Love & Sex

The Misunderstood History of Incel

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How did a diverse community of non-sexually-active adults become associated with misogynistic hate groups?

“One day incels will realize their true strength and numbers, and will overthrow this oppressive feminist system. Start envisioning a world where WOMEN FEAR YOU.”

This was one of Elliot Rodger’s toxic calls to arms, part of the vast trail of hate speech he left behind following his deadly rampage at UCSB on Friday night. Since then, the term incel (involuntary celibacy) has been linked to some of the most entitled, misogynistic rhetoric on the internet.

Commenting on Rodger, thatincelblogger writes: "What happened is punishment  for evil and violence of feminists and liberals” and rattles off a list of “atrocities such as women’s suffrage, immodest clothing, child support/alimony, no ban on adultery, ban on prostitution and a lack of female premarital chastity, all the things that drove this young man to be unable to find a girlfriend.” Long before this weekend, his incel-related blog so disturbed Reddit commenters that they devoted whole threads to a single one of his posts. A sense of entitlement also pervades incelblog:"I see why men get confused when it comes to women. Women suck at being decent, masculine-appreciative humans.”

In fact, the concept of involuntary celibacy has a much more complex and positive history, dating back to the 1990s when the term was first coined by a community of women and men who were searching for intimate relationships but for one reason or another could not find partners.

Seeking to better understand their situation, this group invited sociologists Dr. Denise Donnelly and Dr. Elisabeth Burgess to do a study, which eventually grew to interviews with 300 incel-identified subjects. Published in 2001, the result was the first scholarly paper on the phenomenon, turning the group’s name into a formal term for a situation that many people experienced but didn’t know how to talk about.

That group, which has gone through several iterations over the years is now located at an interim online space called You’re Not Alone. I discovered them in late 2009 when I was doing research on my documentary How To Lose Your Virginity, and the people I met were (and still are) a supportive and female-inclusive bunch, far removed from Rodger and his ilk. It’s currently about 40 percent female and 60 percent male and primarily heterosexual, although the group has had members who were gay and bisexual in the past.

Group member Jacob, 38, feels the term incel has become loaded, and he describes it as ”the state of desiring sex and relationships, and being unable to obtain either. Some are incel for medical reasons. Some suffer crippling anxieties. Some have unresolved issues from abuse, and some can't seem to pinpoint where they fail to connect with another person. Each case is unique.”

Fran, a 40-something Australian woman, credits the interactions on the boards with disrupting cycles of social awkwardness and the drop in confidence that comes with them. “The most useful threads are members’ success stories. Many members who were lifelong incels and perhaps virgins find relationships after participating on the board for a while. That sort of support is invaluable.”

There are many pathways that result in both women and men feeling socially out of step with peers. Religious households may keep teens from dating and learning to interact socially; or a singular focus on education takes people from high school to grad school, depositing them into adulthood without having had a single date, surrounded by people more experienced in intimate relationships. Jacob says years of physical and emotional abuse left him with crippling social anxiety and PTSD. “During the formative years,” he says, “I never learned how to properly interact with people…how to make friends, how to date.”

“In a society where sexuality is always in our faces, if you don’t have the tools or access, or aren’t comfortable establishing intimacy it’s going to isolate you from social environments,” explains Dr. Burgess. “You don’t want to talk to your family or friends for fear of being teased or ostracized, and that’s why these incel groups have become especially valuable.”

So, why did the misogynistic groups proliferate, leaving the more introspective and female-friendly groups like You’re Not Alone, and other sites like the sub-reddits Forever Alone and Forever Alone Women, feeling like outliers?

Society still defines sex by intercourse and ejaculation, andmasculinity by the tally of those sexual conquests. Men who buy into this mythology end up feeling both entitled to it, and frustrated at not getting their due. When they can’t fulfill their expected masculine roles, they blame women for not giving them what they think they deserve, instead of examining themselves and the mythology they were raised with.

While doing their research in 1998, Dr. Burgess said they were “startled” by the number of men who described their ideal relationship based on what kind of female body they wanted. I can only speculate that these men already had misogynistic and entitled ideas about the women they felt they were owed, and began to take advantage of the growing echo chamber and megaphone of the Internet, looking for kinship in spaces that reflected their attitudes back at them. Rodger continues to be defended by men who feel the root problem was a phantom misandrist conspiracy that kept him from getting laid. But even in these spaces, Rodger was not completely at home.

“He appeared to view many of his fellow incels with disgust,” explains Josh Glasstetter, Campaign Director for the Southern Poverty Law Center where he reported on Rodger’s incel connections. “In his mind, they were too passive and unwilling to challenge the celibacy supposedly being imposed upon them by women. He saw himself as part of a vanguard that would launch an incel revolution.”

Whether incel-identified or not, most men and women searching for intimacy and feeling off-track are simply trying to find a way back on. Although reticent about forming relationships, Fran remains optimistic about finding one saying “I feel I have learned more in three years about dating and relating (and maybe about myself) than I learned in the previous forty.”

Therese Shechter is a filmmaker and writer based in Brooklyn. You can read or submit your own stories about sexual debuts and deferrals at The V-Card Diaries.

Image via Pierre Guinoiseau