A man who self-identified as an “incel,” or involuntary celibate, allegedly killed 10 people by driving a van down a crowded street in Toronto last week. The response, of course, has been a torrent of think pieces.
Some of these essays are constructive, and they’ve been treated that way. Incels are an Internet subculture of men who think they’re owed sex and blame their frustrations finding it on the shallowness of womankind; the articles examine the links between members of men’s rights groups and mass killings, and they probe how a belief system like the incels’ ends up incubating terrorism. Other essays haven’t found quite as friendly an audience — and none has received more derision than New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s treatise titled “The Redistribution of Sex.”
It’s no surprise the Internet bristled at Douthat’s piece. Responding to an attack sparked by misogyny with musings that, among other things, equate sex workers with sex robots is obviously ill-advised. But while Douthat’s piece is peppered with insulting ideas, its author doesn’t do what his critics initially accused him of: endorse a right to sex, and advocate a system of redistribution that guarantees everyone gets some.
Douthat is a Catholic conservative, hardly the type to celebrate an America in which uninhibited intercourse is the new apple pie. He and his cohorts are far more likely to bemoan what Douthat calls in his column “late-modern sexual life” and exhort a reversion to — or, more prettily, a renaissance of — traditional patterns. That’s more or less what Douthat actually argues, as he attempted to clarify in a Thursday Twitter thread. He mourns the degeneration of society that in his view has taught men they’re entitled to sex. Then, he claims this degeneration can be answered only with technologies (like, yes, sex robots) to fulfill that sense of entitlement.
This doesn’t make Douthat’s argument less objectionable. Along the way, he elevates a theorist who does advocate a system of sex redistribution, and legitimizes the concept. “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?” Douthat asks as he re-raises this theorist’s point for discussion. Maybe because female bodies aren’t property or money?
More important, Douthat manages to miss the virulent sexism that undergirds the incel movement. Treating incels in the same way as disabled people, transgender people and other marginalized demographics who might struggle to find sexual partners, or even equating incels with frustrated individuals who don’t belong to those groups but don’t belong to a hate group either, is dangerous. It’s a refusal to confront an insidious strain of sexism that is already costing lives.
But all that aside, there’s something deeply unsettling in the idea that progressives have destroyed any possibility of a return to some halcyon age of sexual restraint, and that we have ended up with a culture in which men must eventually be satiated by sex robots. The argument assumes that sex is something to be bestowed by women and demanded by men. The right response isn’t to take this as a given of human nature. It’s to insist on an intervention.
Douthat says in his Twitter thread that it’s utopian to think we can “remake the socio-sexual landscape.” But there’s already a burgeoning revolution around sex in America that Douthat writes off, and it’s all about female agency. One example is the growing acceptance of sex workers, which Douthat sees as society adapting to fulfill men’s needs but which advocates see as women deciding what to do with their own bodies. Another is the #MeToo movement.
It’s important to take notice of this reorientation around sex not only because, in the long term, it could create a healthier culture whose young men are less susceptible to the violent misogyny central to the incel ideology. It’s also important because our increasingly feminist society helps account for incels’ rage in the first place: They’re furious that the country has started to recognize women don’t owe sex to anyone who wants it.
What made Douthat’s column so troubling, in the end, wasn’t only that he proposed a poor solution to society’s ills. It was that he misdiagnosed the problem. And if we don’t understand why some incels kill, we have little hope of stopping them.