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Are Sex Robots Really the Answer to the Incel Problem?

Two FASHION staffers debate whether a right to sex could possibly solve the problem of sexual violence

The ranks here at FASHION are not filled with men. Shocking, right? But there are one or two (there are actually, literally, two). Naturally, when a question about male/female dynamics arises it’s only fair that one of them stand in for the members of his gender and provide some insight. Our last topic of conversation was why men tend to get defensive when the #MeToo filter is applied to certain news stories, and today we’re wading into the concept of ‘the redistribution of sex’ as a response to the incel movement. Two of our staffers—from the men’s corner, Greg Hudson, and from the women’s, Pahull Bains—talk it out.

Pahull Bains: Last week, the New York Times published a whopper of an op-ed by a man named Ross Douthat in which he put forth his thoughts on how the “redistribution of sex,” much like an equitable distribution of property or money, could be the key to a future without angry, violent behaviour from men who identify as incels: “involuntary celibates” aka men who find it difficult or impossible to find sexual partners. (The op-ed is in response to the recent killing spree in Toronto at the hands of self-declared incel Alek Minassian, which left ten people dead.)

Aside from the fact that to posit this sort of argument requires one to consider women’s bodies a commodity, much like land or money, and erases entirely their agency in the ‘transaction’ of sex, there’s also the tiny matter of equating incels—men with a demonstrably violent and misogynistic worldview—as a subjugated group worthy of a paradigm shift undertaken on their behalf. To help his argument, Douthat quoted Robin Hanson, an economist who, in his estimation, is a “brilliant weirdo:” “One might plausibly argue that those with much less access to sex suffer to a similar degree as those with low income, and might similarly hope to gain from organizing around this identity, to lobby for redistribution along this axis and to at least implicitly threaten violence if their demands are not met.” Douthat goes on to suggest that a combination of sex workers, virtual-reality porn and sex robots might be the answer to “address the unhappiness of incels, be they angry and dangerous or simply depressed and despairing.”

These arguments fail to consider several points. 1) Women are as likely as men to suffer from a lack of sex, yet we don’t see women shooting up frat houses or “threatening violence” as a result of it. 2) Since men are the prime “sufferers” here, a ‘right to sex’ largely translates to a ‘right to women.’ 3) If we are to go by the Reddit and 4Chan message boards where incels gather to vent and commiserate, it’s not just a ‘right to women,’ but a ‘right to attractive women.’ So mere access to sex—or in the case of sex robots, access to acquiescent partners—isn’t the solution. Incels demand that the women they fantasize about—the ‘hot, beautiful blonde girls’ that Elliot Rodger, patron saint of incels, purported to hate in the manifesto he left behind after his 2014 massacre—be truly interested in them. It is the absence of unattainable, beautiful women in their lives that they deplore, not necessarily absence of the sexual act itself. So how could something like sex robots possibly appease that burning, and likely insatiable, desire? Tell me Greg. How???

Greg Hudson: It’s like you’ve been reading my Internet history or something.

While the devil likely doesn’t need an advocate (especially now that Ty Cobb is available–HEY-O political humour!), I want to push back on a few of the things you said. Not because I believe that we should live in a world where the sexual needs of misogynistic men are at all a priority, but because I think this is at least an attempt to find some kind of solution to what is obviously a giant problem. It’s easy to feel nihilistic about this, just as it is when discussing terrorism based on other ideologies. You even alluded to that yourself when you call their problem an “insatiable desire.” There’s no hope!

But the problem is, when there aren’t many solutions offered, the few that are can seem smarter than they actually are. Because, while I admit that parts of his thinking is intriguing, it seems he maybe should have spoken to like one woman before publishing this, if only to flesh out the details of what he’s proposing.

Let’s put aside talk of incels for a moment, so that this Redistribution of Sex Idea isn’t a kind of ransom/response to incel terrorism.

You mention that there are women who suffer because they maybe don’t get the sex they wish they could have, but they don’t go out and kill anyone. That seems true! But of all the incels out there, only two have made the news for causing mass violence. Most just feel bitter and mean and make nasty comments on the internet. It’s similar to the argument silly gun fans make about gun control: that the mass shootings skew the picture. The reality is most gun deaths are suicides. (How that really works as an argument against gun control is kind of tortured). Most incels are just sad.

But what if sex was a right for both genders? What if Ross Douthat had included women in his piece? As he mentions in the piece, we often look to programs that help connect disabled people up with sex workers as progressive and important. The differently abled deserve physical affection, too! What if sex was just one aspect of holistic healthcare? Like mental healthcare, sex would be available if you want it (and maybe qualify), but not essential. Does that change the argument at all? Because you’re right, a Right to Women is gross. But, I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to distill this argument down to that.

We’ll get back to why this probably wouldn’t help incels.

PB: But incels are not disabled people! (Unless you construe a lack of game as a disability, in which case, I think we’re done here.) And I don’t think we can reasonably conclude that most incels are “just sad.” Yes, only two might have committed mass violence thus far, but they are cited as heroes on these message boards and their acts are glorified. So although we could agree that the majority of the men who identify as incels don’t go out and commit murder, it’s indisputable that they harbour virulent views about women. Even the most cursory glance at some of the misogynistic message boards of the ‘manosphere’ is enough to see that. I mean, a word I saw coming up over and over was ‘femoid,’ which, it turns out, is a combination of female and humanoid, implying that women are subhuman. Another common thread was the opinion that the only thing women are good for is sex.) So I don’t think these men need to commit an act of mass terrorism to be deemed dangerous or potentially violent.

Now, getting to the women. Again, not being charming or beautiful or confident enough to attract men (or women!) does not a disability make. So if we were to talk about sex as a right, regardless of whether or not you’re disabled, we’d have to first address the question: what makes something an inalienable right in the first place? And what makes sex fall into that category?

GH: Ugh. I don’t like that I’m within walking distance of defending incels. Like if incels were a highway McDonalds, and defending them was buying a Big Mac, then I’d be seeing the golden arches looming. And Big Macs always make me super sick.

Assuming sexism leads to violence isn’t really fair. All men who are violent towards women are sexist, but not all sexists are violent. In fact, I think it’s more likely–and we should just state that both of us are making assumptions that may or may not prove to be true according to the data we don’t have–that most incels don’t have the confidence, means, or strength to incite much violence. They see themselves as Good Guys. Until they don’t.

You have a very strange way of defining a right. I can’t think of any inalienable rights that are so defined. Is healthcare a right? I think most Canadians would agree that it is. What about a childhood free of fear, hunger, abuse? What about an adulthood like that? Probably. I mean, it’s a hard right to enforce, but I think we’d all prefer a society that ensures the safety and at least minimal care of its people.

There is a significant push to have employment, or a living wage, be considered a right, even though it would be just as easy to say, “why is laziness a disability?” I don’t know if I agree, but one could make the argument that sex–physical touch, affection, intimacy–affects one’s quality of life in pretty serious ways. And just as there are many reasons a person can’t work, or find a job–some visible, others not so much– there are many reasons why men and women might have trouble finding sex. But if there are people who deeply miss human intimacy, and there is an industry set up to meet those people’s needs–and if that happened to prevent some men’s loneliness from curdling into misogyny, wouldn’t that be kind of cool?

But, to your point: it’s not orgasms that incels want. It’s not dates, either. Not really. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of meeting someone truly eccentric and then meeting their partner and thinking, yup, there’s someone for everybody.

The incels don’t just want sex, they want validation and companionship and love. They want to believe they are okay, and the only evidence they’ll accept is a woman who aligns with society’s definition of beauty, wanting to be with them. That they only see these women as prizes or means to their own gratification is what turns them into monsters. Would having a regular appointment with a sex worker help them see women differently? Part of me thinks it wouldn’t, since they’d always know they were paying for sex (even though in my pretend reality, this sex therapy is subsidized by the government), which would insult their fragile sensibilities and prove that women are objects that can be bought. But, then again, a therapist is a friend you pay for and that doesn’t stop them from helping people.

I think what I didn’t like about the responses to Ross Douthat’s column was that so many of them lacked imagination. They presumed a world where the sex robots and sex workers were essentially enslaved, against their will. It’s as though we all assumed that this redistribution of sex was going to be done with all the grace and nuance of a dictatorship, rewarding only men at the expense of women. That’s partly a result of how it was written–and what it was written in response to. But if we forget that a conservative columnist wrote it, would the principle of accessible sex be dangerous?

But, seeing as how we don’t live in Greg’s Socialist Sexual Utopia, in real life incels, violent or not, don’t just want sex. They want to punish.

What’s the answer then?

PB: Quick note: I don’t believe that sexism leads to violence, nor do I think I implied that. There is a wiiide, Grand Canyon-scale expanse between sexism and violent misogyny, and I think it’s safe to say that incels fall pretty firmly in the latter camp. (Last year, the 40,000-member ‘Incel’ group on Reddit was shut down by the site following policy changes that prohibited content that “encourages, glorifies, incites or calls for violence.”)

Now, back to the sex-as-a-right thing. While I do agree that sex affects the quality of a person’s life, treating sex as a right turns our world into a minefield. What, then, would prevent husbands from arguing that marital rape isn’t rape, it’s a response to their wives denying them their basic right to sex? As Amia Srinivasan noted in her recent London Review of Books essay: “On the now defunct Reddit group, a post titled ‘It should be legal for incels to rape women’ explained that ‘No starving man should have to go to prison for stealing food, and no sexually starved man should have to go to prison for raping a woman.’” So if we did live in a world where sex was considered a universal human right, we’d have lots more ideologies like that floating around, and what’s worse—legally sound ideologies. That seems more dystopian than utopian from where I’m standing.

You ask: ‘would the principle of accessible sex be dangerous?’ No, of course not. But there’s a huge difference between access to sex, and a right to sex. Accessible sex is already a reality. (Let’s face it: the fact that prostitution is illegal isn’t really slowing anyone down.) What we both agree on, I think, is that access to sex isn’t actually going to solve the incel problem because it’s far more deep-rooted than that.

Going back to Douthat’s op-ed, what bothers me the most is that, like with most problems that involve male violence against women, the burden to fix it or to find a solution instantly falls on the women’s shoulders. It’s always ‘how do women adjust or reevaluate what they’re wearing or how much they’re drinking or whom they trust,’ instead of ‘how do men adjust or recalibrate their mindset or outlook or behaviour toward women.’ This is another manifestation of that. Rather than looking at the incel movement as a potentially violent and sadistic ideology, and trying to figure out how to address it, the solution goes immediately to how women (or robots!) can appease and satisfy it. Rather than the policing or probing of this dangerous mentality, women must find a way to live safely around the contours of it.

GH: Nuts. Man, I forget that the world is the worst. Here I am imagining this world where sad, angry, lonely people can talk to a mental health professional and get a prescription for like a date night with a sex professional, who will help them feel less alone. And once people feel less alone, all misogyny, racism, homophobia, and whatever else ails the deplorable set, will melt away and we’ll all bake birthday cakes full of rainbows and speak only in clapping emojis.

And while I don’t really see how sex as a right will lead to marital rape–just because something is a right doesn’t mean violently stealing it is justified, especially since there is already a recourse for spouses who are unhappy with their sex life. It’s called divorce.

But I realize that that is all a little idealistic. In a way, I’m doing the same thing that I said annoyed me about other people’s response to Douthat’s column: I’m judging it based on what I’m wishing it said, and not what it really encouraged.

Thus, to answer your very first question: sex robots can’t fix this. I don’t know how the incel ideology can be fixed. But, I’ll do whatever you think I should!

PB: I think the first step is accepting that incels are not “sad, angry, lonely people,” who might be easily cured with drugs or weekly sex (android or otherwise). As Harper’s Bazaar’s political editor at large noted in her recent piece: “Their existence is not about being lonely. It is about blaming women for their loneliness.” The sooner we all see the deeply violent, unstable and misogynistic ideology driving the incel movement, the better off we’ll be.