In the near-decade since the first publicly recognised act of incel violence in 2014, at the hands of 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, the incel movement and its online ecosystem have entered the public consciousness. In broad terms, the subculture draws male adherents who struggle to form romantic and sexual relationships with women, making them ‘involuntary celibate’ aka ‘incel’. While there is nothing new about late or adult virginhood, the incel movement that emerged since Rodger’s attacks is marked by overt misogyny, which places the blame for incels’ negative life circumstances at the hands of women, feminism, and wider ‘progressive’ society. Through a perception of themselves at the bottom of a looks-based hierarchy, incels believe they are systematically rejected by women, thus excluding them from the sex and love they believe they deserve.
The incel subculture, the threat that it poses, and the extent to which we should understand it as a movement that fuels terrorism have become increasingly debated, particularly in the wake of incel-related mass violence. Yet our general understanding of who incels are and the beliefs that they hold remains patchy. This is in part due to the widespread perception of the subculture as a homogenous group or ideology with a fixed set of worldviews and objectives. In reality, the ‘incelosphere’ hosts numerous competing and overlapping viewpoints, sprawling across a vast online incel ecosystem.
For example, while some incels advocate real-world violence, others disavow it, actively seeking to distance themselves from alleged incel attacks. The incelosphere often spirals into heated debates regarding who should be categorised as an incel, based on attributes such as looks, height, personality and neurodiversity. Incel discourse is typically abusive, and while harmful and violent language is often targeted at women, non-white ethnicities and LGBTQ+ communities, it is similarly deployed internally.
As this Insight will explore, incel characteristics are highly subjective. Through applying ethnographic methods across both popular and niche incel spaces, one can understand how the incel identity is shaped through the discourse through which they describe themselves and their peers. A closer examination of the incelosphere reveals multiple overlapping definitions of inceldom, revealing a subculture that is deeply invested in self-categorisation and in-group disputes, particularly regarding concepts such as looks-based privilege, mental health, and neurodiversity.
Who ‘Counts’ as an Incel?
Many people reach late teens and adulthood without engaging in sex and relationships. Indeed, trends have revealed that sexlessness is on the rise amongst young people worldwide, with men, in particular, driving this trend. Yet importantly, just being a virgin is not enough to qualify as an incel in the context of the subculture under study. As was helpfully articulated by researchers at the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism, the term ‘misogynistic incel’ better denotes those operating from a position of male supremacy – rather than individuals who have not yet had sex. Self-identification with the culture is thus a necessary prerequisite to being an incel, an identity which likely exists alongside a presence across one or multiple incel platforms.
As noted in a report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, incels are keen to put forward their own explanations of what it means to be an incel. Through examination of the incel Wiki, an important site in the incelosphere collating knowledge about the incel worldview, a definition of incel can be found, noting that they are “those who for an extended period of time could not establish a romantic and/or sexual relationship even after approaching a wide variety of people”. In this framework, the incel Wiki presents inceldom as a life circumstance that is outside of an individual’s control, as opposed to inceldom as an ideology or movement. In particular, it wishes to disassociate incels from accusations of violence.
A closer look at incel discourse, such as the ways in which incels seek to gatekeep their own spaces, provides further insights into how they perceive themselves. On the most popular incel forum’s ‘Rules and FAQ’ page, it states that it is a “forum for male involuntary celibates, single men who have trouble finding a significant other.” Female and non-incel membership is strictly forbidden. Such terms can be found across adjacent sites, in a manner which notably welcomes any man suffering from similar injustices, and fosters a sense of hostility towards women and outsiders.
Incel Purity: Truecels, Fakecels and Volcels
Beyond these binary conditions of inceldom, contradictions and disputes start to emerge across the subculture. Throughout the incelosphere, this question of what makes someone deserving of incel status comes up repeatedly. For example, the label ‘truecel’ is given to those who demonstrate particularly severe incel life circumstances. Truecels often achieve this status because they are seen to possess looks that society views as particularly unattractive. At its most extreme end, some may define themselves online as a ‘KHHV’ truecel, meaning “kissless handholdless, hugless virgin”. This abbreviation denotes the totality of their inexperience with women – and thus makes them an arguably more legitimate incel than others operating in the space.
In a paradoxical way, being recognised by other incels as a ‘purer’ form of incel is a mark of respect and status within the incelosphere. On the reverse, one’s incel status is often questioned by other adherents; the slur ‘fakecel’ or ‘volcel’ may be deployed to denote individuals masquerading as incels, or perhaps not deserving of the label as they are too good-looking, tall, muscular, or possess other privileges which preclude genuine inceldom. Others may even be labelled ‘chads’ or ‘normies’, particularly if they offer personal anecdotes of having some experience with women or success in the dating market.
This battle for incel purity and status can be witnessed in discussions of violent actors who are sanctified by some and demonised by others – providing a useful lens through which to better understand these internal debates about the incel identity. For example, in a conversation on an incel forum in the wake of the 2021 school shooting in Michigan, incels immediately debated whether or not the perpetrator was an incel. One wrote, “this truecel shooter is better than ER”, referring to Elliot Rodger. He then goes on to list characteristics such as the shooter looking “low T”, meaning low testosterone, and “like an 8 year old despite being 17”, in order to demonstrate his truecel status. Yet, in the same thread, another user writes “how the f**k is he a truecel…he looks like a prettyboy,” demonstrating the subjective nature of attractiveness within the incelosphere.
No individual establishes this point more than Elliot Rodger himself. While at times, he is lauded as the patron saint of incels, others posit that he was in fact too good-looking to be a real incel. As one member of the incelosphere argues, “he wasn’t actually ugly…that is why I do not acknowledge him as an incel icon”. Such discussions of looks-based privilege are rife amongst incels. Indeed, similar discussions were held in the wake of the Plymouth, UK, shootings in 2021. The perpetrator of the attack, Jake Davison, left a vast digital footprint on YouTube and Reddit which connected him to the incel subculture. Yet, in the event’s aftermath, incels online similarly posited that he was classically attractive, and that had he wanted, he could have had sex. These users suggested that he should not be considered part of the incel community because he would not have suffered from the looks-based discrimination from women that they claim to be afflicted by.
As such, one incel’s ‘prettyboy’ is another’s ‘truecel’. Debates around incel aesthetics are extensive, and not limited simply to facial features, as it is typical to find discussions relating to the importance of height, frame, posture, weight, and skin colour. For example, while whiteness is typically seen to be a privileged feature in the incel constructions of dating hierarchies, white incels can be found online arguing the exact opposite: that whiteness is in fact a disadvantage, and expressing jealousy at the sexual prowess of black men, for example.
Mentalceldom and Neurodivergence
Discussions around mental health and neurodiversity further complicate the landscape. To some incels, having a mental illness or sitting somewhere on the neurodiversity spectrum equates to even more suffering as an incel, beyond simply being born with inferior physical and aesthetic attributes. Those within this category broadly identify as ‘mentalcels’, and it is not uncommon to find an individual sharing their own stories of poor mental health or neurodivergence in the incelosphere. To them, this status of mentalcel acts as a further barrier to dating and intimacy. As one forum user notes, “NT is crucial. Getting a GF here is about NT not face, as most men are straight up ugly, no chads in sight”. NT is an abbreviation of neurotypical, thus the user articulates his belief that neurotypicality is far more important than looks.
As ever, incel perceptions of Elliot Rodger further illustrate these debates. As discussed previously, many incels online believe that he was too good-looking to really be an incel – and instead focus on him potentially having autism. As one form user notes, “ER was a giga Chad mentalcel who is only more popular with incels than Cho because of his good looks”. In incel terminology, ‘giga Chads’ are men in society who are deemed exceptionally attractive. This argument therefore places greater emphasis on Rodger’s potential mental health issues and/or neurodiversity as a factor of his inceldom. In addition, the user compares Rodger to Seung-Hui Cho, the perpetrator of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, who is considered by many to be a truer form of incel because of his ‘objectively’ bad looks. In this framing, Rodger holds greater status due to his handsome features, revealing the complicated way privilege and status plays out across the incelosphere.
The incel community is still in its nascence, and therefore our knowledge of it as experts and academics is similarly in the early stages. While incels are often treated as a singular entity, a deeper investigation into the incelosphere reveals incels are better understood as an amorphous network of intersecting and competing ideas and beliefs. This points to the need for a more disaggregated view of the subculture – which will enable us to better understand how and why individuals come to identify as incels.
What makes someone an incel is constantly contested and debated amongst incels online, and as such, harmful and violent language can be employed against its numerous out-groups, as well as against each other. Gaining recognition through possessing ‘true’ incel traits may be based on a number of factors, including looks, physical characteristics, mental health, and neurodiversity. The importance of possessing one or more of these characteristics is ultimately subjective,and will likely be coloured by an individual’s own life experience. The incelosphere is thus rooted in internal disputes relating to purity and privilege, which will likely continue as the subculture continues to grow and evolve.