“Incels” and the Meaning of Sex

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Events sometimes introduce new terminology into our public consciousness or draw attention to an obscure word, and the recent attack in Toronto, in which a man assaulted a group of women with his car out of anger about his present relationship status, has produced another: “incel,” or “involuntary celibate.” These two words, and the incident that brought them to the fore, say much about the present state of our culture.

The term here refers to a person who is not presently in a sexual relationship, but who wishes to be. Now, technically, this is an inaccurate use of the term “celibate.” I note this not to be pedantic, but because it is revealing.

In Catholic teaching, there are three “c” words that spell out different aspects of sexuality. “Chastity” is limiting sexual activity so as to fit one’s state of life, respecting the power of the sex drive and the natural consequences of the sexual act (i.e. children). “Celibacy” is that state in life that forgoes marriage for the sake of some other purpose. “Continence” is the lack of sexual activity. So, to put the words together properly, for the celibate, chastity requires continence.

In modern usage, however, the meaning of these terms has collapsed into one, so that they’re all taken to mean simply “not having sex.” With that, any coherent sense of the purpose behind Christian sexual morality has disappeared. The “why” of chastity and the meaning of celibacy are less well understood.


The revolutions that Western society has undergone in the last several decades have often been centered on sex. The political revolutionaries of the Sixties and Seventies held up “free love” as a hallmark of their anti-establishment agenda of self-actualization. And the advent of “the pill” made that agenda much more practically possible.

A culture that seeks to elevate the unencumbered (i.e., radically autonomous) individual above all else must necessarily have a radical view of sex, because sex at its root is an act that naturally leads to bonds and obligations. Sex is now seen as an act of self-actualization and fulfillment rather than as the sealing of a permanent relationship with lasting effects.

Thus even some Catholics have attempted to turn the distinction between the unitive and procreative aspects of the sexual act into a division. But this is an error. Separating the unitive from the procreative doesn’t simply separate out the two elements so that they stand independently – precisely because they can’t.

Rather, the unitive disintegrates and degenerates into pleasure-seeking – uniting for the moment rather than for life. When the notion of the living bond, the child, is completely removed from the equation or viewed as an accidental by-product, then what else is there but the feeling of the moment? And what in that feeling necessitates a lifelong bond, apart from sentiment? Sentiment is not a strong enough mortar to hold together any ethic.

As Ross Douthat observed in a recent column, when a society organizes itself around the principle of individual autonomy, and autonomy is defined as “having the right to do whatever I please,” and the sexual act becomes merely another pleasurable activity, then it is inevitable that some will come to see sex as a right, as something owed to them. And if they are not having sex, it is only because some unjust person or structure withholds it from them. There is no sense of a proper refraining from sexual activity, as in chaste continence.

This attitude manifests itself in different ways, from the man who commits murder in the name of answering this supposed injustice, to those who wish to monetize this phenomenon by reclassifying prostitution as “sex work” – just another service rendered, another commodity traded for cash.

Yet this is where the ideology buts up against nature and breaks apart. Sex is essentially a gift of self to another, and a gift can never be demanded as a right. Nor can another person. To say that one is owed sexual activity is to say either that one has at least a general claim on another person’s body, or that the other person involved in the act, their good and their fulfillment, is entirely irrelevant. (This is the case both with prostitutes, with whom there is only a transactional relationship, and the hellish specter of “sex robots,” which Douthat alludes to.) It necessarily turns sex into a dehumanizing act.

This mentality cannot comprehend celibacy, true celibacy, the conscious giving up of the goods of marriage for the sake of serving as a living sign of a higher good. Nor, really, can it see the sacrifices of marriage as anything more than a capitulation to bourgeois expectations. It cannot see that the very term “involuntary celibate” is a misnomer, a category mistake. Celibacy and marriage are prime examples of putting the other before the self and finding joy in that.

Should it be any wonder that, in such a selfish age, both are on the decline?

*Image: Allegory of Chastity by Hans Memling, c. 1480 [Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris]

Nicholas Senz is the Director of Children's and Adult Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, TX, where lives with his wife and two children. He holds master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. His website is nicholassenz.com.