Almost three months ago, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat came out with “The Redistribution of Sex,” in which he, oddly one of the few social conservatives writing for a generally liberal source, considered some recently published offbeat ideas, catalyzed, also strangely, by the Toronto terrorist group calling themselves “incels” or “involuntary celibates.” Douthat suggested that radical thoughts, as put forward by “brilliant weirdo” and George Mason economics professor Robin Hanson and Oxford philosophy professor Amia Srinivasan, could point us to improvements on what has been a largely undiscussed failing of the 1960s sexual revolution – that its bounty has been distributed excessively unequally.
Douthat’s column, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/02/opinion/incels-sex-robots-redistribution.html, had a lot to say. Starting with “one lesson to be drawn from recent Western history might be this: Sometimes the extremists and radicals and weirdos see the world more clearly than the respectable and moderate and sane” (italics his), he applied that metathought to this issue, showing that it was wrong to think that “the desire for some sort of sexual redistribution is inherently ridiculous.” As happens with unusual opinions – for example, some years ago I looked at the Nazi and Communist Party websites and found that both groups were against the Iraq war – this one was shared by rather different thinkers, in this case libertarian Hanson and apparent radical feminist Srinivasan. As he put it, “intellectual eccentrics – like socialists and populists in politics – can surface issues and problems that lurk beneath the surface of more mainstream debates.” That is exactly what we have here.
Douthat’s commentary, which did not advocate such redistribution itself but only discussing and considering it, stemmed from his Roman Catholic views and his conviction that such a thing would someday come to pass, as provided by “sex workers and sex robots.” He called “the idea… entirely responsive to the logic of late-modern sexual life,” and pointed out that “the sexual revolution created new winners and losers” by “privileging the beautiful and rich and socially adept in new ways and relegating others to new forms of loneliness and frustration.” He tied in, though briefly, related issues such as “the sexes… struggling generally to relate with one another… and not only marriage and family but also sexual activity itself in recent decline.” He in effect proposed, as an alternative to “the culture’s dominant message about sex” which he described as “still essentially Hefnerian,” the possibility of “reviving or adapting older ideas about the virtues of monogamy and chastity and permanence and the special respect owed to the celibate.” He foresaw the problem eventually addressed by, as well as workers and robots, “some combination of changed laws, new technologies and evolved mores to fulfill it.”
As expected, Internet reaction was extensive, sharp, and severe, generally showing more than disagreement but hostility. Often, it is hard for conservatives and liberals to even contemplate something that does not fit their worldview, especially something as controversial as deep societal changes. The responses revealed a long-standing situation preventing serious discussions in many areas, the failure of otherwise intelligent people to understand that others’ backgrounds, views, and life experiences are completely different. (I have long considered well-educated East Coast female liberals, with their snobbishness or outright naivete about the likes of Oklahoma waitresses, the worst offenders, but conservatives, who often do not realize that patriotism can take many forms, are hardly exempt.)
And yes, the problem is real. Neither millions of drugstores stocked with birth-control pills nor the massively increased amount of sex help those unhappily without sexual relationships, those ranging from what Douthat described as Srinivasan’s “overweight and disabled, minority groups treated as unattractive by the majority” and “trans women unable to find partners” to the oceans of men under 25 and women over 50 who, from some combination of appearance, rejection tolerance, fear, logistical barriers, and inability to implement, are romantically alone. If, as common knowledge holds, males’ sex drives peak when they are younger and females when they are older, too many of us are doing the equivalent of spending our peak baseball playing years in the minors.
How can we sort out this issue and put it in its proper place? Expect that in two weeks.