This is a story about a big untruth.
When Alek Minassian, a man bitter about his lack of sexual contact with women, mowed down pedestrians on a sidewalk in Toronto as a political act, Ross Douthat used the occasion to suggest a problem was that “the sexual revolution created new winners and losers“. Douthat’s concerns resonate with many young men in America, and they even have a word for what deprives them of sex: Hypergamy. Jordan Peterson sums it up in a sentence: “women mate across and up dominance hierarchies”; Peterson’s fans express it more clearly: “Why does it appear that the vast majority of women prefer the same small group of men?”
Robin Hanson, never one to squander an opportunity, used the same murders to expand on the idea: “one might plausibly argue that those with much less access to sex suffer to a similar degree as those with low income, and might similarly hope to gain from organizing around this identity, to lobby for redistribution along this axis and to at least implicitly threaten violence if their demands are not met.” Context, occasion, and political reality necessarily mean one thing in each of these cases: the problem is male access to sex with women, and the fact that some men have (a lot) more, and many have (much) less—if any at all. A rebellion is coming.
Internet communities make the story explicit: just as “the 1%” control all the income in the country, a politically and socially select group of men control “sexual access” to women. The analogy between cash and intimacy is direct, clear, and common across the political spectrum. The vulgarity is clearest when it’s phrased in the language of the Incels movement that spawned the topic to begin with. “Chads”—a few men with high “sexual market value” (SMV)—monopolize the majority of women. As their own SMV declines, these women marry hapless “betas”, who support them while they occasionally stray to old pastures on the side (“alpha widowhood“). This is summarized in an acronym: AF;BB. What determines who counts as a “Chad” is up for debate. But whether it’s a product of race, income, or political support from the Jewish lobby, the inequality is assumed to be real. A large number of women give sex to a small number of men; most men go without. It’s enraging.
It’s also false. Whether or not sexual-access inequality of this form exists should not (in my opinion) be a political matter; that’s a separate question. What this post addresses is the rather remarkable fact that many people are saying this inequality exists, when it doesn’t.
It’s no surprise that some people have more sex than others, of course. Casanova and Isaac Newton are part of the human comedy in equal measure. But the discourse of inequality is new. The common thread of these pieces, which use the occasion of a mass murder by a sexually disappointed man to make their points, is that men, in particular, are subject to sexual inequality in sufficiently extreme ways that the inequality itself has become a political problem. Douthat calls Hanson a “brillant wierdo”, but there’s no bizarre brillance here. Hanson is simply detached from reality.
The gender differences in who is having sex, and how much sex they’re having, was a topic at the American Sociological Association’s blog, Contexts, which hosted a piece by the sociologists Paula England and Eliza Brown in 2016. “Access to sex can be unequally distributed“, they write, and they study it using a common measure of income inequality, the Gini coefficient. They conclude: “single men have a higher Gini coefficient (.536) than single women (.470)”. Taken at face value, this ought to support the hypergamy narrative.
England and Brown are scientists who have looked at the data, and I’ll do my best to explain why their conclusions are read misleadingly, in a respectful fashion appropriate for academic discourse; if I come off as less than collegial to them, it’s unintended. Scientists should, however, have little patience for the ideologues who rely on personal anecdote and ideology to tell a story the current moment wants to hear.
To counter the claims of England and Brown, and their application to the state of young men, I’ll draw on an exceptionally detailed piece of sociological fieldwork by Peter Bearman, James Moody, and Katherine Stovel.[*] Published in the American Journal of Sociology (AJS) in 2004, it reported on an extensive survey of the sexual partnerships (“contacts”) at “Jefferson” High School. The name is a pseudonym, but the setting might have been drawn from central casting: if anything captures the liberal stereotype of “Trump country”, it is Jefferson.
“Jefferson High is an almost all-white high school of roughly 1,000 students located in a midsized midwestern town,” Bearman et al. (BMS) write. The town is isolated, an hour drive from the nearest significant city, and “a close-knit, insular, predominantly working-class community, which offers few activities for young people. In describing the events of the past year, many students report that there is absolutely nothing to do in Jefferson. For fun, students like to drive to the outskirts of town and get drunk.”
The authors’ goal was to understand how sexual contacts could lead to disease transmission. The isolation of the community worked to their advantage, since they could capture, in a survey of a single high school, the overwhelming majority of the sexual contacts people had. The survey was popular, and 90% of the students participated. In a move that was, at the time, quite avant garde, BMS provided an image of the hookup network.
Each dot here (each node) is a student in the survey; dark dots are the men, light dots are the women. Lines connect students who reported sexual contact (because BMS were concerned with STDs, these contacts were meant to capture fluid exchange that put students at risk). The most obvious feature of this graph is how straight it is—heterosexual. Dark dots connect to light, and light connect to dark. BMS did capture same-sex contacts, but did not include them in this graph; they did, however, include two bisexual nodes (one male, one female; can you spot them?)
The piece is a wonderful piece of quantitative sociology, and a delightful excursion for those of us who live at the interface of the mathematics and empirical reality. Even without the analysis, it captures an entire world that you may have forgotten. Little tight-knit groups exist in isolation (band camp? The theater people?), while the majority of students join a long “ring” of contacts that connects up a significant fraction of the school (amusingly, without one of the bisexual nodes, it would all fall apart). For most readers, memories of high school are covered in a forgetful haze; BMS suggests that however bad it was, it’s nothing like the Hobbesian world where Douthat’s analysis begins.
For our analysis, the overall structure, and the stories it can tell, isn’t necessary. All we need is one thing, what network scientists call the degree distribution: put crudely, the count of who is getting how much. BMS didn’t share their raw data, but after an hour or so of hand counting we can plot the distribution: what fraction of men, or women, have no partners, one partner, two partners, three, and so on. BMS didn’t give the number of people who had zero sexual contacts (the “incels”), so I’ve inferred it from the total school population and the assumption that the breakdown is 50-50; more on the technical details later—if you’re expecting under-reporting by women, you’ll be surprised.
The graph summarizes the differences between students in a simple fashion. The majority of both men and women reported one sexual contact in the past 18 months. Among those who are not having sex, it’s more the women than the men; even allowing for under-reporting by women, the idea that the majority of women are giving their favors to men, in Peterson’s words, “across and up dominance hierarchies”, is an absolute fantasy.
If the incels story fails, perhaps the idea of the 1% survives. Where is Chad? There is one candidate, an outlier male that reported nine sexual contacts. The data set as a whole contains 477 relationships, so this man monopolizes a total of… 1.8% of the sex in the school. Bill Gates he is not.
It gets worse for the Petersons and the dominant lobsters of the world. Not only is there not a conspiracy of elite men to monopolize women, it appears that if anything, it’s the other way around. Only fourteen men in the sample have four or more partners, but twenty-four women do. Combined with the fact that there are more women than men who report zero sexual partners, it appears to be women who have the stronger grievance, should they wish to lodge it, against a few Chad-like Queen Bees.
Incel violence is a young man’s game, and Jefferson High School provides an almost too-perfect sample of the world from which they emerge. England and Brown’s ASA blog post, by contrast, draws for its claims of a sexual hierarchy from a wider survey taken by the US Census data, of older adults. Their methods of analysis complicate the matters more. Rather than studying the experiences of men and women in total, EB split their groups into two: “single”, and “married or cohabiting”.
It is the “single” group EB focus on for their inequality question, but even here, the differences are minor, and its not quite clear why the split should be made. Once the two groups are combined, which allows for a comparison with the high school case, the differences shrink further still. Finally, racial differences may explain some of the gap; “the dispersion of a larger minority out to the extremes of 3 and 4+ partners is greatest for Black men and least for White men”, while the Jefferson study was of a (nearly) all-white school. In short, if there is evidence of inequality in the other direction, it is in a population quite different in both age and race from the world that made Rogers and Minassian.
When we do look at that world, we find the opposite of what the media coverage suggests. The claim that women have sex with high-status men and, in doing so, deprive other men of their attentions, is false. And, not only is it false, but the willingness of editorial writers and ideologues to repeat it, and give it political weight, tells us a lot how detached these people are from reality.
[*] Peter S. Bearman, James Moody, Katherine Stovel. Chains of Affection: The Structure of Adolescent Romantic and Sexual Networks. American Journal of Sociology, Volume 110 Number 1 (July 2004): 44–91
Followup. I’m very pleased with the attention this article has received, and the numerous comments and discussions on Twitter (I don’t have Facebook, so can’t participate directly there).
The main criticism the article received, from the most upset people, was that it was about the wrong thing. A number of people referenced Aspirational pursuit of mates in online dating markets, a lovely piece by my colleagues (via SFI) Elizabeth Bruch and Mark Newman (BN). BN take an enormous dataset from an online dating website, and measure desirability and its covariates. BN’s conclusions are shocking in how stark they are. Online dating is a strong hierarchy for both men and women, with all the regular variables you’d expect playing a role in who gets written to, and who writes back.
There’s just one problem. Online dating is not measuring outcomes. It’s measuring desire. If Scarlet Johansson shows up on OK Cupid, I am going to message her. This will show up in BN’s data as a social gradient, and from that point of view, Johansson is making the online dating market more unequal for other women.
Except it’s not. That would only be the case if Johansson actually went on a date with me and thus stole me from someone else. My desires can not harm anyone; only my actions—to believe otherwise is magical thinking. To be clear, Robin Hanson is saying that men who have the undesired outcome of not having sex with women should consider resorting to violence. Jordan Peterson is talking about the outcomes different kinds of men (or lobsters) receive. These are the claims at issue.
It is certainly the case, and many men of the Peterson/Hanson world obsess about this, that they are not sufficiently desired by women. There is a constant fear of being a “beta”—which means that, even though you are no longer suffering from sexual deprivation, your partner really wants to be with someone else. This is a danger in most relationships, and a psychological fact that novelists have written about for centuries. It can be expected to harm women in a similar fashion, perhaps (just to drive the intuition) when pornography comes into the mix. But if this is the kind of inequality that these people are talking about, it is even crazier than we thought. For these people, it’s not what women do that must be controlled, it is literally what they think.
All of this gets worse when self-help guides are added to the mix. Not only should your desires be satisfied, not only are they politically valid, but if you follow my rules, you will satisfy them.
For some people, the bare facts of this analysis were difficult to take in. It was surprising to see people respond to the article with the flat statement that of course “Chads” existed in any meaningful way, of course hypergamy was real. In some cases, respondents showed me simulations of societies in which hypergamy happened. In others, the claim appeared to be that hypergamy must be real because not all men will pass their genes down many generations in the future. Neither of these makes sense. Some respondents agreed that the data did indeed establish the conclusions, but described Jefferson High as an idyllic utopia that obtains no where else. I’ve now checked this; see the second followup for data that shows the adult world is actually more equal than Jefferson High.
Peterson himself is an absolute disaster when it comes to reality. I learn the following from Patrick Steinmann, a Ph.D. student at Wageningen U&R:
“[…] women have a strong proclivity to marry across or up the economic dominance hierarchy” are Peterson’s exact words (12 Rules for Life, p. 301). The (only) source given is Greenwood, Guner, Kocharkov & Santos (2014).”
Amazingly, this article establishes the exact opposite. It describes the emergence of assortative mating, where individuals marry others at “their same level” (e.g., matching education levels, income, and so forth). Hypergamy, in the fictional form it is found in this cast of characters, says the opposite—some fancy investment banker swooping in and picking up your high-school sweetheart. Peterson might have noticed this because the article’s title is, literally, “Marry Your Like”.
A final point that comes up, from After Sol (who makes many points, which you can find!): “the study ignores the ‘lived reality’ of incels (who for the most part aren’t living in closed dating pools in rural areas).” I think this is an important point, but not perhaps for the reasons AS thinks. There is absolutely no doubt that there are many distressed men out there, who live in a hell where a few Chads are stealing all of the women who could love them. The data show that this hell is not real. This hell is, in fact, made up by older men with some kind of psychological axe to grind. There are enough partners, and potentialities, for everyone. Liberate yourselves from this story. Please.
Second Followup. Some commenters were curious about the post-high school experience, and some have claimed that the Incel ideology is validated on adult data. Just as much as in the Jefferson case, however, the Hanson-Douthat story is completely detached from reality.
Below is data from the General Social Survey, which since 2008 has asked questions about the number of sexual partners in the last year. I selected on heterosexual men and women only. I dropped “no response” data, informally, this appears to correlate with highly conservative attitudes. There is a lot of data here; 1688 respondents alone in 2008, or about twice the Jefferson survey.
First, the men.
The data are almost perfectly consistent with the Jefferson study. As you would expect with this older population, there are fewer men who did not have a sexual partner. There are almost no men who report more than ten partners in the last year (yes, the 0.8% figure is correct, and is consistent with the Jefferson survey.)
Second, the women.
Again, we see the same pattern as in the Jefferson case. Contrary to the gatekeeper myth, and consistent with the Jefferson data, women are more likely to report having zero sexual partners in the last year. The Queen Bee effect may also hold; data crunching in progress.
Some commenters talk about a “Tinder effect”: the idea that hypergamy has been enabled by the rapid-fire partnering available on this particularly successful app. This is, again, detached from reality. The data presented are consistent with no shift in sexual experience for men (or women) over the course of eight years that span its introduction in 2012.
For this follow-up, I used the “in the past year” data because it is going to be more accurate than the other column, “in the last five years”. The GSS also asks about the sex of the sexual partners you have had since eighteen; since one answer is “I have not had any sex partners”, this allows us to count the potential “incels” directly. The number of heterosexual men eighteen and over who have never had sex is 2.4%.
It gets even crazier. If we exclude men who are unmarried, but express a religious opposition to having pre-martial sex, the number drops to 1.3%. About half of the men who have never had sex are doing so entirely voluntarily.
The U.S. Census counts 109 million men over eighteen; the upper limit on the number of men who are incels is thus just a little over 1.3 million. Bear in mind that’s an upper limit; you’re not an incel if you just haven’t found someone you love yet. If this still sounds like a lot, if you restrict to twenty-five and over, then the number is 700,000.
To put this in perspective, there are 5.2 million Native Americans in the U.S., about four times more than the potential pool of incels.
But it is this latter group that has begun a series of terrorist attacks on the American population. It is this group whose grievances got attention and sympathy from reality-detached people like Ross Douthat and Robin Hanson. I will leave it to others to explain why.
Christopher Ingram in the Washington Post provides breathless claims of an incel epidemic, describing recent results from the 2018 GSS as showing “a big shift in American sex-having habits: the number not getting laid is at a record high.” You can read his version of the incel myth in his Twitter feed.
The short answer is that the story is a fiction driven by selection effects. You can see this in actual data (I’ve plotted 95% confidence bars—these are actually underestimates because of weighting).
I’ve also provided two other stories Ingram could have told. Unfortunately, these don’t fit the narrative that the Washington Post wants to spread.
Afternote. Liberalism has largely found itself immune to the charms of thinking that “sexual-access inequality”—access to someone else as a form of property—is a topic of political discussion at all. The idea has resonated with some on the left, however. “Personal preferences,” Amia Srinivasan writes in the London Review of Books, “are never just personal … Some men are excluded from the sexual sphere for politically suspect reasons.” Srinivasan focuses on the sexual politics of gay life; more broadly, she suggests that not liking someone sexually might be a form of discrimination (ageist, racial, etc) and thus fall unfairly upon some in a politically suspect way. The article is an essay in the original sense, rather than a political program or worldview in the style of Peterson, Hanson, Douthat, et al.
The most explicit voices (that I know of) on the left that do have a political program come from parts of the transgender community. The argument goes (roughly, and as I see it) like this: (1) transwomen are women, in all senses of the word, and to deny this is to do violence and political harm against this community; (2) to be a transwoman, it is not necessary to have genital surgery, i.e., a transwoman can have a penis; (3) any woman who identifies as a lesbian, but would not (as an aspect of her sexuality) be sexually attracted to a transwoman who has a penis, must be denying that her (potential) partner is a woman. By (1), this is politically suspect. In an extensive piece on the philosophical and social concerns of the lesbian community, Kathleen Stock writes that “[s]ome of [the transwomen who identify as lesbian] also think it is a morally suspect, ‘transphobic’ decision of female lesbians not to sleep with them. This is the phenomenon dubbed colloquially as ‘the cotton ceiling’.” Paralleling the case of the Incels, this political debate has turned violent, particularly in the United Kingdom. See Kathleen Stock’s Twitter feed (and references) for more on this. It’s probably a bad idea to treat sex as a political good.