Faith, Sex, and Ethics at Santa Clara University: A Report
on the Role of Religion in Student Sexual Ethics
By Jessica Coblentz
Nine months ago, I waited anxiously in Santa Clara's Benson
parlors as the clock approached the start time for our first
student panel discussion on faith and sexual ethics, and the
room remained quiet as a few audience members passed the time
in their chairs. With so many other interesting events on our
campus, would anyone show up to hear their peers-not
experts or intellectuals-discuss religion and sex? To my surprise,
the quiet crowd eventually grew to nearly eighty students, many
of whom squatted on the floor or squeezed in along the walls
around the cramped room in order to participate in "Homosexuality
and Religion," the first panel's title and theme.
That was the beginning of "Faith, Sex, and Ethics,"
the phenomenally popular student discussion series I had the
privilege of facilitating through a Hackworth Student Research
Fellowship at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics this year.
In conjunction with over 30 one-on-one interviews I conducted
among the student body, the series aimed to explore the complex
ways in which students' religious affiliations inform (or do
not inform) their views on issues in sexual ethics, including
premarital sex, birth control, abortion, dating, and homosexuality.
I aspired not to establish the religious "rights"
and "wrongs" of these issues (though that is a valuable
pursuit in ethics), but rather to explore and analyze the methods
of ethical discernment employed consciously and unconsciously
by students as they encounter sexual ethics topics in their
lives and communities. I was particularly interested in the
role of religion-that is, religious community and leaders, sacred
texts, interior spiritual experience, and religious understandings
of conscience and reason-in students' methods of ethical discernment.
Which aspects of religion influence sexual decision-making?
How relevant is faith to students' ethical discernment around
sex and sexuality?
In identifying the methodological trends in ethical discernment
through the discussion series, students were challenged to mindfully
consider their own methods of ethical discernment and invited
to critically assess their own sexual ethics and those of their
peers. The crowds at the discussions remained large throughout
the series, consistently affirming one very notable fact: In
a college culture that often portrays sex and sexuality as casual
and capriciously pleasure-driven, Santa Clara students possess
a compelling desire to engage these issues seriously within
ethical and religious contexts.
How, as students, friends, parents, and educators, do we enable
the thoughtful student discernment that SCU students seek? In
this report I seek to address this question as I share the insights
I gained about the role of religion in students' sexual ethics
through this project. In addition to introducing my observations,
I will propose some of my own ideas about encouraging effective,
intentional ethical discernment in sexual ethics among college
students at Santa Clara University and elsewhere.
Over the course of the school year, there were five, one-hour
student discussion panels. With the exception of the final panel,
each focused on a particular issue within sexual ethics-homosexuality,
premarital sex, interfaith dating, or abortion-featuring two
student panelists who shared ten-minute statements about the
topic at hand after a brief ten-minute introduction of the topic
that I provided as the discussion facilitator. I began the second
half-hour of the discussions with a question or two for the
panelists, and then opened the meeting for questions and comments
from the floor.
I provided these students with three or four questions to guide
their panel statements, and asked them to focus on the "why"
of their ethical discernment as well as the "what"
of their ethical positions. For instance, the questions that
guided the homosexuality panel included:
- How do your conscience, religious experiences, and personal
convictions contribute to your ethical position on homosexuality?
- Do the scriptural teachings of your tradition impact
the way you think about homosexuality?
- According to your observation, how do the peers in your
religious community at SCU think about homosexuality?
Of several key features that led to the popularity and success
of the series, it was the exemplary student panelists that made
the largest impact, in my mind. Students' abilities to articulate
the complexities of their religious ethical discernment eloquently,
as well as their willingness to offer candid, humble reflections,
created an environment where all opinions were welcome (though
not without the possibility of sincere interrogation from others).
Along with an ability and willingness to articulate one's ethical
discernment, I looked for panelists of diverse religious backgrounds
(i.e., of different faith traditions, denominations, or ideological
leanings), with differing tendencies in ethical discernment
(which I will elaborate as the report continues), and ultimately,
different ethical stances regarding the issue at hand. By bringing
together different students in a single discussion, we invited
audience members to consider how students of every ethical stance
and approach can mindfully discern and converse about sexual
In order to highlight the perspectives of the panelists, I sought
to maintain an objective position throughout the discussion
in order to create an environment where all perspectives and
insights could be voiced in a respectful, and thus productive,
In conjunction with these panels, I conducted over 30 voluntary,
one-on-one interviews among students of a variety of religious
affiliations. I invited students to participate in these interviews
through pre-established clubs, organizations, and departments
on campus, such as Campus Ministry and the Religious Studies
Department. While all interviews were tape recorded, anonymity
was ensured in all public materials drawing on the interviews.
Although all interviews were guided by a set of eleven open-ended
questions, I occasionally veered from this list for the sake
of clarification, and never without permission from the interviewee.
As in the panel discussions, I encountered interest and genuine
concern for the ethical issues at hand, along with a number
of insightful observations regarding student tendencies in sexual
TRENDS IN STUDENT ETHICAL STRATEGIES
If a friend told you he/she was considering whether or not to
begin engaging in premarital sex with a significant other, what
would you tell him/her?
And, consider this: If a friend of the same religious background
as your own told you he/she was considering whether or not
to begin engaging in premarital sex with a significant other,
what would you tell him/her?
Is religious affiliation a factor in conversation about sexual-decision
making between friends?
When I asked students questions like these in my interviews,
there was not a uniform answer. Rather, students' answers illustrated
three main trends in the way that religion does (or does not)
influence sexual ethics. More often than not, students did not
directly name the role of religion in their sexual ethics. They
simply responded to a hypothetical situation regarding sex or
sexuality, demonstrating a method that I later labeled
in my analysis.
A number of students claimed their faith played no part in their
views on sexual ethics. I label this approach with the statement,
"Faith doesn't inform my views." This is not
to say that religion did not have some part in their ethical
discernment subconsciously; rather, it was not mentioned, or
was even outwardly rejected, as an influence in the discernment
they demonstrated with their responses. Others' drew direct
correlation between the official teaching, texts, and rituals
of their tradition and their views on sexual ethics. I label
this approach, "Faith directly informs my views."
Finally, many provided answers that demonstrated indirect
religious influence on their sexual decision-making, referring
to the influence of religious components that did not outwardly
address sexual ethics, but were deemed relevant by the student
nonetheless. This final approach is labeled, "Faith
indirectly informs my views."
"FAITH DOESN'T INFORM MY VIEWS"
Some students with religious backgrounds indicated that their
faith has very little to no influence on their ethical discernment
surrounding sex and sexuality. Many of these students voluntarily
stated that religion plays no part in their decision-making;
others simply left religion out of their responses to my questions.
Interestingly, this method was not confined to non-practicing
religious students. Even some practicing religious students
demonstrated this mentality.
There were two recurring explanations provided by students who
said that faith did not inform their views about sexual ethics,
or on a particular issue of sexual ethics. First, some students
said their religious tradition has little to say on the topic.
This reasoning was common among Jewish and Buddhist students
who were not aware of any official teaching or collective religious
beliefs that concerned the ethical issue at hand. This is not
to say that these teachings, rituals, or beliefs do not exist.
Simply that the students were unaware of them. Some of these
students liked the fact that their religion did not speak explicitly
about sexual issues because it allowed them freedom to form
their own views.
Second, others said faith does not inform their sexual ethics
because they simply disagree with religion's teachings on the
matter. This mentality was common among Catholic students when
asked about birth control. Many Catholic interviewees literally
laughed at the idea of considering birth control to be an ethical
issue at all, not to mention one that religion should concern
itself with in a major way.
"FAITH DIRECTLY INFORMS MY VIEWS"
Some students, especially Protestant students, directly cited
official religious scripture, doctrine, and dogma when addressing
a given sexual issue. For instance, students in this grouping
might cite a Bible verse where Jesus directly speaks to an issue
like adultery, or a papal encyclical addressing sexual intercourse.
Once again, I identified two trends in the reasoning these students
employed in directly appropriating the teachings of their religious
tradition in sexual decision-making. One Protestant male I spoke
with said, "Truth is Truth-it's not relative," voicing
the first common explanation for this mentality. Students like
this young man literally applied religious teachings because
they believed absolute and literal religious teachings reflect
the absolute nature of their God. For them, the most reliable
ways to find these stable truths are resources like texts and
communal tradition. Often, they also expressed a desire to situate
themselves in contrast to moral relativism.
Another common explanation for this mentality rested in the
assumption that if one is truly religious, he/she will do what
the religion prescribes. In this case, religious identity is
delineated by one's obedience to faith teaching, so the only
way to ensure the religious nature of one's ethics is to apply
the tradition's teachings or beliefs literally.
"FAITH INDIRECTLY INFORMS MY VIEWS"
When explaining their views on sexual ethics, many students
cited doctrines, faith teachings, and religious themes that
do not explicitly or literally address sexual ethics. Among
these students, teachings on everything from prayer to the afterlife
were appropriated to give religious explanations for sexual
When many students employed this approach, they explained that
their faith is an influential aspect of their lives, yet the
direct religious teaching of their tradition is too removed
from the complexities of lived experience to be applied literally.
This explanation was strikingly common among Catholic students
when addressing homosexuality. Rather than citing papal teaching
or biblical passages concerning the issue, Catholic students
frequently referred to themes like human dignity and the goodness
of all God's creation to justify a religious pro-homosexuality
stance. This approach was also common among Buddhist, Jewish,
and Hindu students seeking to integrate religion in their sexual
ethics in cases where they identified "no direct religious
teaching" within their tradition. Since they were not aware
of an official religious teaching on a given issue, they surmised
their own religiously-based explanations.
Although it may be implicit already, it should be noted that
a single student may employ numerous strategies for a single
ethical issue. For instance, many students justified their positions
against premarital sex with a combination of doctrinal and biblical
assertions, religious themes indirectly relevant to the issue,
as well as "non-Christian" reasonings. In addition,
a single student often appealed to different strategies for
different issues under the umbrella of sexual ethics. A typical
Catholic student tended to appeal approvingly to the Church's
official teaching on premarital sex, explain that religion has
nothing to do with the birth control issue, then cite the goodness
of all God's creations to support the moral permissibility of
ANALYZING OUR STRATEGIES
Each of these strategies has its strengths and weaknesses. Those
in the "Faith does not inform my views" category frequently
said it enabled more freedom to consider other important factors
in ethical discernment. Religion was not making an obvious claim
on their opinions, so it did not obstruct them from other relevant
nonreligious factors. At the same time, however, these students
lacked a thorough integration of faith in this aspect of their
lives. Many expressed a desire to do this, yet did not know
how. In other words, this nonreligious strategy was often a
last resort rather than a willful choice.
Those who cited religious teachings, beliefs, and scriptures
"directly" related to sexual ethics often held what
they deemed to be very stable, communal positions. They found
comfort in the seemingly objective nature of their opinions.
Yet other students found them removed from, even irrelevant
to, the lived complexities of shifting human experience. In
their own accounts, students in this category frequently struggled
to explain their positions in light of lived realities, discounting
the complexities that arose when integrating textual or doctrinal
teaching into life. "I think lesbians and gays are sinners,
but once we find Christ, He has the power to change us for the
better," explained one male Protestant, explaining the
Bible's teachings against homosexuality and one's ability to
abandon that sexual orientation with Christ. Many students stated
things like this, then struggled to address the unsuccessful
efforts of homosexuals to "change for the better."
Those whose religious affiliations informed their views "indirectly"
demonstrated an ability to reconcile various ethical factors
while maintaining their religious identity. Critics, however,
charged that this approach leads to moral relativism, an infinite
number of ethical possibilities within a given tradition, which
can ultimately lead to an overall disintegration of communal
religious identity. Many of these students expressed unrest
or self-consciousness about their approach, describing their
religious affiliations with modifiers like "sort of
Catholic" or "a progressive Jew," since
their indirect religious references often justified untraditional
views on sexual ethics (untraditional within their respective
tradition, that is),
When I directly asked students about the degree to which religion
informed their sexual ethics, students of all backgrounds and
opinions were comfortable enough to answer with labels like
"very little," or "somewhat," or "a
lot." Among them, however, students commonly illustrated
discomfort or confusion with this admission. Others confidently
responded, only to demonstrate a very different approach than
the one they initially identified. Santa Clara students were
often eager to talk to me about their personal sexual ethics,
yet they frequently revealed a lack of self-awareness about
their ethical discernment as our conversations progressed. We
are making complex decisions about sexual ethics, but often
without a conscious awareness of how we have chosen to go about
This reality became a particular concern as the strengths and
weaknesses of each ethical strategy surfaced. Unconsciously,
students are sacrificing the strengths of some strategies for
the sake of another's appeal. Yet, if students are largely unaware
of the particular approach they bring to ethical discernment,
how can they make truly informed decisions between one approach
and another? While commonly critical of the ethics of their
opponents, most students did not outwardly acknowledge the weaknesses
of their own approaches.
In most conversation about sexual ethics in mainstream culture,
particularly the college culture, participants focus one's position
for or against a given practice or belief. SCU students affirmed
this trend, saying that they often know (or can sense) whether
their peers were for or against a given issue based on casual
conversation, but they rarely engage in direct conversation
about the complexities of these ethical decisions. Since they
rarely talk about the complexities of why they believe what
they do, it is easy to patronize those with different perspectives
and/or make ethical decisions about sex with little to no self-examination
in relation to alternative possibilities.
After a year of listening to students talk about sexual decision-making,
I could easily attempt to establish which methods for sexual
ethical discernment are most effective, more religious, or more
likely to result in the "proper" ethical opinions.
Such an attempt, however, would be contradictory to one of the
major lessons I take away from my project. Rather than simply
asking students to argue about ethical issues in a way that
is separated from the complexities of their lived experiences
and multi-faceted influences, students found it helpful to think
about why they believe what they believe, and how numerous influences
inform that stance. Most had a sense of what their religious
traditions officially taught or believed-that was not the obstacle
to productive ethical discernment. The component that most effectively
spurred a well thought-out ethical position was the experience
of voicing one's own ethical reasoning and engaging the discernment
and opinions of others.
Thus, if one wants to know how, as students, friends, parents,
and educators, we can enable the thoughtful student discernment
that SCU students seek, we should not simply ask how we can
persuade students to think one way or the other about a given
issue. Rather, before the "right" and "wrong"
of sex is addressed, we should consider how to create an environment
where thoughtful ethical discernment can occur. Do we acknowledge
that moral decision-making about sex and sexuality is complex?
How can we create a space where students of all backgrounds
can consider the difficulties of integrating moral teaching
and lived experience? What are the obstacles that prevent students
from thoughtfully grappling with their sexual ethics, individually
and with friends? What can we do to overcome those obstacles
in this community?
Once students had the space for intellectual, personal, spiritual
conversation about sexual ethics, they grappled with very challenging,
thoughtful arguments for and against various traditions. Students
want to think critically about sex; they just want an opportunity
to do it honestly, personally, and with a concern for "right"
and "wrong" that does not patronize others or oversimplify
SCU senior Jessica Coblentz is a 2007-08 Hackworth Fellow at
the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.