For the last several months, the election season has kept Americans unusually preoccupied with politics. Owing to that distraction, it was easy to miss a story about a cultural sickness that politics alone probably can’t fix.
A few weeks ago, administrators of California’s Piedmont High School had to tell parents about an underground club formed by several male student athletes. The boys were running a sexual competition among themselves, recorded online, which awarded points for documented sexual activity with girls who had been unknowingly “drafted” into the contest. They called it the “Fantasy Slut League.”
A story like this one obviously raises troubling questions about our culture. Those questions will occur immediately to decent people, regardless of their philosophical or theological views.
But for some of us the implications might cut even deeper, raising questions not only about our culture but also about our very humanity. This kind of story challenges the confidence of those who believe in natural law and in conscience as a native faculty of the human soul.
We have been told by the highest philosophical and theological authorities, such as Thomas Aquinas, that the natural law cannot be entirely effaced in the human mind, that conscience can be darkened but not extinguished by error and sin. Or, in the words of philosopher J. Budziszewski, the natural law is “what we can’t not know,” and those who try to evade or ignore it will inevitably suffer “the revenge of conscience.”
We want to believe this, because the alternative—the yawning abyss of nihilism—seems so terrible. But where, we wonder, is the evidence of natural law in this sorry tale?
To be sure, the story does contain some hopeful signs that not all of our youth have been utterly corrupted by the predominant culture of sexual promiscuity. The principal’s letter to parents notes that some students “felt pressure to participate” or “lacked confidence” to take overt steps against the “league.” This suggests that some of the students understood the debased character of what was going on. Theirs was a failure not so much of conscience but of courage.
But what about the ringleaders of the club? If some students felt pressured to participate, or lacked the confidence to stop the league, then others presumably were applying the pressure and lacked any desire to stop the league. Could they simply have been unaware of the evil in their actions?
Here the school principal tries to come to our aid, but falls far short. He observes that the students clearly knew something was “wrong” in their actions, because some of them worried that the league, if discovered, might result in disciplinary action and negatively affect their college applications. That, however, is not conscience but calculation. These students’ fears show no perception that their actions were wrong, only the ordinary street smarts that fears punishment for violating the rules, while viewing the rules as merely arbitrary, not as guardians of something inherently valuable.
Such thinking seems to reflect lessons learned, directly or indirectly, from the behavior of their elders, many of whom have spent the last several decades committed to a project of “sexual liberation,” according to which there are no objective moral standards for evaluating consensual sex.
This position—not yet completely triumphant over all opposition but certainly dominant among the nation’s intellectual elites—was clear in the public reaction to the story of CIA director David Petraeus’s adulterous relationship with his biographer. Here, the evidence that we live in a culture of promiscuity came not only from the adultery but also, and even more powerfully, from commentators’ dominant response—an emphasis not on the wrongness of Petraeus’s behavior but on its self-injuring stupidity and carelessness.
What we have in California, then, is a case of young people taught by a corrupt adult culture that sex is fun and nothing but fun; that it is a source of physical pleasure unconnected to anything serious or beautiful. Nothing in their souls seems to have rebelled against this teaching, and we cannot help but fear that this is because there never was anything in their souls capable of judging such a teaching to be wrong.
But before we conclude sadly that the natural law must be written only on some hearts and not all, we might reflect that traces of it can be seen even in circumstances far more depraved than those found at this California high school.
Why, after all, does the master speak of his slave as an inferior kind of being? Is it not in order to trick his own conscience, which he has brutalized but not destroyed, and which still knows that it cannot be just to hold a human being as an article of property? Why does the Nazi refer to Jews and his other victims as parasites or vermin, as a kind of disease that must be exterminated for the sake of social cleanliness, if not because he knows that it is wrong to kill human beings who are not personally guilty of any crime?
These considerations let us revisit this story in search of some hint that the natural law lives in the minds of these youth. We find it staring us right in the face. It is in the very name they chose for their undertaking: “The Fantasy Slut League.” Slut. The use of that ugly word in this wretched context points to the natural law. Its derogatory connotation suggests that in choosing it, these boys knew, on some level, that there was something wrong in their pursuit.
Traditional adherents of natural law think that the meaning of sex is not exhausted by the pleasure it brings, but that this pleasure is linked to serious powers and noble responsibilities. By its nature, by our nature, sex is meant to be an expression of a loving and permanent commitment between a man and a woman. More than that, it is meant to achieve not only the good of uniting the couple but also of bringing new life into existence, which the couple will cherish and nurture. From this view, we debase sex—we debase ourselves—when we treat it as a game or an entertainment.
The word "slut" indirectly expresses this traditional view. It is a term of derision. It suggests contempt for the woman who treats sex, and herself, so carelessly. It suggests that she lacks self-respect and deserves no respect from others. The connection between sexual licentiousness and contempt for women is certainly not unique to the boys in that high school. The culture of promiscuity is nowhere celebrated more than in certain kinds of rap music, and no other kind of music is so saturated in contempt for the women that it views as nothing more than sexual playthings.
Considering the word "slut" in this way—as a paradoxically hopeful sign that people do have natural knowledge of the true purposes of sex—is in no way to embrace its abusive and discriminatory meaning. The word is abusive because it suggests disdain for, rather than a desire to help, sexually promiscuous women, whose lifestyle isn’t always a matter of informed choice but often a matter of coercion or the sad consequence of poor parental guidance. The word is discriminatory because it is ordinarily applied only to women and not men. But a moment’s reflection shows this distinction to be unjust and unreasonable.
The story of the “Fantasy Slut League” is sordid and sad, and might tempt some to despair about our culture and the natural law. On careful consideration, though, it also offers evidence of the natural law and hence some hope for the future of our culture. There is no denying that the very fact of the league shows we inhabit a culture that has gone far down the wrong path. At the same time, however, the organizers’ label for their league shows that the materials by which one might try to renovate the culture—human nature, human reason, the natural law—still exist in the minds that the culture has misshaped.
Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press).