According to a specific demographic of straight men on the internet, America is in the throes of a crisis — and it has nothing to do with opioid addiction or student loans or sexual assault or police shootings or health care for low-income people of color or climate change. No, the real crisis is that they aren’t having sex — and they’re demanding that something be done about it.
Of course, this in itself is not exactly news: the internet has always provided a platform for people of all ages and genders to voice their anger and frustration with various aspects of their lives, up to and including their less than satisfying sex lives. But as the voices of young white men are increasingly becoming louder, and as their frustration has been proven to yield devastating consequences, a new report has emerged that arguably gives credence to this specific concern.
According to the report from the University of Chicago General Social Survey, 23% of adults — nearly a quarter of Americans surveyed — had not had sex in the past year, up significantly from 2008, when the percentage of American adults not having sex was at around 9%. And it’s primarily young men between the ages of 18 and 30 that are driving this trend: 28% of young men reported not having had sex in the past year, as opposed to 18% of young women.
It’s unclear what, exactly, is prompting this decline, though a Washington Post report of the study proposes a few possible explanations, from the omnipresence of smart phones (an oft-cited factor behind many a worrying sex and dating trend) to the advent of widely available internet pornography, to the fact that more young people are moving in with their parents (a boner-killer if there ever was one). And it’s also not the first time that we’ve seen data attesting to this so-called “sex drought”: last year, the Atlantic’s Kate Julian made the case that millennials were experiencing a “sex recession,” citing data suggesting that people currently in their early twenties are two-and-a-half times more likely to be abstinent than previous generations. And indeed, a lot of this makes sense: in a culture dominated by dating apps, where the ratio is skewed against men in many cities, and where women are increasingly delaying marriage in favor of professional and sexual self-empowerment, it’s not particularly shocking that some men may be getting the short end of the stick.
What is less understandable, however, is making the argument that this so-called “sex crisis” is responsible for all societal ills, and that women are solely responsible for perpetuating it — an argument that is currently being circulated on many men’s rights-oriented sub-Reddits.
— Christopher Ingraham (@_cingraham) March 29, 2019
On various pages like r/BlackPillScience (a forum devoted to pseudoscientific explanations of human sexual behavior) and r/mensrights, many redditors feel justified by the study, attributing the results to women’s increasingly (and, in their view, unjustifiably) sexual standards, as well as the proposition that “increasingly women are concentrating their sexual favours on an ever-smaller pool of men.” (In incel culture, this is referred to as “the 80/20 rule,” which stems from an economic principle but, in this context, essentially means that 80% of women are focusing on 20% of the men in the dating pool.) “IMO, it’s the long coming consequence of female sexual liberation,” one redditor wrote. “Women hold the upper hand in sex.” Many blamed feminism for creating this perceived shift, predicting that “men will flee and marry abroad. Feminists will have there [sic] same sex relations and cats. Their ideology will die out and semi-normal gender relations can begin again,” a redditor on r/mensrights wrote, concluding “#westernwomenareaplague.” Some appeared to view the results of the study as an implicit endorsement of their views. “So many people agreeing with us. A tipping point is being reached,” one person wrote on the subreddit r/IncelsWithoutHate.
This is obviously a huge problem — not because these men’s apparent feelings of frustration and internal strife aren’t legitimate, but because the narrative being perpetuated on these forums (i.e., that women, and female empowerment in general, are responsible for “depriving” men of sex) has been proven to yield terrifying consequences. The incel community has been linked to a number of violent attacks against women, including the 2014 shooting spree at UC Santa Barbara by Elliott Rodger (who has gone on to become something of a martyr of the incel community) and the more recent Toronto van attacks by Alek Minassian, a self-professed incel who killed 10 people.
The narrative that women “owe” men sex — and that men who are deprived of this resource will go on to commit grotesque acts of violence — is propagated not just by violent misogynists online, but by seemingly rational, level-headed people. Part of the slippery allure of alt-right figurehead Jordan Peterson is that his basic message of personal responsibility is palatable and well-articulated, to the degree that it’s easy not to notice when he does things like endorse “enforced monogamy” to prevent sexually frustrated men from embarking on killing sprees. And as anyone who has ever had a conversation with a straight man frustrated by his lack of success with dating apps can attest, the conversation can very rapidly devolve from a general one about frustration with Tinder and Bumble to a more numbers-based, ostensibly logical evaluation echoing things like the 80/20 rule. There is a line between incel culture and general sexual frustration, but it is increasingly becoming a blurry one.