I see we’re not done talking about incels.
After Alek Minassian’s deadly attack on innocents in Toronto, scores of people decided to share their hot takes about how to “handle” the incel problem. Of course: like as not, the “problem” they focused on was that incels were angry virgins instead of the hate and misogyny that was radicalizing young men.
Worse, the solution wasn’t to deal with the anger, but to deal with the virginity.
Never was the absurdity of this argument more visible than when economist Robin Hansen attempted to equate being a virgin to financial inequality – leading many to wonder just what the absolute fuck was wrong with him.
(Considering that Hansen has described infidelity as being akin or worse to rape and that maybe women who cuckold their husbands should be tortured – but don’t quote him on that – the answer is evidently “a lot.”)
Now, one might be forgiven for thinking, as I did, that most people would recognize the idea that maybe we should ask women to “take one for the team” in the name of preventing future attacks is both idiotic on its face and disgusting to boot. Sure, someone at The Federalist was undoubtedly limbering up their hands to produce their next hot take but c’mon. It’s The Federalist.
This, of course, was like daring the universe to prove me wrong. I may as well have stood on a mountain and declared that God has shitty aim.
On Wednesday, I was coming back from a lovely trip to the UK to see friends. After a nine hour enforced vacation from the Internet, I turn on my phone to discover that New York Times contributor Ross Douthat picked up the Baton of Stupid Arguments and ran with it.
So we need to talk about just what’s so mind-bogglingly wrong with the argument that the problem with incels is some sort of “sexual inequality.”
The Redistribution of Consent
In a piece entitled “The Redistribution of Sex”, Douthat’s opening premise is that we’re somehow not properly engaging with the discourse of sexual famine. Quite literally, Douthat starts with the argument that maybe the incels are on to something. By reacting with an almost gut-level response of revulsion to the hatred that incels submerge themselves in, we are evidently unwilling to recognize that there’s a real problem here.
For those more curious than martial, one useful path through this thicket is to look at areas where extremists and eccentrics from very different worlds are talking about the same subject. Such overlap is no guarantee of wisdom, but it’s often a sign that there’s something interesting going on.
Douthat then attempts to create parallels between Robin Hanson’s idea of sexual redistribution and Oxford professor Amia Srinivasan’s essay “Does Anyone Have A Right To Sex?”, arguing that Srinivasan and Hanson are merely opposite sides of the same coin, illustrating a deeper issue within society. The issue – that there are new sexual winners and losers – has led to the rise of incels and, according to Douthat, this is all because the Sexual Revolution changed things for the worse. After all, everything was fine when monogamy was legally enforced, everyone was celibate before marriage and spousal abuse and rape was politely ignored. In the process, he also drags in issues like the #MeToo movement, feminism and the fact that women are less interested in conservative men because sure, why not. Now the number of people pairing up is in decline, men and women can’t relate, dogs and cats are living together and since feminists haven’t captured the ghost of Hugh Hefner, not having as much sex as humanly possible is bad.
Since society refuses to follow Douthat’s wisdom and return to religiously mandated monogamy and the fetishization of female virginity, the only option is to let men get jerked off by the Invisible Hand of the Free Market and thus hookers and sex robots.
No, for real.
Actual quote time:
But I expect the logic of commerce and technology will be consciously harnessed, as already in pornography, to address the unhappiness of incels, be they angry and dangerous or simply depressed and despairing. The left’s increasing zeal to transform prostitution into legalized and regulated “sex work” will have this end implicitly in mind, the libertarian (and general male) fascination with virtual-reality porn and sex robots will increase as those technologies improve — and at a certain point, without anyone formally debating the idea of a right to sex, right-thinking people will simply come to agree that some such right exists, and that it makes sense to look to some combination of changed laws, new technologies and evolved mores to fulfill it.
Now it’s pretty clear that Douthat intended for this to be some sort of “CHECKMATE, LIBERALS.” His entire argument is structured to prove that liberals are so dedicated to changing sexual mores that we’re inevitably going to de-stigmatize sex-work and make WestWorld real.
However, it didn’t work out as he clearly hoped. Instead of being praised for displaying the wisdom of Solomon and the wit of Swift, he’s been getting dragged for being an idiot. Moreover, he’s been getting increasingly testy that people have been “misunderstanding him” instead of accepting that he didn’t make his point.
As one might expect, his clarifications haven’t helped. In fact, it has actually made things worse.
But What About The Menz?
We’ll start with Douthat’s first attempt at explaining:
1. American society presents an interesting combination: Our cultural norms and prevailing messages have dramatically elevated the importance of sex to the good life; at the same time, we are increasingly failing to successfully pair people off.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) May 3, 2018
There’re a number of errors here. First, as Helen Rosner points out: the idea that sex is only recently important to happiness is kind of absurd. It’s a little difficult to believe that Douthat honestly believes that the importance of sexual satisfaction is at all new. Livy wrote about the importance of good sex during the height of the Roman empire. Art history is as much the history of porn as it is religious iconography.
Even if we accept that he only means American society, it’s still bullshit. Benjamin Franklin was writing about why MILFs and cougars are the best lays before the country even existed. It’s more accurate to say instead that American society has only recently accepted that maybe women and LGBT people were deserving of sexual satisfaction too. The acceptance that other people might have sexual agency is recent indeed. Hell, stating that women masturbated was enough to get Alfred Kinsey condemned by an act of Congress.
But incel culture is distilled “what about the menz” concern trolling, and Douthat seems unconcerned with what increased sexual rights for women and minorities might mean for the so-called marketplace. The message – and the failure to live up to it – is what’s important.
However, we also have to acknowledge just what those “prevailing messages” were. One of the most frequent messages marketed to men is that women are prizes for being a man. Perform your masculinity in just the right way and you too could have a threesome in your shower!
This message – that women are the reward for masculinity – is part of the reason why incels are angry and bitter. They believe that they’ve been denied the rewards they deserve for existing as men. Chad isn’t just their enemy, Chad is the avatar of all the men “hoarding” their sexual reward. Stacy is the avatar of all the women they desire who refuse to give them what they feel they deserve. And Becky is even worse; Becky is supposed to be their equal… and even she ignores them for Chads.
“Successfully pairing people off” in this case isn’t the sanctified relationship that Douthat imagines. It’s being given the trophy for having a Y-chromosome and a dick.
Which leads us into the second problem with Douthat’s argument:
The Lack of Sex Isn’t Making Incel Men Go Crazy
The next indication that Douthat has misunderstood the problem with incels comes in his very next tweet:
2. This means the “incel” phenomenon isn’t just reducible to its toxic violent misogynistic form; there’s a large sexless population (not just young and male but female, older, gay, etc.) caught in a psychic vice btw the culture’s obsession w/sex and its absence from their lives.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) May 3, 2018
Now in fairness, I will agree that Douthat has a minor point here. There are, indeed, many people out there who are sexually frustrated or who have problems finding partners. Disabled people, for example, have a profound difficulty being seen as sexual beings at all. Society as a whole prefers to pretend that having cerebral palsy or spina bifida removes your sexuality entirely. Put someone on crutches or in a wheelchair and suddenly their genitals vanish; they become as smooth and sexless as fashion dolls. Trying to find a sexual partner when you’re visibly disabled often means having to navigate between two extremes: people who refuse to acknowledge you sexually and fetishists who only see your disability.
Similarly, racism, sexism and homophobia all mean that many people have harder times being accepted, sexually. Asian men, for example, have long been portrayed as insufficiently masculine. Over a century of racist mockery has stereotyped them as feminine at best and sexually null at worst. Meanwhile, Western standards of beauty which prioritize Caucasian features mean that black women – especially those with darker skin or more prominent sub-Saharan features – are often seen as being less desirable. Trans people, and trans women in particular, are still treated as punchlines rather than potential sexual partners. “Trap” jokes abound, as do public expressions of disgust over the suspicion that a woman wasn’t assigned female at birth. And if their gender presentation doesn’t allow them to “pass” indistinguishably, then they become even greater targets for abuse.
But here’s the rub: they aren’t the ones killing people. As writer Lux Alptraum points out: women who’ve been deemed unfuckable aren’t going on killing sprees. Nor are other groups who face similar sexual deprivation, for that matter. There are no online communities of black women cheering on Mark Anthony Conditt. Lonely trans men and women aren’t gathering to celebrate the anniversary of Elliot Roger’s massacre. Disabled people aren’t discussing how to get the government to force abled women to fuck them, and none of them are waxing rhapsodic about terrifying 14 year old girls.
In fact, women are specifically excluded from incel communities. Incels.me – the community that sprang up once Reddit banned most of the incel boards – makes this clear: women by definition aren’t incels.
Douthat tries to play semantic games by pretending that there’s more to the incel phenomenon and in doing so destroys his own argument. It’s as clear an indicator that he’s never actually visited any incel boards or websites as you may want. There’s no “reducing” the incel phenomenon to toxic violence because that’s exactly what it’s about.
Trying to group incels in amongst people who have difficulty finding sexual or romantic partners is disingenuous at best and intellectually dishonest at worst. You can’t hand-wave away the fact that the incel community is about hate, as though it were a minor detail. It’s not some inconsequential curiosity, a strange triviality. The misogyny of the incel community is so deep that they refuse to refer to women as women. Women are dehumanized as femoids, foids and roasties. Rape fantasies, forced breeding and other violent delights are described in intense detail. Murders of “normies” are celebrated.
Hate isn’t a variation of the “incel phenomenon”. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. It’s the foundation and bedrock of the entire community.
“What? Women Are Things”
Like many others before him, Douthat has fallen victim for one of the classic blunders. The most common is “don’t trust hateful assholes to be honest about themselves” but only slightly less well known is this: sex isn’t a goddamn commodity. Like Hanson before him, Douthat takes the position that hey, maybe we should take the time to consider that the incels have a point.
(A point, incidentally, that involves women as sexual chattel but you don’t make an omelette without enslaving a few eggs.)
It’s accepted as writ that the problem is that hate is just the byproduct of blue-balls. Douthat only varies from Hanson on the solution.
In accepting this cause, however, Douthat further sabotages his own argument. Comparing incels’ complaints to the circumstances presented in Srinivasan’s essay doesn’t even manage to be wrong. It’s such a misunderstanding of what Srinivasan laid out that it almost has to be intentional. Institutional sexism, racism and ableism is night and day different from the belief that you’re entitled to sex and – more importantly – sex with extremely specific women.
Similarly, Douthat’s argument that sexual inequality and incels in particular are the result of the Sexual Revolution somehow making it harder for people to pair off misses the point so completely that it’s almost absurd. It’s unavoidably clear that Douthat hasn’t actually, y’know, read any of the incel boards. He’s far too quick to take them at their word and use them as the latest bugbear in his distaste for current sexual mores and use it as a counterpoint to Srinivasan’s essay.
But at the same time, he’s also too quick to accept the central premise of Hanson’s thought-experiment as fact: the idea that sex has become a distributable resource. And that, in and of itself, is an exemplar of why we continue to misunderstand the issues behind the incel community.
The idea that sex is something that can be distributed equitably is beyond absurd. Treating sex as a commodity that can be traded and distributed is why incels exist. It’s the commodity-model of sex taken to an illogical extreme. Where the commodity model of sex focuses on the “gatekeeping” aspect, Hanson, like incels, treats women as the commodity.
Now, in his “clarification” on Twitter, Douthat insists that he’s not arguing in favor of an equitable distribution of sex, just that it will probably happen.
7. Instead I think the likely response will be commercial-technical approach dressed in the language of social justice and libertarianism. The left pushes for normalizing sex work, the techno-futurist right for virtual sex, and this combination presents as a tacit “right to sex.”
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) May 3, 2018
But the reason why so many people had such a visceral reaction has little to do with whether people thought Douthat was agreeing with Hanson or not. The problem many people had was that Douthat agreed that women were a product.
It’s that sex workers are presented as being synonymous with automatons. It’s that the “problem” is that men are complaining that they’re not getting the sex they are entitled to. And it’s the fact that that women are being relegated to a commercial product. Little things like, say, consent, are hand-waved away, just as he hand-waves misogyny and hate at the core of the incel worldview. It’s easy to do because, at the core, Douthat and Hanson agree: it’s women’s fault. And women are supposed to fix it. The only difference is in how.
Don’t Douthat (or Missing The Forest For The Trees)
It’s easy to miss that Douthat isn’t arguing in favor of sexual redistribution, just that it’s going to happen. He’s so eager to predict this carnal dystopia to own the libs that he can’t even question the underlying premise. He constructs arguments based on bullshit. Like Hanson, he starts from the presupposition that the incels have a point. There’s a sexual hierarchy and only certain people get to benefit. The ones who don’t get sex suffer and those who suffer inevitably lash out. And since women are the sexual gatekeepers, it falls to them to fix things.
Hanson thinks that women should suck the hate out of troubled men. Douthat argues that we should return to a prelapsarian era of the 1950s, when men were men and women knew their place. After all, the Sexual Revolution was triggered by greater sexual autonomy for women. Both of them are wrong.
It doesn’t help that both men – as so many others do – work from flawed premises. The first is to assume that sex is the problem, not a symptom. Incels aren’t cut off from sex because of some men hog all the sex. They aren’t bereft of partners because of some sort of sexual pecking order. They are single and sexless because their rage and hate. Expecting women to give up their own autonomy and safety in order to provide them with the healing power of orgasms is an absurdity. It puts the onus on women to fix a problem that they aren’t responsible for in the first place.
Nor would greater access to sex work be a panacea as Douthat suggests. Sex workers are already at risk for harm. Ignoring that they also have the right to consent or not consent, expecting them to service men who hate them just turns that risk to near certainty.
As I said before: the problem isn’t sex. The problem is hate.
The great irony is: there is a great deal of sexual inequality out there. There are a lot of people who have less sexual opportunity than others. But because so many of them aren’t white cisgendered men, they don’t count as part of this “crisis”.
Neither of them think about the women who are equally lonely. Who are disadvantaged by a society that allows for a narrow definition of beauty. There isn’t any thought spared for queer or trans men and women, or for the disabled. Asexuals don’t even exist to them.
We have a long way to go to help bridge the sexual conflicts in our society. But if we want to salve those wounds, we have to address the real issue. Until then, we’re just going to be stuck in a repeating cycle of misery, trying to solve the wrong problems over and over again.