On Wednesday, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat addressed the idea that people might advocate for a “right to sex,” and suggested that America might be more likely to look to prostitutes, sex robots, and to address sexual desire rather than the age-old wisdom of marriage. Douthat did not himself endorse this view, but he did predict that American society would favor a combination of leftist changes and sex robots.
“At a certain point, without anyone formally debating the idea of a right to sex, right-thinking people will simply come to agree that some such right exists, and that it makes sense to look for some combination of changed laws, new technologies and evolved mores to fulfill it,” Douthat predicted.
The New York Times contributor addressed the idea of “incels,” involuntary celibates — one of whom turned terrorist, seeking “retribution against women and society for denying him the fornication he felt that he deserved.” Douthat paraphrased Robin Hanson, a George Mason economist, who suggested that “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.”
Amia Srinivasan, in The London Review of Books, wondered, “Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?” Srinivasan suggested that the “right to sex” should extend, not just to less desirable angry young men, but to the overweight and disabled, minority groups considered unattractive, transgender people and more. She also argued that “who is desired and who isn’t is a political question,” one that feminist power politics should answer.
Douthat insisted that these arguments should not be dismissed as weird or crazy. As for the suggestion there might be a “right to sex,” “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 presented three reasons for this.
First, because like other forms of neoliberal deregulation the sexual revolution created new winners and losers, new hierarchies to replace the old ones, privileging the beautiful and rich and socially adept in new ways and relegating others to new forms of loneliness and frustration.
Second, because in this new landscape, and amid other economic and technological transformations, the sexes seem to be struggling generally to relate to one another, with social and political chasms opening between them and not only marriage and family but also sexual activity itself in recent decline.
Third, because the culture’s dominant message about sex is still essentially Hefnerian, despite certain revisions attempted by feminists since the heyday of the Playboy philosophy — a message that frequency and variety in sexual experience is as close to a summum bonum as the human condition has to offer, that the greatest possible diversity in sexual desires and tastes and identities should be not only accepted but cultivated, and that virginity and celibacy are at best strange and at worst pitiable states.
Douthat argued that the “master narrative” established by Playboy founder Hugh Hefner “makes both the new inequalities and the decline of actual relationships that much more difficult to bear … which in turn encourages people, as ever under modernity, to place their hope for escape from the costs of one revolution in a further one yet to come, be it political, social or technological, which will supply if not the promised utopia at least some form of redress for the many people that progress has obviously left behind.”
This second sexual revolution, moving away from “free love” and toward a bureaucratic “right to sex,” has arguably already started, but in a more negative way. President Barack Obama unleashed a “sex bureaucracy” on college campuses, emphasizing the value of consent and devaluing the right of due process for the accused. While President Trump has begun dismantling this sex bureaucracy, it arguably helped spur the #MeToo movement.
Douthat did acknowledge, however, that there is an “alternative, conservative response.” He summarized the traditional sexual morality viewpoint “that our widespread isolation and unhappiness and sterility might be dealt with by reviving or adapting older ideas about the virtues of monogamy and chastity and permanence and the special respect owed to the celibate.”
The New York Times columnist said America is not likely to return to the value of marriage, however. “This is not the natural response for a society like ours,” he suggested. “Instead we tend to look for fixes that seem to build on previous revolutions, rather than reverse them.”
To his credit, Douthat suggested that this budding sexual revolution 2.0 would not be a “utopian reimagining of sexual desire” like Srinivasan suggested, nor “anything quite so formal as the pro-redistribution political lobby of Hanson’s thought experiment.”
Instead of these ridiculous suggestions, the columnist promoted the idea that Americans would turn to sex robots and prostitution. Seriously.
“But I expect the logic of commerce and technology will be consciously harnessed, as already in pornography, to address the unhappiness of incels,” Douthat wrote. “The left’s increasing zeal to transform prostitution into legalized and regulated ‘sex work’ will have this end implicitly in mind, the libertarian (and general male) fascination with virtual-reality porn and sex robots will increase as those technologies improve.”
Douthat acknowledged that “sex workers” and sex robots might not solve the pressures involved in the sexual revolution 2.0. “Whether sex workers and sex robots can actually deliver real fulfillment is another matter. But that they will eventually be asked to do it, in service to a redistributive goal that for now still seems creepy or misogynist or radical, feels pretty much inevitable,” he concluded.
Douthat, a conservative Roman Catholic, clarified on Twitter that he did not actually endorse these likely movements. As for the return to conservative values, the Times columnist noted, “few people seem to want that, organized religion is in decline, public Christian leadership is captured by partisanship, social cons haven’t figured out how to assimilate feminist insights. So odds of that response happening are low.”
Instead, he predicted a “commercial-technical approach dressed in the language of social justice and libertarianism.” To be clear, Douthat declared, in capital letters, “I THINK THIS APPROACH IS BAD. Worse than my own conservative ideas, worse than the feminist-egalitarian-utopian alternative. Frankly dystopian, in fact. But also the most likely near-future ‘fix’ eefor the problem of sexlessness.”
8. I THINK THIS APPROACH IS BAD. Worse than my own conservative ideas, worse than the feminist-egalitarian-utopian alternative. Frankly dystopian, in fact. But also the most likely near-future "fix" for the problem of sexlessness.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) May 3, 2018
Indeed, “sex workers” and sex robots are not nearly as unique and modern as some might suggest. Prostitution goes back thousands of years — at least as far as Judah, the son of the Bible Patriarch Jacob. As for sex robots, they may approximate the intimacy of sexual intercourse, but the lack of personality will not be easily brushed aside.
As Srinivasan noted, the human desire for sex is not just about the physical pleasure of coitus — it also involves a relational and emotional aspect that even the most effective sex robot will not be able to gratify. Theoretically, if such personality were created, it would pose serious problems as illustrated by the HBO show “Westworld.”
Marriage, by contrast, satisfies a great deal of the injustice of free love. While the complementary values of celibacy outside of marriage and devoted love within marriage may seem quaint and result in long denials of sexual pleasure, they solve the culture’s intense desire for clear consent and result in a more just distribution of sex, so to speak.
In marriage, the most attractive people only have sex with one other person, freeing up the pool for those who are less attractive to still find partners.
Furthermore, not only does marriage provide a powerful ground for consent, it also addresses the deep relational needs inherent in sexual desire. This gives marriage a powerful advantage over both sex workers and sex robots. Finally, marriage also provides a ready-made support system for children conceived from sexual intercourse.
Contrary to the technocratic suggestions presented in Douthat’s article, there really is no replacement for marriage. People can fool about with sex robots and sex workers, but these will not end up satisfying them in the same way marriage can. Furthermore, raising children is one of the most meaningful experiences available to human beings, and marriage enables, prepares parents for, and sustains them during the long and meaningful process of child-rearing.