Our perilous sexual moment
Everyone seems furious. And most everyone is wrong.
We all need more freedom to openly discuss — and engage in — sex. Instead, we all too often pounce on provocative opinions and hem in what is deemed "acceptable" bounds of debate. This is a shame.
Consider the rhetorical maelstrom created when George Mason University economist Robin Hanson recently suggested that the Toronto attack — in which a self-described incel (an involuntary celibate) mowed down 10 pedestrians — shows that we should worry not just about income inequality, but also the sexual inequality that is leaving too many men sexually frustrated. Hanson, whose blog Overcoming Bias is dedicated to raising uncomfortable questions that cut against ingrained thinking, mused that "cultural elites" might consider "redistribution" schemes that could help incels get a fair share of the action.
This was a provocative suggestion, no doubt. But Hanson wasn't really serious about it. He is a libertarian, after all, so talk of "redistribution" was more in the vein of a thought experiment. Still, many people were understandably offended by even the hint of a suggestion that men are "owed" sex, or that this particular man was somehow justified in his violence because of some societal failure to keep his sexual drive satiated. This was, after all, the second instance of incel violence in four years.
But almost everyone reacted poorly.
Liberals roundly pilloried Hanson. Slate's Jordan Weissman called him "America's creepiest economist," before doing an entirely tendentious interview with him with the aim of exposing Hanson as a nutjob. Wonkette's Robyn Pennacchia accused Hanson of "singing the songs of horny men." Motherboard's Samantha Cole declared that Hanson really wants "women to f--k violent men."
Such high dudgeon does little to advance the cause of mutual sexual understanding among men and women. The fact of the matter is that although the sexual revolution offered the possibility of more sexual fulfillment, it also produced new frustrations and challenges.
The New York Times' Ross Douthat, who defended Hanson (and came in for a heap of criticism as a result), rightly pointed out that the "Hefnerian" ethos that the revolution generated has made the "frequency and variety in sexual experience" the "summum bonum of the human condition." This might work for the "beautiful and rich and socially adept in new ways." However, it poses special problems for people who lack sexual draw and confidence.
Many feminists consider any discussion of the innate differences between male and female sexuality verboten. But it is hard to deny that evolution has wired the two sexes differently when it comes to sex. The qualitative sexual experience of men and women might be similar. But, by and large, as evolutionary psychologist Diana Fleischman points out, men tend to desire more sexual partners, need to know someone for less time before wanting to have sex with them, and have lower standards for sexual liaison. By contrast, women tend to be more discerning and discriminating (because they bear the brunt of producing offspring).
The sexual openness of today's liberated women often means that men's more easily stimulated sexuality is constantly triggered. However, social norms still put the onus on men to approach women and open themselves to rejection. The combination of heightened desire and increased risk from assertive women adds up to constant inner anxiety for many young, inexperienced men venturing into the sexual world. This doesn't mean that incels are right or owed, or that sex actually ought to be redistributed, or that incels are the "real" victims here. Indeed, incel forums can be dark and degraded places where misogyny and violent rhetoric often runs amuck. But ferocious and reflexive demonization from the left isn't helping matters. It is still necessary to understand the root cause of these new sexual pathologies.
Now, none of this exonerates conservatives, of course.
All too many social conservatives want to shut down pornography, tighten controls on prostitution, and restore puritanical norms from a time when men and women could only try to meet their sexual needs within the confines of life-long matrimony. This obviously should not (and will not) happen, if for no other reason than it traps too many couples in emotionally and sexually dead marriages.
The trouble with the sexual revolution isn't that it happened, but that it was incomplete. The problem is not that sex has been over commodified as hardline feminists and conservatives (talk about strange bedfellows!) like to assert; the problem is that it hasn't been commodified enough. The sexual industry in the broadest sense hasn't matured enough yet to cater to the myriad and diverse needs of lonely single people (of both sexes). Where are the Dr. Ruths for single people facing confidence issues or looking for advice? Is it really a surprise that young men turn to each other for solace in the deep recesses of the dark web — and that the result is often very ugly?
Progressivism's promise is to move toward social arrangements that increase the number of winners and diminish the number of losers. But until we achieve a utopia where everyone wins, we'll have to figure out ways to offer relief to the losers. This will require liberals to start taking the plight of people like the incels seriously, and stop penalizing intellectual mavericks like Hanson who have the nerve speak up on their behalf. And it will require conservatives to stop romanticizing an imperfect past and look for viable solutions that don't involve turning back the clock.
Editor's note: This article originally slightly mischaracterized Diana Fleischman. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.