Lost Boys? Incels and feminism

Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash

What is an incel?

‘Incel’ describes those who consider themselves ‘involuntarily celibate’ (Ging 2019; Witt 2020). This state of being is known as ‘inceldom’ (Hoffman, Ware, and Shapiro 2020). This term is most commonly used to describe a man who has the desire to have sex with a woman, but who has not been able to for at least six months. Women are not, or are very rarely, incels because they are not subject to the same kinds of circumstances as men — their celibacy is ‘self-inflicted’, implying that men are subject to an external harm. According to Sharkey (2022), for incels, the world no longer offers the conditions in which can they can become men; manhood is no longer in their reach.

What is feminism?

In the era of #metoo and Time’s Up, being a feminist means different things to different people. For some people, being a feminist means believing in the social, political, and economic equality of men and women. For others, it might mean something different altogether. Some feminists are pro-choice, while others believe that abortion should be illegal. Some feminists are anti-capitalist, while others believe in capitalism with certain caveats. There is no single feminism; it’s a complex movement with many different viewpoints.

In the early days of feminism, women fought for the right to vote and to own property. Later on, feminists campaigned for reproductive rights and against sexual violence. Some of the most common ones include liberal feminism, radical feminism, and Marxist feminism. Each type of feminism has its own unique perspective on gender inequality and how to address it.

There are three waves of feminism: first wave feminism, second wave feminism, and third wave feminism. First wave feminism was the movement that fought for women’s suffrage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Second wave feminism was the movement that began in the 1960s and focused on ending gender inequality. Third wave feminism is a current wave of feminism that began in the 1990s and focuses on intersectionality and inclusion. It seeks to include everyone who identifies as a feminist, regardless of race, class, or sexual orientation. Third wave feminists also believe that feminism should be a movement that is accessible to everyone, and not just academic elites.

Some of the biggest disagreements among feminists include:

  • The role of men in feminism
  • The use of violence as a tool for change
  • What constitutes “true” feminism
  • How to best address intersectional discrimination

Intersectionality is the idea that different forms of discrimination intersect to create unique challenges for certain groups of people. For example, a woman who is black and poor faces different forms of discrimination than a white woman who is wealthy. Intersectional feminism seeks to address the ways that different forms of discrimination intersect to create unique challenges for certain groups of people.

In 2022, the feminist movement continues to evolve. There will also be new challenges for feminists to face, such as online misogyny and the increasing power of right-wing governments.

What do Incels believe? Red Pill vs Black Pill

The red pill is a reference to the 1999 film The Matrix, in which the protagonist takes a red pill that allows him to see the true nature of reality. Incels use this analogy to describe their realisation that women are not interested in them romantically or sexually. This belief system accepts the Red Pill view of society dominated by women but rejects individual-level attempts such as learning game to achieve a sexual relationship with women as misguided, asserting that only change at a societal level has the possibility to be effective. Black Pill adherents believe that looks are genetically determined, and that women choose sexual partners based solely on physical features (“lookism”), so whether or not a person will be an incel is predetermined.

The Black Pill ideology asserts that feminism has created the conditions that have not only allowed but directly created the incel. ‘Feminism literally creates incels’.

The blackpill holds that women’s emancipation is causing mass inceldom and deteriorating male-female relationships, and that the only solution is reversing the sexual revolution, returning to traditions, enforcing monogamy and restoring the natural subordination of women (https://incels.wiki/w/Blackpill).

Leaning into negative affects such as disappointment, disillusionment, and despair, for the incel, provides an opportunity to ‘poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life’(Halberstam, 2011).

How big is the problem?

“… you start to inherit some of that group think and ideas. These ideas don’t help … but rather make things worse, it’s a downward spiral.” — User _former_incel on /r/IncelTears, 2018

It’s difficult to say how many people identify as incels, as there is no official definition of the term. However, it’s estimated that around 1% of the population may be involuntarily celibate.

A violent manifesto

On 23rd May 2014 in Isla Vista California, 22 year-old Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree that left 6 dead (including Rodger), and 14 wounded. Rodger was the first of as many as 6 North American mass killers who have been connected to an incel online community. Rodger released a 141 page autobiographical manifesto titled My Twisted World: The Story of Elliot Rodger.

“Humanity… All of my suffering on this world has been at the hands of humanity, particularly women. It has made me realize just how brutal and twisted humanity is as a species. All I ever wanted was to fit in and live a happy life amongst humanity, but I was cast out and rejected, forced to endure an existence of loneliness and insignificance, all because the females of the human species were incapable of seeing the value in me.” — Elliot Rodger

Rodger outlines overtly misogynistic beliefs.

“The ultimate evil behind sexuality is the human female. They are the main instigators of sex. They control which men get it and which men don’t. Women are flawed creatures, and my mistreatment at their hands has made me realize this sad truth. There is something very twisted and wrong with the way their brains are wired. They think like beasts, and in truth, they are beasts. Women are incapable of having morals or thinking rationally. They are completely controlled by their depraved emotions and vile sexual impulses. Because of this, the men who do get to experience the pleasures of sex and the privilege of breeding are the men who women are sexually attracted to… the stupid, degenerate, obnoxious men. I have observed this all my life. The most beautiful of women choose to mate with the most brutal of men, instead of magnificent gentlemen like myself.” — Elliot Rodger

Rodger does not believe in the rights of women.

“Women should not have the right to choose who to mate and breed with. That decision should be made for them by rational men of intelligence. If women continue to have rights, they will only hinder the advancement of the human race by breeding with degenerate men and creating stupid, degenerate offspring. This will cause humanity to become even more depraved with each generation. Women have more power in human society than they deserve, all because of sex. There is no creature more evil and depraved than the human female.”— Elliot Rodger

According to Rodger, women are evil.

“Women are like a plague. They don’t deserve to have any rights. Their wickedness must be contained in order prevent future generations from falling to degeneracy. Women are vicious, evil, barbaric animals, and they need to be treated as such.” — Elliot Rodger

In 2018, Alek Minassian drove a van into pedestrians in Toronto, killing 10 people and injuring 16 others. Minassian self-identified as an incel. The day Alek Manassian drove a rented van through crowds of pedestrians on a busy Toronto street, he created an online post hailing Rodger which read (in part) ‘The Incel Rebellion has already begun! … ! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!’.

Aggrieved entitlement and the subjugation of women in defence of the patriarchy

Incels display what can be referred to as an ‘aggrieved entitlement’ (Kimmel, 2013; Vito et al., 2018), in that many incels feel that the intimacy they have not experienced is something owed, something withheld that is rightfully theirs.

Violence can also be seen as an attempt to police, punish, and subjugate women in defence of masculinity through what Bratich and Banet-Weiser (2019) refer to as misogynistic ‘honor terrorism’ (p. 5019) as the incel killer engages in a form of necropolitics where he ‘would rather die and kill than lose any patriarchal foundation’.

What can be done to prevent violence against women?

The internet has stripped away the limitations formerly posed by geopolitical borders. The incel community may very well constitute a transnational terror network or cult; with narratives revolving around divine punishment and the death of the wicked, and their transcendence depends, in part, upon the death of those who seek to follow the path of their icon.

According to Sharkey (2022), to simply dismiss the incel as a figure of scorn does nothing to improve a difficult and sometimes dangerous situation.

“A more robust scholarly and political feminist approach need not ignore the violence that has inevitably and justifiably become part of the incel’s image, but it must also not stop at condemnation. Understanding who the incel is and what he wants can improve our understanding of feminism’s historical impact and its ongoing significance as a project concerned with reducing gender-based harms, especially in the ways that men’s violence impacts on women and girls. We do not have to agree with or approve of our scholarly objects to find them useful to think with.”

There is no one-size-fits-all answer, but some things that might help include:

  • Teaching boys and young men about healthy relationships and consent.
  • Encouraging girls and young women to speak up if they feel uncomfortable or unsafe around someone.
  • Promoting positive body image and self-esteem in both boys and girls.
  • Creating safe spaces for victims of abuse to seek help.
  • Prosecuting perpetrators of violence against women to the fullest extent of the law.

Reference List

Bratich, J., & Banet-Weiser, S. (2019). From Pick-Up Artists to incels: Con(fidence) Games, Networked misogyny, and the failure of Neoliberalism. International Journal of Communication [Online], 13, 5003–5027.

Ging, D. (2019) ‘Alphas, Betas, and Incels: Theorizing the Masculinities of the Manosphere’, Men and Masculinities, 22(4), pp. 638–657. doi: 10.1177/1097184X17706401.

Halberstam, J. (2011). The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv11sn283.8

Hoffman, B; Ware, J & Shapiro, E .(2020). Assessing the Threat of Incel Violence, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 43:7, 565–587, DOI: 10.1080/1057610X.2020.1751459

Kimmel, M. (2013). Angry white men: American masculinity at the end of an era. Nation Books.

Sharkey, G. (2022). Failure to thrive: incels, boys and feminism, Continuum, 36:1, 37–51, DOI: 10.1080/10304312.2021.1958160

Vito, C; Admire, A & Hughes, E. (2018). Masculinity, aggrieved entitlement, and violence: considering the Isla Vista mass shooting, NORMA, 13:2, 86–102, DOI: 10.1080/18902138.2017.1390658

Witt, T. (2020) ‘If I cannot have it, I will do everything Ican to destroy it.’ the canonization of Elliot Rodger: ‘Incel’ masculinities, secular sainthood, and justifications of ideological violence, Social Identities, 26:5, 675–689, DOI: 10.1080/13504630.2020.1787132