In late April, a man mowed down and murdered 10 pedestrians with a van in Toronto, and wounded 15 others. Eight of the people killed were women. Police charged 25-year-old Alek Minassian, from the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill, with 10 counts of murder and 13 of attempted murder, although more charges could be added.
Before the attack, Minassian appears to have posted a short status on his Facebook page referencing “incels,” misogynist and mass killer Elliot Rodger, and 4chan. The murder of 10 innocent people and this Facebook post have suddenly started a mainstream discourse on what incels are, what they believe—and how to appease them. In the most mind-blowingly stupid turn of this whole debate, some have wondered aloud whether sex workers or sex robots could be used to “cure” extremists like Minassian.
As a woman online (and I mean deep in the bowels of Discord and 8chan levels of online), watching the rest of the world Google “what is an incel” in real-time has been a weeks-long atomic cringe. While the topic has been newly mainstreamed for the first time since Rodger’s mass shooting, the incel ideology has been incubating on forums like 4chan and 8chan and “Men’s Rights” message boards for years. “Incels” (short for “involuntary celibate”) are a deeply chauvinistic group of people whose common bond is that they don’t have sex and are incredibly, violently mad about it.
Incel thinking is based on the idea that women are commodities—that they are objects that owe men sex. For many who identify as “incels,” their celibacy is self-imposed. “When they say they can’t find anyone to have sex with them, they mean they can’t find anyone who they consider adequately ‘high value,’” Jaclyn Friedman, feminist writer, activist, and author of Unscrewed, told me in a phone call, “which is an odious enough phrase that I hate saying it.”
“We are not disposable, and we will not be sacrificed so that society can ignore the deeply entrenched problem of toxic masculinity.”
Following the attack, rather than confront toxic masculinity or the societal structures that allow it to thrive, some male columnists suggest we hear these people out. One asks, why are these terrorists detested? Another: Perhaps sex robots and sex workers will fix them?
Robin Hanson, a conservative blogger and professor at George Mason University, wrote an essay framing incels as oppressed. He suggests that sex could be “directly redistributed, or cash might be redistributed in compensation.” Put more simply, he means “women should fuck violent men.”
Hanson’s essay, predictably, exploded on Twitter.
The conversation culminated Wednesday with a borderline incoherent article by New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat, which brought Hanson’s arguments to the mainstream.
Douthat’s piece is written like it’s by that one student in your ethics class who always tried to make Marxism about his parents’ divorce, but the columnist does eventually sniff his way around to a thesis. Women are objects like sex robots, sex workers aren’t real people and their work should remain illegal, and The Handmaid’s Tale is a goddamn documentary:
“I expect the logic of commerce and technology will be consciously harnessed, as already in pornography, to address the unhappiness of incels, be they angry and dangerous or simply depressed and despairing.”
Where Douthat truly fucks up is in his willful ignorance of what incels stand for. He takes them literally, and doesn’t bother to do the work of digging into what they are actually about. This is a trap mainstream media outlets have fallen into over and over for years, and especially around the 2016 presidential election—covering and amplifying toxic internet culture as if it’s valid ideology.
“I think we should be dubious about anyone who takes incels at face value and claims that the problem, here, is lack of access to sex,” Jessie Sage, an independent porn performer and co-host of the Peepshow Podcast, told me in an email. “The problem with the incel community isn't a problem of lack of sex, it is a problem of power and entitlement and it will not be cured by sex, and certainly not by throwing sex workers under the bus.”
Sexuality educator Logan Levkoff told me in a phone call that Douthat’s piece legitimizes the hateful, dangerous ideology of incels. “Anytime we take an argument and put it in a big boldface legitimate news source, we suggest to the public that this is something worth discussing and worth negotiating,” she said. “This should have never been an [issue] to explore multiple perspectives on, because the incel perspective is for the most part not just hateful, but hurtful.”
Friedman also said she finds it “profoundly appalling” that The New York Times’ opinion pages would legitimize incel culture under the guise of a debate. But this doesn’t stop other outlets from following their cue, with essays suggesting “robot girlfriends” as a solution to the incels’ woes.
As society attempts to address the plight of incels, Douthat suggests, “some combination” of sex robots, virtual-reality porn, and “sex work” are the logical conclusion to neglecting “the virtues of monogamy and chastity and permanence and the special respect owed to the celibate.”
Douthat juxtaposes sex workers next to literal objects, as if they should take on the burden of fixing violent men. “Sex workers of any and all genders are human beings, and they’re entitled to consensual experiences,” Levkoff said.
Sage said that while she is not a full-service sex worker, all sex work is implicated in these discussions and sweeping “solutions” to toxic men. Proposing that sex workers take on dangerous and entitled men as clients treats workers as expendable, she said. “It suggests that sex workers should absorb male rage and violence in order to protect other women who are pure. This is not our job. And it's far too big of a social problem for sex workers alone to solve.”
“The problem with the incels is that they feel entitled to women's bodies and to their sexuality,” Sage said. “Despite its stigma, sex work actually occupies the exact opposite position: that women's intimate labor is valuable and ought to be appreciated and fairly compensated.”
“This isn’t actually about not getting laid. It’s about terrorism.”
“We are not disposable, and we will not be sacrificed so that society can ignore the deeply entrenched problem of toxic masculinity,” she added.
What’s perhaps most revealing about the incel discussion is that no one’s talking about the “redistribution of sex” from men to women who can’t find sexual partners—plenty of whom are living involuntarily celibate lives, for a wide variety of reasons.
“I have not seen that conversation,” Friedman said, “because women who can’t get laid don’t kill people. Which is all you need to know.”
“This isn’t actually about not getting laid,” she said. “It’s about terrorism.”
Ignoring women and rewarding toxic masculinity got us here, but, here we are. Levkoff told me that the only silver lining is its value in teaching the next generation of young men to do better. She’s in the middle of a four-week program with teen boys, teaching them about sexual ethics, consent, and what healthy relationships look like.
“Most of the young men I’ve ever worked want, more than anything, to buck the old double standards,” she said. “Even the ugly things provide us an opportunity to teach.”