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Last week I wrote about some promising avenues through which “incels”, so-called “involuntary celibates” unable to find willing sexual partners, might enjoy some semblance of sex lives without infringing on the rights of others. Several postscripts appear below, but first I describe the findings of Lyman Stone’s examination of survey data on sexual frequency for the Institute for Family Studies blog in which he investigates reasons for the increase in male sexlessness.

The Data On Sex and Celibacy

Involuntary sexlessness is not a new phenomenon, but estimates of its frequency have grown over the past ten years. That’s been an operative assumption made by many writers since the van attack by an “incel” in Toronto in April. Stone examines data from several surveys, such as the General Social Survey (GSS), and focuses mainly on the unmarried 22 – 35 age group. He investigates both the dimensions of involuntary celibacy and aspects of the narrative offered by incels themselves.

  • Incels believe that women have become increasingly promiscuous: No, the GSS data reveal no real trend in female sexual frequency since the year 2000. The share of females reporting no sexual activity within the previous 12 months has not changed much either (~15% on average), about the same as males until more recent years.
  • Stone finds that the share of never-married males who have been sexless for at least a year has increased over the past 10 years.
  • Incels believe that a small share of males dominate sexual activity: No, while the distribution of sex is not equal, it is not nearly as skewed as incels claim: the most sexually active 20% of both men and women have 50-60% of the sex. Those shares have been fairly stable over time. Some of the most promiscuous actually pay for sex, which inflates the measured sex-concentration ratio. However, incels believe the top 20% have 80% of the sex, according to Stone‘s own reporting of on-line commentary. If so, incels exaggerate the success of those would-be sexual competitors.
  • The increase in sexlessness among unmarried men is mostly involuntary. This follows from a decline in the share of never-married, male virgins who abstain from sex for religious reasons and increases in the shares reporting “no suitable partner” and “other” reasons for celibacy.
  • Stone derives a “hard-core” incel population: “the share of never-married men ages 22-35 who have never had sex, and whose reason for never having had sex isn’t abstention for religious, timing, or health reasons.” This share has risen from 2.7% in 2002 to about 4.4% in 2015.
  • Most of the increase in the “hard core” incel share can be attributed to declining marriage rates and to an increase in involuntary virginity among the unmarried.
  • Two factors that covary positively with virginity are the level of education and living with one’s parents, but some of the covariation is due to voluntary celibacy.

Stone concludes that young male sexlessness is:

“… mostly about people spending more years in school and spending more years living at home. But that’s not actually a story about some change in sexual politics; instead, it’s a story about the modern knowledge economy, and to some extent exorbitant housing costs. As such, it’s no surprise that rising sexlessness is being observed in many countries. This, in turn, suggests that finding a solution to help young people pair up may not be as easy.”

Survey data are always suspect, of course, but measuring actual sexual frequency in large populations is difficult if not impossible without surveys. Also, the level of Stone’s analysis does not necessarily align well with particular environments and sub-cultures in which people interact. For example, some argue that the increasing ratio of females to males on college campuses has changed the sexual “terms of trade” between men and women, but Stone didn’t attempt to drill down that far. Finally, Stone doesn’t offer any solutions of his own. My own opinion is that policy should be guided by voluntary choice and adaptation, along with encouraging those who feel overwhelmingly lonely or rejected to get off social media and seek counseling.

Postscripts Re: Last Week’s Article

Sexlessness is not confined to the young-adult population, of course, and there are severely disabled people of all ages who lack a sex life along with others unable to form intimate relationships. In a post last week, I advocated legalized prostitution as a mechanism for effecting a “voluntary redistribution of sex”, allowing those who are unable to find willing partners to enjoy some semblance of a sex life.

Legalized prostitution would remove the business from the grips of organized crime and reduce sex trafficking (which is not the same as voluntary prostitution). It would also improve health and safety, reduce violence, and lead to more humane conditions in an industry that will never be quashed by ham-handed, counterproductive efforts at prohibition. This is a rather mainstream view among economists, most of whom understand the folly of intrusions on private, mutually-beneficial decisions. Here are some thought from an economist in the South Caucasus on the matter. To oppose legal prostitution on moralistic or religious grounds, as comforting and virtuous as it might feel, is to wear blinders to the tragic consequences of a black market in sex.

On a related note, legalization does not in any way imply government-sponsored or taxpayer-subsidized prostitution. That’s something I’d be most unlikely to contemplate. And in that connection, I don’t really care for the term “redistribution” to describe legalization, but following a few others, I used it. A redistribution usually implies a change in the allocation of a fixed quantity across various subgroups or individuals. Perhaps some incels believe in “redistributing” sex, which might suggest a coercive element and certainly not what I have in mind. My use of the qualifier “voluntary” was intended to make that distinction. Unlike forced redistribution, legal access to sexual services does not imply a zero- or negative-sum outcome. I also mentioned sex robots as a possible outlet and a voluntary choice for incels, understood to be unsubsidized by government.

I am sympathetic to the view put forward by Shiekha Dalmia’s in “Incels Are the Product of an Incomplete Sexual Revolution“. She says, “Neither feminists nor social conservatives have the right understanding”, asserting that the problem has to do with the difficulty incels have in navigating the jagged channels between today’s sexual expectations and more traditional gender relations. To that, one might add the negative baggage created by the “anti-patriarchal” sentiment promoted by feminists. That’s worth considering, and it suggests that everyone (including incels) might just be too uptight.

Finally, Kevin Williamson offers some “Advice for Incels: Join a Church“. That’s probably a fine idea for some incels, young and old, who might find a higher purpose from the decision, even if they can’t find a girlfriend there. However, it’s not as if there are no church-going incels to begin with. Furthermore, single women at church are no more likely than anyone to be drawn to men who lack an ability to interact with the opposite sex. And let’s face it: the girls at church are not exactly waiting for the next dashing paraplegic to roll through the doors. Sorry if that sounds cynical or demeaning. The reality is that many disabled individuals lack the relationship opportunities available to most men. The least society can do for them, regarding access to sex services, is to get out of the way.