Opinion columnists and our internet’s resident thinkers love to write about the “incel” community, a term that is short for “involuntarily celibate” and refers to an amorphous group of young men who commiserate online about their romantic and sexual failures. On subforums of Reddit and 4chan, incels have developed a loose ideology to explain away their inability to attract women. They believe that the sexual revolution (or, more pessimistically, nature itself) created a brutal sexual hierarchy in which a small minority of powerful, attractive “alpha males” hoard women, leaving none for the “beta males.” Incels resent sexually successful men, but they reserve their most bitter hatred for the women they see as unfairly passing them over for reasons unrelated to their invariably poor hygiene and general unpleasantness. In much of the puzzlingly large media coverage of this group, only its misogyny is subject to critique. The rest — the flimsy pop-science arguments about sexual selectivity and the ludicrous suggestion that the 1800s would have been kinder to twiggy computer nerds in terms of virginity loss — often goes unchallenged. The media class is attracted to incels for the same reason they obsessively profiled the alt-right throughout 2016 and 2017: Reactionary online communities are easy to research, easy to condemn, and ripe for half-assed sociological analysis.
The first mainstream exposure to “incels” came in the wake of a 2014 spree killing by Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old college dropout on the autism spectrum who murdered six people and injured 14 others in Isla Vista, California. Rodger blamed the shooting on his frustrations over his continued virginity in a bizarre manifesto, telling the women of the world “I don't know what you don't see in me. I’m the perfect guy and yet you throw yourselves at these obnoxious men instead of me, the supreme gentleman.” The details of Rodger’s life seemed to contradict most incels’ self-pitying worldview — he was reasonably attractive and his father was a wealthy film director, leaving his personality as the most likely culprit for his loneliness — but he nevertheless became a half-ironic, half-sincere icon to the incel community, and it bloomed in his memory.
The next incel-related killing occurred last week, when Alek Minassian, a 25-year-old man who posted on Facebook about “the incel rebellion” and name-dropped “the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger,” drove a van into a Toronto crowd, killing 10. This prompted another volley of explainers and op-eds. Sexpert and blogger Dan Savage argued that the de-stigmatization of sex work would help mitigate the incel problem by providing budding Rodgers and Minassians an outlet for their unmet sexual needs. Canada’s National Post ran an op-ed arguing that “the difficult work of helping even the least-sympathetic isolated people find respect and belonging must be higher on our agendas than generating hatred — even for those people who hate,” a tone-deaf prescription reminiscent of the far-right talking point that the students at Stoneman Douglas High School should have tried harder to befriend the shooter who killed 17 of their classmates. George Mason economist Robin Hanson wrote on his blog that “those with much less access to sex suffer to a similar degree as those with low income” and they might “lobby for redistribution along this axis and to at least implicitly threaten violence if their demands are not met.” On the policy front, he mused that “sex could be directly redistributed, or cash might be redistributed in compensation.”
Reactionary online communities are easy to research, easy to condemn, and ripe for half-assed sociological analysis.
And over at The New York Times, resident prude Ross Douthat used his latest column, titled “The Redistribution of Sex,” to respond to these suggestions and offer some of his own. After sighing that our fallen society may never revive “older ideas about the virtues of monogamy and chastity and permanence and the special respect owed to the celibate,” he resigns himself to the inevitability of a world in which a “right to sex” gradually becomes accepted and sex robots are called upon to fulfill it. Sex robots, for those who don’t regularly read the “science” verticals of the world’s shittiest publications, are a topic with a similar coverage-to-significance ratio (roughly 1000:1) as free speech on college campuses — which Douthat also mentions in the lede. Good lord.
The trouble with brainstorming possible solutions to the “incel problem” is that objectively, there isn’t much of a problem in the first place. Concluding that the modern world has created a mass of frustrated, sexless young men who need our help means (1) assuming from a slight increase in online visibility that violent male jealousy is increasing overall, and (2) accepting the faux-sociology that festers on the dumbest corners of the internet. The men in these communities are, to say the least, unreliable narrators of their own predicament. Their personalities range from innocently creepy to violently repulsive, and they have as much trouble attracting male friends as they do female sex partners. Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian were both described in the press as friendless loners, suggesting that their interpersonal issues had little to do with a competitive sexual marketplace or a lack of realistic sex dolls.
Further, the “alpha male” and “beta male” designations popular with incels and are based on a discredited study of captive wolves that translates poorly to human behavior. The notion that timid, awkward, physically unimposing men would have had automatic sexual success in premodern societies is a fantasy — until relatively recently in the Western world, the best outcome for a bookish introvert would have been to take a vow of celibacy and become a monk. Now, assuming he doesn’t smell bad enough to repel investors, he can join the ranks of the psychopathic computer billionaires ruining all our lives.
The notion that timid, awkward, physically unimposing men would have had automatic sexual success in premodern societies is a fantasy.
The idea that advances in simulated sexual intimacy could solve this negligible problem also falls apart under scrutiny. Sex dolls are more realistic than ever, as the tabloid media incessantly reminds us, and it has never been easier to access high-definition pornography literally anywhere. But if Douthat and company are to believed, the incel problem is the worst it’s ever been. If giving lonely, sex-starved men a simulacrum of sexual fulfillment was the solution to the misogyny that festers on internet forums, wouldn’t we have seen some results already?
Whenever anyone suggests that there may be a systemic problem with our “young men,” opinion-mongers tend to run to their keyboards and bang out impassioned credos without consulting with any actual experts. Take their coverage of the alt-right, which has all but fallen apart. The movement was touted as a glaring example of the economic and social alienation of young white men — we have failed our young men, the narrative went, giving them no choice but to march through the streets carrying tiki torches and talking about phrenology. It turned out, of course, that the leaders of the alt-right were all wealthy, college-educated urbanites who received every possible advantage in life. And the pop-psychologist Jordan Peterson, who offers mundane self-help advice specifically for “young men,” continues to elicit disproportionate mainstream media attention four months after the publication of his last book. Even though his ideas seem to have more traction with middle-aged newspaper columnists than the “young men” he mentions ad nauseum, the prospect of applying amateur sociological theories to an entire generation based on a few Reddit posts is too attractive for them to pass up.