Incels, a portmanteau of "involuntary celibates", are members of an online subculture who define themselves as unable to find a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one, a state they describe as inceldom.
Discussions in incel forums are often characterized by resentment, misanthropy, self-pity, self-loathing, misogyny, racism, a sense of entitlement to sex, and the endorsement of violence against sexually active people. The American nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center described the subculture as "part of the online male supremacist ecosystem" that is included in their list of hate groups.
Estimates of the overall size of the community vary greatly. They are considered mostly male and heterosexual, but sources disagree on the subject of ethnic makeup.
At least four mass murders, resulting in 45 deaths, have been committed in North America by men who have either self-identified as incels or who had mentioned incel-related names and writings in their private writings or Internet postings. Incel communities have been criticized by the media and researchers for being misogynistic, encouraging violence, spreading extremist views, and radicalizing their members.
The first online community to use the term "incel" was started in 1993 when a Canadian university student known only by her first name, Alana, created a website in order to discuss her sexual inactivity with others. The website, titled "Alana's Involuntary Celibacy Project", was used by people of all genders to share their thoughts and experiences. In 1997, she started a mailing list on the topic that used the abbreviation INVCEL, later shortened to "incel", for "anybody of any gender who was lonely, had never had sex or who hadn't had a relationship in a long time". During her college career and after, she realized she was queer and became more comfortable with her identity. She stopped participating in her online project around 2000 and gave the site to a stranger. When speaking about the website in 2018, Alana said, "It definitely wasn't a bunch of guys blaming women for their problems. That's a pretty sad version of this phenomenon that's happening today. Things have changed in the last 20 years." When she read about the 2014 Isla Vista killings, and the way parts of the incel subculture glorified the perpetrator, Elliot Rodger, she wrote, "Like a scientist who invented something that ended up being a weapon of war, I can't uninvent this word, nor restrict it to the nicer people who need it." She expressed regret at the change in usage from her original intent of creating an "inclusive community" for people of all genders who were sexually deprived due to social awkwardness, marginalization, or mental illness. She has since started a new project, "Love Not Anger", which she describes as "a project to research how lonely people might find respectful love, instead of being stuck in anger".
The message board love-shy.com was founded in 2003 as a place for people who were perpetually rejected or extremely shy of potential partners to discuss their situations. It was less strictly moderated than its counterpart, IncelSupport, which was also founded in the 2000s. While IncelSupport welcomed men and women and banned misogynistic posts, love-shy.com's userbase was overwhelmingly male and the board was less strictly moderated. Over the next decade, the membership of love-shy.com and other online communities like 4chan began to increasingly overlap.
The /r/incels subreddit, a forum on the website Reddit, later became a particularly active incel community. The subreddit was known as a place where men blamed women for their involuntary celibacy, sometimes advocated for rape or other forms of violence, and were misogynistic and often racist. One post titled "general question about how rapists get caught" was asked by a member pretending to be a woman, saying they wanted to know how a woman who was drugged and raped would begin finding her rapist. On October 25, 2017, Reddit announced a new policy that would ban "content that encourages, glorifies, incites, or calls for violence or physical harm against an individual or a group of people" and banned the /r/incels subreddit on November 7, 2017, under the policy's purview. At the time of the ban, the community had around 40,000 members. Although the /r/incels subreddit was shut down, the incel community has continued to inhabit Reddit in various other subreddits.
Incels came to wider public notice with the banning of /r/incels and when a series of mass murders were committed by men who either self-identified as incels or shared similar ideologies. Increased interest in incel communities has been attributed to the feeling of "aggrieved entitlement" by some men, who feel they are being denied rights they deserve and blame women for their lack of sex.
Incel communities have increasingly become more extremist and focused on violence in recent years. This has been attributed to various factors, including influence from overlapping online hate groups and the rise of the alt-right and white supremacist groups. The misogynistic and sometimes violent rhetoric of some members of incel communities has led to numerous bans from websites and webhosts. Incel communities continue to exist on more lenient platforms, such as Reddit, 4chan, and Voat. There are also incel forums that disapprove of hatred, and a dating website that caters to incels.
Many incel communities are characterized by resentment, self-pity, racism, misogyny, misanthropy, and narcissism. Discussions often revolve around the belief that men are owed sex; other common topics include idleness, loneliness, unhappiness, suicide, sexual surrogates, prostitutes and the acquisition of sex robots, as well as various attributes they believe increase one's desirability as a partner such as income or personality. Opposition to feminism and women's rights is commonplace, and some posters blame women's liberation for their inability to find a partner. Antisemitic beliefs are also regularly found on incel forums, with some posters going so far as to blame the rise of feminism on a plot masterminded by Jews to weaken the West.
Some discussions endorse suicide among incels, violence against sexually active women and more sexually successful men, and harassment of women, including activities such as catfishing. A subgroup of incels who frequent websites run by Nathan Larson, a perennial political candidate and active participant in incel communities, work deliberately to convince other incels that they are justified in raping women if they are rejected sexually. In some communities, it is common for posts to glorify violence by self-identified incels such as Elliot Rodger (perpetrator of the 2014 Isla Vista killings) and Alek Minassian (2018 Toronto van attack suspect), as well as by those they believe shared their ideology such as Marc Lépine (1989 École Polytechnique massacre), Seung-Hui Cho (2007 Virginia Tech shooting), and George Sodini (2009 Collier Township shooting). Rodger is the most frequently referenced, with incels often referring to him as their "saint" and sharing memes in which his face has been superimposed onto paintings of Christian icons. Some incels consider him to be the true progenitor of today's online incel communities.
Many incels justify their prejudices using interpretations taken from concepts such as biological determinism and evolutionary psychology. Other concepts that incels may believe in include female hypergamy, the "80/20 rule" (an application of the Pareto principle) which suggests that 80% of women desire the top 20% of most attractive men; and, among non-whites, the "just be white" (JBW) theory, which suggests that Caucasians face the fewest obstacles when dating. Incels also believe that single people seeking a partner participate in a cruel, mercenary, and Darwinian sexual selection, wherein incels are genetically unfit and where women hold an advantage for reasons ranging from feminism to the use of cosmetics. Incels may attribute their lack of sexual success to factors such as shyness, sex-segregated work environments, negative body image, penis size, or their physical appearance, and commonly believe that the only thing more important than looks in improving a man's eligibility as a prospective partner is wealth. Some incels justify their beliefs based on the works of fringe social psychologist Brian Gilmartin and clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson.
Incel communities are a part of the broader manosphere. According to The New York Times, involuntary celibacy is an adaptation of the idea of "male supremacy". The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) described the subculture as "part of the online male supremacist ecosystem", which they began including in their list of hate groups in 2018. The New York Times wrote that "the group has evolved into a male supremacist movement made up of people—some celibate, some not—who believe that women should be treated as sexual objects with few rights". Incel communities sometimes overlap with topics such as Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW), men's rights activism, vlogs by people who believe they are experiencing "true forced loneliness" (TFL), and pickup artistry, although at least one male incel website has expressed hatred for pickup artistry and accuses pickup artists and dating coaches of financially exploiting incels.
The "black pill" is a set of beliefs that are commonly held amongst members of incel communities, such as biological determinism, fatalism, and defeatism for unattractive people. Someone who believes in the black pill is referred to as "blackpilled". The black pill has been described by Vox correspondent Zack Beauchamp as "a profoundly sexist ideology that ... amounts to a fundamental rejection of women’s sexual emancipation, labeling women shallow, cruel creatures who will choose only the most attractive men if given the choice."
The concept of the black pill distinguishes incels from the men's rights movement and their popular reference to the red pill, an allusion to the dilemma in the movie The Matrix where the protagonist must choose to remain in a world of illusion (taking the blue pill) or to see the world as it really is (taking the red pill). In the context of men's rights activism, "taking the red pill" means seeing a world where women hold power over men. The black pill, on the other hand, refers to hopelessness. It also holds that one's personality is not very important.
The term black pill was first popularized on the blog Omega Virgin Revolt, where the term commended despondency in order to distinguish incels from the pickup artist communities. On the incel subreddit /r/braincels, "blackpills" are memes (usually images) that users share to describe a user's thoughts, many of which criticize women as egocentric, cruel, and shallow. Although the tone of the subreddit is similar, moderators of the forum say that they do not endorse, support, or glorify violence or violent people, a distinction they make from the subject matter of its predecessor /r/incels that resulted in its being banned from Reddit.
The term "involuntary celibate" (shortened to "incel") refers to self-identifying members of an online subculture based around the inability to find a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one, a state they describe as "inceldom" or "incelibacy". It is sometimes used interchangeably or alongside other terms, such as "love-shy" (describing those with social anxiety or excessive shyness preventing romantic success), "FA" (short for "forever alone"), "unfuckability", "omegas", "betas", "the undersexed", or "the sexless". Alana, the coiner of the term incel, initially considered using other terms such as "perpetually single" or "dating shy".
Members of incel communities regularly use jargon and a distinct dialect to refer to various concepts. For example, they may describe women as "femoids", "stacys" (attractive sexually active women), or "beckys" (less attractive sexually active women), and sexually active men as "chads". "Mogging" refers to the act of eclipsing another person in terms of physical appearance and thereby undermining them. "Looksmaxing" is an attempt at enhancing one's appearance by methods including dressing nicely, going to the gym, or undergoing plastic surgery. The abbreviation "NEET" refers to people who do not have jobs and aren't attending school: "not in education, employment, or training".
Members of incel communities use many variations of the term "incel" to refer to subgroups in the community, such as "volcels" (voluntary celibate; someone who chooses to forego sexual intercourse), "marcels" (married), "nearcels" (those who are considered nearly incel), "hicels" (those who have high standards; are very picky when dating), "heightcels" (short), and "fakecels" (those who claim to be incel, but in reality have recently had sex or been in a relationship). There are also a number of race-based variations of the term "incel" which refer to people who believe their race is the reason behind their inability to find a partner, including "currycels" (people of South Asian ancestry) and "ricecels" (those of Chinese or Southeast Asian backgrounds), or collectively, "ethnicels".
Self-identified incels are mostly male and heterosexual, and are often described as young and friendless introverts. Estimates on the size of incel communities vary, and range from the thousands, to tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands.
Sources disagree on the ethnic makeup of participants in online incel groups. Sociologist Ross Haenfler was quoted in The Washington Post describing them as primarily white. Heidi Beirich, of the Southern Poverty Law Center echoed this to NBC News, saying they are "young, frustrated white males in their late teens into their early twenties who are having a hard time adjusting to adulthood". Journalist Arshy Mann told NPR that incels were "not just limited to young white men," adding "there are men of all ethnicities who are involved in this subculture." Jaki and colleagues, publishing in The Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict of the forum Incels.me, contended that there was no definite evidence for the group being predominately white, "contrary to what is often reported," and that the results of their linguistic analysis indicated a treatment of racism that reflected some level of ethnic diversity.
Some media outlets depict them as unemployed and living with parents, mainly in the United States, although there are also incel communities for people outside the Anglosphere, such as the Italian website Il Forum dei Brutti.
The first incel website, Alana's Involuntary Celibacy Project, was gender-inclusive. There are also women-specific forums, such as /r/Femcels and /r/ForeverAloneWomen. Nonetheless, there is disagreement in online incel communities on whether women can be incel, with some claiming that male incels grossly outnumber female incels, others claiming that it is impossible for women to be incel, others claiming that only women with a physical deformity can be incel, and others arguing that only unattractive women belonging to the "bottom percentile in terms of appearance" can be incel. The incel subculture includes people who are in sexless marriages (or other sexless relationships) but who wish to be sexually active. Asexual people and those who are voluntarily sexually abstinent are not considered incels.
"Involuntary celibacy" is not a medical or psychological condition. Some people who identify as incel suffer from physical disabilities or psychological disorders such as depression, autism spectrum disorder, and body dysmorphic disorder. Some visitors of incel forums attribute their inability to find a partner to physical or mental ailments, while some others attribute it to extreme introversion. Many incels engage in self-diagnosis of mental health issues, and members of incel communities often discourage posters who post about mental illness from seeing therapists or otherwise seeking treatment. Some incels with severe depression are also suicidal, and some members of incel communities encourage suicidal members to commit suicide, sometimes recommending they commit acts of mass violence before doing so.
Psychologist and sex researcher James Cantor describes incels as "a group of people who usually lack sufficient social skills and ... find themselves very frustrated." In social media forums, "when they're surrounded by other people with similar frustrations, they kind of lose track of what typical discourse is, and they drive themselves into more and more extreme beliefs."
Mass murders and violence
Several mass murders and other violent attacks in North America have been committed or are suspected to have been committed by men who have self-identified as involuntarily celibate, or whose statements align with incel ideologies.
On May 23, 2014, Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen others before killing himself in Isla Vista, California, near the campus of University of California, Santa Barbara. These killings drew media attention to the concept of involuntary celibacy, and particularly the misogyny and glorification of violence that are a mainstay of many incel communities. Rodger self-identified as an incel and left behind a 137-page manifesto and YouTube videos detailing his involuntary celibacy and discussing how he wanted revenge for being rejected by women. He had been an active member of an involuntary celibacy community called PUAHate (short for "pickup artist hate"), and referenced it several times in his manifesto. Although PUAHate shut down soon after the attack, Rodger became something of a martyr to some communities that remained, and to some of those that began later. He has been referenced by the perpetrators or suspected perpetrators of several other mass killings.
Rodger is among several attackers who are regularly praised by members of incel communities. The perpetrator of the 2009 Collier Township shooting, George Sodini, has been embraced by some of these communities. After the 2017 Las Vegas shooting by Stephen Paddock (a man with unclear motive), some of the involuntarily celibate community celebrated the shooter, who they felt was a hero who was targeting "normies". The trend has since continued—after the 2018 Toronto van attack, a poster on a website created to supersede /r/incels wrote about suspected perpetrator Alek Minassian, "I hope this guy wrote a manifesto because he could be our next new saint." After the 2018 Danforth shooting, posters on an incel message board expressed excitement with the possibility that the perpetrator might be an incel, although no motive has been identified.
On October 1, 2015, Chris Harper-Mercer killed nine people and injured eight others before killing himself in a shooting at the Umpqua Community College campus in Roseburg, Oregon. He left a manifesto at the scene, outlining his interest in other mass murders including the Isla Vista killings, anger at not having a girlfriend, and animus towards the world. In his journal writings, he had related with Elliot Rodger and other mass shooters, describing them as "people who stand with the gods". Before the attack, when someone on an online message board had speculated he was "saving himself for someone special", Harper-Mercer had replied: "Involuntarily so." Several hours before the shooting, someone suspected to be Harper-Mercer posted a threat to a Pacific Northwest college to /r9k/, a 4chan board with many involuntarily celibate posters.
On July 31, 2016, Sheldon Bentley robbed and killed an unconscious man in an alleyway in Edmonton, Alberta. During his trial, Bentley said he killed the man by stomping on his abdomen because he was frustrated with stress from his job as a security guard and with being involuntarily celibate for four years.
On December 7, 2017, William Atchison killed two people before killing himself in Aztec, New Mexico, in a shooting at Aztec High School, where he had previously been a student. He had used the pseudonym "Elliot Rodger" on several online forums, and praised "the supreme gentleman" (a term Rodger had used to describe himself, which has since been adopted as a moniker by incel communities).
On February 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz killed seventeen people and injured seventeen others in a shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, before being arrested. Cruz had previously posted online that "Elliot Rodger will not be forgotten".
On April 23, 2018, a van driver (suspected to be Alek Minassian) killed ten people and injured fourteen others in a vehicle-ramming attack in Toronto, Ontario before being arrested. Shortly before the attack, Minassian had posted on Facebook that "the Incel Rebellion has already begun" and applauded Elliot Rodger. The term "Incel Rebellion" is sometimes used interchangeably with the term "Beta Uprising", which refers to a violent response to incels' perceived sexual deprivation.
On November 2, 2018, Scott Beierle killed two women and injured four women and a man before killing himself in a shooting at the Hot Yoga Tallahassee studio in Tallahassee, Florida. He had a history of arrests for grabbing women's buttocks, and in 2014 he posted several YouTube videos of himself espousing extreme hatred for women. He expressed anger over not having a girlfriend, mentioning Elliot Rodger in one video. In the months leading up to the shooting, he posted numerous misogynistic, racist, violent, and homophobic songs to SoundCloud.
In January 2019, Christopher Cleary was arrested for posting on Facebook about how he was "planning on shooting up a public place soon and being the next mass shooter" and "killing as many girls as I see" because he had never had a girlfriend and was a virgin. He has been described as an incel in the media.
On June 17, 2019, Bryan Isaack Clyde began what was intended to be a mass shooting at the Earle Cabell Federal Building and Courthouse in Dallas, Texas, but was shot and fatally wounded by officers from the Federal Protective Service before injuring anyone. Clyde had shared incel memes on his social media accounts, along with other posts referencing right-wing beliefs and conspiracy theories. Following the incident, the Joint Base Andrews military base briefed its personnel on incels, with a spokesman describing them as "a very real threat to military members and civilians."
Incel communities have been widely criticized in the media and by researchers as violent, misogynist, and extremist. Keegan Hankes, a senior research analyst working for the Southern Poverty Law Center, has cautioned that exposure to violent content on incel forums "play[s] a very large role" in the radicalization of incels, and describes violent posts on the forums as "more ... than I'm used to seeing on even white supremacist sites". Journalist David Futrelle has described incel communities as "violently misogynistic", and is among critics who attribute worsening violent rhetoric on incel forums to the growth of the alt-right and white supremacy, and the overlap between incel communities and online hate groups. Senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), Amarnath Amarasingam, has criticized some incel communities where calls for violence are commonplace, saying "under the right set of psychological and personal circumstances, these kinds of forums can be dangerous and push people into violence". Another researcher at the ISD, Jacob Davey, compared the radicalization of incels in incel forums to teenagers being urged to go to extreme measures on online forums that promote anorexia and other eating disorders and to online campaigns convincing people to join ISIL. Speaking about incels' feelings of entitlement to sex, Davey said the attitude "can go as far as the justification of rape". Journalist Zack Beauchamp has expressed concern about other types of harm inflicted by incels that may be lost in the attention paid specifically to mass violence; he points to forum posts in which users brag about yelling at, catfishing, and sexually assaulting women. University of Portsmouth lecturer Lisa Sugiura has described incel forums as a "networked misogyny", and urged the posts in such forums be taken seriously not only in the context of hate speech but also as a form of grooming that could radicalize "impressionable and vulnerable disillusioned young men". Sociological research on incel communities has analyzed them as a hybrid masculinity, in which privileged men distance themselves from hegemonic masculinity while simultaneously reproducing it.
Criticism has also been directed against platforms that host or have hosted incel content, including Reddit (who banned the /r/incels community in 2017 but has declined to ban another incel subreddit) and Twitter. Cloudflare, which provides services including DDoS protection and caching so that webpages are still accessible when a site is offline, has also been criticized for protecting incel websites against downtime even when webhosts have terminated service.
Reporting on incels by media outlets following the incel-related attacks during the 2010s has been criticized for its "breathless" coverage, normalizing incel communities by describing them as "sexually frustrated", and directing readers to incel communities. Some reporting has also been criticized for giving attackers notoriety by reporting on them at length, or for victim blaming by implying that women and peers who rejected the attackers held some responsibility for provoking the attacks.
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In a 2016 essay 'The New Man of 4chan', I wrote an account of the racist and misogynist incel mass shooter Chris Harper Mercer...
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