When Reddit meets reality
Do you know what an incel is? Well, most of the U.S. didn’t, before they gained mainstream infamy a few weeks ago after the deadly attack in Toronto. Incels are motivated by an elaborate sociopolitical ideology that explains their sexual failures. In other words, they have discerned a rationality for why they aren’t having sex.
The Vox article I linked above notes a frightening reality. Incels have justified their inability to have sex by vilifying women as “shallow, vicious, and only attracted to hyper-muscular men.” They think they are at a loss because they lost the gene-pool lottery and ended up less desirable. Subsequently, “A small radical fringe believes that violence, especially against women, is an appropriate response… [and] will eventually overturn the sexual status quo.”
The incels that I’m talking about here are not just lonely guys that aren’t having sex, they are sinister, believing that the world of attractive men and attractive women have sex exclusively with each other and are allied to oppress so-called incels. The Southern Poverty Law Center sees it as part of ‘male radicalization.’ It is one of the trends toxic masculinity, one that I have posited leads to sexual assault and gun violence.
This ideology is extreme, even if it’s lesser forms are sometimes more common. Plotting to hurt or kill women because of sexual deprivation is terrorism, plain and simple. So I was deeply disturbed at a New York Times’ columnist’s lack of straight condemnation of this ideology.
Ross Douthat wrote a maligned (at least on my Twitter feed) column about incels and the “Redistribution of Sex.” Douthat tries to make sense of incels by saying that sometimes extremists and radicals see the world more clearly than moderates do. Douthat is a well-known conservative, so his citing of the Iraq War detractors as evidence of his point is in fact a disingenuous augmentation.
Douthat does describe, using the words of Robin Hanson, what an incel is: a man who seeks “retribution against women and society for denying him the fornication he felt that he deserved.” But then he quotes Hanson in a way that seemingly asks the crucial incel 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?”
The problem is that the demand of sex is high but the supply is low, to put it crudely. It is offensive, of course, to reduce sex to economics but Douthat and others do that (pun intended) in order to make sense of the incel problem. I want to outline Douthat’s point and then offer an alternative solution to the problem that goes deeper.
Attraction is largely constructed, and the answer isn’t legalism
The primary issue at hand is how attraction is socially constructed. There is no objective standard to who or what is attractive. There are probably some natural proclivities we have, but they are very much informed by our surroundings (in the same sense, gender is also not a complete social construct). We can see this across societies and throughout time. We have different features that we find attractive. In fact, attraction has a memetic quality to it. Cultural leaders (whether they are in the state or the market) propagate what is attractive and we accommodate it. Mainstream entertainment, and its hyperbolic expression in industrial porn, cement images in our minds. People who don’t fit into those images are subsequently oppressed; and furthermore, those of us (women in particular) who feel like we need to achieve that kind of attraction are equally oppressed. In an effort to achieve intimacy and love, we end up perpetuating hatred.
Douthat tries not to assign value to his solutions to his problems, no columnist can be agenda-less, and so that’s where the weakness of his problem comes from. He actually is assigning value, in my opinion.
Nevertheless, he says that the “conservative response” to this problem might be heralding “virtues of monogamy and chastity and permanence and the special respect owed to the celibate.” I actually think this is Douthat’s main point here. He wants a society like this to resurrect, but he acknowledges that it’s not possible in the current political economy. He says it’s not a “natural” response, but he actually means it’s not a programmed response and he actually feels oppressed by that. The return of sexual legalism to the church is a bad idea, in my opinion. More condemnation, purity, and legalism leads to toxic results, while not preventing bad sex or assault. And for Douthat, it’s a passive aggressive move that is par-for-the-course of the socially conservative columnists of the liberal New York Times op-ed page (I suppose it is a fitting reaction to the eternally smug, though largely agreeable, Paul Krugman).
He quotes Amia Srinivasan in her essay, “Does Anyone Have The Right To Sex?”, in saying that part of our problem is that we have yet to deconstruct the idea of what is attractive and what isn’t. Srinivasan says, “who is desired and who isn’t is a political question.” So-called incels are among the groups that are politically oppressed in the sense that they aren’t seen as attractive. Of course that doesn’t justify their action, but I think it’s noteworthy that they are isolated by society, in part, because of how they look. That’s largely because they aren’t otherwise privileged and entitled (that is, they do not belong to the privileged race and gender). But if we can deconstruct the politics of attraction, the politics that make us prisoner’s to the market’s rules of sexual desire, than we might be on to this. Douthat does not think that is likely, but personally, I think some of that is in order. Individual liberty is not the complete answer here, though.
Dismantle society’s evil standards of beauty
We can’t reinforce market-based images of attraction as Christians or as the Church, so contrary to Douthat’s point about what a Christian response might be, another Christian response is definitely that dismantling of societal standards, none of which are objective or approved by God or God’s creation.
Douthat thinks both the aforementioned conservative and feminist responses are insufficient in this age of capitalism, and so he turns to sex robots. Yeah, you read that right. And also sex workers. That sex can be distributed through those means may be where society is headed. Can they deliver real fulfillment? Douthat doesn’t say, but posits it as a solution.
His question about fulfillment is a good one, but the columnist is irresponsible in his assessment and lacks critical engagement of the subject at hand, ultimately.
I am a feminist, in many senses, so I do think part of the problem here is the commercialized ideal of the human form. One that sex robots reinforce, and one that conservative Christians reinforced. That is one of the main dilemmas. The sex robots that are in question look like you think they might. But they in fact will not solve any problems, and in my opinion, won’t reduce violence. Because violence isn’t just rooted in sex deprivation. Sex isn’t just about orgasms; orgasms can generally be achieved alone anyway. The problem is about love and intimacy.
And that’s where the church comes into play. That’s why a faith community matters. Sex should be had in community and we should talk about sex openly and plainly among ourselves. We should talk about what healthy partnerships and healthy sex look like, and not let late capitalist advertising and entertainment inform it. Public Christian leadership, captured by partisanship, is failing to this end.
Sex is best had together
We need to foster intentionally intimate communities that redefine connection and intimacy in non-sexual terms. We can foster love and mutuality without having sex. And we can also talk about how sex is about intimacy and connection and not just physical satisfaction. Those are the two big ideas that our alternative community needs to focus on. Again, sex is not just about orgasms. And intimacy itself is not about sex; even physically intimacy should not be reduced to sex. We should have the imagination that allows us to hug, and kiss, and embrace without sexualizing it. We can be affectionate without being sexual. That gives no one the right to affection; but I believe that as humans we need it. We can’t survive alone. We need to be loved. And the love of Jesus is best expressed in community. We are people who need to be loved, not sexual objects to be craved and obsessed over. We need human connection and relationship.
We need to be related to each other and we need to experience life together communally. Jesus is best revealed that way too. The church needs to de-privatize its discussion of sex and make it a communal matter. And I think pastors and leaders should lead the way here. We need to offer love and relationship to people who are lonely and rejected by society. But we also need to create safe churches with good boundaries, while also growing up boys to be men, teaching them, because they are the violent ones (at risk of radicalizing into incels), that emotional vulnerability and human connection is elemental to our development.
I think it starts not with religious ideas of sex, but rather the religious idea that you are God’s beloved. God sees you as a beloved child. You are loved as you were created. Receive that love and let’s create a community where it can be shared.