Image of a 3-D printed mockup of a future sex robot by Cesar Vonc

NYT asks, Feministing answers: Will sex robots save us from incels?

Last week, the New York Times raised my blood pressure with Ross Douthat’s op-ed titled “The Redistribution of Sex.” In it, Douthat ponders government-sponsored “sex redistribution” in order to prevent future mass murders like the one committed a few weeks ago in Toronto by Alek Minassian, a self-proclaimed “incel” (aka involuntary celibate) who murdered 10 people and wounded 14 others.

Motivated by a deeply misogynistic worldview, incels attack women because they believe they have been denied access to sex that they are “owed” as white, straight, cisgender men. Feminists have warned about the dangers of incel groups for years: they harass and doxx feminist journalists, advocate for rape, and are part of online fascist movements. And this isn’t the first time they’ve committed mass murder.

That’s right, folks! The New York Times paid Douthat to quote a conservative economist who compares the “suffering” of misogynistic white male incels to issues of income inequality that should be addressed through government-redistribution. While Douthat personally supports a return to traditional Christian sexual mores as a solution to the “the problem of sexlessness” produced by sexual liberation, he predicts that a combination of “sex workers and sex robots” will be employed in the near future to stop incels from going on murder sprees.  

Douthat has been rightfully taken to task on many counts — particularly for seriously entertaining incels’ belief that they have a right to sex and for lumping together sex workers and sex robots as though sex workers are nothing more than expendable objects who exist to save abusive men from themselves, or to save non-sex-working women from abusive men.

Unfortunately, Douthat is not alone in his belief that the “problem of sexlessness” is real and worthy of our serious consideration in the wake of, again, mass murder.

The Spectator asked,Surely, robot girlfriends are to sex inequality what universal basic income is to income inequality?” Even Dan Savage suggested that while male entitlement is to blame for attacks like Minassian’s, our society has a responsibility to accommodate the needs of men who are, in his view, “profoundly socially disabled to access the sex they can have – paid sex” as a means to “help prevent incels before they happen.” 

These arguments take at face value the arguments made by incels themselves: that “the misery of sexual deprivation” is such a terrible fate that a reasonable, albeit extreme, response is murder. But reacting to “sexual deprivation” with murderous and misogynistic rage is a response unique to white, straight, cisgender men.

In her piece “Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?” Amia Srinivasan notes that:

It is striking, though unsurprising, that while men tend to respond to sexual marginalisation with a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, women who experience sexual marginalisation typically respond with talk not of entitlement but empowerment. Or, insofar as they do speak of entitlement, it is entitlement to respect, not to other people’s bodies.  

As Srinivasan says, only certain people have constructed a narrative that blames an entire group of people (women) for their own sex lives or lack thereof. Marginalized people who society frequently ridicules and presumes incapable of desiring or of being desired — fat people, disabled people, people of color, trans and queer people — have not created online communities to plot violent revenge against women. It is only white, straight, cisgender men — who are repeatedly told by our culture that theirs are the only desires that matter, that they are entitled to power over other people’s bodies — who react in this way.

The problem here isn’t sexlessness, but superiority. Celibacy is not a tragic state that drives people to mass murder. Incels’ desire for “sex redistribution” is not really about a desire to experience physiological gratification, but about a desire for power. In the incel mentality, sex is a means for men to “feel like men” by asserting their control over women’s bodies. And control of women’s bodies and reproductive capacities is a tenet of fascism, not a valid viewpoint to entertain.

Sex and power are linked for all of us, and there are trickier (and far more interesting) conversations to be had about that, such as exploring the way technology reflects sexist gender norms, how systems of oppression shape our conceptions of desirability, the interplay between identity and desire for marginalized people, the way AI will challenge our ethics of consent, and even the place of sex in a feminist worldview.

These are questions without easy answers. But one I can answer is whether we should be further humoring misogynistic men’s sense of entitlement to women’s bodies. And the answer is a resounding no.

Image credit via The Daily Dot

Jess is a first-gen college graduate, cat parent, and LGBTQ person living in Boston, MA. At Feministing, Jess writes about the intersection of state and interpersonal violence, LGBTQ communities and radical activism. They can usually be found on public transportation or the internet.

Jess is a first-gen college graduate, cat parent, and LGBTQ person living in Boston, MA. They can usually be found on public transportation or the internet.

Read more about Jess

Join the Conversation