What can the incel community, an online group of violent misogynists, tell us about modern gender relations?
I have a morbid fascination with incels.
Incels, short for “involuntary celibates,” are a group of men’s rights activists who blame women for their inability to find sexual partners. Incels and other members of the manosphere advocate for male supremacy, support rape, and have committed several mass murders motivated by their ideologies.
Despite the visceral emotional reaction I felt when I first heard about the violent actions and threats of incels, instead of running away, I have found myself digging deeper into their twisted world, fascinated by the seemingly inhuman nature of their desires.
The thoughts and deeds of incels are frightening and inexcusable, but I am hopeful that we as a society can learn something from them. Instead of ignoring or accepting incels, I’ve been reading and talking about them, hoping to pull something that can be used for good out of the dark corner of the internet that incels have created.
In the same way that reading dystopian novels such as 1984, Brave New World, or The Handmaid’s Tale can point us toward critical truths and dangers present in our own society, I believe that studying incels can bring light to previously unnoticed aspects of the relationship between men and women. I want to reverse engineer the incel, find out where they went wrong, and use that knowledge to figure out how we can make things right between men and women in the modern world. However, I didn’t realize I needed a male perspective to do this until, during a casual conversation, my friend told me that while he didn’t agree with incels, he did emotionally understand them.
“I think any guy who has really really liked a girl, asked her out, and been turned down emotionally understands where they’re coming from. It sucks to be a loser,” he said.
This got me thinking. How many commonalities did the average man share with the incel? I started asking the men I knew, the men I loved, the men I trusted, even the men I met on the street. But first I had to assure them that I wanted to hear (and listen) to what they had to say.
It’s Hard For Men to Talk About This
“Let me just tell you, starting this conversation, I’m already on the defense, because you are going to make generalizations about me based on this group of guys. And I don’t want to be like them.”
My friend David* was blunt enough to tell me this outright. Men are hesitant to talk about this kind of thing. Even though I assured the men I spoke with that they could speak anonymously, and emphasized that I wanted to have a casual discussion rather an interrogation, my friends were visibly nervous. One spoke at a painstakingly slow pace, carefully choosing his words, as if he was trying to download the right answer from a server somewhere.
Another crushed his empty water bottle and slid his fingers across the grates of the outdoor picnic table as we spoke, trying to diffuse his nervous energy. And these men had a right to be nervous. I was asking them to have a conversation where one tiny misunderstanding could completely ruin their reputation. They were placing a lot of trust in me and my iPhone recording app. But if feminist activists and intellectuals want to make change, we need to find ways to include, engage, and welcome men in our discussions. I’m thankful for my friends who were willing to sit down and talk. Here’s what we figured out — together.
Incels and the Average Man: How Did We Get Here?
“[The incel ideology] is definitely rooted in normal guy’s mind, it’s just accelerated, extremified.”
It turns out that the men in my life, when asked directly, are able to find a human element to this story: incels have a need for human connection, just like all of us.
“I’m sure anyone can understand the emotional core of: you’re alone, and it feels like you’re never going to find love.”
Incels are often self-described as socially awkward, and particularly struggle with talking to girls, who they find intimidating and unapproachable.
“I feel like these guys haven’t had the confidence or haven’t had the opportunity for a woman to open up to them. If I had never had a woman open up to me, I can totally see how you would get so afraid.”
But dangerous ideologies such as advocating for rape only further isolate incels from offline connection with anyone.
“I think ascribing that identity to yourself can kind of keep you in that pit of depression or pit of self hatred, but I don’t think its a character trait of these people. A lot of them are deeply troubled and not being provided the appropriate resources to manage that.”
Incels also seem to only care about themselves, which speaks to a larger, male issue.
“Whether its in virtue of innate predispositions, or whether it’s the difference between how men and women are socialized, probably a combination of both, women I think are more readily able to take the perspectives of others. For lot of men there’s just either socially less of an onus to be concerned about other people’s emotions, or men are just less likely to do that sort of thinking in the first place.”
Regardless of gender, no one thinks of themselves as the bad guys. (The friend who brought this up actually ended up calling me out for doing the same thing with my analysis of the word “bitch”.)
“[Incels] don’t consider themselves terrible people. They lack the ability to self-reflect.”
Incels as we know them today are apathetic, violent, and frightening. But if everyone struggles with loneliness, why has it driven this group of people to violent extremes and not others?
Incels Weren’t Always Like This
Involuntary celibates have been around since the dawn of humanity, but the term “incel” was actually invented in 1993 by a woman known only by her first name, Alana. Her group, Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project, served as a peaceful support group for people struggling to find romantic connection. Incels weren’t associated with violent actions or words until the rise of the /r/incels subreddit, which rallied behind Isla Vista shooter Elliot Rodger as a martyr. So why is this new and exclusively male generation of incels advocating for violence and the forced reallocation of sex?
“It’s like they’ve funneled their fear of rejection and vulnerability into this aggression and hatred of women, to preserve their manhood even though they can’t get a girlfriend.”
Incels are lonely, and that’s something everyone can relate to. But for this new group of incels, loneliness leads to heightened aggression.
“It could be the way men deal with the same fear.”
One friend went as far as to theorize that incels feel comfortable demanding sex from women because they feel as if they deserve a reward for buying into toxic masculinity.
“It’s like [incels] feel they deserve women as a reward for sacrificing their emotions.”
Incels lean heavily on traditional ideas about gender relations, likely because tradition offers a reliable formula that minimizes personal risk and insures companionship.
“It is a guarantee of otherwise forbidden types of intimacy as well as a guarantee of sex. [The thought process is] ‘If I had a girlfriend, she would make everything better and I wouldn’t be miserable anymore, and I would get to have sex.’”
Incels as “losers” acutely feel the societal pressures to be cool, get girlfriends, and in turn, be accepted by real-life friends.
“[Incel ideology] feels like when a child can’t solve a puzzle, so they decide to say something is wrong with the puzzle.”
In this case, the puzzle is the societal expectations we place on men. Amia Srinivasan, in the London Review’s article Does anyone have the right to sex?, points out that the real root of incels’ discontent lies in the societal forces of the patriarchy, rather than the rejection of women. She says of Elliot Rodger:
“Feminism, far from being Rodger’s enemy, may well be the primary force resisting the very system that made him feel — as a short, clumsy, effeminate, interracial boy — inadequate.”
Feminism is likely the best ideological remedy to solve the problems incels face, in addition to the problem of broader inequalities between men and women in our society. As one friend put it:
“Men have a duty to respect and facilitate a society of equality. We all do.”
Yes. Absolutely. But where does that leave us when it comes to incels? How do we reconcile their human need for connection with their frightening apathy toward women?
“I think you can have a Jesus-like love of the leper, while still recognizing the threat the leper poses to your well-being and to society.”
One friend warns us not to be too sympathetic:
“I don’t want to understand them because I don’t want to give them an excuse. They have no excuse.”
This friend gives two pieces of advice on how to move forward. He urges incels to “accept reality,” and take personal responsibility for their well-being. For the rest of society, he asks us to “allow guys to be more vulnerable.”
What Do We Do Now?
After reverse-engineering the incel with the help of the male lense of my peers, I see several challenges ahead of us if we want to fix the nature of the relationship between men and women. First, as my friend suggested, we need to allow men to be vulnerable. Bottling up emotions robs men of the full range of their personhood, and the suppressed feelings of vulnerability only bubble up in the forms of apathy and aggression.
We also need to, as Jaclyn Friedman wrote in her USA Today article Alek Minassian and the dangerous idea of being owed sex: “to center and uplift ideas about what it means to be a man that don’t hinge on or involve in any way, domination over women.”
Additionally, we need to provide mental health services to those who need them, and destigmatize singledom by relaxing social emphasis on romantic monogamy. In all, a lot needs to be changed. We don’t need to treat the problem of inceldom at the surface, we need to treat it at the root.
Instead of focusing on the symptomatic issues of female rejection and male loneliness, as incels would suggest, we need to combat the deeper forces of patriarchy and toxic masculinity in order to make our society a better place for incels and for everyone.
Read more by Grace Hawkins here.