Last week, a 25-year-old Toronto man named Alex Minassian drove a van into a crowd of pedestrians, leaving 10 dead and 16 more injured. Like the 2014 shooting in Isla Vista, California, the van attack cast “incels” — a loosely organized group of men who consider themselves to be involuntarily celibate — into the center of a public debate, with journalists and academics attempting to prescribe solutions to America’s so-called “incel problem.”
In a March essay for the London Review of Books, Oxford philosophy professor Amia Srinivasan wrote that because they believe that they are both unfairly denied and inherently worthy of sex, incels transmute their frustration “into a rage at the women ‘denying’ them sex” rather than interrogating their own notions of how women should behave. After the attack, feminist writer Jill Filipovic noted that incels’ real problem isn’t a lack of access to sex, but rather an inability to control women. Meanwhile, economist Robin Hanson claimed that “those with much less access to sex suffer to a similar degree as those with low income.” His solution? A “redistribution” of sex, a bizarre reimagining of the Marxist concept of redistributing wealth.
On Wednesday, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat chimed in, presenting some strange speculations as to how society might adapt in response to its incel problem. “I expect the logic of commerce and technology will be consciously harnessed, as already in technology, to address the unhappiness of incels, be they angry and dangerous or simply depressed and despairing,” he wrote. “The left’s increasing zeal to transform prostitution into legalized and regulated ‘sex work’ will have this end implicitly in mind.”
Unsurprisingly, Douthat’s vision of a future where sex workers serve the needs of men who cannot get sex elsewhere made a lot of people very angry. Though he later clarified that he never meant to suggest this was a desired outcome, the idea smacked of something even more egregious: the notion that it is somehow the responsibility of sex workers — a group that is not only consistently marginalized and stigmatized, but also particularly vulnerable to abuse — to prevent lonely, misogynistic men from turning to violence.
This isn’t the first time sex workers have been proposed as the antidote to male misbehavior.
This isn’t the first time sex workers have been proposed as the antidote to male misbehavior. After The New York Times substantiated the longstanding rumors that Louis C.K. was a serial sexual harasser with a habit of masturbating in front of non-consenting women, plenty of people suggested he could have simply hired a sex worker to indulge his “fetish.” Similarly, after Harvey Weinstein was exposed as a serial rapist, some wondered why he didn’t hire sex workers instead, as The Daily Dot reported.
This view — If you can’t get it, then pay for it! — implies that a sex worker’s job is to unquestioningly fulfill men’s sexual needs, much in the manner of a sex robot, which Douthat also suggested as a possible solution. But if you ask sex workers to weigh in on the matter — something Douthat and Hanson clearly never bothered to do — the idea of sex workers single-handedly stepping in to save the day is not only ridiculous, but also dangerous.
Liara Roux, a sex worker and organizer, explained that while seeing sex workers can help introduce people to intimacy in a healthy way, it isn’t a way of fixing a man’s disrespectful attitudes towards women. “For many people who have trouble finding connections through societally approved avenues, seeing sex workers is absolutely an option to express their sexuality in a safe place where they need not fear being judged,” Roux explained. “For those who have toxic ideas about being entitled to sex, however, suggesting they just see a sex worker is extremely dangerous.”
According to Azura Rose, a Toronto-based sex worker, the entire conversation is indicative of a worldview in which sex workers are presumed to not have agency — and an extension of the dehumanization and objectification that sex workers experience more broadly. “Suggesting that incels should see sex workers presumes that sex workers either do not or should not say no,” Rose wrote in an email. "Either sex workers are afforded the same ability to consent as any other human being, or we’ve decided that one group of people deserves to be property.” Rose added that, as a sex worker who lives and works in Toronto — the city where Minassian struck — she especially rejects the idea that sex workers are responsible for preventing violence against women.
Encouraging incels to pay for sex will do nothing more than put sex workers, an already marginalized group, further at risk.
Kit, a Chicago-based sex worker who requested to be referred to by a pseudonym, seconded the idea that telling incels to just pay for sex dehumanizes sex workers. “Suggesting that seeking out [a sex worker’s] services is the solution to these men’s sexual frustration plays into the idea that we are some kind of shock absorbers between men’s violence — especially sexual violence — and the ‘good’ women who don’t do sex work,” she said.
Globally, anywhere between 45 and 75 percent of sex workers have experienced physical violence. Due to the illegality and stigmatization of sex work in the United States, they often choose not to report crimes committed against them to the police. Incels may not be an organized community, but if Minassian’s attack — and the community’s own rhetoric — teaches us anything, it’s that there are men buying into this ideology who see no problem with carrying out physical and sexual violence against women. Encouraging them to pay for sex will do nothing more than put sex workers, an already marginalized group, further at risk.
“It’s an absolute recipe for violence — for lethal violence,” California-based sex worker Emma Evans told The Outline. An incel, she said, “is not going to be helped by seeing a sex worker, because it’s not about lack of sex. It’s about power, it’s about control, it’s about entitlement. And most deeply, it’s about rage — absolute, violent rage — which is the undercurrent of the incel movement. They’ll tell you that: They’ll brag about how they’re going to harm people.”
Incel rhetoric tends to frame sexuality in vaguely economic terms, suggesting that men and women have a “sexual market value” that determines who they are able to have sex with. A recent post on an incel forum, for example, explains that the reason “incels aren’t getting laid is because women with a sexual market value equal to theirs” will artificially “inflate” their value by wearing makeup and revealing clothing in order to “fuck with men above their league.” The solution, according the post, lies in a redistribution of sex not dissimilar to Hanson’s proposition: Not only should women be required to have sex with men of “equal” market value, but some women, including single mothers and those with more than nine sexual partners, “should be forced by the state to date and have sex with these incels.”
Though incels view sex as a commodity, they generally have a negative view of sex workers, according to Evans. “They hate sex workers because we charge for sex, and of course that’s anathema to them,” said Evans. Before going on a shooting spree in Isla Vista in 2014, Elliot Rodger touched on this idea in his 141-page-long manifesto titled “My Twisted Mind.” Hiring a sex worker, Rodger posited, would “temporarily [feel] good for the moment, but afterward it makes one feel like a pathetic loser for having to hire a girl when other men get the experience for free.”
But even if incels did start paying for sex, the underlying problem of violence against women wouldn’t disappear, said Kit, the Chicago-based sex worker. “The resentment at having to pay for women’s sexual labor, coupled with the way sex workers are seen as disposable by society in general, is not a good combination and would only serve to redirect incels’ violent misogyny on to sex workers,” she said.
Rich, influential men like Weinstein and C.K. commit sexual violence against women not because they don't have access to consensual sex, but because sexual violence is a form of wielding power over these women. In that same vein, acts of violence carried out by supposedly “involuntarily celibate” men like Rodger and Minassian aren’t the product of an unfair distribution of sex — instead, they stem from a society in which men are free to push their own feelings of inadequacy onto women. After all, as Roux explained, the rules of respect and consent apply to all sexual enconters, regardless of whether there is an exchange of money involved.
“Despite the transactional nature of sex work,” said Roux, “you can never purchase someone’s consent. Getting paid for intimate labor does not mean our services are available at anyone’s whims.”