Data shows that “incels” should blame the economy for rising celibacy

There is a close link between marriage and sex.
There is a close link between marriage and sex.
Image: Reuters/Neil Hall
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Incels are actually right about something: Young, male sexlessness is a product of the times—just not for the reasons they think.

On Reddit and other online forums, “involuntary celibates” or “incels” fulminate against a world of exaggerated gender stereotypes where women chase alpha males, leaving incels sexually frustrated and angry. Some have performed violent terror attacks.

Their ideas are validated by intellectuals like Canadian professor Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist by training who cites ancient cultural traditions to argue that that the best way to control male violence is “enforced monogamy” (though, as a New York Times profile pointedly noted, Peterson see the redistribution of anything other than sex as abhorrent).

Another take on the link between marriage and incels comes from Lyman Stone, a researcher at the conservative Institute for Family Studies, a research institution dedicated to the idea that marriage strengthens society and improves childhood welfare. In a fascinating examination of US social surveys, Stone found a significant recent increase in young men who have never married and are not having sex:

Some of that increase is in fact due to “hard-core incels,” whom Stone defines as virgin men between the ages of 22 and 35, “whose reason for never having had sex isn’t abstention for religious, timing, or health reasons.” That is, they report that they can’t find a suitable partner, or list “other” as their reason for not having a sexual partner. The US hard-core incel population increased from just over 2.5% of young men in 2002 to nearly 4.5% in 2015.

But as you might expect, Stone finds that a much larger share of the increase in general young-male sexlessness comes from delaying marriage. Analyzing a dataset of male virgins between 22 and 35, he says that the 69% increase in the number of these American men “is mostly due to a decline in marriage, not never-married men having less sex.” That, he says, is because nearly half of the increase in sexlessness is from men who are delaying marriage and report celibacy for largely “voluntarily” reasons.

What explains this? Peterson has argued that post-modern rootlessness and a lack of traditional values—particularly around gender roles—are behind sexlessness and delayed marriage. But the reality is more prosaic: “As more and more schooling becomes necessary for a good middle-class job, marriage gets pushed later and later, leaving more young people (men and women!) companionless and lonely,” writes Stone. He notes that this is an effect replicated around the world with different cultures.

Further digging showed correlations between sexlessness and living with parents, and between higher education and celibacy:

In other words,

The rise of young male sexlessness isn’t about Chads and Stacies; it isn’t primarily about Tinder or Bumble; it’s not mostly about attitudinal shifts in what women want from relationships; and it’s not mainly about some new war between the sexes. It’s 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.

This matters even if you view marriage as an outdated, patriarchal institution, because these trends apply to pressure to partnerships and social bonds of all types. And if, like Peterson, you think the only way to avoid outbreaks of male violence is forcing men and women to get married, such measures seem unlikely to overcome economic forces without quickly becoming draconian. Stone concludes there are no easy answers when it comes to matching young people up in the modern economy.

Some answers could be found by in the various proposals to lower the cost of housing in the US, allowing more young people to live independently. Or Americans could adapt their society to the economy, with policies in place so that women don’t suffer losses in income and prestige from early marriage and child-rearing, creating reasons to delay marriage until after careers are established or higher-education credentials are obtained.

In other words, there’s no need to go hunting Peterson’s infamous “dragon of chaos” if you want to make marriage easier in a free society.