Book Review: From Single to Serious: Relationships, Gender, and Sexuality on American Evangelical Campuses by Dana Malone

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Whether they had a ring by spring, never had a date, or were somewhere in between, alumni of Christian colleges and universities remember their experience of marriage culture on campus. This is likely true whether they graduated recently or as far back as the mid-20th century. Despite massive changes in gender roles, sexuality, and young-adult patterns of employment and family formation, marriage culture at Christian colleges and universities remains very strong. It’s as if there’s an underlying beat that still carries the song, even as the verses and harmonies change.

Dana Malone’s book From Single to Serious explores relationships, gender, and sexuality on evangelical campuses, describing student and campus culture and how it impacts individuals. Malone, an independent scholar, has years of experience in student affairs work, including a doctoral study focused on students’ relational practices on evangelical campuses and how they differ from broader patterns of campus life in America. The study that resulted in this book follows on her doctoral work, broadening its scope to examine the pathways to intimate relationships. She conducted interviews and focus groups on two campuses, a small and large evangelical university. Readers will have to consider whether this small sample is truly representative. With the breadth and scope of schools affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, it is difficult to know how campus culture compares across regions and denominations.

Malone’s doctoral study of students in intimate relationships found that evangelical campuses foster a markedly different pattern of relationship building. A majority of students in relationships were not dating recreationally; they were dating with a clear objective in mind: finding a marriage partner. Most American college students are not interested in marrying during or shortly after college.

How do students move from singleness to serious relationships? Malone describes processes, rituals, and values that are important for educators to understand as they shape educational and co-curricular experiences for students. These students navigate a labyrinth of social codes, subtle cues, and contradictions. For men, this includes pleasing a woman’s friend group before even approaching the woman and showcasing his spiritual piety (as opposed to his athletic or physical strength, or sexual prowess). Women walk an even trickier tightrope, using their attire, words, body language, and behaviors to convey modesty and godly womanhood. For couples, hard choices abound: Should we be seen as a pair in public? Should we even use the word dating to describe our interactions? Missteps in this arena can end a relationship and damage future prospects.

Like gender, sex is a subject fraught with tension, which creates great challenges for authentic public or private dialogue. It’s not the ideal of sexual purity, per se, that causes these challenges, but purity culture, a social system of norms, rewards, and punishments that presents perfection as the sole ideal. Students reported to Malone that sex talk on campus, in public forums, doesn’t reach the level of authenticity or honesty that they need. The purity imperative means that students sometimes misrepresent their sexual pasts to friends and partners, and this leaves them uncertain about the place of physical attraction in an intimate relationship moving toward marriage. Women suffer shame and guilt not just around sexual sin but around the sheer fact of living in a body.

Purity culture also creates a push toward marriage as a redemptive state that can “erase” sexual sins in a relationship. Students described to Malone how they value traditional Christian morality but also want tensions and difficulties to be acknowledged and discussed on campus with informed, authentic dialogue, not platitudes or pat answers.

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Source: Christianity Today