Finding Common Grounds

January 05, 2018

by Megan O’Malley (’17)

Amid life’s wild balancing act, it is too easy to schedule our most meaningful relationships into a free time slot in our planner instead of letting people wreck our perfect plan. This avoidance of inconvenience is just one sign of a greater, unspoken injustice embedded in many of us: we limit the depth of relationships and mold people into roadblocks rather than let their stories, presence and light fill us.
This brokenness has been hit head-on here at Gonzaga as we have collectively turned our attention and intention to a discussion around healthy relationships and campus dating culture. We’ve even found a way to use our love for coffee to help us along the way.
As a member of the student body, I’ve seen the desire for more freedom to explore relationships – options with romance, commitment and even spirituality. We want to have open conversations, to hear honest stories, to learn how to get to know someone else on a deeper level. Essentially, to foster and expand a sex education we’ve never experienced. One with more soul.

Hook-up Culture

During the fall semester, Donna Freitas, author of “Sex and the Soul,” led Gonzaga students to reflect on the ways campus culture separates and links spirituality and sexuality. Seated among friends, students laughed and winced and nodded as she read excerpts from her book, comprised of interviews with students from all types of universities across the country. At one of Freitas’ presentations, I was struck by the simplicity and allure of her call for a more courageous, communicative dating culture.

During her research, Freitas dubbed some schools “spiritual colleges,” indicating places where students feel a sense of freedom to explore both sexuality and spirituality. Still, in such journeys, these two paths never quite met each other.

Due to this divide between spiritual or religious practice and a sexual ethic, an ugly phenomenon has surfaced and taken over the “spiritual” campuses: the hook-up culture.
The term “hook-up” encompasses a range of short-term, casual, physical encounters with another. It’s characteristically impersonal and unattached – “a competition of who can care the least,” Freitas remarked.

The hook-up culture leaves no room for romance, deeper meaning or commitment – something the majority of students in Freitas’ interviews hoped for behind closed doors.
“Students are seeking real freedom from the limitations of a hook-up culture, which suggests that students have only one option. We want to help them realize the option for real discernment, to step back and reflect on the water they’re swimming in,” Director of University Ministry, Michelle Wheatley says. “Students do not have to be enslaved by this culture.”

Honest Conversations

Blessed Mother Teresa’s words point at the isolation and indifference that can sprout if we don’t tend to our human connection in every area of our lives. Over the past few years, University Ministry has begun to reintroduce students to the importance of this universal belonging, within and outside of romantic relationships.
In fall 2012, University Ministry held its first Faith and Culture Week, which addressed sex as a social justice issue.

“At that time, we looked at everything from Catholic theology to issues like human trafficking and pornography. We also had a space for prayer and quiet for students who needed healing. It meant so much for them to hear that people are willing to talk about sex on our campus,” says Wheatley.

Ever since, students have been eager to keep the conversation going.

So, in fall 2014, University Ministry Coordinator Rev. Janeen Steer and her husband, Danny Steer, a marriage and family therapist, packed Wolff Auditorium with a simple promise to share about their marriage. They talked openly about their path to their lives as 40-somethings with kids. The vulnerability of the Steers made a huge and lasting impact on students. Two current juniors fondly recall the way Danny discussed what he found sexy: Janeen in her pajamas, looking up at their newly lighted Christmas tree with awe.

It was a confirmation of some secret hope – that someone will catch us when we’re least expecting it, in our most unadulterated and true selves, and love us deeply for the way we wonder.
The distance between this hope for romance and the casual, cold mindset of the hook-up culture is great. Instead of trying to demolish this nationwide epidemic as a whole, some students are feeling empowered to change their own approach to dating, but more importantly, to relationships in general.

“There are students who are making themselves pretty vulnerable in starting real dialogue about creating an actual dating culture,” says Jill Yashinsky-Wortman, director of the Center for Cura Personalis. “We’re supporting them in talking about how they fi nd meaning and signifi cance and freedom in their choices.”
Students are beginning to feel more empowered and taking steps toward a more genuine dating culture. And for some, it all begins with a simple cup of coffee.

The Coffee Challenge

Shortly after Freitas’ visit to campus, Rev. Steer issued a challenge to students hanging out in the University Ministry office: Ask someone new to grab a cup of coffee with you. The goal was “to get to know the other person as a human,” senior Maddie Marquard recalls. After meeting with someone for coffee herself, she created a Facebook event and challenged her friends to ask someone, anyone they usually wouldn’t, out for coffee.

Renee Wahlman, a senior and Christian Life Community leader, echoed this challenge to the women in a group she leads. “One girl asked a guy from one of her classes, another played matchmaker and sent a few pairs of friends to meet up, another asked a teacher’s assistant of one of her classes who she wanted to learn more about,” she remembers.

“The point behind these interactions is to get to know the other person better and find out if they have qualities that you want in a potential relationship,” sophomore Davis Phillips says.

It was affirming to hear my classmates talk about the way this challenge left them feeling empowered. This proposal challenged students to have meaningful interactions with someone from outside their typical social circle. It served as an invitation to a perspective-widening process that made the thought of approaching casual dates on campus less terrifying.

It’s an exciting start. For students, it’s about being open to discernment that leads to finding a new kind of meaning, where spirituality and relationships reflect Gonzaga’s culture of community.
“Students are learning they can be better to each other,” Wheatley says.

“And to themselves,” Yashinsky-Wortman adds.

Students at Gonzaga had already begun the discussion around sexual assault before researcher Donna Frietas visited campus, but, says Taylor Kratochvil, student body president, her presentations were a catalyst for additional forums to continue the discussion in a safe and healthy way. Student leaders worked on a program for victims of sexual assault, and amped up efforts around awareness and support. For those who have been accused of sexual assault, there is University protocol for discipline and response, but also a guided reflecti on that helps students get to the root of the problem and how it affects the community.

When “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about rape on college campuses, was released, Gonzaga held public viewings to elicit conversation. Rose Mary Volbrecht, professor of Philosophy and Women’s & Gender Studies, also showed the fi lm in her 300-level Ethics class.
“In my 34 years of teaching, I have rarely observed such a nearly universal positive response of students to a social issue,” she wrote in a lett er to President Thayne McCulloh. “Their initial responses to this documentary confirmed that viewing it had been a life-changing experience.”

The students had many ideas about how the University could share this informati on more broadly, but they also recognized their own responsibilities to each other to create a safe campus culture: to raise awareness, to intervene when necessary, and to look out for one another.

The University’s Student Development and Human Resources Title IX experts supported and encouraged these efforts. They met with students to answer questions, developed a comprehensive educational program on sexual misconduct for students and implemented training for employees. (Title IX is a broader anti-discrimination act commonly considered the sexual assault statute.)


The federal government discusses new legislation around sexual assault regularly, with new regulations provided to universities nearly every semester. Kirk Wood-Gaines, assistant vice president of Human Resources, says, “It’s good. It’s a nationwide issue that has to be addressed.”

Those regulations represent the minimum requirements of colleges. Gonzaga, he says, is not focused on that alone but on what it takes to truly exemplify the Jesuit mission to its students.

Members of the Gonzaga community are welcome to talk with Stephanie Whaley, Title IX coordinator, at 509.313.6910. Or call Legeia LaClair 509.313.6119, Gonzaga’s Lutheran Support Services advocate.

That means training more faculty members to provide sexual assault educati on within classrooms, and talking with students about everything from healthy relationships and the trouble with alcohol, to attitudes toward sex and what consent really means. The University is expanding its existi ng partnership with Lutheran Community Services to have an advocate on campus to talk with sexual assault victims, and has continued to promote a 24-hour-a-day sexual assault response team.

For the last few years, a chief priority was having a full-ti me expert devoted solely to Title IX aff airs. Stephanie Whaley, who has previous experience in a Title IX role and a master’s in student affairs administration, joined Gonzaga last summer to fill the role.

Compared to other colleges and universities, Wood-Gaines says, “We’re ahead of the curve and we intend to remain there.”