First some data. The so-called “incels” (involuntary celibates) are part of what is usually referred to as the “online male supremacist ecosystem.” Members of this (not only) online subculture define themselves as unable to find a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one, a state they describe as inceldom. They are mostly white, male and heterosexual, and their speech is characterized by resentment, misanthropy, self-pity, self-loathing, misogyny, racism, a sense of entitlement to sex, and the endorsement of violence against sexually active people. They perceive their position not simply as a fact but as a strong existential choice. With reference to the famous scene in The Matrix, they talk about the act of choosing the black pill over the red pill: “taking the red pill” means seeing a world where women hold power over men; the black pill, on the other hand, refers to hopelessness. Their hopeless situation, however, does not imply passivity, as many among the incels endorse violence against sexually active women and more sexually successful men. Their imagined enemy figure is “Chad,” a white sun-tanned muscular man.
But here we may observe an interesting turn: incel discussions often revolve around the belief that men are owed sex, and while many of them firmly defend concepts such as biological determinism and evolutionary psychology, they also believe in the idea of the forced sexual redistribution where governments would require women to engage in certain sexual relationships.[i] Enter Jordan Petersen who wrote apropos the so-called “Toronto killer”: “He was angry at God because women were rejecting him. The cure for that is enforced monogamy. That’s actually why monogamy emerges.” For Petersen, enforced monogamy is simply a rational solution; otherwise women would all go for the most high-status men, while men would be driven to violence, and that couldn’t make either gender happy in the end… The catch is that, aside from the redistribution of sex, Peterson is staunchly against what he calls “equality of outcomes,” or efforts to equalize society which he calls pathological or evil. Admitting he is inconsistent in this case, he claims that preventing hordes of single men from violence is necessary for the stability of society, and that, to achieve such stability, only enforced monogamy will do.[ii]
This is not the place to deal with the asymmetry of the incel demand for sexual redistribution. Does the same not hold for women? Are men also not attracted to a minority of women at the expense of the majority? And one should remember, too, that incel began with a lesbian couple… Petersen himself explains the fact that women should be (re)distributed to man by referring to the biological and mental superiority of men. What interests us here is the weird intersection between two logics: the logic of a necessary biological and social hierarchy as “the way things are” (so that, if we violate these presumed laws of necessity, decadence and chaos will ensue) and the logic of egalitarian justice which demands redistribution to correct injustices. Although egalitarianism and human rights do not overlap (conservative libertarians claim that enforced egalitarianism necessarily leads to the limitation of our freedom, the key component of human rights), we should nonetheless admit the egalitarian core of human rights. We would thus oppose the logic of universal human rights and the logic of social hierarchy as the two sides of a Moebius strip, and focus on their point of intersection, the point at which, if we progress far enough on the side of universal human rights, we will find ourselves at the opposite side of unjust hierarchy, and vice versa.
In this sense, incel is symptomatic of the logic of hierarchy, embodied today in the male partisans of white supremacy: it is the surprising point at which white supremacist partisans of hierarchy all of a sudden begin to use the language of the most brutal “Communism of women” and demand their just redistribution by the authorities (or, like Petersen, at least, a public campaign to promote enforced monogamy that would lead to a more egalitarian redistribution of sex). In short, incel is the point of exception at which advocates of hierarchy who oppose egalitarian human rights demand the most brutal egalitarian redistribution. And the way the Left should counteract this tendency is not to demand a more encompassing egalitarianism that would cover politico-economic life and sex; it should rather turn around the incel position and fight for its own Moebius strip reversal in which the universality of egalitarian human rights implies its own exception, its own reversal – the domain of sexuality which should by definition remain “unjust,” resisting the egalitarian logic of human rights. The fact that should be accepted in all its brutality is the ultimate incompatibility of sexuality and human rights.
This same reasoning also allows us to see the limit of the idea of sexual contract that circulates in today’s movement against sexual oppression. What gets lost in the idea that a sexual contract can work as a possible means of guaranteeing that the relationship is voluntary, i.e., without coercion, is Marx’s good old insight into how a formally “free” contract can also rely on coercion and thus effectively function as a form of coercion. Who can forget Marx’s description of the “free” contract between a capitalist and a worker? This contract is “in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham.” Both participants are “constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will.” However, the moment the contract is concluded,
“we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.”[iii]
The synonyms of “hiding” – battering, trashing, pounding, drubbing, spanking, thwacking… – all also evoke a brutal sexual act. Does this indicate that we can apply Marx’s analysis of a “free contract” to the idea of sexual contract? At the most elementary level, it is easy to demonstrate how, in sexual exchange, too, the form of free contract can conceal coercion and violence: one of the agents agrees to a sexual contract out of fear, out of emotional blackmail, out of material dependency… But the complication reaches much deeper and is immanent. In sexual exchange where freedom, equality, property, and enjoyment rule, this additional term (like “Bentham” in Marx) spoils the freedom/equality designated by the preceding terms. Enjoyment introduces asymmetry, surplus, envy into the balance of the exchange of pleasures. The two (or more) sexual partners reach a deal of what I do to you and you do to me in an interaction that would bring to both of us maximal pleasure. However, how are our pleasures mediated? When I engage in sex with a partner, I may only find pleasure in the other’s displeasure and humiliation, or vice versa, I may enjoy in my serving the other and only find pleasure in the signs of the other’s ecstatic pleasure. I may do it out of envy, to prove that I can better satisfy my partner than its previous partner(s), etc. Plus, I may do it out of love, seeing that sexual pleasure is for me a sign of love, while my partner is interested in me only as a purveyor of sexual pleasure. Can we imagine a starker asymmetry?
We should risk even a step further here. In labour/capital exchange, a worker doesn’t sell his product but his own labour power as a commodity. What we are dealing with is the logic of universality and its exception: the commodity form gets universal only when, on the market, producers are not only exchanging their products, i.e., only when an exceptional commodity appears on the market which is the productive labour force itself. Do we get a homologous exception also in the sexual contract? What if the symmetry of each partner giving pleasure to the other is also always-already broken? One partner “works on” the other to give pleasure, and the idea is, of course, that this activity of giving pleasure becomes in itself a source of pleasure for the worker. Here enters the homology between surplus-value (produced by the worker) and surplus-enjoyment (produced by the activity of giving pleasure), the enjoyment generated by the very activity of serving the other (the sexual partner).
What makes contractual sex problematic is not only its legal form but also its hidden bias. The contractual form obviously privileges casual sex where partners don’t yet know each other and want to avoid misunderstandings about their one-night stand. But we also need to extend our attention to the long-term relationship permeated with forms of violence and domination in much subtler ways than the spectacular Weinstein style enforced sex. To paraphrase Brecht, what is the fate of a movie star who was once blackmailed into sex (or directly raped) to ensure her career compared with a miserable housewife who is for long years constantly terrorized and humiliated by her husband?
But is marriage also not a contract, a permanent one? Kant who, in his Metaphysics of Mores, (in)famously defines sexual intercourse as “the reciprocal use that one human being makes of the sexual organs and capacities of another,” determines marriage as the contract regulating this use. He dismisses a short-term sexual contract as a pactum fornicationis (contract for fornication), admitting only marriage (since in it my partner is not reduced to an object). So, as Jean-Claude Milner pointed out, for Kant, sex outside marriage is quite literally a crime against humanity: in it, both participants reduce each other to objects used for pleasure and thereby deny their human dignity. Kant is nonetheless popular among some feminists for de-mythologizing the sexual contact (it’s about sexual pleasure, not spiritual values), and for his strict egalitarianism (no priority or superiority of man in marriage, just a contract between two free individuals). Even Brecht who wrote a sonnet making fun of Kant’s definition of marriage misses this emancipatory dimension:
“The agreement concerning reciprocal use
Of chattels and sexual organs
Which he calls ‘marriage’, appears to me
In urgent need of clarification.
From what I hear, some partners are remiss.
They have – I don’t count it a false report –
Withdrawn their sexual organs from the bargain:
The net has holes, and some of them are large.
Only one course remains: go to court
Arrange an attachment of those organs.
And perhaps that will afford the partner occasion
To contemplate that contract more scrupulously.
If he doesn’t give it care, I fear very much
That the sheriff will have to appear.”[iv]
In Brecht’s Marxist reading, Kant speaks of human sexual capacity as a commodity which is bartered away in a contractual sense in connection with marriage. However, a Marxist view would also have noticed the liberating aspect of this commodification of the human capacity for sex: it negates the spiritual values, in which marriage as a religious institution is enshrined, and it advances the position of women, giving them rights comparable to those enjoyed by men and anchored, moreover, in a formal legal setting. Even Brecht’s concluding irony misses its target: Kant’s line of argumentation is already penetrated by a subterranean irony. At some point, he literally evokes the same option: “a sheriff will have to appear,” i.e., police will have to intervene. In all seriousness (though, in all probability, also tongue-in-cheek), Kant debates the case when a husband runs away from his wife, and decides that the wife has the right to demand that the police bring him back to her, not for any high sentimental reasons but simply because he ran away with a part of her legal property (his sex organ)… We can easily recognize here yet again the reversal that characterizes the Moebius strip: the only way to reach emancipation is to progress to the end on the path of commodification, of self-objectivization, of turning oneself into a commodity. A free subject emerges only as the remainder of this self-objectivization.
Further complications emerge, too. While parts of #MeToo advocate a sexual contract, the ideology that underlies #MeToo took to heart the Marxist lesson on the hidden asymmetry that sustains the notion of the contract of equal free partners. Relying on Marx’s notion of the imbalance in the contract between worker and capitalist where the two are formally equal, Jean-Claude Milner[v] recently outlined the difference between objective and structural weaknesses. Even if the worker is paid a full value according to the labor contract, the exchange between the worker and the capitalist is not equal. There is exploitation since the worker is a commodity which produces surplus-value, i.e., more value than its own value. In this sense, the contract is unjust, and the worker is in a weaker structural position even if the position is “objectively” stronger, with more empirical social power. According to Milner, the #MeToo movement implicitly transposes the same logic onto the sexual exchange between a man and a woman: even if they both formally agree to make love as equal partners, i.e., even if the appearance is that of an equal exchange of sexual favours, there is a structural inequality and the woman is in the weaker position. As with the contract between the worker and the capitalist, one should emphasize the structural (formal) character of this weakness: even if the woman initiated sexual exchange, even if she is socially or financially much stronger, she is structurally weaker.
Therein resides the lesson of the Harvey Weinstein scandal: if by “rape” we understand an enforced sexual exchange, then every (hetero)sexual act is ultimately a case of rape. It goes without saying that very few of the actual #MeToo members are ready to spell out this radical implication, which was already theorized years ago by some radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon. The large majority of them is not ready to claim that the sexual act is as such an act of masculine violence, and they proclaim as their goal only the struggle for sexuality which does not rely on a male position of power and brings true joy to both partners. However, the implication that the sexual act is ultimately as such an act of rape, of violent imposition and coercion, clearly functions as the unspoken presupposition of the #MeToo movement with its focus on the cases of male coercion and violence. Its partisans treat men exclusively as potential rapists, and women as potential victims of male power.
Milner further shows how Donald Trump is the exact opposite of #MeToo: if #MeToo privileges structural weakness at the expense of objective weakness, Trump ignores structural weakness and focuses exclusively on objective weakness and power. For him, politics is a basically immoral game of power in which all principles can be (and should be) ignored or turned against themselves when circumstances (i.e., the “America first” interests) demand it. One demonizes Kim Yong-un as a threat to humanity, and then one treats him as a friend, etc., etc., up to the ultimate example of separating the children of illegal immigrants from their parents. In Trump’s immoral universe, it is totally logical to attack the weak opponent at its weakest point (children). As Milner concludes, Trump is the Weinstein of US politics.
However, this symmetry also signals the fateful limitation and even the ethically problematic implications of the #MeToo movement. Its exclusive focus on structural weakness enables it to play its own power game, ruthlessly using structural weakness as a means of its own empowerment. When a person in the structural position of power is accused of mistreating a person in a weak structural position, all the facts clearly proving that the structurally “weak” person has strong institutional positions, that her accusations are very problematic if not outright false, etc., are dismissed as ultimately irrelevant. This doesn’t happen in the sexual domain alone. To give an example of something that happened to me: if, in an academic debate, I make some critical remarks about, say, a black lesbian, replying to her critical remarks on me, I am more or less automatically suspected at least of acting as a white homophobic supremacist and am at least guilty of racial and sexual insensitivity. Her position of structural weakness gives her the power and my structural position of a white male effectively makes me powerless.
We thus enter a cruel world of brutal power games masked as a noble struggle of victims against oppression. One should recall here Oscar Wilde’s saying: “Everything in life is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” Some partisans of #MeToo talk about sex, but their position of enunciation is that of power and of those who don’t have it, of course. Following Wilde, they reduce sex to a power game, and what they exclude from their position of enunciation is precisely and simply sex.
[i] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incel.
[iii] Quoted from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch06.htm.
[iv] Bertolt Brecht, Über Kants Definition der Ehe in der “Metaphysik der Sitten”, first published in Studien (1936), quoted from (and translated by) Scott Horton, in https://harpers.org/blog/2009/05/brecht-on-kants-definition-of-marriage/.
[v] I rely here on Jean-Claude Milner’s intervention in the debate on human rights and sexuality at Birkbeck College, London, on June 27 2018.