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The Role of Perceived Injustice and Need for Esteem on Incel Membership Online

The Role of Perceived Injustice and Need for Esteem on Incel Membership Online
9th November 2022 Brenna Helm
In Insights


Incels, or involuntary celibates, is an increasingly popular subculture of men nestled within the online misogynist and male supremacist ecosystem. As an online subculture, incels have created a global community where users discuss their inability to access romantic and sexual relationships. Researchers have called for increased attention on the “social and behavioural factors” that attract users to the incel online subcultures. There is also a great need to understand the characteristics of a small subset of users that engage in offline acts of extremist violence. For instance, plots for incel violence, such as the notable 2014 attack in Santa Barbara and 2022 attempt in Ohio, reiterate the importance of understanding the attraction of online incel membership as well as the impact active participation in these forums have on incel members. The present study uses an inductive qualitative analysis of over 8,000 posts made in two prominent online incel communities. The study investigates patterns in incels’ reported experiences as they relate to their grievances, self-identification as an incel, and motivation for joining the online forum community. Several conclusions can be drawn from this study. 

Incels Perceive Barriers to Masculinity as a Source of Injustice and Alienation

First, this study demonstrated that perceived injustices are rooted in ideals of gender inequality and the struggle to overcome perceived barriers to masculinity. Specifically, incels discussed barriers related to social competency, physical appearance, and social agency. Sexual and romantic relationships are viewed as important social evidence of manhood among incels. Incels frequently commented on elements of social competency as critical barriers to sex and relationships. Several users self-identified as “socially awkward,” “avoidant,” “shy,” and “socially anxious.” Highlighting this barrier, several users described themselves as “mentalcels,” or incels that cite neurodivergence as a prominent contributor to their involuntary celibacy. Incels also believe that success in dating is closely tied to physical traits, not just personality and behaviour. Preoccupation with attractiveness and the concept of the sexual market is a core feature of the incel subculture. Incels believe their inability to obtain ideal manhood is furthered by perceived shortcomings in their physical appearance and race—to which whiteness is considered the most attractive with the fewest barriers.  

Interestingly, social agency was represented through employment and financial independence – two important indicators of manhood for incels. Specifically, being “NEET” (“not in education, employment, or training”) and having a low income were described as resource barriers to relationships. Given that incels tend to be younger adults, preoccupation with employment and income are normative for this group. However, incels sometimes interpreted the world of work as a microcosm of social injustice, where incels are disadvantaged and “normies,” “chads,” and women are advantaged. For some, NEETing was conversely seen as a source of agency for incels, conceptualised as a form of resistance to an alienating and oppressive world. Incels’ inability to access sources of manhood may lead incels to feel “off-time” in meeting important social and developmental milestones. Feeling “off-time” can exacerbate feelings of uncertainty and may contribute to incels’ perceived marginalisation from society. This notion is supported by the data, where users repeatedly identified puberty as a turning point towards greater distress, and their young teenage years as a “missed opportunity” to form intimate relationships with women. The role of time as a barrier to manhood or a source of precariousness has not been explored by research. 

Mental Distress as an Avenue Towards Ideology Adoption and Forum Use

Second, the results illustrate that identifying as an incel involves substantial psychological distress. Although past diagnoses of mental illness were discussed by some forum members, celibacy and its antecedents were perceived as unique causes of distress. Several forum users described feeling “frustrated,” “miserable,” “self-hate,” and “depressed” in response to being involuntarily celibate. The distress stemming from these reported experiences may have motivated forum users to seek support online within these incel communities. The incel forums reviewed in this study were notoriously pessimistic. Echoing findings from other research, users frequently discussed feelings of self-hatred and described themselves as “subhuman” or as a “waste of space,” and were encouraged to relinquish hope in order to accept their fate. However counterintuitive it may seem, the results from this study suggest that users formed connections through this pessimism as it contributed to a common identity and belief in an unjust, hopeless world. 

Third, incels’ feelings of isolation, victimisation, and pessimism may prime them to accept incel ideology as relevant and accurate, some seeing it as “science” and “truth.” Accepting the incel ideology was described as painful and “brutal,” but ultimately a rewarding process. As such, accepting the ideology increased feelings of agency, self-worth, and comfort for incels. Thus, self-identifying as a member of the incel group may come with a sense of esteem in which incels see themselves as knowledgeable, free-thinking, and not easily duped by modern society. In addition, discussions around their own self-hatred, perceived ugliness, awkwardness, and rejection from women allowed incels to gain social status in the community as a “truecel,” and affirm their belonging to the community. Thus, the incel ideology was seen by some as liberating and facilitating a powerful sense of belonging.

As a result, incels use forums to vent their frustrations about dating with a group of like-minded individuals. Through these conversations, we find that incels point to several barriers to accessing relationships, such as social competence, physical attractiveness, and social agency. As a misogynistic online community, these barriers are consistently connected back to ideals of manhood and gender inequality. In addition, being involuntarily celibate is argued to lead to feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and psychological distress. As a result, it is possible that many users are drawn to online communities in order to feel connected to others and to gain a sense of self-esteem by adopting incel ideology. These findings are congruent with subcultural perspectives, which argue that disenfranchised individuals who feel disconnected from broader society may flock online in search of a like-minded community. While only a small subset of incels endorse radical actions against women or violence against women, membership within online incel communities is a double edge sword: while it may foster self-esteem in users, it may also serve as an echo chamber in which misogynistic ideology proliferates and is reinforced. 

Incels Are Diverse, But Forums Can Exacerbate Risk

The results of this study reiterated what other scholars have found regarding victimisation among incels, in that members frequently discuss prior experiences with women as cruel, abusive, or exploitative. The prevalence of victimisation and emotional distress is also supported by other recent studies of incel communities, wherein incels discuss negative experiences with bullying, their own struggles with neurodivergence, and mental health. Collectively, these findings expand upon a body of literature that highlights several risk factors for incel membership. At the same time, the results support other research showing that incels, although connected by a common ideological foundation, are diverse in their experiences, struggles, and likelihood of endorsing radical action against women. 

In conclusion, the findings indicate that users may become active participants in incel forums through their perceptions of injustice and their need for esteem. Although only a small subsection of incels may go on to perpetrate acts of physical violence, the forum operates to solidify incel ideology and assist incels in interpreting the world through a misogynistic lens that is highly concerning. Specifically, incel forums provide a space within which users may encourage and promote violence—whether that be against others or themselves—to combat the injustices they perceive. Thus, incel forums are not innocuous spaces. Overall, this begs the question of how interventions targeting incels can be sensitive to their overall need to connect and discuss struggles relevant to dating, adulthood, and manhood, while also combating extremist beliefs, misogyny, and pro-violence solutions.

For more on these findings and the nature of the study in general, I encourage you to read the full manuscript which was recently published in Deviant Behavior.

Dr. Roberta Liggett O’Malley is an Assistant Professor of Criminology at the University of South Florida at the Sarasota- Manatee Campus. Dr. O’Malley’s research focuses on the overlap between technology, violence, and deviance. Her primary research interests include violent offending, cyber-violence, cybercrime, deviant online communities, and image-based sexual abuse.

Brenna Helm is a doctoral candidate in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. Her research focuses on extremists’ use of the Internet, hate groups, and online subcultures. She has a particular interest in male supremacy, notably the incel subculture, and far-right extremism.