A month ago, a disturbed young man drove a rented van into a crowd of pedestrians on a crowded Toronto sidewalk, killing ten and injuring 16 others. In a Facebook message posted shortly before the attack, the alleged mass killer claimed to be opening a new front in the “incel rebellion” against the “Chads and Staceys” of the world, and honoring the legacy of “Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger,” who killed six in 2014 in what he saw as an act of “retribution” against women for sexually rejecting him.
While Canadians, who are less used to mass murders than we are here in the US, mourned the dead, the self-described “involuntary celibates” who populate online forums like Incels.me were cheering. “Alek Minassian,” wrote one, lauding the alleged killer. “Spread that name, speak of his sacrifice for our cause, worship him for he gave his life for our future.” Other incels hoped that his van rampage would encourage future murder sprees, mass rapes, and acid attacks – all acts of revenge against a society that was denying them the sex they were entitled to.
As someone who has been monitoring the incel subculture for years, I'm not surprised by this response. But what I am surprised by—and frankly shocked by—is how many mainstream commentators have concluded that the best way to deal with incel terrorism—and terrorism is what it is—is by giving in to their absurd demands, as though the violence would stop if these hateful young men were somehow supplied with what they insist they need and deserve: sex. As if sex were simply a commodity that could be distributed and redistributed like, say, food.
Only a few days after the Toronto killings, George Mason University economist Robin Hanson suggested in a now-infamous blog post that "involuntary celibacy" and "sexual inequality" in general could be fixed, and violence reduced, if we as a society set out to "redistribute" sex more equally.
How, exactly, Hanson thinks this could be done isn't clear, though his post vaguely referenced the idea that "[s]ex could be directly redistributed, or cash might be redistributed in compensation." After some critics pointed out that this "direct redistribution" of sex sounded an awful lot like government-sponsored sex slavery, Hanson added a defensive update to his original post. “Sex choices are influenced by a great many factors and each such factor offers a possible lever for influencing sex inequality,” he wrote, suggesting “promoting monogamy and discouraging promiscuity” as two options. “Rape and slavery are far from the only possible levers!” (Notably, he did not deny that they were possible levers.)
Ideas like this have long been discussed in the misogyny-soaked “manosphere”—the internet subculture that has birthed such noxious offspring as the contemporary Men's Rights movement, an upside-down civil rights movement based on the premise that it is women, not men, who truly hold the power in our “gynocentric” world; the male sort-of-separatist Men Going Their Own Way movement; and, yes, the incel subculture, a radically misogynistic and hateful group of mostly young men who've embraced their allegedly “involuntary celibacy” as a sort of inverted badge of honor. (They're easily the scariest of the bunch.)
I’ve been exploring these dank crevices of the internet for nearly eight years on my blog We Hunted the Mammoth, cataloging their mostly very bad thoughts; these are men (and a weird, tiny collection of women) who think that most rape accusations are false, that the world would be better if women were denied the right to vote, and that women with shapely asses can use their “miniskirt power” to hypnotize men into doing their bidding. It's more than a little disconcerting to see some of their noxious ideas seeping into the mainstream.
Just over a week after the van attack, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat entered the fray, piggybacking off of Hanson's bad ideas in a column arguing that “the sexual revolution 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.”
If society doesn't clamp down on this kind of "promiscuity," Douthat ominously warned, the inexorable "logic of late-modern sexual life" would inevitably lead to a Hanson-esque "sexual redistribution" that today's casual-sex-havers might find a tad horrifying. Either that or everyone would turn to sex robots; Douthat was a little vague about it all. In the Spectator, a few days later, columnist Toby Young seconded the sexbot solution, arguing that “robot girlfriends” could be a “workable” cure for “sexual inequality” and incel mass murders.
Feminists responded to the “redistribution of sex” talk with a mixture of horror and wonder: horror at the real-world implications of this strangely abstract and antiseptic discussion, wonder at the sheer obtuseness of those pushing the idea. “We can’t redistribute women’s bodies as if they are a natural resource,” Jia Tolentino wrote in the New Yorker, “they are the bodies we live in.” In Harper's Bazaar, Jennifer Wright couldn't hide her disgust, stating flatly that “the argument that society should be rearranged to accommodate [incels] is so repulsive that it should not be entertained.”
Still, this baldly ridiculous argument—that sex is a commodity, and that men are owed it from women, or at least womanlike robots—isn’t losing any steam. Last week, the New York Times ran a profile of the Canadian psychology-professor-turned-self-help-guru Jordan Peterson, in which he offered a strikingly similar "solution." When asked about the Toronto van attacks, Peterson suggested that the real solution to incel violence is some form of "enforced monogamy"—the exact mechanisms of which remain unclear, though in an attempted clarification posted on his website he insists it wouldn't involve the “arbitrary dealing out of damsels to incels.”
If women can't somehow be, er, compelled to tie themselves to a single man for most of their lives, Peterson suggested, they'll all throw themselves at the nearest alpha males, leaving less-desirable men mateless and “angry at God.”
In a world of “enforced monogamy,” per his argument, all the alpha males will be locked down by the most desirable women, meaning less-desirable women who want any form of companionship would presumably have to date the weird and desperate men they now actively avoid—the kind of men who might otherwise go and shoot up schools or commit some other acts of horrendous violence.
Peterson is an academic, author and media personality with hundreds of thousands of fans who hang on his words; Douthat is a columnist at the august New York Times; Hanson is a tenured professor of economics. Together they are putting a respectable-seeming face on ideas that deserve to be relegated to the darkest corners of the internet, where talk of “the redistrubition of sex” is nothing new.
Several years ago, on a blog originally called Government Get Girlfriends, a young Croatian incel demanded that the government pay women to date sexless men like him. “Government should offer women money to go on blind dates,” he wrote. “These women would freely apply for such a program, as would incel men. … Using this program, many involuntary celibate men would get their first date or improve their chances of finding a partner.” (At the time, most of those who heard of this proposal dismissed it as the outlandish nonsense that it is, with Jezebel's Anna Breslaw suggesting that the author content himself with “assembl[ing] a woman-shaped thing out of Goretex” and buying “a Fisher-Price boombox that you can rant about the feminists at.”)
GovernmentGetGirlfriends is far from the only incel who has attempted to work out the details of some sort of sexual welfare scheme. On the Incels.me forum – the online hangout where many of Reddit's most noxious incel commenters fled to after Reddit shut down the Incels subreddit – one inventive fellow called nklfdnblidnfbli recently set forth the outline of his plan, which would involve a rather drastic reordering of the government in the service of a relatively small umber of lonely, horny, angry men.
– people can opt in or opt out of enforced monogamy
– if they opt in they pay lower taxes and get free basic income from the govt
– marriage laws must first be overhauled so that men aren’t disadvantaged and family courts are fair
– in enforced monogamy people must be married to have sex, and if you get divorced you have to go through a 6 month waiting period where you are not allowed to have sex, this is to discourage people from getting married and then divorced for every hookup
It's no wonder that many incels are now embracing Peterson as one of their own. “[H]e is on our side, and his very very smart,” declared one new fan on Incels.me. “He understands the incel problem 100% and I love him.”
“Enforced monogamy” isn't the only notion that Peterson seems to have picked up or somehow absorbed by osmosis from the manosphere. His claim that women would rather share our society's limited number of “alpha males” than spend their lives with a boring beta is essentially just a variation on the manosphere’s widespread notion of female “hypergamy.”
A word that originally referred to the tendency of women to marry up in terms of social class, “hypergamy” was hijacked a little over a decade ago by white supremacist F. Roger Devlin, who suggested in an article in the racist journal the Occidental Quarterly that “the female is fickle … not naturally loyal to a husband over the course of a lifetime,” instead given to abandon whatever man she is with whenever she gets a sniff of a greater alpha lurking nearby. Now “Red Pill” pickup artist forums and incel forums alike talk about “female hypergamy” as if it were an actual scientific concept, rather than a reworking of an ancient misogynist prejudice, lamenting the alleged tendency of women to forever “branch swing” from less desirable to more desirable men.
Those who believe in this nonsense also, unsurprisingly, tend to feel that the only way to combat this sort of inborn female faithlessness is to restrict women's sexual freedoms. It doesn't take much intellectual branch swinging to get from a belief in “female hypergamy” to a belief in “enforced monogamy” as the only way to guarantee “lower-status” men the women these men (and their apologists, like Peterson) assume they deserve.
It's distressing enough to see ideas like these poke their way into mainstream discourse. It's even more distressing to see how much they resonate with other toxic, if far more mainstream, ideas about gender and sex—most notably the notion that men are inherently entitled to sex with women, and that when this entitlement clashes with a woman's “no” that it’s the “no” rather than the entitlement that should give way. (At least if the guy in question is a “nice” one.)
We can see this insidious belief, for example, in the endless pressure put upon women and girls to be “nicer” to those men and boys they reject, as well as the opprobrium directed at women and girls who put men who want to sleep with them into the dreaded “friend zone,” as if by exercising sovereignty over their own bodies they are somehow denying these guys their just reward for the unsolicited acts of “kindness” they have showered upon them. “She put you in the friend zone,” one chilling meme begins. “Put her in the rape zone.”
We can see traces of this entitlement, in somewhat more subtle form, in the media coverage of the Santa Fe shooting. One of the girls murdered was a Shana Fisher, whose mother told local TV reporters that the accused killer “kept harassing [her daughter], like wanting to be with her, like wanting to be in a relationship.” The harassment, she said, grew “more aggressive” over time. This is the worst nightmare of every girl or woman faced with a sexual or romantic pursuer who won't take no for an answer.
Yet much of the media coverage seemed to suggest that it was Fisher's “no,” not the alleged shooter's toxic sense of entitlement, that drove him over the edge. The initial news coverage suggested that she was his “ex-girlfriend.” When this turned out to not be true, coverage shifted to her so-called “spurning” of her pursuer’s advances. According to the Daily Mail, she had “publicly humiliated the accused shooter” by rejecting him in front of an entire classroom of kids.
You can't rid the world of violence born of aggrieved male entitlement with a “solution” that reinforces that sense of entitlement.
But she didn't cause any of this. If this story is true, the accused shooter engineered his own humiliation by publicly pursuing Shana after she had repeatedly said she wanted nothing to do with him. And he is the one who apparently decided to respond to the humiliation he brought upon himself not by punching a pillow or writing some angsty poetry or perhaps even reconsidering his clearly fault courtship strategy, but by murdering ten people.
You can't solve the problem of aggrieved male entitlement by engineering some weird and at least semi-coercive program of “enforced monogamy” built on the assumption that men inherently deserve some sort of access to women's bodies—regardless of what the women inhabiting these bodies want. You can't rid the world of violence born of aggrieved male entitlement with a “solution” that reinforces that sense of entitlement.
No, the only solution is to challenge that entitlement directly. We might start by trying to do a better job of teaching boys and young men that no means no, not that they should simply “keep trying.”
BIO: David Futrelle tracks internet misogyny on his blog We Hunted the Mammoth (WeHuntedTheMammoth.com). His writing has appeared in The Cut, the HuffPost, the New York Times and the Washington Post.