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“Incels” have received plenty of bad publicity since the horrifying van attack in Toronto two weeks ago. It was preceded in 2014 by a killing rampage in California perpetrated by an individual with a similar profile. In case you haven’t heard, an incel is an involuntary celibate, either male or female, though male incels have garnered nearly all of the recent attention. Whatever their other characteristics, incels share a loneliness and an unmet desire for intimacy with other human beings.

Lux Alptraum shares her views about the differences between male and female incels. She blames “angry, straight men” and “toxic masculinity” for both the violence that’s recently come to be associated with incels and the relative inattention paid to the plight of female incels. I value her perspective on the issue of female incels. There are obviously extreme misogynists among males in the incel “community”. Some are so enraged by their plight that they engage in on-line bullying, and a plainly deranged segment of incels, including the perpetrators of the crimes mentioned above, have advocated violent retribution against those they deem responsible for their low sexual status. That means just about anyone who can find a partner.

Alptraum paints male incels with a very broad brush, however. Similarly, various leftist writers have categorized incels as predominantly “right wing” and even racist, but involuntary celibacy and misogyny do not lie conveniently along a two-dimensional political spectrum. Incels are present in many groups, crossing racial, religious, and political lines. There are incels among the transgendered and undoubtedly in the gay community. Gay individuals can exist in relative isolation in towns across America. Physical disabilities may condemn individuals to involuntary celibacy. And not all incels are “ugly”; instead, they may suffer from severe social awkwardness. But there are bound to be incels who live quiet lives, unhappy, but adjusted to their circumstances, more or less.

The recent focus on incels has prompted some interesting questions. Ross Douthat’s opinion piece in The New York Times asks whether anyone has a “right to sex”, as some incels have asserted. Robin Hanson discusses the idea of a “redistribution of sex“, noting in a follow-up post that governments throughout history have influenced the distribution of sex through policies enforcing monogamy, for example, or banning prostitution. Voluntary agreements to exchange sex for remuneration are one way to alter the distribution. In fact, to demonstrate the lengths to which a government could go to redistribute sex and intervene against “sex inequality”, Hanson mentions policies of cash redistribution, funded by taxpayers, to compensate incels for the services of prostitutes. There are examples of such benefits for the disabled. Here is Alex Tabarrok on that subject:

In the UK charities exist to help match sex workers with the disabled. Similar services are available in Denmark and in the Netherlands and in those countries (limited) taxpayer funds can be used to pay for sexual disability services.”

Subsidies and charity aside, it’s easy to understand why prohibition of sexual services for hire would be seen as an injustice by those unable to find partners willing to grant sexual benefits. From a libertarian perspective, trade in sex should be regarded as a natural right, like the freedom to engage in any other mutually beneficial transaction, so long as it does no harm to third parties. One’s body is one’s own property, and it should not be for government — or others — to decide how it will be used.

Laws against prostitution do great harm to society and to the individuals involved in the sex business. Forget about ending prostitution. That will never happen. According to  Abigail Hall, there are about 1 million prostitutes working in the U.S. They almost all work underground, with the exception of those operating in legal brothels in Nevada. Prohibition keeps the price up, but the workers capture a low share of those returns. Their bosses are harsh masters relative to those in legal businesses. These workers cannot report crimes against them, so they are often subject to the worst kinds of abuse. Illegality usually means they don’t have access to good health care, which places customers at greater risk. Legalizing (or decriminalizing) prostitution would reduce or eliminate these problems. From Hall:

By legalizing the sex trade, we would allow those involved in the sex trade to come out from the shadows, use legitimate business practices and legal channels, and decrease the likelihood that women will be trafficked by violent groups of criminals. … As prostitution becomes a legitimate profession, it allows for prostitutes to be more open with their doctors about their sexual history and seek treatment for STIs and other problems.”

Many object that prostitution exploits women, legal or not, and that it exploits low-income women disproportionately. But there will be voluntary sellers as long as there is a market, again, legal or not. And there will be a market. As for a disparate impact on the poor, Hall says:

“The fact that those who select prostitution as a profession may be poor is inconsequential…. It may be true that some women who work as prostitutes would strongly prefer another profession. Even if this is the case, women who voluntarily choose prostitution as a means of income should be allowed to practice their profession in the safest environment possible.”

The ongoing development of “sex robots” offers an avenue through which incels might enjoy activity that approximates sex with a human being. These robots are becoming increasingly realistic, and their costs are likely to decline dramatically in coming years. For incels with a congenital inability to interact with other human beings, this option might be far preferable to hiring the services of a prostitute. And the introduction of both male and female sex robots into senior care facilities might reduce the likelihood that sexually aggressive residents will abuse others. It happens.

Free markets are amazing in their ability to maximize the well being of both consumers and producers of a good or service. Trades are mutually beneficial and therefore are voluntary, and price signals redirect resources to their most valued uses. The prohibition on prostitution, however, has made it a very dangerous business for practitioners and customers alike. Prohibition has led to dominance by organized crime interests and local strong-men and -women. It has also thickened the intersection of prostitution with other prohibited activities, such as the drug trade. This creates a toxic criminal environment within which women are trapped and abused. Legalizing prostitution would liberate these individuals and create safer conditions for them and their customers. Private solutions would still be available to those who wish to keep prostitution out of their buildings or neighborhoods. And legalization is one way that sex could be made safely and voluntarily accessible to incels. Perhaps, one day soon, the availability of sex robots will help incels satisfy their desires as well. Some incels will still harbor strong resentment toward those for whom sex is not out of reach. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to ask whether such a “voluntary redistribution of sex” would not produce unambiguous social benefits. To deny these benefits to groups like the disabled, or really to anyone with a physical or emotional inability to find a willing partner, and to insist that sex workers be exposed to danger and abuse, is not just priggish, but cruel.