Meet Robin Hanson, Opponent of ‘Sex Inequality’

The massacre last week in Toronto has spurred a public conversation about so-called “incels,” a subculture of self-described “involuntarily celibate” men. To say that misogyny is fairly endemic in this community is something of an understatement. In the case of Alek Minassian, it appears to have led to mass murder.

Over the weekend, as I read various pieces of commentary, I got pulled more deeply than I wanted to go into the intricacies of the subculture. A central concept is “sexual market value” — yes, I know — which is a metric by which incels express anger at women who they believe are as sexually unappealing as they are and yet nonetheless refuse to have sex with them. One proposed policy is to have the government assign each person a sexual market value (so no one can deny their actual value). People can only have sex with people of their own value. And for women, the more partners they have, the further their market value number falls. (A sort of big data of slut-shaming.) So basically, the more sexually active a woman becomes the greater obligation she incurs to have sex with the least sexually appealing men. The only way to up her “score” is through exercise. Basically in the incel social taxonomy a sexually active woman gets caught in this Black Mirror-type dystopia of alternating bouts of servicing sexually enraged losers and logging nonstop hours at the gym but never getting ahead of the curve. (It really is blue-sky policy formation in the form of nearly murderous sexualized rage.)

Needless to say, these are some pretty enraged and f’d up dudes, probably all the more so as they marinate in the rage of kindred spirits on forums like 4chan and Reddit. But the whole story took a bit of a different turn when I noticed that a tenured economist at George Mason University was basically endorsing at least the premises of this argument. I was reminded of this this afternoon when I saw this entirely separate article about how the Koch Brothers were apparently allowed to give hiring and evaluation input in the George Mason econ department in exchange for their donations to the University.

Are these two facts connected? I’d be curious to find out.

In any case, let’s get down to details. The Professor is Robin Hanson. He wrote a post on his personal blog a few days ago on the “incel” discussion and what he refers to as “sex inequality.” Hanson seems to be a fairly standard libertarian economics professor with very rightist politics. He makes clear at the start that he does not believe in any kind of government income distribution (progressive income taxes) or social insurance like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. He then marvels that those who are most concerned about income or wealth inequality are entirely unconcerned about “sex inequality.” “Those w/ less access to sex plausibly suffer simiarly to those with low income, & might similarly hope to organize to lobby for redistribution along this axis. Strikingly, I see little overlap between those concerned about income & sex inequality.”

In other words, there’s some serious hypocrisy going on.

Now, if you don’t know you’re deep into the psycho-sexual fever swamp you might think that by “sex inequality” Hanson means what most now refer to a “gender inequality,” gaps in status, wealth and power on the part of women vis a vis men. But that’s not it. Hanson is talking about the fact that some people have more access to sex with people they find attractive than others. Hanson then sets out to explore policies that might ameliorate this “sex inequality” because to him there’s nothing fundamentally different between differences in wealth and different levels of access to sex with people you find hot. The idea that inequality of access to inanimate objects might be fundamentally different than access to other people’s bodies is one he is either unable to or perhaps unwilling to grasp.

So what are the policy solutions? He is at pains to make clear that “Rape and slavery are far from the only [policy options]!” Thanks! But the gist of his suggestions are actually quite similar to, if more antiseptic and sophisticated, the proposals one finds on the nutso incel message boards.

One is making major cash transfers to men who aren’t getting enough sex on the theory that the wealthier a man is the more attractive he becomes and thus more likely to get sex. More telling are policies for “promoting monogamy” and “discouraging promiscuity.” The idea here is that if people have fewer sexual partners and are locked down into monogamous relationships, the population of unsexed women will go up and thus create what amounts to a captive audience for sexual overtures from members of the incel community. This really is a dumpster fire of law-and-economics nonsense in a high-speed collision with the human condition. What I marvel at is that this isn’t some crank with an anonymous account on Twitter. It’s a tenured professor of economics.

Is he trolling us? I think to some degree he is — making ridiculous and morally horrifying arguments to provoke people. But I don’t think that’s the entirety of it. It’s a disquieting example of how what we might call hyper-misogyny has crept into academic discourse via sexually frustrated and clearly angry men who believe men are not only entitled to sex but entitled to sex with women they find attractive. It’s not lost on me by any means that the idea that women owe men sex is not at all new. But this is a new frontier in embedding these ideas into formal public policy proposals, particularly ones that ape the language of rights and equality in much the same way modern racists groups do.