[Content warning: misogyny, slurs, sexual coercion]
A definitional issue: I am using the word “incel” here, despite its association with terrible misogynists, because I feel like it is the simplest word to gesture at the group I mean. However, I am not using it to refer solely to terrible misogynists, but instead to any person who has gone an extended period of time without having a romantic partner when they would like to.
I am not using the extreme definitions of “incel” that require people to not have any preferences. While I don’t consider, say, a sixty-year-old man who won’t sleep with women over the age of twenty-three to be incel, I think that most people do have reasonable preferences about values and lifestyle compatibility in their partners, including incel people, and the inability to meet these preferences leads to great loneliness.
Interestingly, sexless people are about as happy as people who have sex. I can think of several reasons why this might be the case: many sexless people are asexual, low libido, or voluntarily celibate; many people who have sex are in coercive or unpleasant sexual relationships, or have to worry about unplanned pregnancy or STIs; many sexless people have close friends and a lot of emotional support, which ameliorates the pain of sexlessness; many people who have sex are still lonely. Nevertheless, I think the problem of inceldom is a genuine issue for those who want romance and can’t have it.
When one discusses incels, one inevitably comes to The Asshole Question: namely, “how come these assholes can get a girlfriend, and we incels can’t?”
The Asshole Question in its strong form– arguing that assholes can all get laid, and that incels are generally nice– is clearly untrue. Some involuntarily celibate people are, frankly, terrible. If one looks at the Incels subreddit, for instance, it is astonishingly full of comments like the following:
When you post close ups of your gaping assholes often with various objects stuck in them, and we jerk off to it and some retards even leave comments, we don’t think to ourselves “wow, what an amazing gorgeous girl.” We think that you’re a disgusting whore and we get off on that. We get kicks out of how pathetic you are while boosting your ego so that you don’t stop.
Women can smell Chad genes from a mile away, if Chad locked himself in a bomb shelter, women would break down the door with muli million dollar equipment to extract his semen.
But then again, what is a woman? A rather weak creature that is beneath the man. Equipped with less intellectual gifts, not as beatiful or well formed as the human male, repulsive actually. A creature that is 3/4 of its life sick and isnt even possible to satisfy her man at all times. Because nature doesn’t allow it. It’s common knowledge that females are lesser beings.
These aren’t cherrypicked, by the way, I just looked at three of the four top posts when I was writing this section of the blog post. (The fourth was a man who was sad that even an incel woman wouldn’t sleep with him, and did not contain any douchebaggery.)
Now, one might argue that years of loneliness twist people and make them bitter, and that’s not false. But I also know lots of incel and formerly incel men, many of whom have been lonely for years if not decades, and none of them have wound up opining that women are lesser beings and that they get off on how pathetic porn stars are. I would suggest that if your response to emotional pain is “maybe half of humanity is subhuman”, this probably says more about your character than about your circumstances. Loneliness alone is not enough to make someone a misogynist. Frankly, I think it’s offensive to all the perfectly lovely incels in the world to say so.
The weakest form of the Asshole Question– “why do there exist at least some nice people who can’t find romantic partners when there also exist at least some assholes who can?”– is also easy to answer. Some people are extraordinarily bad at selecting partners, and preferentially select people who treat them like shit. Other people are deceived and wind up accidentally dating assholes. Still other people are willing to put up with a douchebag who has money, good looks, or high status.
But there’s an intermediate question, which is the one I think people are usually asking. They say something like “even given that some nice people find romantic partners and some assholes don’t, I think that assholes in general are more likely to find romantic partners. Why is that?”
The first thing to address in that question is whether it’s true.
Scott Alexander writes:
I will have to use virginity statistics as a proxy for the harder-to-measure romancelessness statistics, but these are bad enough. In high school each extra IQ point above average increases chances of male virginity by about 3%. 35% of MIT grad students have never had sex, compared to only 20% of average nineteen year old men. Compared with virgins, men with more sexual experience are likely to drink more alcohol, attend church less, and have a criminal history. A Dr. Beaver (nominative determinism again!) was able to predict number of sexual partners pretty well using a scale with such delightful items as “have you been in a gang”, “have you used a weapon in a fight”, et cetera. An analysis of the psychometric Big Five consistently find that high levels of disagreeableness predict high sexual success in both men and women.
If you’re smart, don’t drink much, stay out of fights, display a friendly personality, and have no criminal history – then you are the population most at risk of being miserable and alone. “At risk” doesn’t mean “for sure”, any more than every single smoker gets lung cancer and every single nonsmoker lives to a ripe old age – but your odds get worse. In other words, everything that “nice guys” complain of is pretty darned accurate. But that shouldn’t be too hard to guess…
I am going to be a little bit unfair to Scott here. He admits he’s using virginity statistics as a proxy for the harder-to-measure romanceless statistics, and I don’t exactly have any good way of measuring inceldom either.
Now that I’ve admitted I’m being unfair… I would like to point out that “having a high IQ” and “being an MIT graduate student” have no relationship with whether you’re an asshole at all. There is no significant correlation between IQ and agreeableness; there is also no significant correlation between IQ and dark triad personality traits. (I was unfortunately unable to find statistics about the disagreeableness or dark triad-ness of MIT graduate students.) It may perfectly well be that intelligence is sexually unattractive to most people and also people are attracted to nice people. In addition, high-IQ people and MIT grad students may have priorities other than having sex: if you spend all your time solving math problems instead of going to parties, of course you’re more likely to be a virgin.
So let’s look at Big Five and the works of Dr. Beaver. There is a small problem and a big problem with Scott’s statistics. The small problem is that there’s a bunch of sex you’re vastly more likely to have if you’re a terrible person: rape; cheating on your partner; helping someone else cheat on their partner; getting someone drunk or high to have sex with them that they wouldn’t have sober; convincing someone that you love them when you don’t for the purpose of getting laid; “convincing” someone who said “no” at the beginning of the night; and so on. Since presumably terrible people aren’t Captain Planet villains who turn down all the ethical sex because they want to increase the amount of sex-related suffering in the world, we can expect terrible people to have more sexual partners than non-terrible people, all things equal. But I don’t think that’s that large an effect.
The big problem is that sluts are evil.
That is, in general, people who desire lots of sexual partners tend to be disagreeable, lower on honesty-humility, impulsive, risk-taking, avoidant attachment style, narcissistic, Machiavellian, and psychopathic.
To be clear, only three of the nine questions on the Sociosexual Orientation Inventory are about sexual behavior. The other six are about desire. You can score very highly on the SOI while being a virgin. While I don’t know of any studies that exclude the three behavioral questions, I believe the evidence suggests that people who want lots of sexual partners tend to be jerks.
Imagine a very attractive guy who has no interest in sex outside of committed long-term relationships. He loses his virginity to his high school girlfriend, dates a girl for a while in college but breaks up with her a year after graduation, dates around for a bit but doesn’t sleep with anyone he’s dating, meets his wife at 26, dates her for two years, is engaged to her for one year, and marries her at the median age of 29. Afterward, he is monogamous and does not divorce; his wife outlives him. He has had three lifetime sexual partners, well below the average for men. But that’s about his interest level, not his attractiveness. He could have had casual sex if he wanted, but since he didn’t want casual sex, his sexual partner count is lower.
I feel like a big problem is that people tend to combine “casual sex” and “dating” into a single category, when in reality they’re quite separate issues. Men, as a group, are more interested than women, as a group, in casual sex– possibly because casual sex is less enjoyable for women, possibly because women are more likely to fear social stigma and violence, possibly because women are at higher risk of STIs and pregnancy, and possibly because women typically find sex with strangers a less appetizing prospect. Since most men are heterosexual, it is significantly easier for women to obtain casual sex than it is for men to obtain casual sex.
However, women being able to easily obtain casual sex is mostly a product of them not wanting casual sex. It’s not really an advantage to be able to easily get something you don’t want anyway. “Yay! It is super-easy for you to risk serious health problems, stigma, and violence in order to have a physically and emotionally unpleasant experience! Lucky!” While the situation is great for women who like casual sex (boy, is it ever), it’s not that much of an advantage for women as a group.
And, frankly, casual sex isn’t what most incels want either. If they did, they’d just hire a sex worker. Admittedly, hiring a sex worker is not particularly validating of one’s attractiveness, but neither is fucking the guy who messaged everyone in a fifty-mile radius on OKCupid, and the sex worker is no doubt a good deal more attractive. But hiring a sex worker won’t give incels what they want, because what they usually want– quite reasonably!– is love, affection, romance, and someone to share their lives with.
And love, affection, and romance are far more gender-balanced markets.
I will use marriage as a proxy for long-term relationships, as it is easier to find statistics, and marriage is the end goal of long-term relationships for most people anyway. There are approximately as many men as there are women. There seem to be more exclusively gay men than exclusively gay women in the US; depending on definition, men may also be more likely to be asexual. Marriage is generally monogamous, which means that for every married man there is exactly one married woman. Consensual non-monogamy is relatively rare and MMF triads are not notably less common than FFM triads– certainly not enough to have a notable effect on the dating market. Non-consensual non-monogamy is more common, but it’s unclear to me how often a cheating person monopolizes two people’s affections (as opposed to two married people cheating on their spouses with each other, casual sex, etc.) While men are more likely to cheat than women, this may not lead to an imbalance if (a) women are lying, (b) men are more likely to have casual sex or hire a sex worker, or (c) the men are all cheating on their spouses with the same small pool of women. For the sake of analysis, I’m going to act like this isn’t an issue, but if you have less uncertain opinions than mine about cheating you may come to different conclusions.
So the next issue is how much people desire to get married; maybe men as a group want to get married and women as a group can take or leave it, just like men as a group want casual sex and women as a group can take or leave it. Among never-married young adults, men and women are equally likely to say that they would like to get married; women age 18-34 are more likely than men in the same age group to say that having a successful marriage is one of the most important things in their life. Anecdotally, one notes that the vast majority of How To Get A Partner magazines and self-help books are aimed at women. Therefore, I think that– if anything– men as a group are the ones dragging their feet about long-term relationships.
However, my analysis is a society-wide analysis. It is very possible that there are subcultural imbalances.
Consider the book Promises I Can Keep (summary here). Poor women in working-class neighborhoods tend not to get married. This is because there is a tremendous shortage of men who meet very reasonable, basic requirements like “is not a felon” and “has a job” and “does not beat me” and “is not an alcoholic.” Because these women value having children a lot and they don’t have any good options for husbands, they tend to become single moms; they see no realistic prospect for their children to have a committed, loving father.
A lot of the incels I know don’t commit crimes or drink, don’t beat up their partners, and not only have jobs but also make an above-average income. So why aren’t they marrying the women of Promises I Can Keep? Well, first of all, they’re unlikely to meet those women: both the women of Promises I Can Keep and my friends typically spend time around people of their own class background. They probably don’t even use the same dating sites.
Even if they do meet, they might not be particularly interested in each other. My friends probably don’t want to help raise two or three children that are not genetically related to them, and they certainly don’t want to raise children with someone who thinks not spanking is neglectful. They probably don’t want to devote a significant fraction of their income to helping their wife’s poor relatives fix their cars and pay the rent. They don’t want a partner who thinks that homeopathy is an appropriate treatment and that her new husband is due to God rewarding her for donating to her church. They would like a partner who reads books and blogs and who is able to participate in a discussion about trolley problems or Magic: the Gathering. I don’t know the culture of the women of Promises I Can Keep well enough to know what their dealbreakers about my friends are (see: spending time around people of your own class background), but I’m pretty sure they also have them.
To be clear, these are all totally reasonable preferences to have! In fact, it is good to have these preferences! You should marry someone whom you can talk to and who shares your interests and values and worldview; you shouldn’t raise children with someone unless you agree on parenting philosophy, at least in broad strokes; if you’d feel super-resentful about some aspect of your relationship, don’t get in the relationship. (Of course, it’s also great if you do want to help raise your partner’s children and help their impoverished relatives.) But it does mean that my friends and the women of Promises I Can Keep are unlikely to have happy relationships with each other.
For every man who can’t find a partner, there is approximately one woman who also can’t find a partner. (This is pretty obvious in the Promises I Can Keep case, which is balanced by a large number of incel or situationally homosexual men from those neighborhoods, who are in prison.) However, it is very unlikely that you will be able to have a happy relationship with her, or otherwise you already would. Sorry.
The other important aspect of the incel problem is shyness. In my anecdotal experience, it is hard to overestimate the importance of shyness in keeping incel people of the sort who are likely to read this blog post incel.
Lots of incel people don’t have many friends to begin with, so they don’t get a lot of opportunities to meet people they might want to date in the first place. The odds are very much not in their favor. Even if they do have friends, lots of incels are shy specifically about flirting: they’re afraid of being seen as creepy or making people feel uncomfortable; they don’t know what to do, and it’s frightening. It is extremely common in my experience for incels to be so scared of flirting that they accidentally give off I-am-not-enjoying-this-please-stop body language, which means that even getting hit on isn’t necessarily a solution; interested people are likely to notice that they’re uncomfortable and disengage.
Incels are often advised that confidence is attractive. I’m not sure if this is true in the general case, but for incels I think that becoming more confident will, in fact, increase their chances of getting laid. This isn’t because people find confidence attractive (although many people do), but instead because incels are constantly self-sabotaging because of their own insecurity. Of course, being confident in your own attractiveness as an incel is sort of like trying to fly by tugging firmly on your shoelaces.
This is another reason why you can have both women and men who can’t find a romantic partner. If they never meet each other because they’re both holed up in their rooms reading the Kingkiller Chronicles, if they never hit on each other because they’re afraid of coming off as creepy, or if one of them works up the nerve to flirt with the other only to flee because they assume the other’s terrified body language is a rejection, you can have two people who would have a quite happy relationship both be lonely.
The worst part of the incel problem is how hard redistribution is.
Like, it’s super-easy to redistribute money. You take it from rich people and give it from poor people. There are, of course, implementation problems, but the principle is simple.
But you can’t really redistribute love.
If it were possible, I would happily take the Caring What We Can Pledge to give ten percent of the love and care I experience to those in need. But I can’t. My husband and my friends love me; there is no way to make their love for me become love of someone else. And I’ve learned that providing emotional support to someone out of obligation, when I don’t like them as a person, leads to burnout which leaves them worse off than they were when they started. Besides, most people want to be loved for themselves and not treated as an object of pity.
It still saddens me.