The Story: A terrorist attack in Canada has exposed the violent misogyny of the incel movement—and the repugnant logic of the sexual revolution.
The Background: Last month, a 25-year-old man named Alek Minassian was charged with 10 counts of murder and 13 counts of attempted murder for intentionally driving a rental van into pedestrians in Toronto, Canada. Most of the victims were women, ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s.
Prior to the attack, Minassian wrote in a Facebook post, “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys!”
“Incel” is short for “involuntary celibate,” a label used by some men who blame women for their inability to engage in sexual activity. “Stacys” are the women who reject incels for “Chads,” the men who are sexually attractive to women. The “Incel rebellion” is the ideological movement to overthrow what self-described incels consider the oppressive feminism of society.
The group is mainly found online in such popular websites as Reddit and 4Chan. (One incel community on Reddit has about 40,000 subscribers.) While only a small number of incels promote such violence toward women, such as murder or mass rape, the group as a whole is characterized by a pervasive misogyny.
The movement has few mainstream defenders. But in response to news of the attack, economist Robin Hanson wondered why society is concerned about those who lack access to money but not about those who lack access to sex:
One might plausibly argue that those with much less access to sex suffer to a similar degree as those with low income, and might similarly hope to gain from organizing around this identity, to lobby for redistribution along this axis and to at least implicitly threaten violence if their demands are not met. As with income inequality, most folks concerned about sex inequality might explicitly reject violence as a method, at least for now, and yet still be encouraged privately when the possibility of violence helps move others to support their policies. (Sex could be directly redistributed, or cash might be redistributed in compensation.)
Strikingly, there seems to be little overlap between those who express concern about income and sex inequality. Among our cultural elites, the first concern is high status, and the later concern low status. For example, the article above seems not at all sympathetic to sex inequality concerns.
Hanson suggests one possible policy proposal is to legalize prostitution and redistribute money since “more cash can make people more attractive and better able to afford legalized prostitution.”
What It Means: Do men and women have a “right” to sexual activity? Many people claim we do—and that the right is fundamental.
Over the past decade, sexual-rights advocates have advanced the claim that, as the International Women’s Health Coalition says, “sexual rights are human rights.” They argue, “Without sexual rights, [women and girls] cannot realize their rights to self-determination and autonomy, nor can they control other aspects of their lives” and that “sexual rights underpin the enjoyment of all other human rights and are a prerequisite for equality and justice.”
To understand the claim that sex is a human right we need to distinguish between positive and negative rights. As the Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland explains:
A positive right is a right to have something given to the right-holder. If Smith has a positive right to X, say to health care, then the state has an obligation to give X to Smith. In general, positive rights and duties are correlative. That is, if someone has a positive right to something, then a duty is placed on others to provide that right to that person (or class of persons). Thus the state has the moral right to impose on citizens the duty to provide that right to the right-holder. A negative right to X is a right to be protected from harm while one seeks to get X on one’s own. If Smith has a negative right to X, say to health care, then the state has an obligation to protect Smith from discrimination and unfair treatment in his attempt to get X on his own. We learn much if we approach key biblical texts about the state armed with the distinction between positive and negative rights.
Moreland contends that the Bible treats “the state as a protector of negative rights and not a provider of positive rights.” While some Christians may disagree with Moreland’s assessment, we should all be able to acknowledge that the government’s decision to expand rights from negative to positive can have morally catastrophic consequences.
For most of human history, states almost exclusively recognized only negative rights. Humans have a range of basic biological needs—such as food and shelter—and it was rarely considered the nation’s obligation to meet those needs. In America and other rich nations, though, such needs are treated as positive rights—if you are unable to provide for those needs, the government will redistribute income of other citizens to cover the cost. As our society has grown wealthier, Americans have argued that other needs, such as health care, should also be considered the province of positive rights.
Whether this expansion is beneficial depends on what is considered a “right” and which rights are shifted from negative to positive. Consider, for example, the way the first new right ushered in during the sexual revolution—the “right to privacy”—has expanded over the past fifty years.
In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that married couples have a right—a negative right—to use contraceptives. In 1972, the Court used the logic of Griswold to extend the right of birth control to unmarried couples, and in 1977 expanded it once again to include juveniles at least 16 years of age. The Court also used the reasoning in Griswold to declare a right to abortion (in 1973), a right to sodomy (in 1983), and a right to same-sex marriage (in 2015).
Griswold was based on a negative right to privacy. But since then it has broadened to include new positive rights—such as the requirement of businesses to pay for abortifacients in their health-insurance plans and to use artistic talents to serve the “weddings” of same-sex couples.
Some sexual-rights advocates, such as bioethicist Jacob Appel, are now claiming a right even more expansive than the right to privacy: that “sexual pleasure is a fundamental right.” Based on this view, they argue for the inclusion of numerous new negative sexual rights, such as that women and girls have a right to sell their bodies for money.
Yet if sexual pleasure is fundamental, what happens to those who are unable to acquire it because of a lack of money or mate? We don’t deny people food or water because they can’t afford it, so why would deny them the “fundamental right” of sex?
The logic of sexual rights will compel, as Hanson noted, that sex may need to be redistributed using the power of the state. Hanson may be the “creepiest economist in America,” but he’s also able to follow the presuppositions of the sexual-rights advocates to their logical conclusion.
Francis Schaeffer called this intellectual exercise of pushing people toward the logical conclusions of their presuppositions “taking the roof off,” and warned that it often causes people psychological pain. We see that now, in the responses both to Hanson and also to the incel movement. They are getting a glimpse of where their logic leads, and it horrifies them. But as Ross Douthat says, “Sometimes the extremists and radicals and weirdos see the world more clearly than the respectable and moderate and sane.”
How should we, as Christians respond to both incels and sexual-rights advocates? While it’s tempting to mock their foolishness and simply shame them for their misogyny (whether explicit, as with the incels, or implicit, as with the sexual-rights advocates), we should offer them an alternative to their false god of sex.
We should be especially graceful in showing the incels where true hope and freedom can be found. “[I]t is the responsibility of the lonely man to find meaning apart from women,” David French says. “And that meaning happens to be found in a resurrected Christ who—unlike any other false god—can be found by any person who seeks his face.”