Incel, short for ‘involuntarily celibate’, is self-identification used exclusively by cis-gender, straight males who congregate exclusively in online spaces, and report having extreme difficulty in or an inability to attract sexual and romantic relationships with women. Many self-described incels online subscribe to the Blackpill, the nihilistic ideological worldview that espouses that society is hierarchal and that appearance, money and status are the only attributes needed in order to gain success; both in romantic and sexual relationships and in society as a whole. It also claims that all true happiness is derived from sexual and romantic relationships, that these are the only means through which a person can be truly be valued, find meaning and connection and that all other areas of life are ‘copes’, or insufficient substitutions for romantic and sexual relationships.
Most of what we know about the individuals who use the label ‘incel’, or who are users on incel forums, comes from gathering evidence of their lives through their posts, interviews, case notes, government documents, the manifestos of incel-related mass murders and their participation in academic studies. It is difficult to create an accurate picture of the type of individual who engages with incel content as the individuals who subscribe to the Blackpill are so varied. Many incels report having mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders and schizophrenia, as well as physical disabilities and neurodivergence. Some incels will also report having no medical issues but feel that they are simply hindered by their physical appearance. Incels are also ethnically diverse, come from different socioeconomic backgrounds and are at different various different life stages. Although we do not have a lot of personal information to go on, judging by the numerous references to school or college and also due to some incels choosing to publicise their age, there is a very large, loud and growing demographic of incels between the ages of 16-22. It is also important to note that not all incels are misogynists and not all incels support violence.
Incels are not aliens; they are not inherently different from others in their peer groups, however, they do feel a profound sense of alienation. Their feelings of alienation and ostracisation are often detailed in posts where they express extremely low self-esteem, suicidality, and feelings of injustice, resentment and hate (see Fig.1). Their posts often provide us with vignettes of their lives; instances of bullying in school, strained or abusive relationships with parents, siblings and family, issues with their mental health, frustrations with their inability to connect with others and romantic rejection. Although incels themselves will emphasise that their situations and feelings are categorically different and worse than any type of suffering experienced by others, the issues that they detail are a lot more typical in their peer groups than they believe. Issues such as bullying, loneliness, romantic rejection, depression, suicidality and anger are prevalent in teenagers and young adults.
Many incels will first start out by experiencing these issues in their real-world surroundings which will then cause them to retreat to the online world where they seek out places and content they feel they can relate to or content that they feel provides answers to the problems they face. When they inevitably find online incel forums or Blackpill content on Youtube, they often express feelings of relief and appreciation that they have found a space in which they can talk about issues that they feel are socially taboo, especially for males.
These communities will stress the perceived exceptionalism of the feelings and situations of users and position these experiences as separate from and worse than those of other non-incels, which incentivises them to stay in these online communities and to stop further attempts to engage with their peer groups or communities, both online and offline. Furthermore, specifically in relation to romantic relationships, users in misogynist and nihilistic incel spaces will fight to maintain that their situation is also unchangeable due to forces outside of their control. One of these forces includes genetic determination, a theory that their perceived poor genetic makeup has determined their fate to be one of isolation, loneliness and romantic rejection based solely on their appearance or other unchangeable issues. They also believe that feminism is a prevalent and overarching force which has enabled women to become more particular in their choice of male partners, and hence feel that they will never be chosen as a potential partner (see Fig.2). On top of romantic relationships, incels will also propagate theories that they will never have a real social group or fit in with ‘normies’, or non-incels, which can cause some to become further isolated but also encourages many to become more active in the incel community instead. Although incels enjoy the comradery of the forums and friendships do occur, there are a few obstacles that prevent genuine connections from taking place. One issue is that due to incels mostly choosing to remain anonymous, their ability to connect with one another in a more real-world setting, including video calls, is hindered by their fear of being doxxed.
While initially, users will report feelings of appreciation for the forums, over time it is not uncommon for them to admit to feelings of growing misogyny and hatred towards other non-incels and society in general, as well as feelings akin to an addiction to the forums. Posts that garner the most attention are those with the most shock value; detailing and celebrating extreme misogyny, nihilism, violence, racism, transphobia and other forms of hate. Types of violence discussed include mass murder, murder, rape, genocide, torture and sexual assault. Users are incentivised to ‘ragepost’ by making shocking, angry and violent posts, partly in order to gain attention from the community and to fit in. It is difficult to decipher whether the posts are genuine or ‘shitposting’ for attention, however, users who consistently post angry, violent or depressive content may be genuinely signalling violent or suicidal intentions. It can also be difficult to figure out if users who make or comment on these posts agree with the sentiments of the posts.
Posts regarding paedophilia or the sexualisation of minors will also garner attention, however, there is an ongoing debate in incel spaces over whether this type of content should be allowed. Justifications for the sexualisation of pre-teen and younger teenage girls purport that these girls are more likely to be virgins, tying in with misogynist narratives which claim young girls are pure, and “easier to influence and control”. The normalisation and the justifications attached to sexualising young teenagers on the forums, especially by incels in their early 20s, create a risk factor that some incels may try to start relationships with, or contact underage girls online or offline, or share or post images of minors.
Incel forums also have their own specific phrases and coded language and over time, many incels become well acquainted with each other. Users have a chance to make their mark in the forums through their posts, their humour and their online persona. Some users report never having felt feelings of acceptance, connection or friendship before joining the forums. Young users who experience bullying in school especially might find solace in speaking to others who have had or experience bullying. This kind of connection can be cathartic and helpful, especially for young males who feel they can’t speak to anyone else without losing respect or facing further ostracisation.
Desensitisation and Getting Stuck (The Hotel California Effect)
The cultures of the forums are predominantly nihilistic and hateful, their heavy nature often has a hypnotic and addictive effect on users. At first, incels view these spaces as places where they can freely express themselves, but over time note becoming desensitised to the violence and hate, further emboldened in their feelings of resentment and stagnant in their feelings of depression. They are also encouraged to view their situations and feelings as permanent states through reinforcement of their low self-worth and value as well as their paranoia, distrust and hatred toward women and society in general.
The forums encourage users to take part in extreme forms of dehumanisation, especially toward women as well as Jewish, Asian and Black people. While incel communities are not inherently white supremacist and the Blackpill is not overtly white supremacist, neo-Nazism and white supremacy find a happy home inside incel forums. Incels who may not have started off as racist become consistently exposed to racist rhetoric and content which can serve to radicalise some users into far-right extremist ideologies. These environments also act as tangential support networks for far-right extremists as they facilitate the distribution of far-right narratives, messages and videos, such as the live streams of the Christchurch and Buffalo shootings. Some users will also use far-right and neo-Nazi signifiers, such as swastikas, Nazis as profile pictures, anti-Semetic and anti-LGBTQ+ tropes and conspiracy theories. Incel forums are not unique in this way, however, they have just adopted the same culture found on other forums such as 4Chan.
The forums use free speech laws to justify their culture, and while it is true that certain content hosted on forums would otherwise be removed from mainstream platforms, incel forums are not entirely lawless. Rules exist that strictly prohibit optimism, viewing women positively, or personal testimonies that might negate sentiments of nihilism or misogyny. Incels who do ‘ascend’ (the incel term for entering a romantic or sexual relationship) are ridiculed in these communities as ‘fakecels’, and banned from the forums. By denigrating defectors as ‘fakecels’, the incel communities are able to uphold their ideology, maintain the status quo and keep their community consolidated. Furthermore, incels will often mock those who have entered into relationships, denigrating them as ‘cucks’, ‘simps’, or being exploited for monetary or other nefarious purposes. This attitude in the community actually serves to turn some incels away from the idea of a relationship due to feelings of paranoia and fear. For incels who enjoy the comradery, anti-political correctness, ethos and aesthetics of being in the incel communities, leaving the forums would also entail a loss of connection, social significance and meaning for some. This creates a Catch-22 whereby incels are unhappy about the fact that they are experiencing the type of loneliness that allows them entry to incel communities, but they also find themselves becoming comfortable in these communities or further discouraged from leaving and joining other spaces and communities online or offline.
Bringing Incels Back In
The lack of spaces available for young men to openly discuss issues such as loneliness, depression, social anxiety, self-esteem and romantic rejection is a key reason why incels turn to online misogynist spaces. Growing publicity and awareness of incel culture in the mainstream media has led to a pervasive sense of outrage and disgust towards them, further exacerbating their alienation. Communities centred around targeting and countering incel culture also fuel their feelings of victimisation, rage and frustration. Popular media, including the hit show Euphoria has also depicted negative stereotypes attached to young males who are socially outcasted or awkward, even using the label ‘incel’ and conflating it with school shooters. Negative stereotypes around young males who have issues socialising or finding romantic relationships can push these young males to find solace in online spaces.
Instead of allowing young people who have issues socialising to be pushed out, educational institutions should work to bring them more into the fold, and provide them with easy access to mental health services. Schools should make a concerted effort, starting at primary level, to provide a more comprehensive sexual education, and engage in open and honest conversations about mental health, bullying, misogyny, masculinity and mutual respect. Doing so would cultivate an environment of openness, empathy and free expression around topics that require a degree of vulnerability, and a breaking down of barriers created by gender norms.
Non-incel users on mainstream platforms such as Twitter, Youtube and Discord can also help to prevent further alienation by being more inclusive towards both men and women who have difficulties around socialising and dating. Virgin shaming people, especially young males, only further emboldens misogynist incel spaces and creates more feelings such as shame, anger and depression among young males. At the same time, any hate speech, misogyny and dehumanisation should be called out on these platforms and nihilistic narratives should be challenged by users. Incels are often viewed as the aggressors, however, it is important that we also view them as vulnerable people as well and to invite them into society as individuals while also condemning any extremist misogynistic narratives and actions.
We are living in a time where people who deal with issues such as loneliness may find it easier to give up on their real-life surroundings and slip into an alternate online reality instead. Like Alice, we can slip into Wonderland, and find kinship with like-minded mysterious people in the shadows. For a while, this can feel like a substitute or coping mechanism for real life, but reality will always supersede online fantasy when it comes to a real-world connection.