feminism can do better than “lol incels are pathetic”

I did see Ross Douthat’s stupid New York Times article about how the world would be a better place if incels had sex with robots or whatever. It was already kinda self-parody.

Mary Elizabeth Williams’ response in Salon illustrates the liberal feminist style of not listening:

Loathe as I ever am to invoke Douthat’s brand of singular not-getting-itness, his New York Times column this week — followed by a doozy of a tweet-splain thread — merited special eye rolling. In his Wednesday plea for “The Redistribution of Sex,” Douthat made a weary proposal for “sex robots” and asked, “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?” Because it is.

I think we can all agree that hypocrisy doesn’t really help the left politically. It perversely helps the Christian right, but over on the left we call people out and blah blah blah.

Yes, you can see that Douthat had this dumb idea after reading some rightwing nonsense about “cultural Marxism.” Yes, it’s an example of tech worship and neoliberalism destroying everything that’s beautiful. It’s also lazy and dishonest to stop there.

The phrase “sexual redistribution” is pretty good trolling, but it means the same thing as what feminists love to talk about: changing beauty standards. Liberal feminism is very concerned with body positivity and helping fat women get laid. Compassionate people talk about how women become fat as a result of the awful traumas they’ve undergone, and the media quotes scientists talking about the healing power of touch. Not wanting to have sex with trans people is considered unjust discrimination.

The culture’s rules about who gets to fuck are either fair game for criticism and advocacy or they’re not.

He went on to cite Amia Srinivasan’s recent London Review of Books essay that asked, “Does anyone have the right to sex?” and noted her discussion of “groups with whom The London Review’s left-leaning and feminist readers would have more natural sympathy — the overweight and disabled, minority groups treated as unattractive by the majority, trans women unable to find partners and other victims, in her narrative, of a society that still makes us prisoners of patriarchal and also racist-sexist-homophobic rules of sexual desire.”

It’s really something the way Douthat can barely hold his nose to mention the monstrous “left leaning and feminist” among us, but it’s outstanding that he can then go on to leap from “the overweight and disabled” to internet trolls.

You want to have a conversation about sexual agency for marginalized groups, I am there for it. Surrogacy, self-pleasure, community: awesome. We are all entitled to healthy, safe, consensual sexual expression. But (grudgingly hoists megaphone): YEAH, THESE GUYS DON’T WANT THAT.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Mary Elizabeth Williams hadn’t considered social disability when she wrote that.

This illustrates how much the cries of “male sexual entitlement” about incels are made in bad faith. We’re “all entitled to healthy, safe, consensual sexual expression.” Except men that Mary Elizabeth Williams thinks nobody should have sex with.

The Srinivasan article cited by Douthat is actually good and thoughtful.

The question, then, is how to dwell in the ambivalent place where we acknowledge that no one is obligated to desire anyone else, that no one has a right to be desired, but also that who is desired and who isn’t is a political question, a question usually answered by more general patterns of domination and exclusion. It is striking, though unsurprising, that while men tend to respond to sexual marginalisation with a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, women who experience sexual marginalisation typically respond with talk not of entitlement but empowerment. Or, insofar as they do speak of entitlement, it is entitlement to respect, not to other people’s bodies. That said, the radical self-love movements among black, fat and disabled women do ask us to treat our sexual preferences as less than perfectly fixed. ‘Black is beautiful’ and ‘Big is beautiful’ are not just slogans of empowerment, but proposals for a revaluation of our values. Lindy West describes studying photographs of fat women and asking herself what it would be to see these bodies – bodies that previously filled her with shame and self-loathing – as objectively beautiful. This, she says, isn’t a theoretical issue, but a perceptual one: a way of looking at certain bodies – one’s own and others’ – sidelong, inviting and coaxing a gestalt-shift from revulsion to admiration. The question posed by radical self-love movements is not whether there is a right to sex (there isn’t), but whether there is a duty to transfigure, as best we can, our desires.

To take this question seriously requires that we recognise that the very idea of fixed sexual preference is political, not metaphysical. As a matter of good politics, we treat the preferences of others as sacred: we are rightly wary of speaking of what people really want, or what some idealised version of them would want. That way, we know, authoritarianism lies. This is true, most of all, in sex, where invocations of real or ideal desires have long been used as a cover for the rape of women and gay men. But the fact is that our sexual preferences can and do alter, sometimes under the operation of our own wills – not automatically, but not impossibly either. What’s more, sexual desire doesn’t always neatly conform to our own sense of it, as generations of gay men and women can attest. Desire can take us by surprise, leading us somewhere we hadn’t imagined we would ever go, or towards someone we never thought we would lust after, or love. In the very best cases, the cases that perhaps ground our best hope, desire can cut against what politics has chosen for us, and choose for itself.

Compare that treatment of the topic with Mary Elizabeth Williams:

This isn’t rocket science. Men who idolize mass murderers do so because they hate women. They feel they have a right to their bodies. It enrages them when women do not behave in a sexually conciliatory way toward them. It enrages them that other men can obtain what they cannot, because they don’t see sex as a mutually pleasurable experience but as a reward they have been deprived of. They see themselves apart from the “Chads and Stacies” and “normies” — their version of the popular kids — and take comfort in posting memes about evil females and their precious man spaces. Oh, no, you’ve got us all wrong, they argue, I just want a nice girlfriend, and why can’t these ungrateful bitches understand that?

So is sex something men “obtain” or not?

It’s funny, because in the context of neuroscience research, “reward” and “pleasure” are used interchangeably, as opposed to reinforcement. You’d measure reward with conditioned place preference and reinforcement with some kind of lever pressing task, for example. You can have reward without reinforcement, or vice verse, where reward feels good and reinforcement increases the frequency of a behavior.

So a “mutually pleasurable experience” means…giving each other sexual rewards. So it’s a reward that’s obtained. Well, how was it obtained? What were the preconditions? Were those preconditions fair and reasonable, and were they the same for everyone?

Mary Elizabeth Williams clearly wants to be one of the popular kids, and identifies with them. When I saw the phrase “Chads and Stacies” the first time, I laughed because I knew exactly what it was talking about. Williams obviously doesn’t see herself as outside normal people, looking in with rage and envy.

It’s fair to say that a great portion of the adult human population finds itself at one time or another going through what we used to call back in the day “a dry spell.” The frustrated longing for companionship, for partnered sexual pleasure, is such a universal desire that it’s the plot of roughly half of all movies. But mentally healthy people — whatever their age, size or physical abilities — figure out how to deal with it in appropriate ways.

In much the same way that the story of the Golden State killer suspect quickly became a tale of how a breakup with his fiancée spurred ten years of multiple rapes and murders, the story of men like Alek Minassian and Elliot Rodger has already been perverted to one in which gender-based terrorism is indicative of what Douthat tellingly calls “our widespread isolation and unhappiness and sterility.” Hot take: Women, especially when they’re setting boundaries around unstable, dangerous people, don’t make men turn into mass murderers.

The implication being that mentally unhealthy people are bad, and you definitely shouldn’t have sex with them.

It’s actually true that society is breaking down and making everybody lonely and it’s terrible for our health in every way. Real, basic needs aren’t being met, and lots of people live in a sort of low-level solitary confinement, which is crazy-making. Surely she understands the concept of a canary in a coal mine.

Plenty of rapists and sexual abusers have wives and girlfriends. Violence that is based on animosity toward women is not about desire or loneliness. It’s about power and control. Access to a body — human or not — doesn’t fix deep rooted pathology. And if it were just one overpaid New York Times blowhard who didn’t understand that, maybe it wouldn’t matter so much. But this notion that if we just accommodated these fellows, just understood them and were nice to them and gave them what they demand, is part and parcel of a little something we like to call rape culture. And sex workers, porn stars, all the Stacies in the world and even assembly line sexbots are not responsible for or to pathetic, angry men.

The first two sentences are a great example of poor listening skills. She has a talking point: rape is about power, blah blah blah. She saw an opportunity to use it.

Plenty of rapists and sexual abusers have wives and girlfriends. EXACTLY. This is the problem of, “why is male BPD more attractive than autism?” Why is punching a woman in the face less of an obstacle to having sex with her than being awkward? Why do women’s profiles on OkCupid talk about “impact play?”

Can you imagine how Ross Douthat would get raked across the coals if this were how he talked about fat women? “Who cares about trauma and loneliness and body standards and the media? Go to the fucking gym and stop complaining. I will never have sex with you.” It wouldn’t be a constructive response to the issue.

Nobody should have sex with raging misogynist incels. It’s true. But, to the extent that you contributed to making them that way, take responsibility for it.

Feminists are supposed to have a more sophisticated worldview than incels. Yeah, they’re not actually nice guys. They hate women. But if there’s a destructive social movement fueled by the hypocrisies of feminism, removing the fuel from the dumpster fire is a good place to start, since it’s within women’s control and something they should be doing anyway.

Close