Incel anger stems from social isolation

More sex won’t solve the problem.

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White House Trail, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

A second mass murder by an incel—an involuntary celibate—has many of us wondering what the hell is going on. Not being able to get laid can be stressful. But to the point of mass murder?

We don’t know who incels are. Plenty of low income men and unattractive men have sex, so there’s got to be more to it. I’d venture these men lack social and emotional skills, resulting in social isolation.

Of course, only the smallest fraction of incels commit violence. Still, I question the assumption that these guys wouldn’t be violent if only they could get laid. Plenty of sexually active men are violent—even murderously so.

But we continue to debate the question of how to help these guys get laid. Opining for the New York Times, Ross Douthat acknowledges that a return to traditional values is unlikely. Like it or not, he thinks society instead will legalize prostitution and sexbots.

Douthat references George Mason University economist Robin Hanson’s “provocation: 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, of course, is obvious. Redistributing people isn’t the same as redistributing money.

Besides, lack of sex isn’t limited to heterosexual cisgender men. YouTuber Riley J. Dennis claims it’s discriminatory not to date transgender individuals. But would Dennis take incels’ claims of discrimination seriously?

The problem is the same: refusing to date someone isn’t discrimination in the same way that refusing someone a seat at a lunch counter is. Human beings are not public accommodations.

The primary issue—regardless of identity group—is that the rights of the individual are the foundation of universal human rights. Other people’s most intimate choices belong to no one except that individual. Every individual has right to say no—which can come in the form of not asking someone out, declining when asked out, or breaking up with someone. No amount of personal distress diminishes the responsibility to respect the rights of others, and to deal with rejection in a healthy way.

For a more rational perspective, Douthat quotes Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan, who asks, “Does Anyone Have the Right To Sex?” Srinivasan agrees that there’s no entitlement to sex, though she does think sexual desirability “is a political question.”

The feminist slogan that “the personal is political” is simplistic, however. Some things are just personal. If you want to have sex with someone you can’t sue them in court if they say no, nor will you be able to pass a non-discrimination dating law.

But this misses the point that unlike incels, transgender individuals are not out there committing mass murder. And as Molly Roberts at the Washington Post points out, “Treating incels in the same way as disabled people, transgender people and other marginalized demographics…is dangerous.” Incels, Roberts says, “are furious that the country has started to recognize women don’t owe sex to anyone who wants it.”

More than lack of sex, the incel problem in my view is social isolation. And men seem more vulnerable to social isolation than women do (though transgender individuals are more vulnerable still). Legalizing  prostitution—which should first and foremost focus on the rights and interests of sex workers—won’t decrease social isolation. And neither will sex robots.

At the same time, scolding men for “toxic masculinity” or “fragile masculinity” is backfiring. This doesn’t mean that a sense of entitlement isn’t a problem, but it’s not being approached in an emotionally intelligent way.

Instead we should be asking how we can best support men and boys. But feminism is of limited help men because framing men’s issues in terms of how women will benefit is problematic similar to the way it’s problematic to care about anyone because it may be beneficial to someone else.

Case in point: many more people die from suicide than from mass murder. And male suicides outnumber female suicides three to one. Yet, there’s little awareness of this problem. Would that be the case if the gender roles were reversed? This lack of concern is a deeper societal issue that’s related to the social isolation of men who crack.

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Identity and Setting Boundaries

There are few things that can send people through the roof more than a perceived attack on their identity. I’ve long observed that my atheism can upset Christians who take my disbelief personally.

Recently, George Takei (Lt. Sulu from the original Star Trek) ruffled feathers when he referred to African-American (and arch-conservative) Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as “a clown in black face.” Takei is a gay rights activist, and Thomas dissented from the court’s pro-gay marriage ruling. Implying that Thomas isn’t really black has angered many African-Americans, even if they strongly disagree with Thomas’s politics.

People have reason to feel angry when their identity is attacked. But their anger is misplaced when their insecurities are triggered by someone who is asserting a different identity or viewpoint, but who is not attacking their identity (like Christians who are upset by my open atheism).

A group that has long been marginalized is particularly vulnerable to people failing to respect their boundaries. For example, it’s not surprising that many people don’t think Caitlyn Jenner (née Bruce Jenner) is a real woman.

And it’s not just conservatives. Feminist Elinor Burkett ran a piece in the New York Times asking “what makes a woman?” She doesn’t include transgender women in her identity as a woman.

I think it’s every individual’s right to assert her or his identity, and good boundaries dictate that I have no place questioning others. Jenner identifies as a woman and prefers feminine pronouns, so that’s how I’ll speak of her.

Herein lies the dilemma. I don’t feel like I can tell Ms. Burkett that her identity as a woman has to be more inclusive. But I can say that I think it’s disrespectful for Ms. Burkett to refer to Jenner as “he” and to publicly dispute Jenner’s identity.

The view that there are not two, but rather five, seven, or more genders can bring some clarity to this issue.

However, Burkett brings up a grievance that goes the other way: some transgender activists want to ban the word vagina because not all transgender women have vaginas. Indeed, Mount Holyoke College canceled the Vagina Monologues recently due to such concerns.

Perhaps only a minority of transgender women want to ban the word vagina. Such censorship crosses the line, however, for the same reason that Burkett’s use of “he” when referring to Jenner crosses the line. If a cisgender woman wants to call her body part a vagina then that’s her right we should all respect. It’s not exclusionary toward transgender women, it’s just a cisgender woman referring to her own body as she chooses.

But what to do about Rachel Dolezal, the self-identified African-American who was born a blonde white woman?

It’s been amply noted that race and gender are different. Jenner doesn’t want to be the opposite sex. She was born female with a male body. But Dolezal wants to be black. And I think that’s okay, so long as she’s upfront about it.

The problem is that she wasn’t above board. There may be cases where a person wants to identify with a certain group. And Dolezal, with adopted African-American siblings, an black ex-husband, and a biracial child, has reasons to identify with the African-American community. I must wonder: if she had been open about this, would she have found greater acceptance?

Final example. Peter Moskowitz wrote an op-ed asking heterosexuals to stop overlaying the rainbow flag onto their Facebook profile pics. He feels that he earned the right to wave the rainbow flag after all the homophobia he’s encountered over the years, the social rejections from coming out, not to mention the real danger of physical assault for being gay. Moskowitz asks, “If they were true allies to me or the LGBT community, where were they before Friday?”

It’s a valid question. Of course, no one is trying to co-opt anyone’s identity, nor is Moskowitz saying they are. But he’s concerned that people jumping on the bandwagon after the fact don’t really support his identity as a gay man.

I didn’t change my Facebook profile pic because I’m not one to jump on the bandwagon. Though I have marched in gay pride parades as a social worker as far back as 1996, and voted in favor of LGBT civil rights and marriage equality in Maine.

I’m well aware, however, that I haven’t been through what Moskowitz has. Still, I don’t think rainbow-ifying your Facebook pic is necessarily an infringement, especially for heterosexuals who have supported LGBT rights all along.