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1 October 2021

Why the alt-right is obsessed with sexuality

Neofascism wants to regiment our desires.

By Richard Seymour

As US troops withdrew from Afghanistan in August, Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked why the Taliban had won. “The people of Afghanistan,” he speculated to viewers, “don’t actually want gender studies symposia… They don’t hate their masculinity. They don’t think it’s toxic. They like the patriarchy.” What he called the “neoliberal programme” of equal rights was “grotesque”, “contrary to human nature,” and answered “none of our deepest human desires”. He added, almost wistfully: “so now they’re getting it all back”.

Carlson is only the most prominent voice blaming America’s decline on sexual liberalism. On the alt-right forum Gab, users agree that the US lost its war in Central Asia because it was no longer the same country that invaded in 2001 – a “Christian nation” that outlawed gay marriage, considered trans people “mentally ill” and banned gays from the military. Memes by Taliban supporters around the world adopt a strikingly similar attitude, depicting Islam as a defender of the patriarchal family against gay rights, feminism and other “woke” ideologies.

[see also: The Taliban has taken lessons from the global jihadist movement]

The alt-right is jubilant over the Taliban’s return to power because it is a sign that sexual liberalism has been defeated. A post on the Telegram service run by supporters of the neofascist group Proud Boys praised the Taliban for taking “their nation back from globohomo”. They were referring to a supposed “Globalist-Homosexual agenda”, an alleged left-wing conspiracy to destroy white men. This meme was also cited by the perpetrator of a ghastly massacre at two mosques in New Zealand in 2019.

The global far right is saturated with theories of sexual evil. For incels (the “involuntary celibate” movement), the erotically successful American – caricatured as “Chad”, “Stacy” and “Tyrone” – enjoys a sexual despotism over lonely single men. The far right also obsesses over treacherous Muslims luring Hindu girls to embrace Islam – what Hindu nationalists calllove jihad”. It is consumed by conspiracy theories around “leftist paedophiles”, child sex trafficking “across continents, through the Vatican, and underneath the cover of charities and child protective services” (as a QAnon bestseller puts it), “gender ideology” out to “destroy the innocence of our children”, and fake reports of “gay kits” in Brazilian schools featuring baby-bottles with penis-shaped teats. These fantasies usually come with an apocalyptic impulse that licenses extreme violence, from vigilante episodes, to mob violence and state repression in India, to incel massacres across the US and now Britain – in August this year, a gunman linked to the incel movement shot and killed five others and then himself.

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[see also: Why the Plymouth shooting was preventable]

The new far right is particularly galvanised by a conspiracy theory which believes that “gender ideology” is destroying civilisation. From the Catholic right in Poland to evangelicals in Brazil, reactionaries have declared “gender ideology” a Marxist-inspired attack on traditional male and female sex roles. This fight has been the “symbolic glue“, as the gender studies scholar Andrea Pető put it, cementing together religious rightists, secular nationalists, militarists and fascists. In 2016, the alarm over “gender ideology” was even used by right-wingers to sink a peace deal between the Colombian government and the guerrilla Farc group, because it included LGBT rights. Whatever the issue, deviant sexuality acts as a node in which all kinds of fear and loathing gather and are raised to boiling point.

Frequently, these sexual terrors fuse in volatile ways. This summer, violent protests erupted in the streets of Los Angeles after a video was circulated on social media showing a woman complaining about a “man with a penis” in the women’s section of the Wi Spa in the city. The “man” had allegedly exposed her penis to “the other women” and “young little girls underage”. When another customer suggested that the “man” might be a trans woman, she said “there is no such thing as transgender”. According to America’s moral panic about trans people, laws allowing trans women to access women’s spaces gives perverts and paedophiles complete licence to act on their desires. This is the strategy of homophobes who have historically linked gay men to paedophilia, while also leveraging the American tradition of moral panic over predators.

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The video was amplified by rightist websites such as Breitbart and the Blaze, and by Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. A protest, advertised as the “Wi Spa Anti-Pervert Protest,” drew in the notoriously thuggish Proud Boys. “Arrest all the pedos”, protest signs said. Others bore the QAnon slogan, “save our children”. In a bonus for the entrepreneurs of sex panic, it was later reported that the trans woman in question has a history of indecent exposure. However, the transphobic backlash had no more waited for this revelation than it will now judiciously weigh its conclusions based on the evidence. Nor did it conceal its hostility to trans people as figures of deviant sexuality.

[see also: The symbolic politics of Judith Butler are all very well, but sometimes reality interjects]

What does this new far right actually want? Why does neofascism put so much emphasis on regimenting sexuality? Is it a matter of male entitlement, as most analyses of the incel movement argue? Is this a movement of straight white men restoring their traditional privileges? Up to a point. “Women want to be conquered,” the alt-right activist Markus Willinger writes. “Men want to win a woman who is worth the effort” – a “beautiful princess” not a “scowling feminist or a jutting man-jaw”. The TradWife fetish, celebrating submissive femininity, instantiates this ideal. There is also some evidence that alt-right attitudes find their strongest base among men who have been divorced by their wives.

However, there are problems with this picture. As the political scientist Robyn Marasco argues, contemporary fascism offers women access to exactly the sort of “transgressive … destructive impulses and antisocial forces” that the 20th-century Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich argued were typical of fascism. Women have long been important organisers in far-right movements. But whereas traditional conservative antifeminism offered women the security of patriarchal control, today’s fascism offers women celebrity, prestige, and even the chance to become “martyrs”, as when former Air Force officer Ashli Babbitt was shot by a plain clothes police officer as she tried to storm the Capitol building on 6 January. There, in the mob violence incited by Donald Trump, women fully participated in what Reich, writing in the 1930s, called the fascist amalgamation of “rebellious emotions and reactionary social ideas”, the mentality of she who “is enslaved and craves authority and is at the same time rebellious”.

Neofascism offers some gay men a similar depth-charge of transgressive violence. For example, the fascist writer Jack Donovan celebrates a version of what the radical conservative Hans Blüher called the “Männerbünde”. As someone against gay identity rooted in a civilisation too “complex, cosmopolitan, individualistic” and disunited to sustain real manliness, Donovan enjoins a tribal, homosocial bonding he calls “androphilia”. “The repudiation of violent masculinity,” he insists, “is the murder of male identity.”

The core metaphysical obsession guiding this violence, as the sociologist Chetan Bhatt argues, is the fear of “white extinction”. Intellectuals of the far right draw a direct relationship between deviant sex and a threat to white men. The “deconstruction of the European male”, writes Swedish neofascist Daniel Friberg, is the sharp edge of the “left’s project of destruction”. He excoriates “the ridiculous pseudoscience of ‘gender studies” as the latest weapon in this offensive. Following a similar logic, a series of governments, in Hungary, Romania and Brazil, have effectively banned gender studies. The French “New Right” propagandist Guillaume Faye agrees that European societies have been lured by leftist propaganda into “sexual confusion” by removing the supposedly traditional prohibition on “homophilia”, “inter-ethnic unions”, and “legal homosexual unions”: acts tantamount to “ethno-masochism”. He blames this for the decline in the European family and, concomitantly, the falling birth rate. In fact, the declining birth rate is part of a wider transition following a similar decline in death rates, but demographic obsessions haunt contemporary fascism. “It’s the birth rates,” the Christchurch murderer’s “manifesto” insisted. “It’s the birth rates. It’s the birth rates.” White revival requires bringing sexuality under control.

Yet, buried in the obsession with demographics, is also a question of desire. In The Happiness Industry, the sociologist Will Davies defines modern depression as a generalised collapse of desire. Today’s situation of anomie, characterised by loneliness, melancholia, declining sociability and a declining libido – a spiritual and social crisis whose roots run deep into neoliberalism – could be called a depression. As the historian Dagmar Herzog has shown, the Third Reich responded to a similar civilisational malaise with a programme of selective permissiveness. Liberating collective violence for “Ayrans”, it also relaxed the grip of Christian moralism, encouraged “healthy” (non-Jewish) sexuality, and promoted adolescent sex.

Writing in The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), Wilhelm Reich argued that the fascist mentality thrived on the sexual repressiveness of the authoritarian family: but the Nazis relaxed such repression for some, as long as their sexuality was congruent with the social and political goals of the Third Reich. Given the secular decline of patriarchy, neofascism does not have this option. Rather, its call to white revivalism aims to restore sexual desire by reviving dying prohibitions. It offers to fulfil what Carlson called our “deepest human desires” by treating them as a desire for hierarchy and dominance. It caters to the desire to know one’s place again.