Click here to read our latest report: Going Dark: The Inverse Relationship between Online and On-the-Ground Pre-offence Behaviours in Targeted Attackers

Learning from the Leavers? The Promise (and Perils) of r/IncelExit 

Learning from the Leavers? The Promise (and Perils) of r/IncelExit 
8th December 2023 Allysa Czerwinsky
In 16 Days, Insights

This Insight is part of GNET’s Gender and Online Violent Extremism series in partnership with Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre. This series aligns with the UN’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gendered Violence (25 November-10 December).

Introduction

Increasing discussions have centred around the radicalisation and potential threat posed by misogynist incels – a subset of the larger self-ascribed identity of involuntary celibacy. In recent months, conversations have shifted toward understanding exit trajectories for misogynist incels and other members of male supremacist communities. Over the six years I’ve spent researching self-identified incels, three notable members have chosen to step away from the community’s main misogynist forum, albeit for vastly different reasons.      

Following the Toronto van attack in April 2018, a user under the pseudonym Jack Peterson spoke out against the hatred and misogyny espoused by fellow community members in interviews with Global News and the Toronto Star. A month later, he announced his departure in a now-deleted YouTube video, citing a need to move away from the community to get out of a rut and ‘ascend’. In 2021, the founder and administrator of the community’s main forum, who uses the alias Alexander Ash, pivoted to academic research and outreach work, contributing to P/CVE discussions and co-authoring published reports for the International Centre for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) alongside Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg. In December of that year, he stepped away from his role as the administrator of the forum (and roles across other incel-related online spaces) after his legal name was published in a New York Times exposé of the pro-suicide forum he helped found. Most recently, a 33-year-old moderator known as Komesarj announced his departure in a now-deleted thread in April 2023, citing his sexually fulfilling relationship with “a really cute 19-year-old girl” as the reason for leaving the community behind. 

For many, participation in online incel spaces is ephemeral; users drift in and out of discussions, taking on different levels of participation across communities. Some users stop posting to the spaces they were once highly active in, often without lengthy goodbye posts or media-related fanfare. These exits can occur for various reasons, with some choosing to spend less time online or finding other avenues of support and belonging. While they incur less interest than high-profile exits, these comparatively mundane transitions out of misogynist incel spaces are key for academics and practitioners alike. Understanding an individual’s shift from being an active user to a former one has important implications for responding to and preventing misogynist extremism. This Insight explores discussions across the largest exit-focused incel subreddit, r/IncelExit, to better understand users’ choices to disengage from misogynist incel communities.

r/IncelExit

Currently boasting 17,000 members, IncelExit brands itself as an accessible peer-to-peer advice subreddit aimed at supporting people who are motivated to leave the incel community. At present, the subreddit is the largest remaining space for self-identified incels on Reddit, following stricter policies against bullying, harassment, and violent content on the platform. IncelExit occupies a unique position among the ‘incelosphere’, the ecosystem of communities and platforms where self-identified incels gather to connect, many of which are home to an exclusively male and heterosexual userbase. In addition, the main spaces associated with the misogynist incel community are largely insular and offer limited opportunities for engagement with outsiders, with strict membership guidelines for users to ‘prove’ their incel status before joining. In contrast, IncelExit allows anyone who self-identifies as an incel – regardless of gender identity, sexuality, or virginity status – to discuss personal experiences with incels and non-incels alike. IncelExit’s supportive approach provides an alternative environment for incels who feel disillusioned with or are excluded from the community’s larger forums, which are known to derail users wanting to leave the community, ban women and gender-diverse users, and prohibit positive discussions of queerness and non-heteronormative dating experiences. While conversations still focus overwhelmingly on heterosexual men, this openness inadvertently mirrors the ethos of Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project, the listserv that laid the foundations for the contemporary community.

Discussions on IncelExit offer a promising avenue for expanding knowledge about inceldom beyond misogynist forums and how conversations about leaving misogynist spaces operate at both individual and community levels. Though published research on IncelExit is still scarce, work by Alyssa Davis and Joshua Thorburn offers excellent introductions to the potential benefits and pitfalls of how support-focused spaces can aid in deradicalisation efforts for self-identified incels. Building on this work, I offer insights from my research exploring the narratives in stories from former and exit-curious incels posting to IncelExit below. 

A Promising Narrative Shift

IncelExit allows users to ask questions and receive support from former and actively exiting incels as well as members of the public, promoting engagement with a variety of alternative perspectives and opportunities for encouragement. Users’ engagement with others appears to foster a shift around how they view inceldom, which shows promise for helping motivated individuals disengage from misogynist spaces. While actively identifying with the incel label, users depict inceldom as a fixed identity characteristic: a deficit caused by immutable traits like height, facial features, race, and neurodiversity. Their self-descriptions are overwhelmingly negative, outlining that a “weird unsymmetrical face”, off-putting personality traits, and lack of social skills preclude them from success in the dating realm. These ideas are reinforced by a belief in the ‘Black Pill’ philosophy, a nihilistic framework used to explain personal shortcomings and lack of success with women. These beliefs are further solidified within discussions on misogynist incel forums attributing negative life experiences to genetic inferiority, unattractiveness, and a societal hierarchy around looks and status, said to be controlled by women.

In contrast, former and actively-exiting users frame inceldom as a temporary life circumstance that can be changed with time and effort. Negative feelings about singlehood remain, but users prioritise positive aspects of their lives over their incel identities. This shift is characterised by a sense of agency and self-acceptance in users’ stories, both noticeably absent in discussions on the community’s main forum. Some users pivot away from dating, giving themselves the validation they thought was only possible in romantic relationships:

“I realised happiness and fulfilment is something I have to find for myself.”

“It was never about having sex or finding a girlfriend but giving myself the validation and comfort that I desperately thought only a relationship would give me.”

“I do want to experience it, but I don’t need sex or a relationship for any other validation.”

Others mention that addressing negative self-talk and prioritising their own happiness helped them realise how harmful misogynist incel spaces are. Though some users still view a romantic relationship as the last step in their exit journey, they recognise the personal changes they need to make for that to take place. While exact pathways out of inceldom rarely follow a clear trajectory, themes of agency and self-validation underpin the bulk of stories in my dataset. Several users highlight self-improvement, accessing therapy and mental health services, and engaging in new social activities and hobbies within their exit stories, framing these as important life changes that helped them disengage from misogynist spaces and the nihilism of the Black Pill. This finding provides an important insight into potential support areas for motivated community members who wish to exit.

In line with IncelExit’s ethos of openness, stories often involved intertwining subjectivities that shaped routes into inceldom. These include neurodiversity, most often autism and ADHD; chronic health issues; visible and invisible disabilities; identifying as LGBTQ+; and experiences with racism, bullying, abuse, and trauma. As self-identified incels interact with non-incels who share similar experiences and identities, the forum serves as a crucial arena for exploring alternative interpretations of life events without relying on incel-related ideologies. Similarly, the diversity of life experiences and conversations on IncelExit offers insight into the heterogeneity of the community. This understanding can help craft support resources and exit mechanisms tailored to the specific needs of community members with certain subjectivities. 

The Perils of Performative Exiting

Despite the promise of IncelExit as a space for change at the individual level, I question its potential to bring about lasting change at the ideological level. While former community members might be turning away from the nihilistic and self-defeating narratives of the Black Pill, evidence of a complete departure from the misogynistic beliefs underpinning heteronormative inceldom is lacking. I refer to this issue as performative exiting, where users emphasise the personal dimensions of their departure without convincing proof of ideological change. 

Women are often central to discussions on IncelExit, but reflexive dialogues that humanise women as a collective are notably absent. Across several stories, users passively describe instances of being “deeply spiteful toward women”, “slut shaming women”, and verbally attacking women both online and in person with little remorse or empathy. It is imperative for exit-curious and former community members to critically reflect on the ideologies of the misogynist community they once identified with, in which essentialist and dehumanising rhetoric about women is often the norm. While users described positive interactions and platonic friendships with women as key in helping understand some women as unique individuals, it’s unclear if these instances are effective in dismantling misogynist beliefs. For instance, one user described that socialising with older women who “weren’t romantic interests at all”  helped him “realise some women are kind of normal and maybe cool, ” though he quickly mentioned that he still disliked women his age. 

Similarly, several posts mention having a girlfriend as a factor motivating exit but simultaneously fail to show remorse for or critically engage with past misogynist beliefs. Instead, users’ romantic success stories were used to illustrate overcoming feelings of unattractiveness and low self-worth rather than signalling a positive ideological change. Though some users appear to show genuine remorse for how they’ve treated women in the past, these discussions appear infrequently in my dataset and are often lost beneath posts about how to approach women or how to address growing negative feelings toward them. 

Public Performances

The issue of performative exiting also extends to Komesarj, Alexander Ash, and Jack Peterson, all of whom fail to acknowledge the roles they’ve played in furthering male supremacism and misogyny. Despite publicly renouncing his incel status, Komesarj’s deleted tweets and posts are replete with derogatory speech toward women, referring to them as whores and “a series of holes”. While Ash did pivot to academic research to rebrand the community as one made up of lonely men in need of support, the work he contributed to fails to acknowledge the documented misogyny and male supremacism in the online spaces he created and ran. 

Jack Peterson perhaps best illustrates the pitfalls of exiting without meaningful ideological change. After publicly announcing his departure from the misogynist incel community, Peterson racked up an impressive run of interviews with Huffington Post, ABC News, the Daily Beast, Guardian, and BBC, where he directly spoke out against the misogyny and violence of the community he was once part of. However, in an episode of NPR’s Invisibilia podcast, Lina Misitzis calls Peterson out for his lack of critical reflections on the clear misogynistic behaviours he’s engaged in, including distributing nude photos of an ex-girlfriend to “her parents, everybody in her family, her college professors and everybody she knew”, as well as crossing state lines in the middle of the night to show up unannounced at her residence. 

Only three years after this extensive press tour, Peterson pivoted back to the aggressive misogyny he so vehemently disavowed in his prior media appearances. In 2021, he was featured in an episode of Dr Phil where he claimed his hatred of women resulted in him “going gay”. In a three-minute clip posted to the show’s YouTube channel, Peterson’s voiceover refers to women as “evil and manipulative”, “bitches”, and “lying fucking whores”, who “need to be put under [men’s] control again”.  Though Peterson no longer identifies with his former incel identity, his talking points echo the virulent misogyny at the core of male supremacist communities across the manosphere. Last year, Peterson apologised for “going gay” in a video on his YouTube channel, stating that he had found Jesus and recognising that his actions were sinful. Notably, his video contains no apology for the hateful rhetoric he spewed about women in his Dr Phil appearance. 

Conclusion

I echo Thorburn’s argument that support-focused exit communities can play an important role in helping motivated individuals exit misogynist communities. IncelExit is a particularly useful space for future research into disengagement as it provides self-identified incels with a supportive environment to explore alternative narratives that reframe life experiences outside of incel-related ideologies. Themes of agency and self-acceptance are key components across stories, and bolstering these feelings could be an important first step toward exiting manosphere communities. Moreover, the strictly enforced rules prohibiting aggressive and hateful speech both by Reddit and by IncelExit’s active moderator team help limit misogynistic and violent speech while maintaining a welcoming and supportive environment, providing a good case study for addressing unsavoury content in online spaces. 

Importantly, meaningful change for former members of misogynist incel spaces means critically reflecting on the beliefs about women that underpin the community’s guiding ideology, along with broader issues of male supremacism and misogyny. It means putting in effort to learn and understand how these viewpoints inherently harm others and how they contribute to wider cultures of oppression. While my research indicates that an ideological shift is happening for former and exit-curious users around their own agency and value as people, these same ideas – of agency,  worth, and individual difference – need to extend to those who are directly harmed by the ideology touted by users within male supremacist spaces for us to see tangible, lasting change. 

Allysa Czerwinsky (she/her) is a doctoral candidate in Criminology at the University of Manchester. Her research interests centre on the intersections of technology, harm, and violence, with a specific focus on misogynist extremism, online harms, and ethical research into unsavoury populations.