The Media Must Stop Taking ‘Incel’ Agitprop Seriously

Men who hate women will continue to hate us, and hurt us, no matter how much sex they’re having.

A s a woman who makes a living putting pen to paper, my second worst fear is that I will communicate so poorly that I’m misunderstood (I’ll leave you to guess what the worst fear is). So I have a certain amount of empathy for Ross Douthat fretting about that very thing after a severe backlash to his latest New York Times column, entitled “The Redistribution of Sex.” My empathy went out like a tide when I recalled that, in typical fashion, he refuses to be honest about the implications of his crypto-misogynistic thought experiments.

In the piece, he argues that while leftists and feminists are opposed to the idea that anyone is entitled to sex, this is a natural and logical outcome of societies that “look for fixes that seem to build on previous revolutions, rather than reverse them.” As he sees it, our vaunted sexual revolution means that we are inevitably sliding towards the society yearned for by mass-murdering misogynists like Elliot Rodger or Alek Minassian, because we have imbued sex with so much value — both personal and political — in the wake of the 1960s.

This has been mischaracterized as Douthat arguing in favor of the “incels’” ideal world. He doesn’t, but this is hardly exculpatory. While the caricature of Douthat’s argument misses the particulars, it nevertheless captures the spirit of a piece that is resolutely androcentric and utterly ignorant of sexual culture.

Although Douthat is not in favor of this proposed redistribution, by entertaining the idea at all and going so far as to propose it as an inevitable dystopia (which, really, is the fault of us damn feminists for wanting too much sexual choice) he nevertheless embraces fundamental aspects of a worldview shared by reactionary malefactors like incels and men’s rights activists. It all starts with the “sexual hierarchy” that he and other writers have cited as a social problem that gives rise to incel terrorism. In short, they can’t get dates or get laid, so they blame women and society at large; inevitably, some act out violently. But accepting this argument is to take the embittered propaganda of these communities at face value. There’s a difference between understanding that a worldview can shape behavior, and implying that the worldview is factually correct.

Thus, without endorsing their ends, Douthat endorses an MRA view of sexuality. He simply proposes a more conservative solution, arguing “that our widespread isolation and unhappiness and sterility might be dealt with by reviving or adapting older ideas about the virtues of monogamy and chastity and permanence.”

“The sexual revolution,” he argues, “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.” This is strikingly similar to an equally credulous analysis advanced by the nominally leftist thinker Angela Nagle, who writes:

“Sexual patterns that have emerged as a result of the decline of monogamy have seen a greater level of sexual choice for an elite of men and growing celibacy among a large male population at the bottom of the pecking order.”

Pun unintended, I’m certain. Nagle’s words, which even more explicitly regurgitate MRA-ish talking points about sexual elites and celibacy, were passed around after the Toronto massacre by other leftists as “a perceptive point” about these men who keep killing women en masse. What Nagle and Douthat share, aside from being all too willing to take the promoters of these extreme views at face value, is an argument that fails to account for the existence of women and queer people.

There’s a difference between understanding that a worldview can shape behavior, and implying that the worldview is factually correct.

In short, we have a good A/B test available to us that suggests the problem isn’t sex and who’s getting it, but how different groups conceive of their entitlement to it, and what they do about it.

So let’s break this down.

There’s a sexual hierarchy, but nerdy young white guys aren’t the only ones on the wrong side of it.

It is striking to me that these conversations proceed almost entirely without discussing women who are perceived of as sexually undesirable. Fat women, disabled women, nerdy women, non-white women, trans women, all fall short of beauty standards that are structured by prejudices as much as the advent of the “sexual revolution.”

Douthat does mention this when he tries to use a recent essay by Oxford professor Amia Srinivasan to buttress his argument, where he notes that Srinivasan makes the exact point I just made, but then breezes over its implications entirely except to suggest — bizarrely — that she implies sexually undesirable minorities must someday be redressed by the very “redistribution” feminists find so appalling. Neither Srinivasan, nor myself, nor indeed anyone in that milieu has ever made that argument nor sought to imply it. Douthat was undaunted: “This wouldn’t instantiate a formal right to sex,” he says of Srinivasan’s argument, “…but if the new order worked as its revolutionary architects intended, sex would be more justly distributed than it is today.”

This is speculation in its purest form and it mistakes analysis of ideology (recognizing that norms of attractiveness and desirability are highly politically charged) for a proposal of a “redistributive” solution. But beyond this, it also ignores the elephant in the room. If all of these groups experience a certain dislocation and loneliness from being on the wrong side of sexual hierarchies, why aren’t we awash in mass murderers from those groups? Where are the lonely, nerdy women who kill because they can’t get a date on Tinder? Where are all the black women mowing down pedestrians in a rental van because society’s beauty standards aggressively privilege whiteness? In failing to grapple with this, every writer who entertains incel/MRA ideology, even as a mere thought experiment, makes a catastrophic analytical error.

Being at the bottom of a sexual hierarchy does not mean you don’t have sex.

This is another point that should be obvious but has, apparently, been lost in the vacuous prattle that followed the Toronto killings. Society has hegemonic norms, but people violate them constantly and form microcultures. As an autistic transgender woman with non-white features, I’m certainly on the “wrong” side of a few beauty hierarchies in this society and I pay a price for that; I still have sex and two very committed partners with whom I share very deep connections.

Sexual hierarchies can be fluid and micrological. In some communities, they may even be reversed outright. This doesn’t even begin to grapple with how your individual notions of attractiveness, honed over the years by uniquely personal experiences, may affect things. Hierarchies of desirability do have an impact, but not necessarily on the practical outcome of whether or not you have sex. It may affect your ability to feel sexy, and hurt your self-esteem of course; goddess knows I’ve been there. But that’s less about your ability to have sex, than it is how you feel about yourself and what struggles emerge from that. Through it all, people from every position on the “hierarchy” still manage to frequently find meaningful and exciting relationships.

Sexual hierarchies can be fluid and micrological. In some communities, they may even be reversed outright.

Even a casual glance in your own social circles will reveal many happily bonded people who, in one way or another, are considered socially undesirable or “unattractive” by the ruthless metrics of conventional beauty standards. Meanwhile, our media is saturated with the image of “unattractive” men who are loved deeply by conventionally attractive women; it’s the conceit of a dozen and one sitcoms and it does reflect a partial reality where men who look like, say, Kevin James are quite capable of finding loving relationships. (I say “partial” because, naturally, it fails to reflect what life is like for women of all shapes and sizes.)

In short…

Sexual hierarchies aren’t really about sex.

They’re wired in to all manner of socio-economic and political mores, certainly, but bear only a passing relationship to your actual ability to find dates and slap your genitals against someone else’s. Rather, they are norms about social value which determine other aspects of your reality that are untethered to your sex life. For women, those who are seen as conventionally attractive will have to endure constant imprecations about their careers — “is she sleeping her way to the top?” will haunt her every step, and her beauty will be taken as blanket consent for everything from drawing porn of her against her will to dismissing her point of view to undervaluing her accomplishments.

Conventionally “unattractive” women, meanwhile, will be ruthlessly mocked and derided by men (including incels — just look at what they say about women they deem undesirable, impervious to irony as reactionary bigots often must be). Such women may be ignored outright or deemed unworthy of making even professional connections with, seen as uncharismatic, unhealthy, or shamed for what they look like.

This is all, indeed, a function of the sexual hierarchy; but it’s markedly unrelated to one’s sex life as such. Which brings me to the final point…

Sex will not cure these extremists.

Implicit in arguments like Nagle’s and Douthat’s is the idea that if only these lonely nerd boys got laid more often, maybe the victims in Isla Vista or Toronto would be alive today.

There’s no evidence to suggest this is the case.

Men who hate women will continue to hate us, and hurt us, no matter how much sex they’re having. Domestically abusive men are often having sex with the partners they assault, after all. Meanwhile men like Harvey Weinstein or Roger Ailes were, indeed, raping countless women. These men were getting the sex they wanted, at the expense of women who were forced into silent submission to their power. In fact, as heterosexual men who were married they were, to a large extent, living Douthat’s ideal. But, if anything, their abuses begat more of the same; nothing was ever enough, and each new assault seemed only to feed a void that grew into the prodigious litany of crimes that each man is now justly infamous for.

These men were getting the sex they wanted, at the expense of women who were forced into silent submission to their power.

The cancer must be cut out from the root. Implying, as so many often do, that the solution is to “give” sex to men like Minassian is merely to feed the lust of insatiable loathing. The problem is not that they aren’t having enough sex; the problem is that they despise women, and will do so no matter how much sex they’re having.

The proposition that sex is “unequally distributed,” which is taken for granted in all of these chin-stroking arguments, is a highly contestable claim. Being outside of hegemonic beauty norms does not inherently deny you love or sex; your place in that hierarchy instead shapes other things untethered to your actual sex life.

Yet this dubious claim has legs because, as ever, we must privilege the perspective of the loudest and angriest men as worth consideration. The scope of their entitlement determines the seriousness with which we must take their worldview, however horribly skewed it may be. Thus, lightly laundered mainstream interpretations of this worldview linger, despite the obviously dehumanizing implication of likening women to a currency or resource that must be paternalistically apportioned by the powers that be.

Douthat laments that progressives seem to be demanding that “the greatest possible diversity in sexual desires and tastes and identities should be not only accepted but cultivated, and that virginity and celibacy are at best strange and at worst pitiable states.” But by disingenuously linking these two things, he poisons the discussion he claims to want to have. Asexual people, after all, don’t figure into Douthat’s argument. Yet, as a political force, they’ve argued very forcefully against the idea of compulsory sexuality — and done so in a way that neither shades into anti-feminism, nor into arguing that the sexual revolution was some kind of mistake. Theirs is a call for greater pluralism, a far cry from Douthat’s lustful homogenization.

The proposition that sex is ‘unequally distributed,’ which is taken for granted in all of these chin-stroking arguments, is a highly contestable claim.

It’s old hat by now to claim that crimes like Rodger’s or Minassian’s are the fault of growing liberalization, that somehow women’s choice has left some men so forlorn that they can only resort to murder. There is no way to take this argument seriously without courting a misogynistic worldview that stands ignorant of even obvious facts. Even if Douthat is worried about the coming of a “redistributive” sexual culture, such concerns are founded on the hot air of hyper-ideological drivel that he had no business entertaining in one of the nation’s largest newspapers. But I can see why he did: His preferred prescription for us would see — as always — women and queer people stripped of our rights and, presumably, forced into straight and monogamous relationships. In the end, Douthat does seem to believe in “redistribution,” just of an altogether different sort to produce a society akin to his fantasy of the 1950s.

In the end, all that needs to be said is this: Incels and their ilk do indeed believe they’re entitled to sex, and that such contact would cure them of all that ails them, sparing society from their wrath and vengeance.

We do not have to take them at their word.

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