In the wake of resurgent white nationalism and the events in Charlottesville, tiny pockets of the Internet have wondered aloud: can the violent, antisocial behavior of young men be blamed on sexual frustration?
This question isn’t new. Many have asked it about jihadis or school shooters like Eric Harris at Columbine. With each new instance of masculinity gone awry, we break out our doctorates in dime store psychology and attempt to diagnose the new patient.
Unfortunately, we amateur psychologists may be ignoring an inconvenient truth: that we are afflicted with the same disorder. Our symptoms just aren’t as severe. As our society increasingly shuns any social contracts associated with sex and sexuality, we risk increasing dysfunction as individuals and as a whole.
Many Agree: Neo-Nazis Are Sexual Failures
Following the events in Charlottesville, one of the quickest conclusions onlookers of all stripes drew was that the Unite the Right protesters were losers. They most likely still lived in their parents’ basements and couldn’t get a girl if they tried.
The most notable and immediate was that of actor and comedian Michael Rapaport. In a colorful sidewalk rant, he mocked the men, calling them “Revenge of the Nerds” protesters and taunting them, “It’s Friday night, try to get to second base with a girl, you [expletive] loser.” Paul Bois, writer at The Daily Wire, points out the amusing link between the Polynesian origin of tiki torches and the protesters’ “lack of sexual prowess.”
In a bold piece whose title I can’t repeat here, author Dana Schwartz responds to alt-right protesters’ claims that their actions in Charlottesville made them more sexually desirable to women. Pulling no punches, she proclaims, “If you’re a 20-year-old pretending to be a Nazi, you’re not a bad boy; you’re a racist virgin so humiliated by his own sexual inadequacy and terrified at rejection that you’ll blame your feelings of weakness on some unseen Liberal Agenda.”
She goes as far as to say, “First and foremost, the neo-Nazi alt-right movement is about racism. Second, it’s about sexual insecurity.” Although they go about it in different ways, all parties seem to agree on one thing: these alt-right protesters are sexual failures. Many believe no self-respecting woman would sleep with these men—and this rejection is part of the reason they’re lashing out.
In noting these protesters’ sexual undesirability is a tacit admission that sexual acceptance is a measure of a man’s worth. A man who can gain women’s attention has no need to rebel against society because he’s achieved a certain level of success. In this way, being able to get sexual attention is a symbol of social legitimacy. Those who can’t must have something wrong with them.
This is where our illness and theirs intersects. To blame racism and anti-social behavior on “lack of sex” is a stark indictment of how we’ve reduced an awe-inspiring element of our humanity to a meaningless consumer good.
‘Your Primary Sexual Relationship Is With Yourself’
For most of human history in most societies, sex was not a uniquely personal act. Obligations like marriage, children, family, and societal expectations accompanied it. The effects of cheating on your spouse, having sex before marriage, or siring an illegitimate child were understood to have ripple effects beyond the individual. In other words, sex bore social and practical consequences. That is still true for millions around the world today.
However, in the West, we are still reaping the fruit of the sexual revolution. With contraception, pornography, and our normalization of divorce and extramarital sex, sexuality has been unhinged from obligation. Sex is not selfless, committed intimacy with another person—it’s just another tool that we use to express ourselves. As one sex therapist puts it, “Your primary sexual relationship is with yourself.”
So when we are tempted to tease these men as pathetic virgins, we do so in part because we live in a culture where sexual fulfillment is essential to self-realization. We believe that without sex, these men lack real understanding of the world or themselves.
Does Recreational Sex Hinder Self-Awareness?
The problem with this perspective is that we’ve conflated sex with meaningful human relationships, particularly for men. We want socially immature young men to become more self-aware and be less antisocial. Our culture thinks having sex is key to this outcome.
But sex has too long been removed from the social and relational obligations that actually make it a transformative experience. Stripped of its intimacy and emotional complexity, sex has just become recreational—and therefore lost much of its humanizing power.
Theologian Harvey Cox explains this phenomenon beautifully his 1961 essay, “Playboy’s Doctrine of Male.” He details how the rise of Playboy and pornography have promoted a lifestyle where uncommitted sex is like enjoying fine wine or knowing how to choose the right suit—it’s a consumer product. Through this mentality, “They dilute and dissipate authentic sexuality by reducing it to an accessory, by keeping it at a safe distance.”
Both sexual relationships and healthy social relationships are a give and take; they require vulnerability and exposure. But, as Cox puts it, “The story of man’s refusal to be so exposed goes back to the story of Eden and is expressed by man’s desire to control the other rather than to be with the other. It is basically the fear to be one’s self, a lack of the ‘courage to be.’”
White nationalists—and many other young men—want social approval and sexual fulfillment, but not the responsibility these require. They lack the emotional tools to coexist with people they don’t understand. Then when they sense rejection, they lash out even more. Their problem is not unrealized sexuality, but unrealized humanity. The bottom line is that these men—and our world writ large—have lost sight of what it means to be men. The conflation of sexual success with male identity does nothing to bring it into focus.
As Cox so eloquently observes, “this futile attempt to reduce the mysterium tremendum of the sexual fails to solve the problem of being a man. For sexuality is the basic form of all human relationships, and therein lies its terror and its power.”
Stunted emotional growth does not excuse the evil ideology the alt-right spouts. However, their failure to build meaningful emotional relationships with women adds to the isolation and rejection they already feel. With no healthy expectations for their masculinity, they’ll continue to harness their efforts on violence against those that reject them. And what is violence against the weak but a terrible misuse of man’s God-given responsibility and strength?