This article was co-written with Julia DeCook.
On April 23, 2018, Alek Minassian drove a van through the North York City Centre business district in Toronto, killing 10 people and injuring 16. Attempts to discern the motivation for this violent act led investigators to a Facebook post made by Minassian only moments before the attack; in his post, Minassian appears to pledge allegiance to the “incel rebellion” and to refers to himself as “infantry.”
Incel is a term that entered the public imagination previously with the Isla Vista attacks carried out by Elliot Rodger in 2014, where six died and 14 were injured before Rodger turned the gun on himself.
Multiple news articles after the Toronto attacks have emerged questioning the role of this online subculture in the violent acts carried out by Rodger, Minassian, Nikolas Cruz, and others. It seemed these young men were driven to extreme acts of violence because of their “involuntary celibate” status.
Attempts to make sense of incels’ beliefs often point to toxic masculinity. But the narratives that are being spread within these online forums extend beyond toxic masculinity. Incels are strangely obsessed with purity—not just in desiring a woman who is a virgin, but in criticizing what they see as a degenerate society rife with partying and sexual promiscuity.
Understandably, mainstream media coverage has focused on incels’ misogynistic views of women. But understanding who incels are and what they want may have just as much—if not more—to do with their views of other men. They espouse idealized, archaic notions of virility and manliness that have been lost.
Like other groups in the so-called “manosphere,” incels argue for an impending future utopia of male supremacy, rooted in social Darwinism, in which biology is king. Today, we live in an era in which male privilege is both common (think Trump) and normatively unacceptable (think Weinstein). Incels’ hatred of women, and their belief of their entitlement to them, represents another strategy to secure the privileges of heterosexual men. Their hyperfocus on purity, both with women and with society at large, is rooted in a desire to control not just women but sexuality in general.
Incels see themselves as socially marginalized because they do not fit society’s standards of beauty (often, for example, members in the forum talk about jawlines as being an indicator of attractiveness). Because of their failure to date and have relationships with women, they refer to themselves as “beta” males. They spew vitriol against “Chads” and “Alpha males,” men they perceive as conventionally handsome and sexually successful.
But their views of women suggest they would also like to claim a uniquely masculine kind of power, in the form of access to women’s bodies – but bodies that are “pure” by their standards. In short, incels find themselves at the margins of socially-rewarded values of masculinity. Incels hate Chads—but they also want to be Chad. Insisting on women’s sexual chasteness is a way of making themselves feel morally superior to Chads.
On their forums incels seem frustrated or confused about sex, dating, and women in general. Many seem depressed, and it often appears that their anger stems from extreme loneliness. They feel they’ve missed out on the social thrills of adolescence that provide a foundation for later romantic and sexual encounters in life. Because of this, many blame their lack of success with dating on nightlife, partying, and social media – despite the irony in their use of social media forums in finding community with one another. Online communities entangle their users in semi-fictional worlds that they come to view as representative of reality.
On forums like incels.me, some men may feel their depression gets slaked by having a community of others with whom they can blow off steam. For them, the forum is a space for joking, trolling, silliness, and irreverent “shitposting.” Many also note how the forum has made them more angry towards the world. For the more psychologically suggestible, like Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian, blending truth, hatred, and trolling can lead to radicalization. Like other misogynistic social media-powered trends—from “slut shaming” and “revenge porn” to the rise of the alt-right—they go down a rabbit hole of narcissistic rage. Projecting their sexual shame and frustration, they come to see women as deserving annihilation.
Sociologists like R. W. Connell say that toxic masculinity is overcompensation for shame, or traumatic experiences of humiliation, which men interpret as personal weaknesses they must overcome. Toxic masculinity intensifies macho personality traits like stoicism, toughness, and social dominance and turns them into fixations. These fixations might be benign, like obsessively pumping iron, doing extreme sports, or engaging in locker room banter. They might be malignant, like squeezing one’s body past its limits (and risking one’s health) by using performance-enhancing drugs that toe the line between risk-taking and self-hatred. They may even be weaponized in fantasies of retribution, perhaps by bullying or attacking gay men; sexually assaulting or domestically abusing women; committing mass shootings or terrorism; or buying into political fascism, authoritarianism, or strongman tactics.
Trading shame for power might lead us to think incels would prefer to trade in their life of loneliness for a spate of sexual promiscuity. In fact, incels display a striking asceticism—even a puritanical ideal of withdrawal—from promiscuity. In this sense, they’re more like narcissistic, innerwordly dropouts from modern hookup culture: somewhere between the shut-in hikikomori and herbivore men of Japan, and the radical jihadis of ISIS who want women to be cloistered or redistributed as sex slaves.
For incels like Rodger and Minassian, violence trades their sense of worthlessness for a feeling of supremacy; as if to say, “You think I’m a loser? I’ll show you.” The nihilistic purity of murder is that it returns them to the absolute solitude of their inner selves. In the process, they destroy the fabric of society in which they had lost themselves.
Toxic masculinity is an inadequate theory to understand incels. It doesn’t capture incels’ ambivalence towards alpha males (as one user, a self-described “Ugly Lives Matter activist,” writes that “Chad is what anyone here would be if [their attractiveness were an] 8+”). Nor does it explain incels’ ambivalence towards women’s liberation (as one user writes, “Women only have rights and emancipation because cucks let them have it”). Cuck, short for cuckold, implies a submissiveness grounded in the desire to gain women’s approval. Incels fear submissiveness to both men and women, and appear to fear gayness and homosexuality – yet being in an online support group for lonely mean doesn’t strike incels as incompatible with macho self-assertiveness. They simultaneously enact a nihilistic view of the world and express a desire to be accepted by it. In short, we need a theory that understands incels’ ambiguity as a strategy.
Despite their appeals to gender purity, what results is a mixture of political consciousness and misogynistic anger that sometimes fits a diverse set of reactionaries (think Milo Yiannopoulos, the alt right, and even “Bernie bros”) under the same tent. Using the same anti-feminist, conspiracy laden, racist rhetoric, they spew claims that they believe are rooted in some universal truth—thus the use of the term “Black Pill” on the Incels forum, a step up from the typical “red pill” awakening.
Online radicalization is a real and persistent issue in the modern world, and Incels are no exception. Toxic masculinity doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the kinds of masculinity that groups like the Incels propagate and aim to impose on society. We argue that incels’ sense of masculinity is hybridized. This means they exude desires for traditional male privilege while identifying themselves as a marginalized and subordinated group. They use antifeminism while sometimes espousing progressive political beliefs in other areas—including skepticism towards capitalism, environmental exploitation, religion, homophobia, and institutionalized racism—that have traditionally privileged white men.
Behind a countercultural ethos of transgressiveness these incels fundamentally worship power.
Julia DeCook is a doctoral student at Michigan State University in Media and Information Studies studying knowledge production in online communities.