In light of the recent attack on Canadian soil, conversations about mental illness, involuntary celibacy and its effect on society started to pop up everywhere, from television to Ellen Pao implying companies should pry into employee’s lives, to gamedev and music communities I’m involved with and close friends. Given how seriously everyone has been taking the issue all of a sudden, the first thing that came to mind was that absolutely no one was bringing up these troubled young men or giving them a second thought until one of them killed 10 people with a van since Elliot Rodger in 2014. Made me wonder how much of a dangerous precedent the media is setting for marginalized groups, in that the only time we give them airtime is when something big and often lethal is done by radicals, and how further away the exposure will push the milder ones from being able to find help in friends and family, right into the welcoming arms of their own in the Internet.
A visit to any incel watercooler will bring you a variety of shades of bitterness and gross misunderstandings about human interactions. Pick any time of the day to do so, and the result will be the same. Assuming you’re healthy, it’s not going to be the newspeak that will make it all foreign to you, but the ideas themselves. Nothing quite screams Madonna-Whore Complex as the word “roastie”, in my opinion. What might surprise you is that somewhere in between that concept and the master key/shitty lock analogy that we all, unfortunately, are familiar with, we find the metric men are measured by too. Men and women are still judged by sex (appeal or quantity) as a metric of value as human beings, first by others, then by themselves. The direction of the arrow changes due to countless factors (for example, an asymmetry in demand between the sexes), but the toxic effects work very similarly.
It’s important to have in mind that, as with any fringe groups, mental illness may play a role. It’s not unusual to find among incels people whose perceived reason for being unable to find a mate in the opposite sex is being unable to read social cues or responding to them appropriately, which makes both regular dates and dating app experiences tricky. Those are also traits that are found on a high functioning subdivision of the Autism spectrum known as Asperger’s sydrome. And here is the kicker: it’s easy to get fooled by how Hollywood portrays them as robot-like misunderstood geniuses, but a UK survey of diagnosed Asperger’s syndrome cases showed a staggering 66% rate of respondents with suicidal thoughts . To put it into perspective, that is 10 times as much as the average adult.
Now, guess who has Asperger’s, a bunch of “manchild” hobbies, and two thumbs? This guy. That’s why I think I can offer a little insight on this: the awareness with the wrong upbringing and mindset, maybe I could have been one of them too, complaining about how I’m too short or my knees are too pointy to qualify as an “alpha” to the only people who’ll listen.
As a male, over the course of almost 30 years I have been in multiple situations where I was told, by peers, superiors, family, etc. to walk off anxiety, physical and emotional pain as to not bother anyone else, or to live up to the ideal of what a “real man” is supposed to be. Real men don’t cry, show signs of fear or pain. Real men need to provide even when not appreciated. Real men always put women first. Real men die for their country. Real men should just deal with whatever the problem may be, even if the problem is other people’s expectations of you as a male.
Telling someone to “man up” is a great way to reinforce these negative values. Being frustrated, or wanting someone to act like a grown up is a constant reality for anyone dealing with kids, teens and just about anyone on Twitter. The “man” part is what’s so bad about the saying; the interpretation people walk away with is not just that they are being immature, but rather that one is not a man until this or that standard is met. It’s the male equivalent to “close one’s eyes and think of England”, but it’s thrown at them at many situations other than sex. For whose sake is it that boys are told that they’re not complete or worthy of respect as a member of their gender unless they meet a number of conditions? Could it be that both expressions are being used for someone else’s sake, to push desired actions onto people who would otherwise resist them having in mind their own well-being?
I didn’t fall for it as hard as I could, or I wouldn’t have the self-awareness required to write this, but this caveman conditioning is strong enough that part of me feels like writing this is pointless as I’m doing it, in spite of the fact I believe there is insight to be found in men sharing experiences openly that could prevent further loss of life. Several guys I know had a similar path with what is now known as “toxic masculinity”. A friend mentioned that constantly being told not to show emotions essentially turns into not feeling them on a surface level anymore, and I agree, which is why I think the issue with incels is a little deeper than their proximity to available and willing women.
My view is that what got them radicalized wasn’t just the lack of sexual intimacy of women, but it was the idea that they needed that intimacy to validate them in the first place, that they’re flawed to the extent of being broken without it; these young men don’t have the frame of reference necessary to assess their problem objectively. And here is what’s so messed up: they were given incomplete knowledge and told to be nicer, to be kinder, to be mindful and that would make it all be alright. They were also told not to expect anything in return, but that if they met a certain standard, women would naturally flock to them. They were told that sexual prowess and possessions are the only way for them to be truly validated, by both media and their peers.
Allow me to skip a massive rant of Hollywood and Hip Hop and go straight at why I don’t even blame the latter for not getting it: for people who don’t have the issue, someone not getting laid at all is unthinkable, and has to be the result of at least one of many factors such as being a jerk to women, not dressing in a specific way, being boring or weird to talk to, etc. Given or taken as cookbook recipes, these reduce women to objects that need to be rubbed a specific way to get interested in somebody. Sure, they’re general guidelines, but they’re also an attempt at describing a framework completely foreign to incels, and very often, as effective as telling small children about the stock market: while fascinating as a topic, it doesn’t really add much to their lives at that point because most of the fundamentals functional adults take for granted are missing. I’m just going to say it: presenting romantic interaction as a game where some choices will lead to sexual encounters is borderline dehumanizing, and I say this as someone who works in Visual Novels.
Now, how exactly do people figure telling impressionable young men they’re worthless unless they get sex and gamifying the whole thing won’t lead to them seeing women as objects? If vaginas aren’t a prize, why do we teach boys to go after girls like they must be convinced to share this wonderful gift they were born with? Why are girls princesses, and guys have to sweep them off their feet, instead of both being people that get horny on occasion (and even on places like Tinder, men are still expected to initiate and keep them interested)? Why are we surprised at all about these people feeling disenfranchised?
Worst of all, the people on the other side who could actually give them the best insight on how to be more attractive are not interested in helping, mostly because they’re not trained nurses, but young girls living their own lives. Perfectly understandable: women don’t owe men their time, friendship and support any more than they owe them sex. But without any level of contact with women at a dating age that actually engage them in conversation, and alienated from their peers who are sexually active by feelings of inferiority, all that is left is to either internalize everything or to go talk to other guys in the same situation, who clearly don’t have the solution either.
Now, far from me to put all the blame of a complex problem in a handful of factors: fasten on your seatbelts, we’re going all the way to anecdotes.
Interactions with strangers that leave a mark on you are often the negative ones, because as far as courtesy, it’s something we take for granted. I’ve gotten into my fair share of arguments over the years due to being on the Internet and all while committing the crime of having opinions. Many women will tell you what they tend to experience in verbal altercations with the opposite gender is sexism right off the bat. Usually, first thing people bring up in arguments with men, whether they’re men or not, is sex itself. It’s always a matter of you not being enough of a man (often with homophobic accusations tied in), being a virgin in a basement, etc. To most of us, it’s easy to brush it off; firstly, because it’s just a bunch of words on a screen, and secondly, that person doesn’t really know you.
But it’s not as easy to Timmy, who got raised by a single mom, never had a girlfriend, doesn’t have friends. At some point you studied with someone like Timmy, but probably haven’t thought about him since.
When he was younger, his mom taught him to be nice to women and encouraged her little gentleman with her time, affection and praise. Aware of what she was doing or not, his mom taught him how not to be his father, who wasn’t around at all; in many aspects, we can assume that was a net positive, but as anything in life, not having any sort of paternal influence can lead to an imbalance in one’s perception of the world.
His mom’s friends also thought he was an adorable young man, and so it was a bit of a shock when girls his age told him he was creepy, and at any point stopped to explain that kids are cruel, or why his behavior was not acceptable. It might have occurred to Timmy that the girls might have just thought he was not attractive, because the same behavior from a better looking boy was desirable even if not from him.
And that was fine until it became obvious by the time he got in college that he missed out not only on teen love, but on a lot of what others would have be formative experiences for their sex lives. Timmy kept waiting for his time, because people kept telling him it would come so long as he was a Nice Guy™, and it never did.
The zeitgeist changed, but the the rejections kept happening until he realized his approach wasn’t working out. He tried others, many of which would make us cringe even more, with the same amount of success. He searches for answers online and finds, among a sea of trolling, porn and horror stories about sexual encounters, people doing as badly as he is, and gets to see new facets to a problem he dealt with for a long time through the eyes of other “flawed men”. Casual browsing escalates to part of his life, his identity; the need for belonging gets him assigned to a tribe that is only together because of a negative attribute.
This becomes a cycle. With every new year, Timmy becomes more aware of how inadequate he is compared to everyone his age, and how even if he got with a girl at this point, he’d probably disappoint her; the mere idea of telling a woman he’s a virgin is mortifying, as it could be the clock hitting midnight and turn him right back into a pumpkin.
Now, I’m not bashing single moms or saying anyone outside of a 1950’s painting nuclear family, or that didn’t lose their virginity in high school is doomed to be mentally ill, toxic or dangerous. I’m saying that we as a society are not trying to talk to boys who otherwise have no frame of reference on how or why they’re so different from what is perceived as “normal”.
Someone I was having a discussion with (a male who allegedly did not have any issues regarding the topic growing up) told me that’s how it always has been, how it always will be, and if people like Timmy don't want to accept it, they won’t do well in life, period.
I replied that people like Timmy already aren’t. In spite of the fact I didn’t experience this firsthand, I got to have a taste of what kind of support other men may offer, and it made it clear why Timmy stays in his containment zone. Because “manning up” is still the the kneejerk reaction he’d get.
Blaming Timmy by not being around people who are attracted to him or not knowing how to make himself more appealing, for not having the adult hindsight necessary to act in a mature manner as a teen or good influences, these are all ways to victim blame someone in the same way a court could assume someone too paralyzed to fight back as less than an “ideal victim”. In Timmy’s defense, he was raised being told he’s Pinocchio, and there’s this one thing every woman in his proximity could give him to turn him into a real boy, but won’t, because he’s just not good enough to them, and the people telling him what to do to be more successful would not be potential partners regardless or have any understanding of how much of the general advice is going to be taken as gospel by someone with zero experience about a subject that is life-defining to them, even if trivial to others.
Maybe Timmy will figure it out on his own, even though the odds are that he won’t since he didn’t by now. Maybe Timmy will read this and try to find help, and the person he seeks help from will understand that Timmy has issues that they don’t need to have experienced something in minute detail to offer support to someone talking about a very personal subject.
Realistically, Timmy will find no one but other people in the same position to talk about this, internalize everything because everyone who could offer a counterpoint is too busy making fun of him. Then Timmy might become one of those who hurt, abuse, rape and kill when the pressure gets to him, leading to that completely disproportionate anger being misplaced and hurting innocents as radicalized people are prone to, but those are the minority. The other alternative, is to be one of those who contribute to environments where the dangerous ones are raised, completely undeterred by outsider influence.
We need to talk to Timmy, not just about Timmy when he messes up, and then forget Timmy exists (until it’s time to remind him of how much of a failure he is on the internet). Because to someone like me, being called the same things Timmy is called regularly is an unfortunate byproduct of being on the internet, and not that big of a deal. But it might just be the last drop to someone like Timmy, and by consequence, 10 innocent bystanders.
We can try to listen to what these young men have to say and talk to them about what misconceptions they might have. Or maybe just continue treating it as a woman-hating ideology that only exists on the internet, taking away the focus of internal struggle that leads to the external violence, vilifying people with mental illnesses and a general warped perception of the world instead of trying to help them.
Clearly that’ll do the trick, and we should bet human lives on it. Right?