On Incels, Dead Bedrooms and The Hard Problems of Loneliness
My father’s father was by all accounts a really bitter-hearted sort of person. I say “by all accounts” because I hardly knew him; he had at some point prior to my birth disowned my dad over a matter of money - he wanted to borrow a large amount of money for something my father considered ill advised, and my dad wouldn’t loan it. He wouldn’t talk to him for decades; choking to death from emphysema, his last words to my dad were “Tell him he owes me $50,000”.
With that being said, grandpa had some level of excuse for being a rough, mean sort of person. He was born with a hip joint that was about half incomplete; I never knew the specifics enough to be confident in them but the general gist was that something was wrong with the ball-end of the ball-and-socket joint long before they could fix that sort of thing. He spent the majority of his life in bone-on-bone grinding pain.
Grandpa wasn’t allowed to join the war, so he spent time in the merchant marines out of what appears to be pure spite. This was during a period of time when people might pick a fight by simply yelling “cripple”, and grandpa apparently took them up on those fights fairly often. Before he passed, my dad told me that grandpa was the only person who had ever knocked him out with a single jab - he theorized that, lacking the ability to chase people around, grandpa had just figured out how to end things before it actually came to that.
It makes at least some sense to revile my grandpa - he was abusive in a lot of ways. He abandoned his family repeatedly. He was, well, kind of a dick. But the other side of it is that he had the kind of life where it would have required active effort to not become at least somewhat of a monster; it was a hard life in a harder time spent doing hard things. I can choose to pity or hate him, but having chosen I can’t pretend the choice didn’t exist; it’s something I had to do.
Six-ish years ago, some poor woman made a post on Reddit about her husband, who waited until she was on her way out of town for a business trip to ambush her with a Excel spreadsheet detailing all the times she had refused to have sex with him recently:
My apologies for the poor-quality clip; the wife has since scrubbed the post and all her comments. For better or worse, this is what remains of this particular piece of internet history.
At the time, this particular post was international news. On the Reddit-commenter level (also a circle of hell, probably) there was a fairly polarized split between the she-doesn’t-owe-you-sex-you-child crowd and the good-for-him-dump-the-frigid-broad edgelords. I envied their respective positions and their certainty of being right, because I know too many people.
I have a friendly face, and I tell jokes of the non-threatening lets-get-everybody-smiling variety. Mostly because my wife works really hard on it, I have a noticeably happy marriage; the combination of the two sometimes means people tell me things they wouldn’t tell someone else and look to me for advice. Over the years I’ve played audience to a fair amount of marital complaints from both men and women, and this scenario actually happens a lot - maybe not in a way as optimized to go reddit-viral, but it’s not uncommon. And, guys, it’s heartbreaking - at least most of the time, it’s not a crime with a clear villain.
Do this long enough and eventually you have some woman crying because she has this guy she genuinely loves, but she’s also just gotten to a point where she physically can’t enjoy sex. It might be a hormonal thing; it might be that she has other emotional issues, whatever. Every once in a great while you do run into someone who is doing it punitively or out of a lack of enthusiasm about the relationship generally, but mostly it’s not that; a lot of these women are still putting out. They just don’t get what they used to get out of sex; the husbands can tell, and it’s hurting the relationship, and while there’s treatments for this kind of thing they aren’t universally accessible or effective in every case. They’ve tried things, they haven’t worked, they don’t know what to do, and it’s killing them.
On the other side you have their partner, who is doing all the stuff that used to work, and it’s just not working. I’ve talked to that guy, too; he’s confused. He’s doing extra dishes and trying to take things off the wife’s plate to help, not just for sex but because he’s concerned. He’s telling her she’s pretty more, if he suspects it’s a self-confidence thing. He’s sending her to the doctor, if he suspects it’s a hormonal thing. And it’s not just about sex; something is wrong with his wife, and he wants to help fix it.
But at the same time, it’s ripping the poor dude apart. A lot of the reaction to this is happening on a near-instinctual over-simplified level, a sort of problem-solving process that goes “She used to have sex with me because she loved me. She’s stopped having sex with me; thus, she has also stopped loving me”. And this often happens even if the man understands all the difficulties the woman is going through and sympathizes; biologic functions that heavily interact with psychology and are deeply ingrained in our conception of romantic relationships tend to be hard to excise by merely knowing.
It’s easy to lie by building a narrative that pushes you towards thinking one way or another about a subject. I want to acknowledge I’ve done that here in two separate ways.
First, I’ve cast these scenarios in a maximally sympathetic light; women who want to provide sexual intimacy and work towards that goal and men who want to understand their significant others and can’t. This isn’t always the case - some women are both indifferent to sex and indifferent to their partner’s desire for it just as some men consider their partners as a sort of living sex accessory that loses 100% of its value when it stops functioning in that sense. As with anything, not everyone is trying to be good at all times.
The second lie is that I’ve cast the direction of withholder/withholdee in a particular gender-to-gender direction; I’m not sure that the impression we might typically have of “the woman withholds from the man” is true, or at least as true as it seems.
There’s a subreddit called dead bedrooms (not linked here because I don’t want to encourage people to actually go there and bother them) that I go to sometimes; it’s a bunch of people venting about the lack of sex in their relationships. I’ve seen some posts there that are what Twitter might call “toxic” in tone, but for the most part it’s just really raw sorrow and frustration. And, believe it or not, the majority of this sadness is flowing out of posts written by women.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s plenty of people of both genders talking about this problem, though I do think it is a bit surprising how many women there are. I wonder if this isn’t because of some effect similar to proposed underestimates of woman-on-man domestic abuse. If it’s too embarrassing for some men to report domestic abuse against them because they think it will make them seem unmanly, it’s easy to imagine women keeping quiet about not being able to acquire sex from men who stereotypes say should be horny at all times.
I’m not going to pretend I’m not trying to prime you here; I want you to think about what it would be like to be on either end of a relationship like this - not just being misunderstood and blamed by your spouse for something you can’t control, but also what it feels like to feel abandoned and unloved for sins you didn’t commit. I’m hoping that priming helps get your kind-feelings juices flowing, because I’m going to need all the help I can get: the next group I talk about is a lot less easy to sympathize with.
This brings us around to incels. It’s incredibly likely you’ve heard the term, but in case you haven’t: The term “incel” is short for involuntary celibate; it describes a group of men (very usually) who do not have sex, would like to have sex but for some reason or another find themselves unable to. A corresponding lack of romantic relationships in general is also implied, if not implicit in the term itself. They are a lot of things, but probably characteristic of incels is that they are very, very unhappy about all this.
Pain in one’s personal history sometimes makes us understand bitterness. Sex and romantic acceptance are pretty vital to most people’s long term happiness. If Grandpa Contrarian is at least conceivably understandable because of his painful history and frustrated spouses are easier to sympathize with because of their current sex-less situation, then we might expect to have plenty of empathy for incels, since they combine a bit of both. Or it would be if they didn’t say shit like this all the time:
Or if they didn’t sometimes kill a bunch of people:
Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen others before killing himself in Isla Vista, California on May 23, 2014, near the campus of University of California, Santa Barbara. These killings drew media attention to the concept of involuntary celibacy, and particularly the misogyny and glorification of violence that are a mainstay of many incel communities. Rodger self-identified as an incel and left behind a 137-page manifesto and YouTube videos in which he detailed his involuntary celibacy and discussed how he wanted revenge for being rejected by women. He had been an active member of a community popular among incels called PUAHate (short for "pickup artist hate"), and referenced it several times in his manifesto. Although PUAHate shut down soon after the attack, Rodger became something of a martyr to some communities that remained, and to some of those that emerged later. It is common to see references to "E.R." in incel forums, and mass violence by incels is regularly referred to as "going E.R." Rodger has been referenced by the perpetrators or suspected perpetrators of several other mass killings, and is one of several attackers who are regularly praised by members of incel communities.
Incels as an internet movement are a generally hateful, confusing lot. They use specialized crazy-person-sounding lingo like calling sexually desirable men hogging all the women “Chads” (the hogged women are “Stacys”, for reference) and obsess over being “betas” in a sexual marketplace they believe to be completely dominated by alpha-male types.
I’m the type who generally finds most usages of the word “misogynistic” to be motivated hyperbole, but it’s often appropriate here: a lot of these guys flat out hate women. They’ve taken their frustrations to a really unproductive place that’s dark to the point of often being evil. It’s gross.
All this taken together means I’m going to look pretty bad in a second when I ask you to feel bad for them. I’m still going to do it. I have reasons I’ll try to explain why I think it’s productive, but it’s not like I don’t expect my hands to get a little brown from trying to polish this particular turd.
It’s 2021, and it would be pretty hard to find someone who would come out and say that women deserve to be treated worse than men by default, and similarly difficult to find someone believes men shouldn’t have rights. In that sense at least we are all feminists and men’s rights activists, but nearly 100% of everyone reading this would have felt some emotional recoil from being called at least one of those two things. Why? Because there’s a vast difference between a person who believes the stated beliefs of a group as opposed to a person who holds membership in a group as a defining part of their identity. Imagining a conversation with someone who generically believes women should be treated well is a much different experience than imagining the same conversation with person who boldly declares themselves a feminist; the same is true for what you’d expect from a talk with an MRA.
Regardless of which category of person you anti-identified with, if you felt revulsion against one group or the other it’s probably because you understand that membership in those groups often implies something more than a desire to do good. That kind of declared membership often springs from a place of bitterness or anger. But it at least sometimes doesn’t; we basically understand that not everyone goes through the pain-tunnel and comes out the other side a monster, even if they have the temerity to mention the problem as a way of trying to prevent the same kind of suffering in others later.
If you can agree with me at least a little up to this point, then all this implies there’s a possibility of a sub-group of quasi-incels out there that haven’t yet let themselves be driven to a dark place because of it, but is still as sad as you’d expect a sex-less, romance-less person who wants both things to be. Since America doesn’t have a male-heavy demographic skew like China, we’d mostly only expect this group to exist in significant numbers if people - and especially men, since the incel movement is mostly a male thing - were less likely to be in relationships, or having sex less often. A quick check shows that the stats seem to back that up for relationships:
The data here seems to back up some of the incels’ claims; if 51% of young men are single and only 32% of women in the same age bracket are, that implies something is up. The gross-feeling way to phrase this is that some other group is “taking their women”; yes, I get that sounds terrible. No, that doesn’t mean it isn’t potentially a big problem for young men anyway.
We could say that it’s possible that single men are just looking for casual sex but the data contradicts that:
In the young single man cohort, we find that something like 67% of them consider themselves on the market; that potentially means a maximum something like 34% of the 18-29 year old men might be experiencing something like a romantic market failure. And lest you think the men are turning down eligible women to their own detriment, it’s more common for women to be doing the rejecting, at least judging by what they say:
This belies the fact that there are large gender gaps on some of these items. Women who have found it difficult to date are much more likely than men to say a major reason for their difficulty is that it’s hard to find someone who meets their expectations (56% vs. 35%) and that it’s hard to find someone looking for the same kind of relationship as them (65% vs. 45%).
For their part, men are more likely to say difficulty in approaching people (52% of men vs. 35% of women) and being too busy (38% vs. 29%) are major reasons it has been difficult to find people to date.
The pattern is unsurprisingly similar where sex is concerned:
Between 2000-2002 and 2016-2018, the proportion of 18- to 24-year-old individuals who reported having had no sexual activity in the past year increased among men (18.9% vs 30.9%; age-adjusted odds ratio [aOR] for trend across survey periods, 1.20; 95% CI, 1.04-1.39) but not among women (15.1% vs 19.1%; aOR for trend, 1.03; 95% CI, 0.89-1.18).
All this data paints a picture of growth in a group of men who, like most people, want some level of sex and romantic involvement in their lives and can’t get it. Some of them are Incels with a capital I and all that implies: horrible thinking from people who have let themselves become horrible. But some of those people are just sad - they aren’t murdering people or calling women bitches on Gab, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t missing something. To the extent these things are important, there’s a growing cohort of people who are suffering.
We can imagine a couple different reasons why this market failure is happening. It could be that a smaller group of men are monopolizing larger and larger amounts of sex and relationships. If twenty-something men generally want to have sex more often than twenty-something women, we’d expect something like that to happen; in the increasing absence of chastity and monogamy norms and with services like Tinder making partner acquisition easier, it’s pretty much unavoidable that the most attractive men would have sex with more individual women, leaving some less marketable men out in the cold.
With relationships it’s a little bit different; either those same marketable men are dating more women or those women are dating outside their age bracket. I’m not blaming anybody for this, by the way; women should obviously be free to consort with who they like. For all I know, it might case maybe young men just suck now. Even if that’s true, nobody tries to suck; none of these young men are actively trying to be unappealing to women. But whatever the failure point or wherever you want to assign the blame, it’s still a problem.
I think sometimes it’s useful for me to ask you to assume I’m full of it, that I’m overstating all my positions and that we should work backwards from there. Let’s do that now: assume that every single young man out there who isn’t having sex or in a relationship is that way because he sucks in some way. Assume there’s no systemic problems causing this besides him being terrible; like maybe he never bathes or he yells at his mom for not making dinner correctly, or something.
Now work under the assumption that anybody turning bitter over this is not just partially but completely unreasonable to do so - they are jerks of the kind that least deserve sympathy. To be clear, some of them definitely are. I really can’t stress enough how much I hate to use the word “toxic”, but some of these people have built environments that are mentally poisonous, places where people sit around blaming everyone but themselves for their problems and condemning the whole world as evil for not satisfying their sexual whims.
I don’t think we can actually paint all of them with so broad a brush, but even if they were all terrible in the it’s-all-their-fault-and-they-are-bastards-about-it kind of way bad feminists mean when they call them neckbeard basement virgins it’s probably still not productive to work especially hard to condemn them. If the idea that you should attempt not to do things to radicalize terrorists is true, something like that is in play here as well; consistently treating a group as bad would be expected to drive them further away from your ostensibly better viewpoints on things, a non optimal outcome even if they deserve it. Being sympathetic or nice might have an outside chance (however small) of reforming a few bad actors; we wouldn’t expect the same results from a stony lack of empathy.
If that’s all true assuming the worst, now think of what it’s like if you believe that there’s any justification to the frustration these two groups feel. If it’s possible that a spouse can fairly feel frustrated that all the sex has disappeared from their marriage, or that a young man can without sin feel anger that he is going to perhaps permanently miss out on relationships and sex, it changes the moral and social algebra quite a bit.
I suspect that a person who can talk about their frustrations with their spouse without being default-wrong on the subject has a better chance of resolving the issues in the relationship. I think your average sexually frustrated 20-something man is a lot less likely to turn to the worst, grossest form of sympathy he can find if he has any alternatives - but in a world where nobody will even talk about their problem as a real thing or acknowledge the hurt it might cause them, we shouldn’t be surprised to find they turn to any avenue that admits they might have a legitimate grievance.
Bad or not, these people have a lot of unearned sympathy from me. I was a bit of an oddity in that I was anticipating marriage since early adolescence; that outsized-value for relationships came with what I feel were comparably overgrown feelings of loneliness. I got absurdly lucky when I found my wife, but I spent every day without her more or less miserable. It’s arguable she’s the only reason I’m able to be happy. I imagine some of these men are similar to me in the loneliness and not as lucky in finding someone, and it’s impossible for me to not feel something.
I want to be profound here; I want to have solutions for these issues that are easy and quick. I want every marriage to lack intimacy issues; I want everybody to have a chance at love. As it stands I’m not even sure this problem is even big enough to seek a solution for, and if it is I’m not sure the causes are what I think. But I do know if the problem keeps getting bigger, we will have more and more people disenfranchised from something most people think of as a major part of being human.
I think we have a choice here: we can offer sympathy, acknowledge the problem and offer help working towards solutions in what small ways we can, or we can abandon these young men to seek acknowledgement of their issues from dark side of the internet for want of any other options.
Obviously I'm very late to this discussion - just catching up on several months of backlog reading now. But this discussion by chance falls into my area of interest and academic background: human sexuality/behavioral science. So I've thought about this kind of behavior a lot.
It's interesting that it seems so hard for people to empathize. I'm a woman, fairly liberal, and grew up in a household where "feminist" was a badge of honor, but I can't imagine not empathizing with anyone who is clearly in psychological pain, even if their actions are abhorrent. Even people who say hateful things - or even act on them - are clearly locked in a prison that they themselves perpetuate, and although a hateful ideology might provide some psychological relief in the short run, in the long run it only pushes them even further from actually getting what they want - to be loved physically and emotionally by a woman. You can hate the actions and yet feel incredibly sad.
What I would offer, though, is that most of the frustration here with proposed solutions (or lack thereof) seems to me to be misguided. Suggesting that men somehow figure out how to improve themselves, or learn to cope better with the inevitable, or that women need to find it in their hearts to put out for these men, or any other such solution seems to me to miss the point. Those are all individual level solutions for what is not an individual problem. They are only superficial, individual-level adjustments to a system that isn't working well as a whole.
Take a step back and consider: yes, there are many larger social currents that play into creating a pool of unpartnered (and perhaps un-partnerable) men. Some have been mentioned: economic forces that increase the gap between haves and have-nots, giving some men more economic status (or at least ability-to-provide status) and some less, internet culture that allows more prospective partners to reach a greater variety of choices, mass media that re-sets people's expectations of "average" looks and and "average" social skills (We can think about a scenario in which men and women living in a small village of 100 people in an undeveloped society will never have seen a super-model looking person in their lives. Their mental model of what "attractiveness" is will be based on the average looking people they know, and the curve will be bent much further downward than someone who has grown up watching television. They may still have an internal dividing line that delineates "potential partners who are not attractive enough to accept" but their line is likely to be quite a bit lower. )
But all these play against a background of assumption that human desire for partnership, and the meaning assigned to partnership, is a constant in all times and places, and I don't think that's true. In other words, we assume that any conditions which generate a significant pool of men who can't find partners will naturally cause hurt and hostility. I'm not convinced by that, at least not entirely. I would argue that for starters, there are cultural models in which the needs that incels in American/western culture feel are unmet (sex, companionship, status, identity) are met in other ways. In some cultures, there are respected identities for unpartnered men to step into that meet some of those needs in other ways. For example, many cultures have had traditions where young men would spend years or decades as warriors/soldiers or priests, and would only be available to compete for mates later in life. The intervening years, depending on the culture, would be either celibate, or there would be access to paid sex, or same-sex erotic pairings were acceptable. There have been cultures where life-long "bachelor" status granted status or other privilege. There are lots of ways that humans have found to do this. Men in these situations may been missing sex to a greater or lesser degree, but they weren't hating their lives and everyone around them to boot.
The difference is that in such cultures, there are usually ample ways for men to meet multiple needs, even if they aren't having sex. There is a lot of social connection. There are strong male bonds of friendship. There are clear and respected roles and identities to adopt. People often live in large kinship groups. Men in these groups may not be having sex, but they are valued, relied on, needed, and may be playing other identity roles such as son, uncle, brother, cousin in a way that fills the need for human contact, relationship, companionship. They may be interacting with and helping protect and teach other children in their extended family or community. Their lifetime "bachelor" status is accepted, understood, and seen as having a valuable social role. Is the lack of sex still an issue? I'm sure it is but it doesn't seem to brew these poisoned pools of hurting and hurtful people who feel abandoned and unable to be "seen".
So if I were looking for solutions, I think it's a bit of a red herring to spend time splitting hairs over whether it's reasonable or acceptable to tell men to work out, get a better wardrobe and come out of the basement once in a while. It is very, very difficult for humans to implement individual level solutions to society-level problems. Instead let's look at how we got to a place where there are fewer and fewer opportunities for social connection of any kind, where people who are unpartnered tend to live alone, where their need for companionship and touch is only acceptably met via a sexual partner (no hugging or holding platonic male friends allowed), where women are assigned the work of "emotional labor" in most relationships, leaving men who are unpartnered with fewer emotional skills or outlets and left to their own devices - no one they can comfortably cry on the shoulder of without being demeaned. Let's consider why so many men feel that having a female partner is their only possible avenue to access these social goods.
Even though western society tries to tell us that sex is a primary human drive, maybe THE primary human drive, there are many other societies who would argue that isn't so, that it's just one need among many that are equally primary. And if we solved some of these other problems, you'd still have lonely men, you'd still have sexually frustrated men, but you wouldn't have incel culture.
This was an incredibly heartwarming reading experience. I've been blessed with a vibrant romantic life but I've always been bothered by the lack of sympathy for those less interpersonally fortunate. I remember when "nice guy" started being used as a synonym for "entitled misogynistic douchebag", similar to how most people outside the namesake community use "incel" now. I think perhaps this becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ultimately, I see very few counterexamples to the idea that people's instinctive reaction to obviously low-status men ranges from "condescending pity" to "you're breathing a lot of oxygen that probably is better used elsewhere". This is one of those counterexamples, and it's a breath of fresh air to see genuine understanding for a group so thoroughly dehumanized.