I’m sorry you’re lonely but it’s not my job to help you: the science of incels

Moira Donegan’s piece in Cosmopolitan (*yes*, COSMO) succinctly captures the nauseated disbelief and righteous refusal with which women read Ross Douthat’s NYT Op-Ed on the “redistribution” of sex. I just want to add a little science and history.

His piece begins, “ One lesson to be drawn from recent Western history might be this: Sometimes the extremists and radicals and weirdos see the world more clearly than the respectable and moderate and sane,” a sentence with which I would agree, except the idea that he goes on to call “extreme” is not the idea of extremists or radicals or weirdos, but the bulk majority of ordinary Americans. It’s this:

Sex is a resource to which men are entitled, and which women are morally obliged to give.

Of course, the bulk majority wouldn’t say it in such stark terms. They’d say, “Well, I mean, if she’s going to wear that outfit and go into that room with that guy, what does she expect?”

Or they’d say, “This sexual assault charge is going to ruin his future!”

Or, as in Peggy Orenstein’s gut-punch of a book, Girls & Sex, they’ll feel it’s just normal for a girl to give a guy a blowjob so that he’ll go away.

And certainly they’d say, “[The redistribution of sex] is entirely responsive to the logic of late-modern sexual life, and its pursuit would be entirely characteristic of a recurring pattern in liberal societies.”

There is nothing radical or extreme about men’s sexual entitlement and women’s sexual obligation. There is nothing “provocative” in the question, “ If we are concerned about the just distribution of property and money, why do we assume that the desire for some sort of sexual redistribution is inherently ridiculous?” Culturally, we don’t assume it’s ridiculous, not by a long shot. It’s been standard operating procedure — often, it’s been law — in the West, for all of our documented history. It’s called “patriarchy.”

In her you-have-to-read-this-book-immediately, genuinely-radical-not-fake-radical-like-Douthat, book, Down Girl, Kate Manne offers the helpful language of “human beings” and “human givers.” Human beings have a moral obligation to be and express their full humanity, to do whatever it takes to that end, and they can be blamed for failing at that task. Human givers, by contrast, have a moral obligation to give their full humanity, everything they have — time, attention, affection, even their own bodies. Givers’ bodies are not their bodies; they are the rightful resource of the human beings, and they are obliged to give their bodies willingly, cheerfully, without imposing any inconvenient needs of their own. Human givers don’t get to have needs; only human beings have needs.

As I said, some form of this dynamic has been standard operating procedure in Western “civilization” for as long as there has been such a thing.

Do you know when it became illegal for a man to rape his wife in the United Kingdom and United States?

1992.

(Here’s a quick history of marital rape in the U.S.)

No, indeed. There is nothing new or provocative about the idea that a man should get his due, and a woman should give it.

So let’s drop any pretense that we’re engaging with some sort of radical idea.

Instead, let’s get a lot clearer about what exactly is going on in the mind and body of a man who desperately wants sex with a woman and cannot, despite his best efforts, get it.

There’s a lot of science behind the experience of unsatisfied sexual desire. I wrote about it in chapter seven of my book and in this blog post about sexual frustration. Please do feel free to read and learn about the uncontroversial, very old idea that sex is not a drive — i.e., not a biological need without which an organism will perish — but for now let’s let Frank Beach sum it up for us:

“No one has ever suffered tissue damage for lack of sex.”

No, the men who kill people because they can’t get laid are not driven by their unmet need for sex.

Nor, I suggest, are they driven by their sexual entitlement — though that is an easier case to make and entitlement is the primary cause of men’s sexual violence against women, according to the United Nations. But men’s sexual entitlement is all but universal among men in our culture (and, as that United Nation’s study showed, in many cultures) and even among women, as we forgive men who take sex from women and blame women who say no to men. (Kate Manne calls this sympathy for men who hurt women “himpathy.”) If sexual entitlement turned people into murderers, there would be nothing newsworthy about what happened in Toronto, just as almost no rapes ever make news.

No. When men kill people because they can’t get laid, it has nothing to do with sex, really.

Instead, the men who kill people because they can’t get laid are driven by their unmet need for connection, and the only acceptable outlet our culture gives “manly” men for that, is sex with women.

Sex is not a drive. But connection is.

An infant deprived of physical contact will die, even if all its other physical needs are met. Humans can die of loneliness the way we can die of sleep deprivation: slowly, bewilderedly, with our brain cheating, trying to steal moments of life-sustaining contact without our knowing it, even as our organ systems gradually degrade and fail.

In short, incels are not horny, they are lonely. Deeply, pathologically lonely.

And there is a cruel irony to the biopsychosocial process of loneliness: as a person gets lonelier, their brain is more likely to interpret social situations as threats, and so the person will avoid social contact. And so they grow more and more isolated, with more and more experiences to reinforce the lesson that they are incapable of receiving love. (Here is a TEDx talk about it.)

We are failing boys by not teaching them lots of ways to connect. We are failing them by teaching them to be ashamed of their loneliness, to mask their sadness, to hide their longing to be touched more than sexually.

The men who kill people because they can’t get laid have been failed. They weren’t born that way; they were made into murderers by decades of isolation, helplessness, and shame, piled on top of grief, despair, and desperate rage that their obedience to the commands of masculinity has not granted them the satisfaction they crave unto death.


Are you feeling “himpathy” for the lonely, lonely incels? Is there a part of your mind that thinks, “Well, we could stop this violence if only women would give the involuntarily celibate men the connection they need to survive”?

That’s the thing about connection. As adults, we can get our own food even if we have to steal it; it’s still theft, but it demands that we ask ourselves how we, as a culture, allowed someone to starve so much they had to steal to eat. But social connection is a biological need that demands the cooperation of a willing partner. It’s far less nourishing if the other person turns away. We need not just time in the physical presence of another person; we need to see a “gleam in the eye” of warmth and acceptance, as therapist Suzanne Iasenza says, referencing more decades-established research.

So whose job is it to help these men?

Answer: It’s their own job. They are grown men, responsible for their actions and needs. It is no woman’s job to give him love or attention or touch.

The process of becoming an adult is the process of taking on responsibility for meeting your own needs. Adults are responsible for sorting out their own shit, figuring out how to have relationships, finding ways to get their needs met without hurting anybody, even in the face of deeply toxic culture. Women have been doing that for themselves since forever; men are no less personally responsible.

Isolation and helplessness are the most toxic experiences a mammal can have. It is difficult to unlearn the lesson of chronic loneliness, that you are not simply alone, you are not capable of not being alone. But that is the task of human adulthood.

What I’m saying is: Incels need to be brave and learn how to be people and have feelings with other people who also have feelings. Including women-people. It is extremely difficult and scary — far more difficult than believing that women are not “people” but need-free vending machines of love and kindness and touch. It takes enormous fortitude to sob with grief and despair and longing and rage at the culture whose rules you followed for so long, trying to be good so that you could get your needs met, and it never worked; it takes courage to experience those dark and difficult feelings and yet not do harm to anyone. But if there is any simple answer, this is it. The answer is for lonely, hurt men to be brave and stand on their own two feet, so that they can learn to dance with others.


In posting this, I am making myself a target for precisely the misdirected rage and despair I have attempted to explain and empathize with; by not taking care of the lonely men, by asserting that they must instead take care of themselves, I am failing in my role as a human giver. But I think the real pain of these men has been misunderstood and misrepresented, and so I’m saying it anyway. If we want to create effective solutions, we need to understand the deepest roots of the problem. The deepest roots, I believe, are the human need for connection.

But I’ll update you with any himpathy, mansplanations, threats, or other assorted patriarchal responses I may receive. (Let this serve as notice: I will post any himpathy, mansplanations, threats, etc that you send me, and I will not mask your identity.)