(Note added 22/05: I wrote this in an evening a couple of months before the Toronto mass shooting in April and the Texas mass shooting in May. If I were to rewrite it now (indeed, were I to have written it more carefully then) I would have reworded things in a couple of places where it seems glib; I don’t think glibness is the appropriate attitude to this problem, as I hope is clear.)
“Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. … In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude”
Michel Houllecbecq, Whatever
“Don’t underestimate the significance of the birth control pill. It’s like the hydrogen bomb or the computer chip, it’s a world revolutionary technology and for all we know it might do us in.”
Jordan Peterson (https://lookism.net/Thread-ITT-Jordan-Peterson-talks-about-the-INCEL-PROBLEM)
“I’m 22 years old and I’m still a virgin. I’ve never even kissed a girl. I’ve been through college for two and a half years, more than that actually, and I’m still a virgin. It has been very torturous. College is the time when everyone experiences those things such as sex and fun and pleasure. Within those years, I’ve had to rot in loneliness. It’s not fair. You girls have never been attracted to me”
An involunary celibate (or ‘incel’ for short)
Our first reaction might be to laugh at these quotes. The guy who can’t get laid is a stock character of sitcoms, from Bud Bundy to Allan Harper to Howard Wolowitz. Peterson’s hyperbole sounds batshit. And the first quote — well, it sounds kind of interesting but really, at its heart it’s just saying that modern life is a ton of guys sitting around wanking, and isn’t that funny, after all, in a dark sort of way?
I think we — and by ‘we’ I mean basically online leftish snowflakes — should take these quotes seriously. And we should do so even before I tell you that the third quote comes from the manifesto of mass murderer Elliot Rodger, who killed six people and himself, seemingly because he was angry he was a virgin. That people aren’t getting laid is serious.
If we think that capitalism, especially in its neoliberal variation of the past forty or so years, leads to an unfair distribution of goods, then we should be unhappy if our relationships are subject to its logic. So we should at least hear Houllecbecq out, distasteful as it may be (his novels are often misogynist and Islamophobic, pornographic as well as being badly written). And once we realise the suppressed conclusion, in Peterson’s comments, that we would be better off had the birth control pill not been invented, and once we realise he’s very popular with young men, we should think about how we should speak to these people, what we can offer them.
And as to Rodger — well, he’s less deserving of our attention. But the many like him, men and women, on reddit and other places, voicing essentially the same complaints — they are deserving of our attention. We should feel sorry for them, and we should try to help them, or at least we should want to help them.
Or should we? Let’s take it as an assumption that the increased freedom, in this case sexual freedom, that women today enjoy is a good thing. Women are, at least in some places, at least sometimes, able to pick their own partners and although the majority of people still have problems with granting to them the same sexual freedoms as men, many more do so grant them such freedoms than they did even fifty years ago.
(The same thing goes for men, too, of course, albeit to a lesser degree. Men are no longer encumbered by the need to pick a mate with suitable connections, or dowry, or land, or whatever. We can now follow our hearts.)
If that’s so, maybe we should do nothing. We should, in essence, buy something like the Houllebecq quote above: that there is indeed a dating market, and markets should go by their own rules, and we shouldn’t interfere, even though some men and women lose out, and go through their lives alone.
Arguably, you could view the popular teachings of Jordan Peterson as opting for this sort of resignation. His big thing (in addition to hating postmodernism) is that life is suffering and we need to suck it up. Maybe he’s right, and maybe the incels should suck it up.
Or maybe we should reverse feminism and reinstate traditional gender roles. This is undoubtedly a popular view among swathes of the manosphere, that we should limit the freedoms women have (I mean, more so than the Catholic Church in Ireland the GOP in Texas are already doing), that we should try to excise the cancer which they think feminism is.
I don’t think either of these views are ones a self-respecting snowflake should go for. The reversing feminism one is certainly no good, and the problem with Petersonian resignation is that it’s much easier to resign yourself to life’s sufferings if you’re at the top of the pile. It’s an inherently conservative view that forecloses on the possibility of improving at least some of our suffering by changing the institutions which make us suffer.
But we should do something. It’s our thing, apparently, to want to interfere in the functioning of markets. If the financial markets are concentrating wealth in the hands of the 0.01%, we realise that’s bad, and we want government to step in and tax the rich to help those not benefited by the system. If the dating system is a free market, we should want to step in and help those who don’t thrive in it.
But how? If we don’t want to take away freedom of choice for women and men, and we don’t want to force anyone to date anyone they don’t want to, what should we do?
Well, we should appeal to the vaunted social constructivism we snowflakes are claimed to love so much. Ignoring the fancy economic theories underlying Houllecbecq, or the fancy evolutionary psychology underlying Peterson, we should realise that dating is culture, and culture is mutable, and we’re the ones who change it. So we should change it.
Here are a couple of concrete examples. We should stop having a stock character of a sitcom be the creepy sex-obsessed guy. We should treat incels with sensitivity, realising that their lives frequently suck through no fault of their own, and exhibiting the same sympathy we exhibit towards any group marginalised through no fault of its own (importantly by ‘incel’ I mean here just someone involuntarily celibate, not the hate-filled frequenters of forums. Maybe one way to put it is that we need to think of ways to help involuntary celibates before they become incels). We should make tools that can help them overcome the things which stand in their way. Someone should make a tinder for ‘ugly’ people, for example (browsing r/foreveralone, a popular incel subreddit, you will quickly learn that not being attractive makes it very difficult to date in today’s world, although I don’t want to go into more details to respect people’s privacy). There are many more things, I’m sure: the key thing to realise is our current culture isn’t written in stone, the outcome of some hardcoded economic or evolutionary laws, and as such we can change it without getting rid of those parts of the culture we like.
So that’s what I think we should do. In a longer post I’d like to consider how culturally and temporally variable our concepts of loneliness, love, attraction, and such like are. Because once we realise that, incel people, and those who mock them, will realise that the incel predicament is to a large extent a contingent result of a confluence of factors, ones that both they’re not responsible for and we and they have some capacity to change, and change in ways much better than that suggested by the anti-feminists and traditionalists.