Saturday, June 02, 2018

The Incel Question

When it arrived in the last few news cycles, the incel phenomenon was not entirely new to me. I was in Santa Barbara not long after the most notorious incel attack, and was a couple Toronto neighborhoods away when the most recent one occurred. (Or maybe not the most recent? More on that in a moment.) And if we go back further still, in my too-online grad school years, I would sometimes horrified-read the "game" or pick-up artist blogs, or mainly just one of them. I knew that something along those lines was out there.

But I confess that despite copious depths-of-the-internet research behind me, involuntary celibacy is not my research area. (While I'm sure there is a privilege angle on incels, for the book, it didn't really come up.) Because of this, when the topic first made the news, I would just sort of nod along, thinking that yes, I know from offline life, there are some men who truly never get a date, despite (maybe?) wanting to, and while there are also some women in that situation, it's much more common-sense plausible to me that some men in that situation would become violent. (That is, unless self-harm counts.) It all seemed to add up, so I wasn't really questioning it.

Then it hit me. It was around the time the "Stacy" - "Becky" meme was making the rounds. The meme, for link non-clickers, shows the two types of women: one ("Becky") a slender, gamine-type brunette, ala Rooney Mara, the other, "Stacy," resembling a young Pamela Anderson. It was much remarked, on Twitter, that these are both young, conventionally-attractive, white women. Why does this matter? (I'm getting to my epiphany about this, I promise.) Not because it's the done thing on progressive Twitter to list privilege-category qualities for the heck of it (even if, sometimes, yes), but because it offers an insight into the incel outlook: "Women," for this set, are defined as hot women. As women they want to sleep with, or who it would impress their peers to have around. Plain-looking or ugly women, or women over whichever age (22?), or for the racists among them (and sounds like racists are indeed among them!), women who aren't white, simply do not register.

So here, specifically, is what hit me: There are - again, evidence being, offline life - men who think like this. Men who pull a 'no woman will have me' when what they mean is that they're 50 but no 20-something will go out with them. Or that they're a quiet, geeky boy and the homecoming queen hasn't reciprocated. These men are not, by and large, society's undateable outcasts. They're men with unrealistic expectations, who choose to ignore the romantic options they do have. Which is, in and of itself, no crime - if you want to restrict yourself to supermodels, but are prepared for the near-certainty of this demand keeping you single, then by all means! Which is, in general, what seems to happen where straight women with unrealistic expectations are concerned - if anything sometimes unrealistic stated expectations are a way for women who actually wish to remain single to deflect busybodies asking them why they haven't settled down.

The problem that inevitably arises is that these men are not OK with the injustice of 'no woman' wanting them. They get resentful, misogynistic, bitter. They feel - pardon the over-used word, but here it sure applies - entitled. The anger itself is real, even if the 'no woman will have me' bit is a figment of their imagination, fueled by their warped definition of who counts as a woman. Consider the more-recent-than-Toronto Texas school shooting, where the killer may (or may not) have been inspired by a girl's rejection. Was that an "incel" attack? Or might it fall within the depressingly everyday category of male-entitlement-fueled violence?

But that's only Part I of the epiphany. Part II: these men - the ones calling themselves incels or committing crimes in the name of that identity - are young. Teens, early 20s. If you feel, in high school, that no one will date you, or indeed if your experience, in high school, is that no one has expressed interest in you romantically, that is... not remarkable. Add to that cohort people whose high school experience is that no one they like likes them back, and this is truly a ton of people. Girls and boys alike.

There's thus something not just unethical (as has been amply discussed) but absurd about discussing "redistribution" - of sex, let alone of wives - to men too young to (necessarily) have either. That a man, at 21, hasn't found love doesn't make him one of society's forgotten. Most of the time, it makes him a man who hasn't had his first girlfriend yet, but who will within the next few years. The pain of being  21 - or 15! - and not having your overtures reciprocated is plenty real. But it's an entirely normal part of youth for many, regardless of gender. The way to address it is to remind young people of that fact. It's not to find ways to address the 'injustice' of not every teenager having a partner. To conflated undesired singleness at 35, 40 with undesired datelessness at 18 is quite bonkers. But it's what's required to believe "incel" is a thing, or, rather, is the thing it presents itself as.

Putting these two items together: There's been this great media discussion about The Men Who Can't Get A Woman - not consensually and not without paying. While such men doubtless exist, there doesn't appear to be any reason to believe the self-identified "incels" are all or even mostly members of that demographic. They might just as easily be a) men who can't get unattainable women to date them, b) boys and young men at an age where only their most socially adept classmates have paired off, or some combination. Yes, these men are angry. But men are - again, I speak from offline anecdote, not Reddit research - often angry for mundane Category A and B sorts of reasons.

Moreover, figuring out just how involuntarily celibate the incels are would be tricky, given that Category A men may genuinely believe that no woman would have them, simply because women over 22 or over 120 pounds are not on their radar.

The trouble is that The Incel is - to borrow from how historian Ronald Schechter brilliantly explained the role of The Jew (as in, the abstract idea of Jews) for the French Enlightenment - "good to think." The notion of the man who, try as he might, can't find a living soul who'll date him is indeed sad and intellectually compelling.

I'm not going to bother discussing "redistribution" arguments any further. Clearly, even if the incel phenomenon is indeed entirely about the most tragic cases, these men are not owed partners. I'm instead going to mention two otherwise good essays that make mistake of assuming, without questioning this, that "incels" are men who can't find women.

Jessa Crispin makes a thoughtful case for a society less fixated on coupledom:

If love and sex can be divorced from status and privilege, if we can reimagine what makes a partner desirable, if we can provide a stable alternative to married life that is something other than a life alone, we can alleviate suffering. Not only for the angry young men of the internet, but for everyone who is alienated and lonely.
As does Dan Savage, regarding stigmatization of sex work:
[A] cultural transformation that’s long overdue and goes hand in hand with the notion that women, not men, own their own bodies: adults who do sex work of their own free will shouldn’t be stigmatized (or treated like criminals) and adults who hire adults doing sex work of their own free will shouldn’t be stigmatized (or treated like criminals). The former cultural transformation will solve the “incel” problem; the latter will lessen the misery of sexual deprivation, i.e. involuntary celibacy.
Neither Crispin nor Savage is coming at the topic with generosity towards violent self-id'd involuntary celibates. That's not the issue here. Both make persuasive arguments for a kinder society. (If not precisely the ones I'd make, which is really beside the point here.) Both, however, anchor their progressive arguments in the incel question: If society improves like so, this will make everyone happier, and also, no more incels. Both, in other words, implicitly agree that the incels are indeed involuntarily celibate, or as Crispin puts it, "alienated from the romantic and sexual marketplace."

Why am I holding forth on this? Because I think there's a danger in taking The Incel Question at face value. Doing so leads inevitably to sympathy where none (or, at least, far less) may be needed. It also reinforces the idea that there's something specific and urgent about men who aren't romantically satisfied. This is particularly true of Savage's argument, which begins with an acknowledgment that men and women alike experience ongoing rejection, but offers an answer that only addresses the men. I say this not just because the answer he gives is destigmatized sex work (which in theory could involve male sex workers for straight women), but because midway through the post, he switches over to talking just about men:
There are men out there who are so profoundly socially disabled—so socially awkward or maladapted or damaged—that they just as incapable of finding finding sex and/or romance through 'normal' channels as a quadriplegic confined to a bed in his mother’s home. 
Now, one might say, of course he's focusing on men; that's who, when lonely, sometimes get violent! But this just brings me back to my point about it being unreasonable (maybe even credulous) to pin male violence on extreme loneliness. Especially when one considers - as some of the response to The Incel Question, including by Savage himself elsewhere, thankfully has - that far more male violence targets women that men are or had been romantically involved with.


Anonymous said...

"far more male violence targets women that men are or had been romantically involved with."

This is true, but it is also true that most male violence targets other men. Even in two of the "incel" cases discussed here (Toronto and Texas), the targets were not selected by gender. And of course it's true that many "undateable" 15-21 year olds become married 35 year olds. But 35 year olds are significantly less violent either way, so...

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, you may know this better than me, but my understanding is that during the Belle Époque it was not uncommon for boys younger than those discussed here to be taken to brothels by their families, as a means of combating the scourge of homosexuality. Not that I recommend this.

Anonymous said...

"That a man, at 21, hasn't found love doesn't make him one of society's forgotten. Most of the time, it makes him a man who hasn't had his first girlfriend yet, but who will within the next few years. The pain of being 21 - or 15! - and not having your overtures reciprocated is plenty real. But it's an entirely normal part of youth for many, regardless of gender"

Imagine thinking that an idea like "first girlfriend" isn't completely insane to 99% of all humans to have ever existed and thus the furthest thing from normal.

Hi Phoebe, I'm new here!

Just stopping by to tell you liberalism is insanity.

Hope this comment finds you doing well on this wet and cloudy Sunday!


Iman-bakkali(at)hotmail(dot)de said...

Hello Phoebe Maltz Bovy,

my name is Iman and I am a Student of Educational Sciences at the University of Munich, Germany. I am taking part at a mini-research project; we are looking at communication in online communities, and especially at pauses in the online communication.

I would be most pleased if you would agree to answer some questions.

Kind regards,