Journal Club: Incels and compulsory sexuality

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This month, the ace journal club discussed

“Incels, Compulsory Sexuality, and Fascist Masculinity”, by Casey Ryan Kelly and Chase Aunspach (2020). Publicly accessible on archive.org (pdf version).

The journal club meets once a month on Discord, using text or voice as club members prefer. We discuss a variety of academic works in ace studies, ranging from gender studies to psychology. Don’t worry about journal access, we can provide access. If you’re interested, please e-mail me at asexualagenda@gmail.com for an invite.

Our discussion notes are below the fold.


Summary
The authors discuss incels as a logical extension of compulsory sexuality, and this is framed as an asexual critique. They argue for the possibility of queer world-un/making.

Asexuality as used by this paper
– The paper seems to go back and forth between referring to the modern asexual community and asexuality studies, to using asexuality in some abstractified form.
– Asexuality is only briefly defined, halfway through the paper. We thought this was unusual.
– We wish the authors followed better practices about distinguishing asexuality and desexualization (also discussed here).

Compulsory sexuality
– The connection between incels and compulsory sexuality seemed more warranted than the connection to asexuality.
– We liked how the paper criticizes common responses to incels, saying they just need to get girlfriends, or get laid, or trying to help them become more sexually desirable. These responses are rooted in compulsory sexuality.

Terms we learned
– Queer world-making refers to imagined futures, which can only be realized by the unmaking of our current world. This is a concept from general queer theory.
– Hegemonic masculinity refers to the culturally dominant form of masculinity. Abject hegemony refers to the reinforcement of hegemonic masculinity by “casting off” less masculine expressions, for instance, incels casting themselves off for having failed to perform masculinity.

History of “incel”
– “Incel” was originally coined in the 90s by a lesbian feminist, and the early community did not blame society for their problems. That came later as incel communities spread out.
– The authors found some statements from the early incel community that were mildly resonant with asexuality, but we were taken by surprise when the authors later act like they’ve fully established the connection between early incels and asexuality.

Elliot Rodger
– The manifesto of Elliot Rodger (an incel and murderer from 2014) describes his utopic vision of a world without sexuality.
– Although Rodger does not use “asexuality”, the authors describe this as a misappropriation of asexuality
– We criticized this claim, as it’s not clear you can appropriate a concept without even referring to it. (Did people of past decades appropriate modern asexuality?)

Our own thoughts on asexuality and incels
– There are some surface similarities between ace and incel communities. People come to them because they’re not having sex and think that’s a problem. Incels say yes that is a problem and blame laws of human nature. Ace communities say that’s okay you don’t need to have sex.
– But incel communities are mostly men and ace communities are mostly women and nonbinary people. (We hope that that’s not where the ace men are going instead!)
– The authors argued for the possibility of unmaking the incel world to reject compulsory sexuality. But we were skeptical. Compulsory sexuality is right there in the framing of celibacy as involuntary.
– A reimagined community would probably drop the “involuntary” part.
– Many years ago, Aqua was trying to build a celibacy community, which wasn’t very successful. They dropped the involuntary part.
– We also imagined the possibility of a community that was based on the pursuit of alternative kinds of relationships.
– In theory, the MGTOW community follows that idea, withdrawing from sex and relationships and focusing on homosocial relationships. Of course in practice they spend 90% of the time complaining about women.
– Incel discourse participates in the narrowing of intimacy, and we thought asexuality could critique that.

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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7 Responses to Journal Club: Incels and compulsory sexuality

  1. Blue Ice-Tea says:

    “Compulsory sexuality is right there in the framing of celibacy as involuntary.”

    Could you expand on that a bit, please?

    • Siggy says:

      “Involuntary” frames celibacy as forced, undesired, and undesirable.

      I think you could argue with this a bit, saying that “involuntary” is a restrictive adjective used to distinguish from other voluntary forms of celibacy. I believe the intention was to distinguish from religious celibacy in particular. But I think the focus on involuntary celibacy only, the lack of interest or dismissal of voluntary celibacy, and absence of acknowledgment of the gray areas ultimately reinforces compulsory sexuality.

      When the authors discuss the resonances between early incels and asexuality, they pull out a quote,

      they are uninterested in relationships, marriage, children and prefer to focus on their career, but they know they are lonely without a partner.

      and we were saying, that sounds kind of voluntary! But since this is coming from someone participating in a community about involuntary celibacy, it feels like they have been encouraged to interpret their own experience through the lens of compulsory sexuality.

      • Blue Ice-Tea says:

        Yeah, I definitely agree there is a substantial grey area between “voluntary” and “involuntary” celibacy. And perhaps, because of that, there should be more solidarity between people who are celibate for different reasons. On the other hand, the “involuntary” label allows us to distinguish celibacy that is experienced as undesirable from celibacy that is a preferred state. And that may be necessary given how often we talk about celibacy as a choice. I mean, think of the classic question, “What’s the difference between asexuality and celibacy?” What’s the stock answer? “Celibacy is a choice.”

        • Siggy says:

          I think that a positive celibacy community would drop the “involuntary” modifier when describing the scope of the community, but it would probably be fine to use it as an internal distinction.

          I keep on wondering how it actually turned out when Aqua tried it. It’s a shame that their blog and forum are defunct.

        • aceadmiral says:

          And perhaps, because of that, there should be more solidarity between people who are celibate for different reasons.

          This is an interesting idea… but I also wonder what the solidarity would actually consist of? Even excising the negative baggage associated with “involuntary celibacy,” it seems to me like the personal goals of that group and one that is voluntarily celibate for whatever reason would be at odds? But maybe my conceptualizaiton is too narrow? (I admit, my thoughts on the subject are pretty well-developed and critical of any non-elective form of celibacy as “celibacy.”)

    • Coyote says:

      Adding on to what Siggy said (but note, this is just my own perspective):

      Involuntary celibacy” necessarily implies that the person in question wants to be sexually active — that for whatever reason, some kind of sexual desire is going unfulfilled — and, the way it’s phrased, kind of positions “sexually active” as a default state which a person can be “involuntarily” moved out of just by… not having connected with someone with reciprocal interest.

      Maybe “compulsory sexuality is right there in the framing of celibacy as involuntary” isn’t precisely the right way to put it, if you want to take “incel” itself as a morally neutral concept. If someone wanted to argue that, I guess I’d let them have it, as long as they don’t actually side with the authors’ suggestion that “incel” could be re-tailored as a critique of compulsory sexuality. I just can’t see how that would be coherent for a concept inherently predicated on desire. While unfulfilled sexual desire itself is a neutral thing, and while that can be incorporated into various political critiques, I don’t think “wanting to have sex” can itself be a foundation for critiquing compulsory sexuality. Something else, like an argument about how sexually undesirable people get left by the wayside or condemned to loneliness,* would be the more fruitful approach.

      *Where “loneliness” here encompasses a lot more than just “not having sex.”

    • Thanks for asking this! That was the same thing I wanted further explained when I was reading, although I had some idea of how compulsory sexuality is so inherent to what I understand involuntary celibacy as…

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