One year and three months ago, I wrote a warning on the New Statesman website. Arguing that we needed to broaden our definition of terrorism to include white men who were radicalised online, I wrote of my fear that mass murderer Elliot Rodger would inspire a “new generation”. In 2014, 22-year-old Rodger killed six people in an act of revenge designed to punish women for “denying” him sex.
In April 2018, a van driver mounted the pavement in Toronto and killed ten people. The accused murderer, 25-year-old Alec Minassian, wrote on Facebook minutes before the attack: “All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”
Rodger and Minassian both belonged to a community known as “incels” – and they were not lone wolves. Incel is a slang term used to describe someone who is an “involuntary celibate”, ie a person who desires sex but isn’t having it. Online, incels are part of the “manosphere”, a toxic group of misogynistic men who openly hate women. On the discussion website Reddit, incels gather to lament their lack of sexual success – and there, they have their unwanted virginity transformed into violent, life-threatening misogyny.
“All women are sluts,” read a popular post on Reddit’s incels forum, before it was banned in November 2017. “Every bitch out there, regardless of their race, religion, virginity status, is a slut.” Another post listed, in bullet-point form, 23 “reasons why women are the embodiment of evil”, while elsewhere, many users excused or advocated rape. Before it was shut down, the incels page had accumulated 40,000 members.
“In these spaces, the collective scapegoating of women for a plethora of social and personal problems provides a sense of solidarity and self-validation,” says Debbie Ging, a communications professor at Dublin City University and the author of a paper entitled Alphas, Betas, and Incels: Theorizing the Masculinities of the Manosphere. “The incel community enables men to redirect a range of frustrations – including self-loathing – outward, on to women.” Ging argues that incels are motivated by a political ideology characterised by their own brand of evolutionary psychology. Incels believe that women are programmed to desire only alpha males. They see women as obsessed with “marrying up”, and therefore inherently self-serving and untrustworthy. “Given that some adherents have demonstrated that they are prepared to act on these beliefs, monitoring [incels] as potential terrorists makes sense,” Ging says.
Online incel communities should absolutely be monitored by anti-terrorism organisations, as I have argued before. Yet to end this evil, we also need to understand how and why incels are radicalised. Branding them “pathetic” and “lonely weirdos” – as the mainstream press has done since the Toronto attack – reinforces the toxic masculinity that drives ordinary, sexually frustrated teenagers to identify as incels in the first place.
“I was fat, acned, bullied, didn’t know how to eat right, exercise, socialise…” says Jimi, a 29-year-old Australian artist and former incel. He describes how he became obsessed by sex as a pre-teen, and quickly grew frustrated that he couldn’t find a girlfriend.
“I became extremely prejudiced against women,” he tells me. “It seemed, from the perspective of my suffering, that women had this certain power denying me my sexual experience.” Jimi (who is quoted here under a pseudonym) says he thought of women as “tools to orgasm with” in his teenage years. He firmly believes that incels’ hatred of women is rooted in self-hatred.
On Reddit, the incel forum re-emerged with a new name – “braincels” – after the ban, and here, users frequently refer to themselves as “deformed” and “subhuman”. Many write about their struggles with depression, body dysmorphia or Asperger’s syndrome.
To understand what motivates incels isn’t to pity or excuse them. No man is entitled to sex, and no act of violence can be justified by a sense of entitlement. Many other people, men and women, experience depression and low self-esteem without adopting toxic ideologies. Yet having researched incels for years, I am distressed to see them disparaged across the media. This is not because they don’t deserve to be disparaged – most do – but because if we want to prevent more deaths, it is imperative that we understand how unwanted virginity becomes rage.
Incels aren’t born – they are created. A cultural glorification of sex, combined with the patriarchy, creates a sense of sexual entitlement in men. Online forums transform this disturbing entitlement into ideology. When I first began speaking to incels, I was surprised by how young many of them were. One 16-year-old told me he had been an incel since the age of 14, but wasn’t one any more. Fourteen isn’t an unusual age to be a virgin – but it is an unusual age to adopt an all-consuming hatred of women.
And yet we can no longer afford to be shocked by this. It is crucial that we know many incels are young and vulnerable, so that we can understand how older men radicalise and prey on them online.
Jimi is now married with children – yet no one helped him out of inceldom but himself. He taught himself to be confident by watching his peers interact, and he took up sports, improving his body image.
“Everything opened up from there,” he says. But many incels can’t – or won’t – take these routes out of their self-hatred, and instead require our help. Yes, online incel communities must be monitored as potential hotbeds of terrorism. But it is also crucial that we understand how and why these terrorists are made. This is another warning.
This article appears in the 02 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, What Marx got right