For faithful few, a balancing act

No caption.
No caption. Photo by Sam Greenberg.

Before Adam Berman ’13 went to Toad’s one Saturday night early this semester, he took off his yarmulke, the head covering observant Jewish males wear as a symbol of identity and a reminder to turn their thoughts upward to God.

Berman’s decision was not an effort to prevent his yarmulke from falling onto the nightclub’s grimy floor, but a gesture representing how he used to deal with the tension between his religious and sexual behavior, he said — in this case, by setting aside a symbol of his religion to go to Toad’s.

Until very recently, Berman said, his religious views and sexual behavior existed in separate spheres. But now he tries to reconcile the two.

Despite Berman’s experience, when most other Yalies are faced with this dilemma, many end up not letting religion interfere with their sexual desires by keeping the two spheres distinct, or else letting one overpower the other. Seventy-one percent of respondents to a News poll — sent last week to 5,186 undergraduates, of which 1,770 students responded — said religious views do not guide their sexual behavior at all. Only 19 percent of respondents said religious views influence their sexual behavior “a little,” and 10 percent said religion views influence their sexual behavior “a lot.”

But this is not to say that there are not students like Berman, for whom reconciling religion and sexual behavior has been a challenge.

“It’s definitely a conflict oftentimes,” Berman said.

SPHERES OF INFLUENCE

While most Yalies reported that religion has no bearing on their sexual attitudes, the situation might not be that simple, said Reverend Debra Haffner, a Unitarian Universalist minister, sexologist and executive director of the Religious Institute, an organization for people of different faiths that deals with issues of sexuality and religion.

Even for those who are somewhat religious, religion and sexuality often occupy two distinct spheres in students’ lives, she said.

Elise Brown ’12, for one, said she believes this is the case for many students at Yale.

“Saturday, you’re at Toad’s; on Sunday, you’re at church, but you don’t try to think about them together,” she said.

Discussing the News’ survey results, Haffner said Yale seems like most non-sectarian American colleges in terms of student attitudes toward sex and sexuality.

“I’m not surprised 70 percent say that [religion has no impact on sexuality],” she said, adding, “But I don’t think it’s true.”

Haffner explained that while religion might not affect people’s snap decisions and the sexual activities they engage in, it does influence how people think about sex and sexuality in general, and how they might feel about sexual encounters after the fact.

Tasnim Motala ’12 said she has observed that people’s religious convictions do not always parallel their sexual behavior. She said she knows religious students who are sexually active, and non-religious students who choose not to be. Nonetheless, as an unmarried Muslim woman, she is not sexually active. To Motala, avoiding hookups is just another thing she, as a devout Muslim, does differently from many Yalies, she said.

‘A FEW CLOSE FRIENDS’

Based on the News’ poll, students for whom religion factors into their sexual behavior are, in general, less sexually active.

Yalies who said religion had played a large role in their sex lives said that since freshman year they have made out with an average of three people, had 0.8 sex partners and been in one relationship. In comparison, people who said religion does not influence their sexual behavior said they have made out with an average of 8.2 people and had 2.2 sex partners and 1.3 relationships.

Eight of the 10 students interviewed said that being surrounded by friends who share their attitudes toward sexuality helps them to maintain their beliefs.

“I think it’s not too hard to keep to your own religious view on sexuality and not be pressured,” said Francisco Tamayo ’13, who considers himself a practicing Mormon.

For Tamayo, the defining feature of his faith in relation to sexuality is “to be faithful to the person you are with,” which he says keeps him away from what he described as Yale’s “random hookup” culture.

“At times it’s really easy to forget [that sex belongs only in marriage],” said Jessica Letchford ’11, who is Christian (and a former staff reporter for the News). “It’s important for me to find a few close friends who support my religion.”

For Shira Winter ’12, who said her conservative Jewish faith does not strictly dictate how she behaves, there is still value in religion as a guide for sexuality.

“[Religion] provides a really good basis and a good compass by which I can explore my own views on sexuality,” she said. Winter said the most important element she has taken from Jewish teachings on the issue is that “sexuality is a good thing, but it needs to have a connection with whoever you are with.”

Religious leaders on campus also sometimes play a role in helping students to navigate religion and sexuality.

Rabbi James Ponet, Yale’s Jewish chaplain and the head of the Slifka Center, for example, said he has seen some students get pressured to become more sexually liberal at Yale, and that sometimes such students come to him for guidance.

“Religious leaders have the role of connecting physical intimacy to deeper, meaningful relationships,” Ponet said.

SEX AND MARRIAGE

Even within such meaningful relationships, some students said they believe, for religious reasons, that sex should only occur within marriage.

According to the News’ survey, 80 percent of respondents who said religion influences their sexual behavior “a lot” said they had never had intercourse. By comparison, 41 percent of those who said religion influence their sexuality “a little” [quotes added] said they had never had intercourse, and 28 percent of those who said religion did not influence their sexuality had never had intercourse.

None of the statistical groups are monolithic, five students interviewed said, as there are religious students who feel comfortable having sex within serious relationships, as well as less religious students who still do not wish to, or have not had the opportunity, to have sex.

In terms of beliefs about sex and marriage, 13 percent of Yalies are saving sex for marriage, according to the poll — 73 percent of students who said religion has “a lot” of influence on their sexual behavior indicated this in their poll responses.

“I honor that,” Ponet said. “I don’t consider that to be an objective rule to guide all, but it’s a valid rule for those who follow it.”

He added that he thinks saving sex for marriage shows “an appreciation of the power and the wildness of sex and sexuality.”

Ultimately, religious students have a wide range of views about how their faiths should influence their sexual behavior, and also have various opinions about Yale’s sex scene. But those interviewed agreed that while the hookup culture might prevail around them, it does not change how they approach sexuality themselves.

Ben Chaidell ’11 said he does not think being guided by Jewish values about sexuality restricts him, but rather enhances his sexual experiences.

“I think I would gain more satisfaction from a sexual encounter knowing it’s in a more stable context,” he said.

Comments

  • Kate Sugarman

    Excellent, thoughtful, well-written article.

  • Yale 08

    So, in an article on Sexuality and Religion, we heard from a Unitarian Universalist and a liberal Rabbi? (snicker)

    Where are the Evangelicals and Catholics? (forget the Episcopalians)

  • unanchored

    We have become unhinged from our beliefs, (or have none that give moral guidance to our social activities). Though I too would admit to trying to separate the two, duty is not as easily cast off as a yarmulke, cross, etc. More and more, we must chart our own course without either the societal norms or constraints of past generations. Let us hope we choose the right, because doing good for its own sake aint so easy these days.

  • Nonbeliever

    Why didn’t the survey question have “I am not religious” as an answer? You’re neglecting a lot of data (and people) without it.

  • Y 12

    If you aren’t religious, your religious views don’t influence your sexual behavior. I see nothing wrong with the survey’s structure.

    This was an interesting article, but I too question why there was so little space given to Christianity’s views on sexuality. Yes, there are a lot of Jews at Yale, but Catholics make up a larger percentage of the undergraduate population, and that doesn’t take into account other Christian denominations.

  • PAthena

    The Sex Week at Yale, and this news article, are not really about views about sex as such, but about sex as entertainment. Sexual activity in all sexually reproducing organisms is for purposes of reproduction, and the entertainment value is, like taste in food, to encourage reproduction and eating. The Sex Week is as if a Food Week, and the article, were about food for taste and not for nutrition.
    On “hookups” see Wendy Shalit’s review of books about this at the National Association of Scholars journal “Academic Questions.”

  • Y13

    I too would have liked to heard more of the Evangelical and Catholic view points. I can’t say that my religious views have greatly affected my “sexual choices.” However, I do question Y12’s assertion that there are more Catholics than Jews at Yale. As a Catholic, it certainly doesn’t seem like that to me. Anyone know what the Yale student population looks like by religious affiliation?

  • Yale 08

    Yale’s baptized Catholic population has been estimated at 25%.

    But how many attend Mass? How many were Confirmed?

    Difficult to tally…

  • Y12

    Similarly, how many Jews are observant? Just because Slifka is more visible on campus doesn’t mean that there are necessarily more practicing Jews than Catholics.

    I also think that upbringing plays a significant role in your outlook on sexual choices. Even if you no longer practice the religion of your childhood, religious tenants may influence your actions.