a Black woman in a light brown jacket and puffy black vest walks by the window of an adult video store. through the window a sign is visible reading "peep show inside!" in red block text on an off-white background
A woman walks in front of a sex shop in New York, Dec. 18, 2008. Experts say growing numbers of Americans, are defying consumer gloom to spice up their love lives, making the so-called pleasure industry one of the few retail sectors to end the year with a smile. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images)

Less than a week after a self-proclaimed incel pleaded guilty to plotting a mass shooting in which he planned to “slaughter” 3,000 women “out of hatred, jealousy and revenge,” former Philadelphia congressional candidate Alexandra Hunt took to Twitter to argue that men should have a “right to sex.”

“Young men aren’t having sex!” Hunt began, catastrophizing the outcomes of a 2019 study that showed a growing number of people are having less sex. According to Hunt, “this kind of statistic is a sign of much deeper problems.” Her thread continued and ultimately argued, “We should be moving toward a right to sex. People should be able to have sex when they feel they want to, and we need to develop services that meet people’s needs without attaching the baggage of shame or criminalization.”

Hunt went on to explicitly offer up the decriminalization of sex work as a remedy for what she sees as the problem of men having less sex. She tweeted, “A right to bear arms [is made up of] different supports in place to bear arms. A right to sex is [made up of] different supports in place to have sex … through decriminalizing sex work, funding sex education, and creating outreach programs for young people to develop healthy sexual habits.” 

A research study on men who engage with sex workers found that the men “narrated their purchase of sex as attempts to exercise or lay claim to male power, privilege, and authority.” The participants “drew on conventional heterosexual masculine scripts” and revealed that engaging sex workers was “motivated by a sense of failure to successfully align with classed and gendered norms of hegemonic masculinity.” Therefore, their “purchase of sex was an attempt to ‘feel like a man again.’” Offering sex workers to pacify men (and comparing them to weapons in Hunt’s case—objects one can own) only plays into detrimental ideas surrounding both masculinity and sex work, leading to further abuse of sex workers. 

Not only did Hunt incorrectly summarize the study she cited—inaccurately claiming that approximately “a third of men under 30 have not had sex” at all while the study actually measured the number of people age 18-30 who reported not having sex within the last year—but she also regurgitated the same moral panic and sexual shame that has characterized much of the news reporting on the so-called “sex recession” among young Americans in recent years. This rhetoric places the absence of partnered sexual activity at the root of a host of problems, asserting that people should have more sex to help fix these issues without applying a critical lens on why so much emphasis is placed on sex to begin with. 

Hunt stated that “men who do not have sex suffer—they are less likely to be a part of the labor force, and more likely to experience depression, nihilism, and other mental health issues.” In a longer follow-up statement posted later, Hunt expanded on her concerns, writing “[r]esearch shows that when men (and particularly young men) aren’t having sex, they have more anxiety and depression, fewer meaningful romantic relationships and friendships, lessened participation in the workforce, a declining rate of college attendance, and lower rates of home ownership.” This explains why, even though the cited study includes both (presumably cis) men and women, Hunt only focuses on men in her arguments. What is central to Hunt’s logic is a colonial view of manhood and masculinity, as well as home ownership and breadwinning.

In our society, which is both hypersexual and sexually repressive, sexual activity is moralized, used as a marker of maturity and adulthood, and regarded as a requirement for productivity and health. Partnered sexual activity is also considered necessary to bolster our capitalist system. In 2019, CNBC reported that “America’s sex recession could lead to an economic depression.” According to the article, “The real threat to the U.S. economy may be that fewer Americans are in the mood for sex … Enduring reports of America’s sexual recession are a sign of a serious problem for a wide-ranging list of sectors from real estate, to apparel, to condoms.”

The fourth chapter of my book, “Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture,” takes a critical look at this “sex recession” as well as the moral and financial panic surrounding it. 

Anxiety about the sex recession among young people is also anxiety about an accompanying decrease in marriage, nuclear family making, and home ownership. All of these things are intimately related and impact our economy, especially because they are so easily capitalized on. Those invested in the capitalist system work to convince us that these things are necessary parts of life and that participation in them makes us mature adults and “productive” members of society. As [Elizabeth] Freeman writes, “In the eyes of the state, this sequence of socioeconomically ‘productive’ moments is what it means to have a life at all.” Therefore, cisheterosexual sex itself becomes a means of productivity because it is understood to ultimately lead to marriage, procreation, and nuclear families, all of which are integral to patriarchal and white supremacist capitalist systems.

Hunt would later admit that “right to sex” was the incorrect language to use, but her terminology was not the only issue. It was also, and primarily, the logic behind it. Beyond avowing the simple truth that no person has a “right” to the sexual use of another person’s body, it is also necessary to make explicit that the panic underlying the erroneous claim that “young men aren’t having sex!” is informed by compulsory sexuality and heteropatriarchal ideals of sexuality and relationships. 

Compulsory sexuality is an “assumption that all people are sexual.” This assumption also propagates the myth that those who are not sexually active are defective humans in some way—whether they abstain from sex by choice or due to circumstance. Therefore, it creates pressure to participate in partnered sexual activity, even when it is not genuinely desired, to be perceived as “normal” and “healthy.” In a culture that prescribes sexual conquest as a core feature of masculinity and equates sexual power with social and financial power, it creates immense pressure for men to be sexually active and perform a particular sexuality. As a direct result, men who are not sexually active—and, therefore, not “masculine” enough—are made to feel sexual shame.

A 2017 study on sexual desire found that men feel pressured to feign interest in sex to align with a “masculine sexual desire.” Men reported that their performed sexual desires did not accurately depict their genuine sexual desires. The study revealed three significant patterns: men feel pressure to perform sexual desire in ways that make them appear more masculine, men feel pressure to agree to all sexual opportunities presented, and men feel pressure to initiate sex even when they are not sexually aroused. This is what compulsory sexuality looks like for a lot of men. Ultimately, the study “supports a small but growing body of literature finding that at least some men are ready to move away from traditional sexual norms and expectations, [and] suggests that current masculine norms and expectations may be too restricting for men and their true sexual experiences.”

It seems that Hunt, on some level, recognizes that the idea of sex being necessary to fuel a man’s sense of masculinity and productivity is harmful to their emotional well-being, as she cites mental health consequences in her argument. But, ultimately, she chose not to advocate for moving away from those rigid ideas to help men foster a healthier relationship to their masculinity that does not center on partnered sex. She instead strongly reinforced preexisting norms by advocating for “moving toward a right to sex” and focusing on helping men better adhere to the detrimental social mandate of sexual achievement, directly linking it with a man’s social and financial achievements. 

In her statement, Hunt went on to say, “I care because I know it’s a sign of a much deeper issue hurting everyone in our country. That issue is class warfare … the impact is so severe that even young men—who have previously thrived in a country built for their success—are feeling the pressure. Stress is a pretty major cock block, as most women know.” It’s an argument that: 1) presumes that more sex is what all young men desire and need, and 2) suggests that, if only young men had more access to partnered sex, then they would also have access to better mental health and interpersonal relationships, as well as participate more in the workforce, attend more college, and own more homes. A man’s access to sex is framed as the key to everything else men are expected to have access to “in a country built for their success.”

Hunt’s declaration that anyone should have a “right to sex”—while centering it around men—was only the surface of her entire frame of logic. Though she retracted the words “right to sex” in a later statement, it does not negate the foundation her ideology rested on. The argument began from a harmful place; the idea that men’s access to sex is a direct determinant of their interpersonal and financial outcomes. The idea that men who do not have partnered sex—consistently or at all—will not live up to their full social and financial potential does not help anyone. An expectation for men to form their entire existence around their ability to access sex, simply because they are men, is more damaging and dehumanizing to them than many of us are willing to admit.

Order “Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture” here.

Sherronda J. Brown is a Southern-grown essayist, editor, storyteller, and the author of Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture.