The Sexless Life When Sex Is God

The men of the incel movement are living a life devoid of meaning.

Terrible movements often intrude on our lives through the acts of terrible men. And so it was on April 23, when a man named Alek Minassian drove a van on Toronto city sidewalks, deliberately ramming pedestrians. He killed ten and injured 16 before he stopped his rampage. Minassian, it turns out, was part of the so-called “incel rebellion,” a vicious online community of men who are angry that women won’t have sex with them.

No, really, that exists. “Incel” stands for “involuntarily celibate.” And self-described “incels” have developed an entire theory for their lack of sexual prowess — a theory that essentially blames women for being attracted to strong or rich men. And it’s a theory that’s steeped in sexual entitlement, the belief that men somehow have a right to have sex. Most incels aren’t violent: As Zack Beauchamp wrote in an interesting Vox piece, many are “simply sad and lonely men, suffering from extreme social anxiety or deep depression.” Others, however, have translated their heartbreak into rage and violence. Alek Minassian is one such man. Another is Elliot Rodger, a California man who went on a killing spree in 2014.

Earlier this week New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote a characteristically thoughtful piece noting in part that this sense of frustration and despair is a natural consequence of the sexual revolution. This revolution, “like other forms of neoliberal deregulation,” created “new winners and losers, new hierarchies to replace the old ones, privileging the beautiful and rich and socially adept in new ways and relegating others to new forms of loneliness and frustration.”

This is exactly right, and as Ross relates, the problem is exacerbated by our society’s “essentially Hefnerian” view of sex. In other words, the sexual revolution didn’t just disrupt existing social norms and existing theological ideas; it sought to replace them with a worldview that elevated sexual experience to quasi-religious status. Sex isn’t just part of life, it is essential to fulfillment.

When it comes to incel, this is a new twist on an old story. Strip transcendence from the culture, replace the greater thing (genuine faith) with a lesser thing (sexual indulgence) that is not universally available, and the recipe for human misery is complete. When sex is the new god, what are the sexless to do?

Strip transcendence from the culture, replace genuine faith with something that is not universally available, and the recipe for human misery is complete.

Substitute sex for wealth or status, and you see that this temptation has ancient and enduring roots. And the secular response is often just as destructive as the initial mistake. Wealth isn’t universally available and some people excel when others fail, and the question comes: “How can we level these economic outcomes?” The same applies to status hierarchies even in the midst of greater economic equality. “How can we make everyone special?”

Ross is certainly correct that a conservative response dedicated to “reviving or adapting older ideas about the virtues of monogamy and chastity and permanence and the special respect owed to the celibate” is “not the natural response for a society like ours,” so I’d suggest a modification. Celebration of monogamy and chastity should be the result of the intended, much larger transformation. Put simply, one cannot locate his sense of transcendence in chastity or monogamy but rather in the obedience to and reverence for a living God.

The truth of Ecclesiastes 3:11 — that God set eternity in the hearts of men — has rarely been more obvious than in the present age. And the endless, futile quest to replace the eternal with the temporal is crushing the human spirit. And, there is of course a Christian analog to this secular pursuit — the legalism of fundamentalism of all stripes, a legalism that places devotion to virtue over devotion to God, that makes, say, monogamy or celibacy the purpose of life rather than the consequence of pursuing the larger purpose.

The men of the incel movement are pursuing a god they can’t have. They’re in fact pursuing a god that will disappoint them even if they obtain what they want the most. And so they do what sinful men have done throughout all of human history. They lash out at the objects of their desire. No woman should feel the least bit guilty for not desiring any man — no matter how many movies or television shows teach them that the nerd is the true prize, and the lonely man is the best catch. Instead it is the responsibility of the lonely man to find meaning apart from women. 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.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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