True Stories: Divinity-School Boys

I learned my lesson: never come between them and God.
By Jane Yager

Every Harvard Divinity School boy is the same: after the first time we have sex, he talks wistfully about becoming a monk. He says he long aspired to a life of solitude, discipline, and celibacy. With pointed eye contact, he adds, "...but I'm not doing a very good job of that," in a tone that — depending on the boy — ranges from gentle remorse to flat-out accusation.

For Jared, my first div-school boy, dreams of monastic life are only the beginning. In his postcoital stream of confession, Jared says his parents were missionaries, their congregations considered him a child prophet, and he never had much talent for speaking in tongues. At a Pentecostal university in Oklahoma he discovered he was "hypersexual."

"What, you slept with lots of people?" I ask.

"Of course not." He's taken aback. "Everyone who wasn't married was a virgin. I mean I had sexual feelings whenever I prayed with someone, and I had more phone sex than anyone I knew."

I'm intrigued by this world where nobody has in-person sex and everyone has phone sex. Jared says the boys and girls of the Pentecostal university were strictly forbidden to visit each other's dorms. After curfew they got on their intracampus phones to talk dirty, interspersing the phone sex with prayer. The physical distance made this a good way to get off while saving yourself for marriage, he says. I imagine high-rise dorms at opposite ends of a dark cornfield, a girl in a cross necklace at the window with a phone in one hand and the other down her pants, a boy across the field doing likewise.

I grew up in a secular family, have no religious beliefs, and do not consider myself to be on a spiritual journey. So what am I doing at divinity school? In college, I took a religion class on a whim, found it fascinating, took more, and decided to become an anthropologist of religion. My profs suggested I start with a master's degree in religious studies and pointed me to Harvard Divinity. Like many of the more secular folks here, I've underestimated the difficulty of sharing classrooms with the devout. Also sharing beds with them, it turns out: a break-up from my college boyfriend has just left me single.

I imagine slutting my way though the varieties of religious experience and taking assiduous notes.

As Jared talks into the night about faith healing, I wonder if I've found an anthropological fieldwork site in my own sex life. I imagine slutting my way though the varieties of religious experience and taking assiduous notes, my years at Harvard culminating in a book called Ethnography in my Pants.

Then Jared says I have to leave out the back door — before dawn. Otherwise his ex-fiancé, who lives across the street and watches him through her window, might see me. Sensing I'm offended, he says the ex is still strong in her faith and he himself lost Christ barely a year ago. His faith might return; he'd like to marry her if it does. When we part at the back door, he squeezes my hand and says, "I wish you a good life." I feel profoundly insulted.

At lunch in the div-school refectory I tell my friend Lydia about Jared. Lydia's a second-year student, a self-described Jubu who spent years raking the rocks at a Zen center in northern California. She's been through a div-school-boy phase herself, and shakes her head: "If you look close enough, these boys all have Jesus in their eyes. Whether consciously or not, they think they're sinning, and sin is all-or-nothing: if they're already having premarital sex, they feel no obligation to treat other people with decency." This strikes me as a bit overdramatic. Figuring Lydia doesn't understand that I'm just out for adventure, I shrug off her warning.

It's easier to spot Jesus in the eyes of Caitlin, an assigned roommate in the Harvard-subsidized apartment I can't afford to move out of. Caitlin receives messages from God and taps them with a hammer and nails onto sheets of copper hanging above her bed. The messages remind me of Post-It notes; God signs off with a dash:

Caitlin —
Wait!
— God

After I stumble home wasted on Halloween with a guy in tow, Caitlin declares my lifestyle violent. The ensuing Caitlin-led roommate meetings bring about new house rules: no alcohol in the apartment. No returning to the apartment drunk, no bringing guys home. I find in Caitlin the repressive Christian parents I never had, feel myself at age twenty-four turning into a sullen teen, smoking out the window with a towel under the door, answering prying questions with monosyllabic lies.

I sleep away from home as often as possible. After our one-night stand, Jason, a Southern Baptist, says, "You know, that was my first time," then bursts out as I stare dumbfounded, "Ha! Just kidding!" I leave unsure what to believe. Doug, a Minnesota Lutheran, waits until after a blowjob to mention he'd never go down on any woman: "Sure, I've strayed from my faith, but that's just straying too far!" He offers in consolation that I'm welcome to check my email on his computer anytime. These boys avoid eye contact in the halls of div-school forever after, and I'm always left with the bewildering sense of having lost an argument I never knew I'd begun.

After my third conquest-gone-awry, my misadventures start to frustrate Lydia. "If you really think it's about avoiding Caitlin," she says, "wouldn't a steady boyfriend get you out of that apartment more than random hookups will?"

She's right: I need a boyfriend, one open to me spending all my time at his apartment. Enter Patrick the Buddhist. Patrick grew up Catholic, found Buddhism during a semester abroad in Thailand, and now studies Tibetan tantric texts. My hopes of tantric sex are dashed when he sniffs over coffee that tantra isn't what dirty-minded people think; it's "best understood as the principle that spiritually advanced Buddhists aren't bound to the same moral rules as other people."

Commentarium (14 Comments)

Feb 02 10 - 9:20am
JRB

It's a good story and well-written, but I don't know exactly how much sympathy I'm supposed to have for the author. Being an atheist dating deeply religious people might be a weird kick for a little while, but it's one of those situations that seems so obviously toxic that it seems like self-imposed emotional distress. It's like hearing my friends who only date bad boys complaining that bad boys treat them poorly.

Feb 02 10 - 10:40am
LV

I've had eerily similar experience with a boyfriend studying religion to an ascetic degree. He treated my sexuality like dirty filth. It was traumatic. A very enlightened perspective, no?

Feb 02 10 - 11:11am
DJFA

Very interesting!

Feb 02 10 - 11:38am
CJM

I liked this one, it really reminded me of 'Angels and Men' by Catherine Fox, who is a vicar's wife, it's a great book.

Feb 02 10 - 2:15pm
TSH

Oh, come on, you're in Cambridge. You don't have to sleep only with your fellow students. Go out and meet real people!

Feb 02 10 - 6:14pm
CTD

This is a fantastic essay. Not only is it exceptionally well-written, but it gets at the heart of the very interesting issue of assessing the kind of pathology that would lead one to pursue the academic study of religion in the United States. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Feb 02 10 - 8:39pm
SJC

I had a similar experience with a boy I dated in college--also involved the boy talking about wanting to be a monk, and openly loathing the fact that he was dating me instead. He was also the son of an Episcopalian bishop, though he was not Christian himself. V. interesting to see the common threads in the religious history of men who despise being with women who want to be with them. Thanks for writing this. Those people are poison.

Feb 02 10 - 9:47pm
MN

I, too, dated a div-boy, and it didn't go well either. He pledged his undying love and devotion before we slept together, and then afterwards, decided that he just couldn't deal. I chalked it up to him being a flake, but I always suspected that his faith--and my lack of faith--played more of a part in this inability to deal than he would admit. Either way, I'll never put myself between a guy and Jesus ever again.

Feb 03 10 - 4:43pm
CM

Some div-boys will break the cycle though. My Dad was a Franciscan Friar for 8 years before he met my Mom and became an atheist.

Feb 03 10 - 5:52pm
scs

"Then we try to have sex but he can't get an erection. Each time he ventures an explanation

Feb 03 10 - 5:52pm
scs

I wouldn't call them merely deeply religious, but rather both deeply religious and extremely conflicted about their humanity.;

Feb 03 10 - 10:12pm
gg

as an hds grad i can surely say, this article demonstrates true wackiness of having religious studies, theology, and pastoral ministry under the same roof. ain't nothing like div school. wouldn't trade it for the world.

Feb 05 10 - 12:23am
sw

I'm at HDS now, and all I can say is the author's experience doesn't just seem like it's from another school, it sounds like it's from another planet.

Feb 06 10 - 1:51am
rs

SW: I recently finished a ThD and have to say, the social atmosphere at HDS has changed a LOT over the past decade. Compared to now, it WAS a different planet circa 03 (when I assume this story takes place if the author graduated in 05)