W.H. Auden once said that Eros was the builder of cities. If true, that would explain why American infrastructure is collapsing from decay. Earlier this year, Alek Minassian, a 25-year-old Canadian, murdered ten people by running over them in a van. He claimed as his cause (terrorists, like celebrities, need a pet cause for their brand) his own romantic and sexual unemployment. He identified as an “incel,” and the rebellion of them, he claimed in a Facebook post, had just begun with these murders. It’s funny that the slang term “incel,” meaning “involuntary celibate,” autocorrects to “uncle,” since many of these guys—today young, angry, and sexless—will someday soon be merely hapless, eccentric, middle-aged uncles.
That the killer used his new infamy to give a shout-out to a message board or online community, repeating memes and catchphrases, is a testament to the internet’s mixed legacy of enabling nerds to coordinate with one another. Thirty years ago Alek would have been forced to know people unlike himself, and that, at best, would’ve led him to socializing, courtship, and (someday) marriage, or, second best, not allowed him to wallow in the type of self-pity that justifies running over strangers with your car. Thanks to online communities, the German phrase “Two idiots, one idea” can now be “Ten thousand idiots, one idea.” It’s not good when that one idea is murderous resentment.
Following that attack, a woman named Jia Tolentino wrote an essay in The New Yorker making sense of the minds behind the incel “movement.” The stated theme was “Incels aren’t looking for sex. They’re looking for absolute male supremacy.” Keep in mind: If a male writer tried to make sense of a female “movement” in 2018 by summing up what it was “really about,” it would be dismissed by feminists as mansplaining. So, in that spirit of identity politics, because Jia is a woman I’m afraid we’ll be dismissing her entire essay about the incels as femsplaining. Live by identity politics…
What is there to be said about the incels? First of all, if you needed to understand the drug culture to comprehend the ’60s, you need to understand porn and digitally induced stupefaction to know millennials—and maybe any society with an internet connection. As Susan Sontag wrote about the hippies and drugs:
This is what the beat generation is about—from Kerouac to the Living Theatre: all the “attitudes” are easy—they’re not gestures of revolt—but natural products of the drugged state-of-mind. But anyone who is with them (or reads them) who isn’t stoned naturally interprets them as people with the same mind you have—only insisting on different things. You don’t realize they’re somewhere else.”
Likewise, many of the attitudes and hobbies of millennials—that seem inscrutable to what the hippies called “the straight world”—have to do with a porned-out mind. The average millennial has the kind of look that used to be described as “otherworldly.” By their late 20s/early 30s, many look just plain burned-out, like a fruit that passed over ripe and went straight to rotten. The millennials who have blown out their libido or manhood on porn are the equivalent of the hippies who went deaf from blasting their music or who went blind from staring at the sun (although the latter were probably apocryphal). As millennials turn middle-aged they’re bound to get their own “burnout” archetype, the same way the hippies eventually got Christopher Lloyd’s burnout Jim Ignatowski on the sitcom Taxi.
An article in the Mirror says that half of all men in their 30s suffer from erectile dysfunction. There are entire Reddit “communities” dedicated to getting men off of porn and masturbation. Porn addicts find (so they tell us) that abstaining from pornography and masturbation gives them back basic intellectual and social skills—or, as they call them, superpowers.
If millions and millions of young men are going around without (per the Reddit list) confidence, energy, and “a general sense of living a full life,” it goes a long way in explaining the anomie and self-destructiveness of young men today. The kind of comedy that’s become big in the internet age, the genre where men act pathologically awkward and anxious, epitomized by the actor Michael Cera, is partially the effect of men becoming shell-shocked from porn. Going back further, the kind of actor or character who was proto-millennial was Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates. In the tame world of 1960, Perkins’ offbeat persona as an actor conveyed something other than straightforward masculine sexuality, and that was used by Hitchcock to convey a sexual temperament that an audience could tell was abnormal, strangely skittish around a beautiful girl (played by Janet Leigh in Psycho). It’s after Bates has a pleasant encounter with Leigh that he’s forced to kill in order to assuage his sexual guilt for having lusted. I bring this scene up because the type of young man who came across as a weirdo almost sixty years ago codes, today, as a prototypical romantic male lead. Perkins’ demeanor with Leigh, in 2018, could be used as a meet-cute in a romantic comedy. Most young men now act as neurotic as Norman Bates.
In hindsight, behind the neurotic mannerisms of Woody Allen and now, too, Louis C.K. (who saw himself as the heir to Woody’s sensibility), we can read back sexual dysfunction. You’d be nervous too, if you had their sex lives. This even sheds light on Louis C.K.’s and Harvey Weinstein’s bizarre sexual advances: If you’re a powerful Hollywood player wanting to impose yourself on a woman, why settle for merely masturbating for these girls? It is perhaps because they are no longer virile. Their sexuality has been destroyed through masturbation, as C.K.’s material suggests it has, so they are unable to have normal sex—or even commit the more straightforward act of sexual domination, rape. Masturbation was all they had left.
The anger that these porn addicts feel is that they’ve spent their sexuality and vigor chasing chimeras. They’ve also raised their sexual expectations and have a hard time adjusting to average women when it’s time to pick and choose partners. Like much that is bad in our culture, it’s destruction from choosing fantasy over reality. When these incels blame women for sexual promiscuity, there’s no sense of self-irony. They haven’t exactly been chaste either. Do they think a porn-addicted guy who’s seen everything, and suffers from sexual fatigue, is something women want?
It’s a further irony that these sexual losers should find in President Trump their hero and opposite. Trump claims to have last masturbated “sometime previous to knowing women,” and, regarding pornography, said, “I was never big into that world,” telling Howard Stern, who of course had brought the question up, “it’s a lot of work and it gets you nowhere.” That Trump’s unique amount of energy and willpower goes together with abstaining from this vice is no surprise. To quote from the Steve McQueen film Papillon: “Masturbate as little as possible, it drains the strength.”
The medical advice that masturbation and porn are “normal” (I’m running out of scare quotes to use in this essay) and not harmful is outdated—it’s from an era where a 13-year-old boy found a girlie mag in the woods and looked at it a few times a month. The boy would be married soon after high school. The doctors from 1958 weren’t imagining a world where adults, much more children, could view explicit movies on the small TV in their pocket whenever and wherever they liked. Saying that “a little wine won’t hurt you” doesn’t mean you should drink like Shane MacGowan.
It’s not like we weren’t warned: Almost every society that’s ever existed has had stigma, if not laws, on viewing pornography. It’s like cigarettes in that you can’t say you didn’t know they’re bad for you.
Of course, the liberal establishment embraces porn, in part, because it leads to sexual inhibitions and standards being erased. A society in thrall to pornography and unhinged lust is in no position to restore moral order. It’s pumping moral insanity into your brain and, as Steve McQueen said earlier, saps strength and willpower (or abulia).
The soul-damaged incels and millennials deserve our sympathy, even if, like with most vices, the fault is largely their own. Like the drug culture from the ’60s, the porn culture is here to stay, but there is likely to be a counter-counterculture that emerges to give help to people who want it. The turbulent ’60s had plenty of burnouts, but there were also people who wanted to turn over a new leaf and leave that world behind—and did.