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Incels: The Growth of Extremist Misogyny

Martha Pollard on how this online subculture is inspiring violence in the real world

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Image Credit: Flibirigit via Wikimedia Commons

TW: violence against women

At 1:22pm on 23 April 2018, a rental van mounted a busy sidewalk in Toronto, Canada, and mowed down 26 pedestrians. Ten people were killed and 16 injured, making it the deadliest terror attack on Canadian soil since 1989. “The Incel Rebellion has already begun!”, enthused the perpetrator, Alek Minassian, in a Facebook post published shortly before the attack; “We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”

Far from standing alone, Minassian’s attack is just one example of the ‘incel’-inspired violence which has been linked to at least 53 deaths and scores of injuries in the past seven years. Elliot Rodger, the “supreme gentleman” and martyr of incel communities, killed six people in 2014 in an act of “retribution” against women for sexually rejecting him. He left behind a 141-page ‘manifesto’ in which he detailed his warped world view. “Going ER” is now the term of choice among incels for committing mass violence; he has served as an inspiration for killers like Christopher Harper-Mercer, who fatally shot nine people at a community college in 2015.

What started as a fringe subculture in the dark corners of the internet is having fatal consequences in the real world, while its noxious rhetoric seeps more and more into the mainstream. And so, we must ask ourselves: how is the incel movement radicalising some young men? How is the ideology propagated? And how can these communities of hate be effectively policed before violence occurs?

The term ‘incel’ – a portmanteau of ‘involuntary celibate’ – refers to a subculture of men who characterise themselves as unable to find a romantic or sexual partner, despite wanting one. Their frustration is projected onto society at large, attacking women and sometimes sexually active men (‘normies’) for revenge.

Incels believe that society is structured along the lines of physical and sexual attractiveness, with ‘chads’ (attractive ‘alpha’ males) and ‘stacys’ (attractive women) coming out on top, while they themselves are the lowest of the low, the ‘omega’ males. Anxiety about their masculine status induces them to regain control by fantasising about degrading or dominating women.

There is also a lot of crossover between incels and the far-right groups which populate online forums like 4Chan, meaning that their misogynistic hatred often has racist and anti-Semitic undertones.

Victimhood is an essential aspect of the incel mentality. It’s the sense that women are ‘gatekeepers’ of sex and are depriving them of what they are owed. These men often feel that they have been ‘betrayed’ or ‘left behind’ by social progress. Indeed, the most vitriol tends to be reserved for feminists, who are believed to have encouraged female promiscuity. The progression of women’s rights, and the introduction of laws enshrining their bodily autonomy, are personal grievances of the incel community. As expressed in one Reddit post, “Arguably the fact that I do not have the freedom to force a woman to have sex with me is subjugation too”.

This highlights the essential belief of the incel ideology: that women are not “full” human beings. Instead, they are ‘Femoids’ or  ‘Female Humanoid Organisms” (FHO). Their bodies are not their own, but are mere objects designed to serve the pleasure of men.

The idea that female bodies can be traded like commodities as a reward for good behaviour is a wider cultural issue. There are, sadly, many men out there who feel that friendship or even common decency towards women entitles them to sex. Incel communities simply take this idea to its darkest extreme.

But how, and why, has this movement emerged? What is its appeal for certain individuals? A crucial factor to consider is that, like most extremist groups, the incel ‘community’ exploits painful emotions felt primarily by young men. For those struggling with feelings of social isolation, rejection, and self-loathing, online groups can provide a rare sense of purpose and belonging. In fact, the very first incel forums functioned as support groups.

Essentially, much of incel culture revolves around a “sad, self-fulfilling prophecy of aloneness”. The irony is that in seeking a place to belong and relate to others, incels become more and more detached from wider society, and this is where extremism tightens its grip.

Naturally, none of this would be possible without the internet. The online age has provided us with easy access to harmful ideas and misinformation; one video recommends another, one blog post leads to the next. Internet algorithms can send vulnerable young men down rabbit holes of incel radicalisation, while anonymity allows them to remain faceless. They can be as bold as they like, without fearing any consequences. This has been especially true since incels have migrated from Reddit to dark web platforms such as Telegram, the encrypted app favoured by the Islamic State and other terrorist groups.

A recent study has made a connection between the increasing normalisation of pornography and dehumanised attitudes towards female bodies. Women in porn, at least that which caters to straight male audiences, never say ‘no’, no matter how violent or degrading the sexual act. Men who watch a lot of pornography can feel like “sexual losers”, as in their skewed perception of reality, women function as constantly available sex objects. This leaves some bewildered by rejection. Painful feelings of shame and insecurity, or competition with their male peers, can easily transform into anger at women for not living up to their fantasies. This simply makes them more susceptible to online radicalisation.

Of course, it’s not all hidden away online. There are also public figures who validate incel viewpoints. Jordan Peterson, former Harvard professor of Psychology, has a significant global following in these communities. His TED talks have been viewed millions of times, his books regularly top bestseller lists, and he is often invited onto discussion shows. Peterson is dangerous because he puts a respectable face to virulent ideas, hiding them behind ‘logical’ arguments, and a calm, reasonable persona.

One such idea is enforced monogamy. Enforced monogamy is the idea that women should be strongly encouraged, in some cases by coercion, not to have multiple partners – otherwise, women will only date and procreate with the most high-status men. In response to the 2018 Toronto attack, Peterson appeared to make excuses for the perpetrator, and offered enforced monogamy as a solution to incel violence: “Half the men fail… And no one cares about the men who fail”. While he does not overtly condone his incel followers, Peterson nevertheless refuses to condemn them; it's clear from statements like this that he plays into their toxic ideologies.

As men’s rights activist Justin Trottier asserted, “Jordan’s exposed something that’s been festering for a long time… [he’s] forced people to pay attention”.

Economist Robin Hanson’s reaction to the Toronto attack was to liken the experience of men with less access to sex to the suffering caused by income inequality. In a blog post, he suggests that “involuntary celibacy” could be fixed, and violence reduced, if as a society we “redistributed” sex more equally. As if women’s bodies were an economic factor!

In trying to ‘solve’ the incel problem, individuals like Peterson and Hanson are justifying their victimhood, placing the blame on women, who must change their sexual behaviour in order to ‘satisfy’ these men.

A more constructive way of combating incel radicalisation could be to take a “public health approach”, treating the ‘symptoms’ of alienation and isolation in young men at an early stage. At the same time, incels should be classed as a serious terror threat: their violence cannot be dismissed as resulting solely from mental health problems – it is part of a much bigger web of entrenched misogyny.

The lack of any centralised organisation or leadership makes the incel movement challenging to police. It is  hidden online and secretive. Surely, then, more also needs to be done by social media companies to moderate forums and to infiltrate encrypted platforms.

Whatever solution is settled on, we must never consider indulging these men in their sense of entitlement. The equal rights of women to make their own decisions about their bodies and relationships must always be put first.

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