means! (59). Generally, hooking up refers to time spent together involving some sort of sexual activity (anything from just kissing to intercourse) with someone the person just met, although the same two people may hook up repeatedly (friends with benefits).
This culture of hooking up has been written about in numerous places. Donna Freitas’s book Sex and the Soul is a great resource for understanding all of this. She studied the relationship of sexuality and spirituality on both evangelical and secular (“spiritual”) colleges throughout the country. One of her findings was that though college students admit to hooking up, when they are honest most do not find satisfaction in it. Yet if they desire a more traditional, defined relationship they are not sure how to get it. Often college students, especially women, hope that by giving themselves physically in the beginning a relationship can grow out of this:
“Many students said hookups and one-night stands are easier than steady relationships because everyone is so busy with schoolwork, part-time jobs, volunteer opportunities, extracurricular activities, friendships, and of course partying. Committed relationships can drain a person’s time, and most students just don’t have room (or don’t make room) in their schedules for hanging out regularly with a boyfriend or girlfriend. So squeezing in no-strings-attached sex after hours seems more efficient” (Freitas134)
“…most relationships in college seem to begin as hookups…you might go on a few dates after you have hooked up and become a couple (though even that seems rare), but ‘first dates,’ insofar as they occur, likely occur after two people have been sexually intimate for quite some time” (Freitas, 138)
Hooking up happens. Recently I asked some of my student leaders if hooking up was common at PSU Berks and they laughed at me. Of course it is, they said. At the same time, recent reports have shown that a good number of college students are giving up hook-up culture. This is in line with Freitas’ conclusion that many students are dissatisfied with it.
The problem is not only with hookup culture, but extends into related areas. Smith and Snell found that most emerging adults believe cohabiting prior to marriage is essential for avoiding divorce and having a happy marriage. Living together is a way to “test drive” the relationship. Yet none are aware that numerous studies show couples who live together prior to marriage are actually more likely to get divorced. Smith and Snell sum up just how inadequate emerging adults’ views in this area are:
“Most emerging adults who adopt this approach strike us as having far too much confidence in cohabitation’s ability to prevent divorce and ensure happiness. They simply believe it will work, that it will function as a fail-safe method for averting possible marital breakup. The examples some give for the kind of learning about one’s fiance that one might fortunately gain from cohabiting, which would be problematic enough to call of the impending wedding – that they squeeze the toothpaste in the middle, are a slob, get in grouchy moods, become sexually boring, and so on – hardly seem to reflect an awareness of the seriousness and complexity of issues and problems with which people in both successful and failed marriages have to deal” (62-3)
The practical question I ask is, has the church done a good job of equipping students with a theology of sexuality and relationships? If all we do is teach kids to wait till marriage, leaving it at that, the answer is no. What is needed is a robust theology of relationships that takes into consideration all the uniqueness of our contemporary culture. What must especially be taken into account is the delay in marriage. As emerging adults get married later and later they are forced to fight their biological impulses longer and longer.
A Christian ethic of sex and marriage needs a much firmer foundation theologically then simply “wait”. Following Christ requires self-sacrifice in many areas. Self-sacrifice in this area is off the radar for emerging adults. Whether it is hooking up or cohabiting prior to marriage the primary need they seek to fill is their own. The easiest thing to do when your needs are no longer being met is to leave, to find a new friend with benefits or break up and move out of your girlfriend’s apartment.
Putting celibacy prior to marriage in the context of a Christian discipleship where we control our emotions and feelings rather than them controlling us is vital. Lifting up the model of Jesus Christ in the ultimate of self-sacrifice is the foundation of any Christian ethic, whether in this area or some other.
Finally, I leave you with good news. College students and other emerging adults not only want to talk about sexuality, but also about spirituality. The opportunity is there, as Freitas found:
“student life on campus is only a small step away from transformation – the beginnings of change lie in the willingness of students to openly discuss what they really desire in romance and sex and, in so doing, to break down the false belief that hookup culture is normal and what everybody likes and wants” (Freitas, 218)