The term “incel” is everywhere. What was once specialized internet slang now fills international headlines and is a frequent topic in discussions about gender, misogyny, violence and extremism.
“Incel” is a portmanteau of “involuntary celibacy.” In its most basic form, incel describes someone, usually a man, who is frustrated by their lack of sexual experiences.
The Anti-Defamation League, which works to tackle hate and extremism, defines incels as “heterosexual men who blame women and society for their lack of romantic success”.
“Incel” can also be used as a pejorative to describe someone who has misogynistic views or attitudes.
From there, the incel identity is fragmented into many aspects, some of which are considered dangerous both to the public and to the individuals who claim it.
However, it is important to understand the complex ways in which the term “incel” is used, as well as how it came to be and why it is associated with certain ideologies.
Despite its intersections with misogyny and overwhelmingly male groups, the person credited with coining the term “incel” was actually a woman. Alana, who is known only by her first name, first popularized the term in the 1990s through a personal website called “Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project.” The term “incel” became part of the language she used with her followers as they discussed feelings of shyness and social awkwardness. However, as the term spread, it began to take on different meanings.
“With a term like ‘incel,’ and with any identity term, the definition lies in how people use it to describe themselves and others,” Brette Steele, senior director for Targeted Violence Prevention at the McCain Institute. “This explains why the origin of incel differs from its current usage and why it is so difficult to arrive at a precise definition.”
Online forums dedicated to incel culture are a reliable way to see how the term evolved and is used today. A subreddit, or forum on Reddit, called r/incels was one of the most visible meeting places for self-identified incels until it was banned by Reddit in 2017 for “violent content.”
Incel forums have been studied by public policy researchers because of the misogynistic rhetoric and high-profile violence espoused by some members of the incel community.
A 2022 study published in the journal “Current Psychiatry Reports” and deposited in the National Library of Medicine describes some ideologies that bind the central communities together:
- an appearance-based hierarchy in which how one looks is seen as the most essential key to both sexual relationships and one’s place in society
- a belief in female “hypergamy,” the notion that women are very sexually selective and use their privilege and sexuality for social advancement above all else.
- a dislike for feminism
“As it was feminism that promoted and encouraged women to have the deserved right to sexual agency, there has been much discussion on incel forums dedicated to reversing gender equality, many of the proposed solutions include some form of coercion, rape or a complete return to enforced monogamy under strict patriarchal rule,” the study says.
“Such deeply disturbing comments are imbued with sentiments of sexual entitlement, in which incels rate higher than non-incel men.”
Incel culture is also, by its very nature, part of Internet culture. Memes and community slang are a big part of how incels communicate. One of the most important symbols in the incel community is the idea of a “red pill” or a “blue pill”. This metaphor comes from the 1999 film “The Matrix”, in which Keanu Reeves’ character Neo must choose between taking a blue pill, which will keep him in a state of peaceful ignorance, or the red pill, which will wake him up. in uncomfortable but enlightening reality.
“For incels, the reality presented to them by the red pill is that love and sexual satisfaction are goods denied to them by women, and that women, not men, control the sexual aspects of society,” says Steele. “Under this assumption, sex and relationships become almost like a game with specific challenges to overcome.”
When people are described as “red”, it means they have accepted this reality. The red pill and blue pill metaphor is also used among other groups associated with the alt right, including QAnon followers and other conspiracy theorists.
The “black pill” is similar to the red pill, but describes a more nihilistic view that the reality of the red pill is inevitable and unchanging.
Some other examples of incel slang are:
- Stacy’s: Attractive women at the top of the female social hierarchy, these women must be both desired and despised, as in incel culture, attractive women are the reason for their sexual failures.
- It looks great: Some groups of incels care less about the perceived social and political reasons for their condition. Instead, they focus, either positively or negatively, on their own perceived flaws. Looksmaxxing is the act of making yourself as attractive as possible, through grooming, styling or exercise. Incel communities share overlap with other online communities where young men meet, and one can see the influence of video game culture in words like this. Other things can be “maximized” this way, such as wealth or personality.
Incels are considered part of a larger web of ideologies, groups, and media that is sometimes described as the “manosphere.” This includes pick-up artists, so-called men’s rights activists, “alpha male” influencers, and more. Incel groups, as well as the manosphere in general, attract mostly young males looking for meaning and community.
“Young people are looking for that sense of belonging, that kind of grounding to explain what’s happening to them. In recent years, more young people have been forced to turn to online communities. We’ve seen a degradation of personal social skills,” Steele told CNN in a 2022 interview.
These different groups tend to share overlapping misogynistic views that portray women as drains on society and as objects to be subservient to sexually dominant men.
The mental health issues, isolation, bitterness, and misogynistic thinking that often characterize incel culture can lead incels to align themselves with increasingly extreme beliefs. Experts and studies have noted that incel culture often intersects with far-right ideologies and white supremacy.
In the last 10 years or so, many incidents of mass violence have been committed by men who identified themselves as minors or who publicly expressed their beliefs about male supremacy.
Elliot Rodger, who went on a stabbing and shooting spree in Isla Vista, California in 2014, was a self-proclaimed cripple. After the attack, which killed six, injured more than a dozen, and ended with the 22-year-old’s death at his own hands, Rodgers became a celebrity, an inspiration and a meme among incel communities.
Other incidents also show that incel behavior and its violent consequences are not limited to the US. The man behind a 2021 van attack in Toronto that killed 10 has spoken of an “incel uprising” to “overthrow the Chads and Stacys.” He also called Roger “The Supreme Lord”. A man who killed five during a shooting rampage in Plymouth, England in 2021 has expressed his solidarity with incel culture and his fascination with violent men.
The US Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center said in 2022 it would further investigate incel ideologies, citing the 2018 case of a 40-year-old man who attacked a yoga studio in Tallahassee, Florida, killing two women and injuring four others before shooting himself.
Steven Driscoll, assistant director of the National Threat Assessment Center, told CNN in 2022 that there is more interest in studying misogynist extremism and how such ideas spread.
“You often see an intersection between misogynist views and white supremacy, far-right ideology, and in some cases far-left ideologies,” Driscoll said.
“The body of research examining misogyny as an extreme ideology and specifically expanding on it, as well as its intersection with other ideologies such as white supremacy, as a field of inquiry is growing.”
Psychologists note that incel culture can also be dangerous for the very men who find solace in it.
A 2022 study published in “Evolutionary Psychology Science” surveyed a sample of self-described incels. The researchers found that 75% of the incels they challenged were clinically diagnosable with severe or moderate depression and 45% with severe anxiety.
“(Incels) suffer from extremely high levels of anxiety, depression and loneliness,” said William Costello, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin. “Also, as a group, they are particularly reluctant to seek help from mental health professionals.”
Another 2022 study in the “Journal of Sexual Medicine” found that those who identified as incels were more likely to experience higher rates of depression, paranoia and negative thoughts about their relationships with others.
Dr. Giacomo Ciocca, the study’s lead author, concluded that these negative psychopathological factors contribute to extreme behavior, and treating the underlying reasons people seek such identities could help mitigate the risks of such behaviors.
“Incel people struggle with their condition and feel that women are responsible for it,” Ciocca told PsyPost about the study. “They suffer but cannot change their situation, so they blame others. Violence comes from there, from resentment. Once again, emotional education and psychological counseling should be promoted in schools as preventive programs.”