Love and Sex in the Time of Incels

Science fiction film "Ex Machina," 2014.

One lesson to be drawn from the history of opinion writing and sane thought might be this: Don’t ever use the phrase “Which brings me to the sex robots.” 

Yet this is exactly what Ross Douthat, conservative opinion writer at the New York Times, put into print with his May 2 editorial “The Redistribution of Sex.” Douthat wrote this piece in the wake of the van attack in Toronto in March, when 25-year-old Alek Minassian, who identified himself as an “incel,” killed ten people and injured more than a dozen. He was doing so, according to a Facebook post he wrote, to incite an “Incel Rebellion.”

Since that attack, much has been written on the “incel” subculture, exposing a dark corner of the internet to mainstream eyes for the first time.

Or, really, the second time. We went through this exact same media cycle four years ago when 22-year-old Elliot Rodger dubbed himself “the supreme gentleman” before murdering six people outside a sorority at UC Santa Barbara, becoming as much a hero to the incel movement at the time as Minassian is today.

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“Incel” is short for the oxymoronic “involuntarily celibate,” a group of young men who have turned normal sexual frustration into solipsistic self-obsession on a metaphysical level. To quote one such incel (as recorded in “Kill All Normies,” writer Angela Nagle’s look at the online far right), “I spent 4 hours just staring at the wall in my room. What normies call an existential crisis, for the incel is simply . . . life.”

What this Holden Caulfield-esque amount of self-indulgence indicates is the core belief of the incel — that their poor luck with women (there may be LGBTQ versions of incels, but they’re most certainly not welcome in the vast majority of incel forums, which skew heavily towards the alt-right) is a genetic flaw, and that all women are to be blamed for the negative reactions they’ve received from specific women in their lives. This toxic stew of anger, testosterone, and extreme male privilege festers in online forums where incels support one another in their misogyny, which apparently every four years explodes into a mass killing.

In any case, Douthat seems to believe that he has stumbled across the perfect solution to the incels’ problem. In a world where, as he sees it, “the sexual revolution created new winners and losers, new hierarchies to replace the old ones, privileging the beautiful and rich and socially adept in new ways and relegating others to new forms of loneliness and frustration,” the only solution lies not in, say, better education about sexuality and relationships, but rather with C-3P0s that we can fuck (or, until the technology gets there, at the very least R2-D2s that we can fuck):

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, ignoring the inherent strangeness of publishing a nonironic case for an imaginary pornographic technology in the United State’s newspaper of record, there are also a lot of other problems with Douthat’s argument.

In talking about the issue of incels in relation to the sexual marketplace, and discussing sex as a social good that should be distributed equally, Douthat taps into a wider argument that goes beyond just the incel community. According to sexual health educator and expert Guli Fager:

The theory of sexual economics (developed by Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs) posits that, in the heterosexual “marketplace,” female sex has value and men’s sex does not, and as such women are “sellers” and men “buyers.” This means, as in any marketplace, that any buyer can make an offer that feels fair to them, or is within their means, and any seller can choose to accept or not accept. It also means that some people will never find “buyers” and some will never find “sellers” willing to accept their offer. Things that make an “offer” valuable include attractiveness, social capital, resources, promises of fidelity, and plain old mutual attraction.

What “incels” have failed to understand is that sex is a socially exchanged good — as in, most “sellers” require certain conditions to be met in order to sell. What women and men are not required to do in this marketplace is actually buy or sell to any specific, individual person. There are clear ways in which men can increase their chances of success with women, but women are in no way obligated to “sell.” If any social engineering is to be done here, it’s to help men adapt to the new sexual economy. Women’s increasing economic and social power means they choose when and how sex fits into their lives, as opposed to the way it used to be—sex was something men were entitled to, and took, from women whenever they wanted.

Whereas Douthat thinks that the sexual revolution created “new winners and losers,” Fager points out that really all it did was give women the equal opportunity to win, themselves. For those in power, though, equality always feels like oppression, and so today’s incels truly believe that their inability to find sexual partners is a result of them losing out on the genetic lottery to the handsome jocks of the world.

There’s only one problem with this — it’s a false media narrative that doesn’t actually hold up to reality. Handsome men, and beautiful women, go home from the bar alone, frustrated, all the time; just as frequently, schlubby guys and quiet, unassuming girls find fulfilling sexual partners.

Such, at least, was my own experience as a nerdy, nebbishy, schlubby teenager who turned into . . . well, a nerdy, nebbishy, schlubby twenty-something. Throughout all of my teenager years, and much of my twenties, I had a great deal in common with the incels. I wanted to find sex and love, but was continually rejected from both. I was certainly bitter and dejected a lot of the time, but that never turned into outright misogyny for two reasons: 1) my genetic predisposition towards depression, which ultimately turned the vast majority of my anger inward towards myself; and 2) my parents’ lack of a patriarchal family structure, and their lessons to me that women are to be respected as people. As a result, I would be mopey and feel anger towards particular girls who rejected me, but I never lashed out at women as a whole because many of my closest friends were women and it’s insane to imagine that half the population of the planet all shares the same personality.

All of which is not to humble brag (I did mention the whole “constantly rejected” part, right?) but rather to say that I, too, felt like a loser in the sexual marketplace. And this remained the case until I realized that I wasn’t actually in the sexual marketplace. I was in the sex-and-love marketplace, where I was looking for somebody to both have sex with and walk hand-in-hand through a farmer’s market with. But as a relatively sheltered, somewhat oblivious young twenty-something, I was most definitely not in an emotional place for a healthy relationship, even if I was more than ready for a sexual relationship.

The great revelation of my life was that these two things didn’t need to go hand-in-hand. The deep secret that lonely, horny young guys need to learn is that there are just as many lonely, horny young gals out there, but they just don’t want to have to deal with toxic masculine bullshit layered on top of their orgasms.

Perhaps, then, we don’t need to invent new technologies to help lonely men orgasm. Instead, what if we focused our efforts on changing the ways we educate our young men (and young women, and young non-binary individuals) about sex, sexuality, and sexual pleasure, with particular emphasis on differentiating between them?

I fully believe that all individuals are entitled to sexual pleasure, but that begins and ends with a right to a certain amount of time, space, and privacy to masturbate.  If you want to find sex with a partner? Or even sex and love with a partner? That’s something you’re not entitled to, no matter who you are. The best way you can find that is to actually engage with the type of people who sexually interest you, learn what makes them interesting and unique as people, and figure out the types of things you can offer them in return. Odds are it isn’t looks, money, or feats of strength; it’s far more likely to be wit, compassion, sympathy, and really quality oral sex.

Because you’re far more likely to develop yourself as a person than you are to develop a stupid, pie-in-the-sky technology that will satisfy your sexual desires.

Which brings me to the sex robots.

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