This week, the liberal feminist internet exploded into bewildered anger over a column by Ross Douthat in The New York Times, which pointed out the obvious: that in a world that has placed an incredible amount of value on sex, that has glorified capitalism and turned almost everything into a sellable product, and that has told people (men, in particular) that sex is an inalienable right, inevitably we will arrive in a world that commodifies sex, and seeks to find a way to offer sex to anyone that wants it. I’m stretching his argument to add my own analysis, of course, but essentially this is the point he made: this is the world we live in — the world we created.
Liberal feminism let out an immediate and unified shriek at having to contend with the fact that their purported hatred for incels (which describes a group of men who are “involuntarily celibate”) and other men who communicate their anger at having not been offered the thing porn culture told them they were entitled to (sex with hot, young, porny women) did not mesh with their efforts to normalize and legalize men’s access to women’s bodies in the sex trade.
Jaclyn Friedman, author of Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All and co-editor (with Jessica Valenti) of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, tweeted: “CAN PEOPLE JUST STOP FUCKING SAYING THE PHRASE ‘REDISTRIBUTION OF SEX’ LIKE IT IS AN ACTUAL THING. Sex is not a commodity. Women are not a commodity. Sex workers are not a commodity. Sex is an ACTIVITY. You can’t ‘redistribute’ sex any more than you can ‘redistribute’ dancing.”
CAN PEOPLE JUST STOP FUCKING SAYING THE PHRASE “REDISTRIBUTION OF SEX” LIKE IT IS AN ACTUAL THING. Sex is not a commodity. Women are not a commodity. Sex workers are not a commodity. Sex is an ACTIVITY. You can’t “redistribute” sex any more than you can “redistribute” dancing.
— Jaclyn Friedman❄️ (@jaclynf) May 2, 2018
Despite Friedman’s usually effective use of Caps Lock, her argument doesn’t follow. Particularly because she is one of those who advocates to legalize and normalize the purchase of sex, meaning that indeed she believes men should have the right to access women’s bodies and should have the right to sex, anytime they wish, so long as they can pay and so long as a woman needs the money.
The sex industry literally commodifies sex and women. This is what a commodity is: a service or product that can be exchanged, bought, or sold on the market. Even if you choose to believe sex is a “service” just like physiotherapy or a manicure, if you are paying, it is a commodity. If you are going to argue that sex is not a commodity and to present it as such is Not A Good Thing, you are going to have to admit that radical feminists have been right all along, and that turning women and sex into things to be bought and sold is indeed a dangerous thing.
Similarly, Laurie Penny, who also advocates for the legalization of pimps, johns, and brothels, insisted that “Sexual redistribution’ isn’t a thing. The reason for this is that sex is not a commodity but a relation between human beings,” adding, “(Which is also, sometimes, a service performed for money.)”
‘Sexual redistribution’ isn’t a thing. The reason for this is that sex is not a commodity but a relation between human beings.
— Laurie Penny (@PennyRed) May 2, 2018
While Douthat’s column may well have been convoluted, and while he was unclear about what his own perspective is on what is sadly an inevitable reality (he later clarified on Twitter that he feels this approach is “bad”), those who responded angrily at the notion of a “redistribution of sex” laid bare their own hypocrisy, which is arguably worse than writing an unnecessarily complex column with too long sentences (I am guilty of this today, as well, and am sorry) and coming off as a bit pompous as a result. If you read the piece about four times over, you’ll start to get the gist.
Douthat doesn’t advocate for a dehumanized and commodified “redistribution of sex,” he just says this is what liberals like Penny and Friedman have fought for and won. Douthat writes:
“… As offensive or utopian the redistribution of sex might sound, the idea is entirely responsive to the logic of late-modern sexual life, and its pursuit would be entirely characteristic of a recurring pattern in liberal societies”
He also rightly points out that our understanding of sex and sexual liberation has been very much shaped by Hugh Hefner — meaning that we have adopted a social value that says men should have access to a wide variety of young, sexualized, one-dimensional women who are always “up for it.”
I suspect part of the problem, beyond their inability to think their way out of a paper bag, is that Douthat called out the zealous efforts of these liberals and leftists to “transform prostitution into legalized and regulated ‘sex work,'” thereby encouraging nouveau-porn technologies like sex robots and the broader notion that men have a right to sex. And beyond that, they did so without “formally debating the idea of a right to sex” or, I’d argue, listening to the masses of feminists who have, over decades, been pointing out that if you want actual sexual liberation for women, you can’t achieve it while simultaneously commodifying sex and saying that it’s acceptable for some women to be treated as sex objects, so long as they are compensated.
Friedman told Vice that “she finds it ‘profoundly appalling’ that The New York Times’ opinion pages would legitimize incel culture under the guise of a debate,” making it clear that she (whether intentionally or unintentionally) missed the point entirely. In fact, it is Friedman and her gaggle of desperate-to-be-cool liberal cronies who focused their careers on trying to legitimize exactly the mindset incels have internalized, and who then lashed out in anger (too-often violently) at the discovery that their fantasy was just that.
I wonder what they thought the end result of fighting for a porn industry and sex trade would be? That men would think, “Gosh, the best way to build relationships with women is through respect and by getting to know them as the humans they clearly are”? Or, rather, would they come to the conclusion that women’s bodies are things that exist to be fucked, and that at any given moment, they should be able to get off, in whatever way they like, regardless of how the woman on the other side of their laptop screen feels about it?
“I expect the logic of commerce and technology will be consciously harnessed, as already in pornography, to address the unhappiness of incels, be they angry and dangerous or simply depressed and despairing.”
When you argue that a sex trade must exist in order to serve the “lonely,” “anti-social,” or “sexually unfulfilled,” you shouldn’t be surprised when that world appears in front of you. And certainly you shouldn’t be surprised when men accept your arguments and run with them.