Responses to Sex Inequality Critics

As I promised yesterday, here are specific responses to the nine mass media articles that mentioned my sex redistribution post in the eight most popular media outlets, as measured by SemRush “organic traffic”. (For example, the note (21M) means 21 million in monthly traffic.) Quotes are indented; my responses are not.

My responses are somewhat repetitive, as most seem content to claim that self-labeled “incels” advocating for sex redistribution are deeply icky people, and especially that they are women-hating. Even if that were true, however, that doesn’t to me say much about the wisdom or value of sex redistribution. I’m much more interested in general sex inequality than I am in the issues of the tiny fraction self-labeled “incel” activists. 

Robin Abcarian, The idea of an ‘incel rebellion’ would be laughable if it hadn’t already resulted in so many murders, Los Angeles Times (21M), May 8, 2018.

The only thing that feels inevitable about it is that men — even smart ones who should know better — would seriously try to address a perverse and dangerous issue, i.e. that men have the right to have sex with women. Framing this idiotic idea as a real social problem is another assault on the hard-won right of American women to control their own bodies … The incel community is not motivated by sexual frustration. That is a smoke screen for the real agenda. … It is motivated by old-fashioned misogyny, rank sexism and male entitlement.

I didn’t suggest giving men a right, nor taking any from women. I’m interested in general sex inequality, but not in the problems or agendas of the tiny “incel community.”

Moira Donegan, Actually We Don’t Owe You Sex, and We Never Will, Cosmopolitan (15M), May 4, 2018.

The idea that men are entitled to sex, and that women owe it to them, was first plucked from the incel community after the Toronto attack by Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University, who took to Twitter and to his personal blog to advocate for a “redistribution” of sex. … The rights and desires of women who would be “redistributed” in this scenario aren’t thought of much at all. The idea that individual men might have a right to sex the way that they have a right to safety and survival was then taken up by Douthat. …

By taking the incels’ claims at face value, he legitimized their ideas, and forwarded the assumption that if some men can’t get laid, it’s not because they’re creeps or jerks, but because women have too much independence. … Sex is an activity, one that you need two willing, capable people to do. Incels don’t really want that. What they want is a right to rape on demand, a right not to see women as people with rights and desires of their own, but only as objects to be fucked. But in the real world, where women are at least nominally full citizens with control over their own sex lives, some men will inevitably go unlaid in order for women to go unraped. … Women are not interchangeable, we are not commodities, and we will not be “distributed” against our will. The choice of who we have sex with will always be only our own.

I didn’t suggest a right or entitlement for men. I’m interested in general sex inequality, but not in the legitimacy or personal problems of the tiny “incel community.” Just as our income redistribution policies give both sides a veto over each employer-employee relation, sex redistribution policies can give both parties a veto over each sex act.

Clarence Page, The incel mind: As if hating women will get you a girlfriend, Chicago Tribune (12M), May 4, 2018.

Robin Hanson, a George Mason University economist, provocatively argues that “the desire for some sort of sexual redistribution” may be no more ridiculous than the notion of redistributing income to the less advantaged. Sex adviser Dan Savage proposes the incel phenomenon offers an argument for loosening our laws and attitudes toward professional sex workers. Others have proposed stepping up development of sex robots. None of these alternatives strikes me as particularly satisfying in the long run. Among us “normies,” incel slang for normal non-incel folks, young people often discover that their desire for sex masks an underlying deeper desire to be loved. An inability to love and care about other people may be the real tragedy of the incel world.

The policies you mention might put a dent in general sex inequality. I don’t care much if they won’t solve personal problems within the tiny “incel community.”

David J. Ley, Monogamy and Violence, Psychology Today (11M), May 21, 2018. 

Hanson suggested that legalized prostitution, education or training, promotion of monogamy and discouraging promiscuity, were all strategies which might more equitably distribute the opportunity to have sex across a wider range of persons. The redistribution of sex was widely reacted to as indicating some form of legalized rape, where women might be forced somehow to be sexual with men they would not otherwise have chosen.… There is some surprising evidence, at least tangentially supportive of the argument that Hanson and Peterson make. Multiple research studies have revealed (link is external)that societies which are polygamous have higher rates of violent crime. …

Note, however, that all of these arguments are based on the treatment of sex with females, and reproduction, as economic commodities. Women have something which men desire, and perhaps even need, in order to reproduce. When female sexuality is treated as an economic resource, it does indeed support the notion that this resource may be utilized or controlled in utilitarian manner, to further social interests. Men who cannot mate or get a date, are viewed as inferior, broken and worthless. … Where Peterson and Hanson’s arguments fail, is that they are using data, research, evidence, and theories, based on our dark past, where women did not hold the right to choose what to do with their own sexuality. …Female control of their own sexuality is not dooming society to a wreckage of male violence. At least, not if men stop viewing female sexuality as an economic right they can win through social success. Most men do not view women with anger and resentment. Most men don’t view women as things to be won and mated with. Even the men who cannot date, due to their social inhibitions, more often feel sad and lonely (link is external), rather than violently angry.

Whether or not women hold a right to refuse, and whether or not men view sex as a right, I’m pretty sure that men and women will still want sex, and feel bad if they don’t get what they want. I’m not optimistic that society can convince them that sex doesn’t matter, or that they shouldn’t be angry or envious to get less than do others.

Jia Tolentino, The Rage of the Incels, New Yorker (8M), May 15, 2018.

It is a horrible thing to feel unwanted—invisible, inadequate, ineligible for the things that any person might hope for. It is also entirely possible to process a difficult social position with generosity and grace. None of the people I interviewed believed that they were owed the sex that they wished to have. … Women are socialized from childhood to blame themselves if they feel undesirable … Men, like women, blame women if they feel undesirable. And, as women gain the economic and cultural power that allows them to be choosy about their partners, men have generated ideas about self-improvement that are sometimes inextricable from violent rage …

In the past few years, a subset of straight men calling themselves “incels” have constructed a violent political ideology around the injustice of young, beautiful women refusing to have sex with them. … The idea that this misogyny is the real root of their failures with women does not appear to have occurred to them. … Incels aren’t really looking for sex; they’re looking for absolute male supremacy. … Srinivasan’s rigorous essay and Hanson’s flippantly dehumanizing thought experiment had little in common. And incels, in any case, are not actually interested in sexual redistribution; they don’t want sex to be distributed to anyone other than themselves. … We can’t redistribute women’s bodies as if they are a natural resource; they are the bodies we live in. We can redistribute the value we apportion to one another—something that the incels demand from others but refuse to do themselves.

I don’t care much about the real goals or problems of the tiny “incel community.” Regardless of whether the ordinary sex-poor blame themselves or others for their status, the rest of us might care enough about them to see if we can help. The phrase “flippantly dehumanizing thought experiment” isn’t justified and doesn’t add to this argument; it seems this author just enjoyed making a dig at me.

Tyler Zimmer, The Case for Redistribution, Slate (7M), May 4, 2018.

To make his case for the “inevitability” of state intervention to satisfy disgruntled incels, Douthat lumps together technocratic, dehumanizing ramblings from the fringes of the libertarian right, on the one hand, and genuinely rigorous and probing leftist philosophical reflections on the matter from Amia Srinivasan, on the other. … This highly unequal distribution reflects neither differences in what people deserve nor in how hard they’ve worked. … Now ponder this: There are people who shrug their shoulders at this monstrous state of affairs and construct all manner of pseudo-intellectual rationalizations for why it must continue, or for why there’s no redistributive cure that wouldn’t be worse than the disease itself. …

And yet Douthat and the libertarian economist Robin Hanson, whom Douthat cites, are remarkably open-minded when it comes to thinking about whether it might make sense to speak of a politics of “redistributing sex.” That’s more than a touch hypocritical, of course, but let’s assume for a moment that the investment in universal sexual fulfillment is genuine. … it’s not crazy to think that politics should concern itself with various obstacles to flourishing, among them obstacles to a healthy sex life. And this is precisely where the redistribution of wealth, not of sex, becomes even more attractive. After all, there’s nothing sexy about financial instability and the anxiety and stress it entails. … Another redistributive remedy would be to radically reduce the length of the workday without reducing worker income. …

For writers like Douthat, however, the redistribution of wealth shouldn’t be on the menu of possible remedies. As he sees it, the dilemma we face is this: Either society must redistribute sex to satisfy the incels or else the only viable option is to turn back the clock to a time when traditional gender roles, sexual monogamy, and lifelong marriage were the cornerstones of domestic life. … So rather than turn the clock back—or fuss over the logistical difficulties or “creepiness” of subsidizing sex robots—why not simply tax the rich, redistribute their wealth to everyone else, and eliminate many of the unsexy economic obstacles to sexual flourishing?

He calls me hypocritical for comparing both kinds of redistribution, without endorsing or opposing either, and then the only policy he can imagine to help sex inequality is general income redistribution toward the income-poor, but not otherwise toward the sex-poor. He can’t think of anything else? Yes, there is probably a correlation between being sex-poor and income-poor, but surely we have other clues to identifying the sex-poor besides that. Wouldn’t we be more effective in reducing sex inequality if we used these further clues when redistributing income?

Jordan Weissman, Is Robin Hanson America’s Creepiest Economist?, Slate (7M), April 29, 2018.

Hanson’s post was a reaction to the tragic attack that took place in Toronto … Most people might read this news and see a horrifying illustration of how toxic masculinity metastasizes on the internet. Hanson read it and, amazingly, saw an opportunity to razz progressives. His brief post is more or less a lame attempt to compare people who worry about income inequality with incels who worry about “sexual inequality,” and suggest that they’re maybe not so different. … Hanson’s meaning might be a bit more lucid if he didn’t have a weakness for the cheap provocateur’s trick of simply “raising questions” about volatile issues rather than taking clear stances, which leaves some room for interpretation. …

At best, Hanson’s inflammatory comparisons between cuckoldry and rape or progressives and sexually frustrated men reveal an incredible myopia. Women (and many men) are terrified of rape because we view our own bodies as sacred and vulnerable, and crimes that violate them are more frightening, and do more to diminish us, than things that merely hurt our pride. People worry about income inequality because money and wealth shape every aspect of our lives, and distribution is deeply intertwined with our political choices. Whether a few Redditors can get laid is, comparatively, not that important. If Hanson is baffled by that, it betrays a basic lack of human understanding as well as intellectual laziness. …

Peruse his blog, and it’s not hard to come away with the impression that he believes men are owed sex, that women are devious about it, and that rape is a subject that can be toyed with lightly as an intellectual exercise.

He makes many accusations without much support, and which he knows I’ve denied. My post wasn’t mainly a way “to razz progressives”, and we academics are often expected to study policies without taking positions on them. Does he really think academics should ignore these topics? It does not support or minimize rape to say that other acts may be just as harmful. Sex also shapes many aspects of our lives, and is intertwined with politics. I’m focused on sex inequality in general, and I’m not much interested in the problems of “a few Redditors.”

Alexandra Scaggs, ‘Incels’ are wrong: sex is not like income, Financial Times (6M), May 11, 2018.

There is a glaring category error in this argument, because income and sex are not comparable. Income is the movement of wealth, which is a transferable commodity. Sex is a two-person agreement that is not transferable. … It is consistent for men’s rights groups to link sex to social validation in this way. That is because they propagate a bowdlerised version of evolutionary psychology that says couplings occur through a Hobbesian all-against-all competition meant to maximise partner attractiveness or “status”. … the more extreme methods one might use for Mr Hanson’s redistribution would almost certainly fall short of Karl Marx’s conditions for selling labour. Such a sale needs to be temporary and done on the basis of equal rights for buyer and seller, Marx said. Otherwise a worker “would be selling himself, converting himself from a free man into a slave, from an owner of a commodity into a commodity”.

As I explained more in my last post, jobs generate most income, and are also two-person agreements that are not transferable. Yet income redistribution is possible. Marx’s condition can be satisfied or not in both cases. I’m skeptical that society can convince people not to see sex as a sign of status, or to not feel bad when they don’t get as much as others.

Samantha Cole, ‘Redistributing Sex’ Is a Toxic Conversation About Toxic People, Motherboard (5M), May 3, 2018.

Incel thinking is based on the idea that women are commodities—that they are objects that owe men sex. … Robin Hanson, a conservative blogger and professor at George Mason University, wrote an essay framing incels as oppressed. He suggests that sex could be “directly redistributed, or cash might be redistributed in compensation.” Put more simply, he means “women should fuck violent men.” … What’s perhaps most revealing about the incel discussion is that no one’s talking about the “redistribution of sex” from men to women who can’t find sexual partners … Ignoring women and rewarding toxic masculinity got us here, but, here we are. Levkoff told me that the only silver lining is its value in teaching the next generation of young men to do better.

She attributes words in quote marks to me that I didn’t say, and deny. I did not specify men or women; I was talking about both groups.

Added 28June: While most endorse income redistribution, few are willing to directly embrace the basic idea of adopting policies to reduce sex inequality, and most of those only endorse the policy of simple income redistribution toward the income poor.  Which makes that later groups seem insincere, as if they just like sex inequality concerns as an excuse for general income redistribution.

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