A Straight Masculinity Crisis Is Underway — And It’s a Good Thing
A little over three weeks ago, American politician Alexandra M. Hunt proposed a new solution to the rise of incel ideology worldwide: moving toward a framework for a “right to sex.” Hunt took to Twitter to link the rise in overall violence against women with data suggesting that a sizeable portion of men weren’t having enough sex. Although most of her suggestions for arriving at the right to sex — decriminalizing and destigmatizing sex work, improving sex education, and “normalizing healthy positive sex” — seemed progressive, and although she pointed out that “sex” to her always referred to consensual sex only, observers couldn’t help noticing how Hunt’s solution to the incel problem sounded very close to what incels themselves demand: a right to sex.
The sense of entitlement to sex — and to women’s bodies and labor — characterizing straight masculinity is the problem, and the cracks are beginning to show more than ever. In the larger scheme of things, that’s a good thing — because it starts shifting the conversation about sex and the patriarchy to show how heteronormativity worked all along. The fact that men having lesser sex is leading to an incel problem shows how its ideology was implicit in straight masculinity, and how much of it is premised on the access to sex.
There might still be some truth in Hunt’s proclamation that men aren’t having enough sex. Two months before her infamous Twitter thread, American psychologist Greg Matos wrote a column expressing his feelings about the rise of single, lonely men. Matos was reacting to recently published data by the Pew Research Centre that suggested men today are “more likely than women to be unpartnered, which wasn’t the case 30 years ago.” This is arguably linked to two things: declining tolerance for straight men’s behavior may have, on the one hand, caused this; the effect is misogynistic backlash in the form of rising incelhood.
In his piece, Matos writes in some detail about how dating apps — somewhat accidentally — have been hugely responsible for the rise of lonely, single men. Most dating apps, like many other things, cater primarily to the male gaze. As The Guardian pointed out, “apps like Tinder and Hinge give straight men unfettered access to women – and a new sense of boldness through a seemingly endless set of options.” However, since these apps heavily cater to the male gaze and male desires, they end up attracting men in much larger numbers than women. Matos points out that in most of these apps, “upwards of 62% of users are men and many women are overwhelmed by the number of options they have.” As a result, “competition in online dating is fierce, and lucky in-person chance encounters with dreamy partners are rarer than ever.” Men, then, are ironically left disadvantaged by the services that were catering to their gaze and desires.
It would be incorrect, however, to assume that it’s the accident of dating apps alone that has contributed to the current situation. The rise of dating apps needs to be seen alongside updating cultural norms, which now allow women to reject men with greater confidence and ease than some years ago. The rise of feminist activism on the internet and in social media, has led to — even if marginal — increasing awareness among women about their right to fair and respectful treatment from the men around their lives, especially their partners. Increasing conversations about potential dating “red flags” (or warning signs), and a larger trend of documenting bad experiences, is also possibly responsible for making women more vigilant about their dating choices.
As a result, relationship standards have slowly risen, and women’s dating choices have updated with the standards. Matos, based on his weekly TikTok interactions with women aged 25-45, writes, “they prefer men who are emotionally available, who are good communicators, and who share their values.”This provides men a real opportunity to build up their relationship skills to keep up with the changing times. The realization that women aren’t settling for less, and that women are seeking better partners out of men, could lead to a newer, different set of expectations from men, changing the existing heteronormative norms in place.
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Disappointingly, however, men have failed to rise to the occasion. Instead of choosing to bridge their “relationship skills gap” — as Matos puts it — men have turned toward the incel ideology in larger numbers, feeling a greater sense of entitlement over sex and women’s bodies. They have made it a matter of their appearance and inferiority instead of seriously considering changing with the times. The increasing number of single and lonely men, then, could potentially endanger all women.
Does this mean that Alexandra Hunt’s solution to move to the right to sex could be the answer to the problem of men not having enough sex? Experts do not think so. For one, it would be tantamount to giving in to the incel ideology, a violent belief system that has in recent times manifested in brutal terrorist attacks. Moreover, there is no guarantee that a “right to sex” under the current climate — where incel ideology overlaps with other conservative, patriarchal beliefs — would automatically lead to a reduction in gender-based violence. Unless misogyny and the existing gender hierarchy are addressed at the grassroots level and are completely rooted out, a right to sex still wouldn’t solve problems of domestic and intimate partner violence.
As Jo Adetunji, Editor at The Conversation, writes: “the old-fashioned ideals of masculinity… can often only be achieved through predatory and sexist attitudes towards women. Sexism is a huge part of bonding among men who define themselves as heterosexual.” With work patterns changing and family dynamics changing, “many straight men find it hard to reconcile the traditional view of gender with the new approach based on partnership and equality of men and women at home and in work.”
Reactions to Matos’ piece indicate that it is high time men learned to meet the expectations in a relationship. Memes and posts about the dating bar being set too low for men, and men then dropping it further below, populated the internet as Matos’ piece went viral. Women expressed collective tiredness of having to deal with men and their inability to behave decently and respectfully. Some responses to Matos’ piece did acknowledge the link between the rise of the incel movement and men not having enough sex but rightfully placed the blame on deep-rooted societal misogyny rather than a supposed refusal by women to have sex. As one such piece points out, “if, on an individual level, we’re (women) feeling confident enough to swipe left on men who don’t know how to load a dishwasher? For now, at least, I’ll take that.”
On a more structural, collective level, Adetunji advocates for discussing publicly the changing roles and positions of men in society from an early age. She draws examples from an Irish campaign, “Man Up,” that teaches young boys positive values. The campaign challenges the traditional definitions of strength and men, and “promotes men’s strength as not being in muscles but in active participation of men in preventing domestic violence.” Adetunji stresses that we must remain extremely mindful of the language that we use when speaking about changing gender norms. We must encourage, and not antagonize, men into changing and challenging the existing age-old notions of gender hierarchy. “The negative narrative of the crisis stops men from joining the debate that there can be multiple ways of being a man and there is no shame in breaking with the old patterns.”
The key to dismantling an oppressive kind of masculinity, then, is arguably to let its worst excesses show. We’re finally beginning to have conversations about what to do with men’s entitlement to sex — and resisting the idea of anybody having “the right to sex” feels like a good place to start.