News that Alek Minnasian, the man behind the Toronto van massacre that killed 10 people (mostly women) and wounded over a dozen more, was an “incel” — short for involuntary celibate, aka, can’t get laid — has surfaced some troubling beliefs about men and sex that sound a little something like this: Men “need” sex. Men who can’t get it are losers. Not getting any can actually make a man sick. Extreme sexual frustration can drive extreme violence.
There’s a difference between just being temporarily sexually inactive due to a medical reason or lack of a relationship versus say, a vow of abstinence or a lifelong bout of bad luck attracting a partner. One is accidental, the other is a choice. But the choice makes all the difference. And “incels,” as they’re discussed in the media, refers to a niche group of people who can’t get laid because they’re simply unable to court female attention. As a result, they gather in online forums to spew misogynistic theories about male sexual entitlement that almost makes standard-issue toxic masculinity look endearing.
This nuance aside, we’ve long believed that any man who can’t get sex will suffer, not just emotionally or psychologically, but physically. Blue balls have long been presented to unsuspecting women as a medical emergency it’s her job to relieve. But beyond this, there’s an entrenched cultural belief that men must have sex or else they’ll die.
Early writings on the subject go back to 1123, when a few decades after compulsory celibacy was introduced to the clergy of Wales, an archdeacon, Gerald of Wales, began warning of its ill effects. Medieval historian Katherine Harvey explores Gerald’s writing, who told the tale of a fellow archdeacon of Louvain who became “seriously ill” within months of becoming celibate.
“His genital organs swelled up with immeasurable flatulence,” Harvey notes, adding that he was told to “take a woman to himself.” Unfortunately for him, Gerald’s friend chose salvation over earthly release, and died within a couple of days. Those aren’t the only historical examples of men paying a high price for not getting any tail, according to Harvey:
Several saint-bishops, including Thomas Becket, were apparently advised by their doctors that they should abandon celibacy for the sake of their health—although they always refused to do so. Non-clerics were also at risk, especially if they went on prolonged military campaigns. Louis VII of France became ill after spending two months besieging a Burgundian town, and his doctors agreed that ‘prolonged abstinence from sexual intercourse had cause his indisposition.’ One account of the Third Crusade claimed that ‘A hundred thousand men died there/ Because from women they abstained.’
Harvey says such thinking fits with the current medical approach of the time, which believed that, just as the four humors of blood, phlegm and yellow and black biles must be kept balanced, semen was also thought to build up in the body. If not expelled regularly, it could lead to minor problems like headaches or depression, and major problems like dying. Regular sex for men was considered essential; masturbation was even recommended for the celibate man to address this semen backup.
But neither is actually required for good prostate health, and modern medicine has since figured out that the body has a mechanism for release when there is no sexual activity. “When the seminal vesicles get filled with ejaculatory fluid, there’s a spontaneous contraction of those muscles, a spontaneous emission sometimes called a ‘wet dream,’” urologist Dudley Danoff, author of the Ultimate Guide to Male Sexual Health, tells me by phone. “In sexually active men, the seminal vesicles are empty at almost all times, and spontaneous emissions disappear. Nocturnal emissions are most common in boys in early puberty when they’re developed, but for psychological and social reasons haven’t been with a partner. In that group, it might happen as often as twice a week.”
In other words, if you don’t have sex or masturbate, your prostate will kick out the jams all by itself. We associate this with horny teenage boys who can’t get any, but in reality it happens to any sexually active man who isn’t having sex or masturbating.
Because the body has a self-releasing mechanism, there’s no swelling or buildup that will lead to illness or death, much less one women are responsible for taking care of as a big-ups to humanity. And what’s more, Danoff explains, your body doesn’t care how you’re getting that release, as long as you get it. “The autonomous, non-reflexive brain doesn’t care if you’re ejaculating by masturbation, oral, anal or vaginal sex,” he says. “An ejaculation is an ejaculation.”
It’s not that having sex isn’t a good or recommended thing for optimal health. The benefits of regular sex — from immune-system building to better sleep — are well-documented. It’s just that not having sex doesn’t mean you can’t get those benefits and will go stark raving mad as a result. It just means you’ll have to get them from somewhere else.
“We tell men to exercise the prostate,” Danoff says. “That men should have a lot of sex for cardiovascular health, psychological and prostate health. But the prostate part is more myth than fact.”
Not to mention the fact that if not fucking or jerking off were some kind of health crisis, then Catholic priests would die more often from prostate cancer than any other population. Yet in one study, Catholic priests were found to have a 30 percent lower mortality rate from cancer overall than the non-celibate population.
Of course, there are psychological effects from being celibate against your will, like anxiety, depression, frustration and loneliness. And if we bring this back to late-stage virgins who threaten the foundation of society, it’s worth noting that society has found it beneficial for us as a whole for men to be partnered up over being single in general.
Some studies suggest that monogamy actually reduces crime, including rape, murder and substance abuse. Such rates go up in polygamous societies where, because men are permitted multiple wives, the number of single men increases. In other words, wherever in the world there are more men than women, and therefore more single men, there’s generally greater instability. (See modern-day China.) Just being married reduces the chance of criminal behavior for a man by 35 percent. The reasons for this are myriad, but among them is less time spent with other men to get into weird criminal shit, greater social connections and greater attachment to others.
Men who’ve tried and failed to maintain relationships with women are also significantly more likely to commit crime. One study found that men who divorced before age 26 were more likely to be convicted of a crime within five years. The same group of men were studied decades later, and researchers found that those who divorced at any point before age 60 had an 18 percent higher rate of criminal conviction. Those who remained married had an 80 percent lower conviction rate. The researchers noted that such criminal men, freed from the constraints of relationships and therefore larger societal obligation, literally had nothing to lose.
And while plenty of men who are involuntarily celibate don’t go around murdering people, some of them do, like Minnasian and his fellow incel Elliot Rodger. Rodger made headlines in 2014 as the half-white, half-Asian University of Santa Barbara shooter who was extremely mad about still being a virgin at 22. As a result, he targeted Asian men and white women in a rampage fueled by some pretty disturbing ideas about what he saw as a utopia of sexual activity for men and women perpetually out of his reach.
Underpinning both of these cases is the assumption that men deserve sex simply because it’s desired, and some reactions prove we would be remiss not to accept that men who don’t have proper outlets for their sexual energy will be up to no good. Andrew Sullivan’s recent tirade against the #MeToo movement indicted feminism for fundamentally misreading the fact of male aggression and horniness. In Sullivan’s view, it’s something men simply can’t help and that women just won’t accept, at their peril.
But as many people rushed to point out in the wake of the Rodger case, and likely will in connection with Minnasian, getting laid wouldn’t have necessarily prevented either man from becoming violent. The idea that if such men could just get laid they wouldn’t have killed innocent people ignores the fact that men who can get laid in the first place do so because they’re capable of human connection.
In other words, men like Minnasian and Rodger can’t get laid because they lack the social skills to forge intimacy. “If Rodger had the capacity to be in a real, loving relationship I would imagine that he would have been much less capable of such callous behavior towards others,” psychotherapist Laura Miller told CBS in the wake of the shootings. “His disconnect from the humanity of others and their inherent worth would likely preclude any such relationship from occurring. So I don’t think having a girlfriend or sex is the issue here, but rather a direct result of his lack of self-awareness and lack of empathy towards those around him.”
In other words, these disturbed dudes who didn’t get sex mistake the sex chicken for the sex egg. They put the blame on lack of sex when lack of sex is a result of their inability to connect with others. The last thing we should do in trying to make sense of their crimes is make the same mistake.