In a culture that prizes love and sex and desirability above all, in which marriage is held up as the only option for stability, it's no surprise we are seeing isolation, loneliness, and rage.
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When John Calvin ran Geneva as a theocracy, chaos reigned. Calvin believed in predestination, meaning only a small number of people on Earth were marked for eternal salvation. The rest were damned. From birth they had been marked as irredeemable sinners, and no amount of prayer and no number of good works could turn God to their favor. They would spend their afterlife in eternal torment.
A small number of the damned decided that, cut off from salvation, they might as well give God something to send them to hell over. Men murdered their wives in the streets. Slights were met with violence. Rates of theft, assault, and rape rose. They were no longer able to hope that their situations would improve, that one day all of the struggle and privation and suffering would have meaning, and that they would one day find peace and bliss. Why stifle a satisfying urge when the promised reward has been revealed as a lie?
In our secular age, we no longer believe in an afterlife of salvation, nor of damnation. It is no longer the love of God we long for, it is the love of the other. Romance fulfills many of the same functions that religion used to: It is the inspiration of almost all of our classic art, it gives us an emotional structure to our lives, and it is how we are redeemed.
And like in Calvin’s era, there are those who are marked for blessings and those who are marked for damnation, seemingly from birth. Men and women in lower social classes are less likely to find partners, as are those lacking higher education, as are the disabled. Race plays a factor as well, as Black women are less likely to marry than white women.
Romantic taste is political. Who we choose to pursue, who we deem worthy of our love and attention, often lines up with demographics of other forms of power. With women, that power lies in their beauty and youth. With men, it is their money and education that makes them attractive. If your strengths are in a realm not standard for your gender—if you are sensitive and spiritual but poor as a man, if you are intelligent but ugly as a woman—it is likely you will not find that ultimate form of recognition, the romantic partner.
The term “incel,” before it was claimed by online reactionary men, was originally coined by a queer woman to describe her experience in the 1990s of being unable to find a romantic or sexual partner. Alana, who prefers not to give her last name, created the Involuntary Celibacy Project to provide a community for those shut out of love because of mental illness or gender nonconformity or simple bad luck. This was an experience shared by both men and women, who found that a lack of love in their lives didn’t just bring on feelings of unworthiness, but true social isolation.
Love is not simply a nice feeling, it is the foundational structure of our society. Families, property, money, belonging, and community are all filtered down through marriage. Marriage is not merely a contract of romantic devotion. It is a series of rights that are offered only to those who can marry. It offers tax benefits, immigration status, access to health care, and parental rights. Married men are paid more by their employers than single men. But love is also how we arrange ourselves socially. People are most likely to cohabit in the long term with romantic partners, and there have been studies that show women are likely to isolate their single women friends once they are married. Whether or not you are in a relationship affects everything from your survival rates of a major illness to how often you are touched in your daily life to how much money you make. And often not being in a relationship is a marker to your friends and family that something must be wrong with you.
Many people are alienated from the romantic and sexual marketplace, which can feel like an alienation from society as a whole. Our entertainment and our news is filled with stories of people who have found their salvation and happily ever after, and here we are, damned to a life of eternal torment. And the problem seems to be growing. As Suzanne Leonard points out in her book Wife Inc, the “numbers of ‘marriageable men’—defined as men who are financially stable and solvent—are in decline compared to larger pools of marriageable women.” This is often written about as a problem merely for women, women who are wanting to be partnered or married but finding their pool of suitors unsatisfying or small. Yet we rarely talk about the effect of being labeled “unmarriageable” on men already suffering financially and in employment.
Men and women seem to handle this alienation differently. There have been at times large imbalances in the gender ratio, leaving one gender less likely to partner. Wars often leave the supply of eligible young men decimated. After the American Civil War, in which over a million soldiers died, there was a surplus of young women. Some found comfort and company in what were called Boston Marriages: two women shacked up together as lifelong partners. Some of these were surely covers for lesbian relationships, but many were straight women looking for an alternative to a life spent alone.
In India, due to the family’s and society’s preference for sons and boys, there is currently a deficit of approximately 63 million girls and women. Horror stories have come out since this trend was first reported in 2001: stories of one woman being forced to serve as wife to a man and all of his brothers, an increase in the rate of rapes and sexual assaults, and kidnapping women and forcing them into marriages. Traditional outlets for unpartnered men and women—monasteries and convents used to be the go-to if you had an extra son or daughter lying around—have disappeared from our culture, leaving the lifelong single with few alternatives to all of the things a partner brings to your life.
Here is the part of the essay where the author is supposed to offer solace or solutions. But our culture has a long way to go in recognizing there are sociological pressures on a part of our lives we are used to thinking of solely in psychological terms. If society should be organized in a way to bring the greatest amount of joy to the greatest amount of people (and this is what I believe), then love and sex needs to be rethought and reorganized and, yes, redistributed. Not in the sense that conservative commentators mean it, where women are forced into relationships with men in the hopes this will keep them from becoming violent. But if love and sex can be divorced from status and privilege, if we can reimagine what makes a partner desirable, if we can provide a stable alternative to married life that is something other than a life alone, we can alleviate suffering. Not only for the angry young men of the internet, but for everyone who is alienated and lonely.
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