Inequality: Not Gender but Sexual

By Merrill Ring

There are those who hold that there is a type of inequality not yet recognized in political discourse: sexual activity. Should unequal sexual opportunity become a cause for progressives? Should sexual activity be thought of as a marketplace good which needs to be regulated by government action?

Our political language has recently acquired a new word: ‘incel’, a shorthand for ‘involuntary celibacy’. Though celibacy cannot be involuntary (unless you are kidnapped and sent to a monastery or convent) – to be celibate is not simply not having sex but is the result of a choice made not to do so – the term was invented by a group of young men on internet sites to describe their condition, a condition that they are loudly complaining about.

While there has been considerable comment on and criticism of the incel ‘movement’, most of it concentrates on its very obnoxious features: the deep misogyny, the total emphasis on sex, the unquestioned male entitlement expressed, the complete lack of any interest in what females might have to say about sexual relations. And when an adherent of the view committed a terrorist act in Toronto, killing 10 people, further thought about the ‘movement’ stopped there and condemnation was the order of the day.

However, there is something about what the incel-ers are up to that should be attended to, something of intellectual and political interest. I will be working my way through the obnoxious stuff to get to what needs to be looked into.

Their complaint is, in the first place (though in the end not simply that), that they are not having sex with women even though they have not imposed a rule upon themselves against it. The explanation, of course, for that lack of sexual activity is that women, no doubt for various reasons, are not interested in having sex with them.

Most assuredly, that unhappiness is not anything new. Lack of sex was the common condition of young American males before the Sexual Revolution. However, in those days, it was fairly obvious what was going on: the problem was not the attitudes of females toward individual males (though that was sometimes the explanation.) Rather what was apparent was that there was a strongly enforced social principle that women should not have sex until (and outside) marriage. When nearly all young males were in the same boat, there was not much sense in ranting against women or for disliking those (few) unmarried males who did manage to engage in sexual relation (lucky fellows)

The Sexual Revolution was a more or less successful attack on the set of social rules prohibiting non-marital sex.

It is important to recognize that the incel-ers are living in a world that is post-Sexual Revolution. There is a great deal more sexual activity going on around them. Yet they find themselves not participating, being left out of the new paradise. They are personally aggrieved.

The object of young male frustration has thus changed: it is now clear that it is not the social rules, which frustrated previous generations of males (leaving aside the question of how those affected females), but, to the incel-ers, it is the women who, playing the new game, are not allowing them to play. It is now as individuals, not as a tribe, that they feel deprived and aggrieved.

It has been suggested that their situation might be alleviated by enabling greater prostitution. That might well be a worthwhile social, political development. However, the project of expanded and institutionalized prostitution does not get at the incel-ers full complaint.

In the end, it is not simply the involuntary lack of sex that they are complaining about: it is the lack of sex with women they find desirable that spurs their frustration, women who they are sure are having sex but not with them. It is that post-Sexual Revolution sense of personal injury that separates them from previous generations of young males. When no one was getting anything, there was no point to wishing for the moon.

What makes the incel-ers of some political interest is that they are not simply screaming to each other in their internet homes. They are attempting to create a program for how to rectify their situation (as they see it.) It is that program that makes them more than simply ranters and sometimes terrorists.

They think of their lack of sexual success not as a matter due to their personal shortcomings or individual situations. Rather they conceive of their deprived state as a matter of unequal distribution of a good. Sexual activity by women is not distributed fairly through the male population. Rather some males are favored – and the incel-ers are the ones discriminated against, not given the opportunities that fall to other males. Just as in normal political discourse, women are said to bump up against a glass ceiling in their economic lives, so the incel-ers think of themselves as running up against a sexual ceiling.

Their program to correct that inequality of distribution of a good is to propose a scheme whereby the good, namely sexual activity, would be more fairly distributed, in which the incel-ers would have the opportunity to participate.

Their solution to providing greater sexual activity involves, first, assigning a market value to everyone. Then a set of rules is constructed ensuring that every person has an opportunity to have sex with a desirable person – and further rules that apply to women who do not distribute their sexual activity among all the eligible males according to the first set of rules.

It is intriguing to examine all the shortcomings those rules involve. But those are not the important matters. What is important, and what makes this matter of political interest, is that the incel-ers describe the, their, situation as a form of inequality, an inequality of opportunity. Secondly, their plan for eliminating (or severely reducing) that inequality is a type of market solution. For the incel-ers, the sexual world is thought of as a market-place, which the government needs to regulate so as to produce greater sexual opportunity for those currently excluded from the market of sexual activity.

What about that pattern of thought?

First, consider the idea of the sexual world as a marketplace. The incel-ers are not free-marketeers: the present sexual economy is thought of as an unregulated market for the distribution of a good – each woman (person?) is presently free to bestow their sexual favors (more or less) as they see fit. Since that situation produces what this group see as serious inequalities, the government must intervene to assure a fair distribution of the good, of sexual opportunity. But even if the market is to be regulated, it is conceived of in this program in economic terms, as a market

For instance, consider the issue of assigning everyone a sexual value rating. There is no market mechanism for doing that – no supply and demand curve to show what a person’s desirability rating is. So the government (on what basis is not at all clear) assigns the ratings. Then, with the status assigned, each person is tossed into the marketplace with lots of regulations about who may do what without change of status.

The solution is a curious mixture of libertarian thought – the conception of a type of human activity in a marketplace setting – and modern liberalism – the state must intervene to eliminate an inequality.

The issue for liberalism, for progressive political thought, is thereby raised: since liberalism defends government action to eliminate inequalities, are the incel-ers showing the way to a new form of action required by liberal principles?

The issue rests on exactly what inequalities liberalism is committed to resisting. If women’s right to equal opportunity in the economy is to be defended, why not men’s right to equal sexual opportunity? And it is here that the central question raised by the incel-ers must be addressed.

Is liberal, progressive, thought committed to eliminating all inequalities in human life?

Of course not.

The world is full of inequalities: I had no opportunity to become a professional basketball player. Is it a matter of discrimination that I don’t get a sniff from a pro team while LeBron James does? He and I are unequal in size and basketball talent – should we have a government plan to make professional basketball give both of us an equal opportunity to become a professional player? Surely not. There could be unfairness if I had the proper physical characteristics and skills and nonetheless I did not get a chance to play professionally: then there might well be discrimination and the need for producing equal opportunity. But in my case that is not true.

The incel-er will reject the analogy. It is not (not generally at least) an issue of talent in his being denied sex with desirable women.

That should be granted: the point was simply to remind ourselves that there are so many inequalities that do not require government intervention. That means every kind of inequality must be considered on its own merits. There has yet been no case made by the incel-ers that sexual inequality is a matter requiring political intervention, that we leftists need to demand such action. Until that is done a discussion is whistling in the dark.

So pursuit of the interesting question about the incel group runs into a dead end. It could be revived of course should someone provide a defense of the group’s assumptions.

And I would like to suggest that it is time for a female to enter the discussion, especially to consider the issue of whether we ought to begin conceiving of sexual life as a marketplace activity.