The incel – a portmanteau for “involuntary celibate” – community is notorious for rampant misogyny, violent rhetoric, and fatalistic attitudes toward modern relationships. We’ve all heard of news reports about violent incels committing violence due to their own perceptions of women. Now there’s a new US Secret Service report that identifies incels as a rising threat, as they’ve been responsible for several violent attacks across the US and Canada since 2014.

In 2018 there was a shooting at a yoga class in Florida where a man who described himself as a misogynist shot and killed 2 women before shooting himself. In 2020 the son of a female US district court was murdered by a shooter who believed “manhood is in serious jeopardy in America.”

In 2021, in Toronto, a self-proclaimed incel rammed into a crowd with a van, killing 10 pedestrians. That same year, another incel in the British town of Plymouth went on a shooting spree, killing 5 people including his mother before shooting himself. 

Most of these men venerate fellow incel Elliot Rodger, a self-described “kissless virgin” who back in 2014 in California killed 6 innocent victims as “revenge” against those who denied him sex. He too shot himself in the aftermath.

The beginning of the incel

Interestingly, the incel community began way back in the 1990s, and it was founded by a woman named Alana based in Toronto. As a teen, she found dating terrifying – it was compounded by the fact that she was confused about her own sexuality. However, she finally committed to her first real relationship (with a woman) at age 24 and her experience with the dating pool spurred her to launch a website called Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project to help others with her experience. 

The initial years of the forum saw a more inclusive group – there were both men and women, and many of them were simply in a sexual dry spell or were unable to seek love; they never saw themselves as victims. However, after Alana left the forum in 2000, the incel community split into two forums: IncelSupport and LoveShy. 

IncelSupport was similar to Alana’s original forum which tried to foster a healthy culture: it had a mixed-gender user base, moderators banned misogynistic content, and members advised each other on how to overcome shyness.

In contrast, LoveShy was less moderated and was full of men blaming women for their lack of sex. This community also mingled with other similar online subcultures, including 4chan, which also blamed their sexual frustrations on women. This group formed the basis of the “modern incel” as we know it.

The Black Pill

Modern incels were shaped by misogynistic websites under the umbrella of “manosphere,” which subscribe to the “blackpill” conspiracy theory. The groups were full of “men’s rights” activists who believe that men are victims of gendered oppression, and that feminism is the reason that male power has been usurped. 

The blackpill incels believe that a man’s sexual success is entirely determined by their physical appearance (ie. eyes, jawline, etc) like a sexual class system. To them, the top of the incel hierarchy are “Chads” who are the most attractive and account for about 20% of the population. A “Stacy” is a term for the most attractive women, who will only have sex with a Chad. They also believe that while about 80% of women are interested in Chads, the bottom 20% will consent to sex with the vast majority of men who have average attractiveness – they’re called “betas” or “cucks.” Incels, as you’d expect, are believed to be on the bottom rung and seen as so unattractive that no woman will sleep with them.

Modern incels also believe that women choose men based on their functions, like marrying a beta for financial gain while cheating with chads for sexual gratification, and won’t hesitate to hurt men for their gains. This leads incels to think that a society dominated by women is oppressive to them. 

Of course, their lack of vision doesn’t include the fact that women have been oppressed, abused, and judged more harshly by men since forever. While early incels are less likely to blame women for their shortfalls, modern incels were probably spurred on by the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp movements which all but halted men’s relatively unfettered access to women’s bodies. 

This was probably what spurred Elliot Rodger’s first-ever deadly incel attack in 2014, when he wrote: “All I had ever wanted was to love women, but their behaviour has only earned my hatred. I want to have sex with them, and make them feel good, but they would be disgusted at the prospect. They have no sexual attraction towards me.”

The spread of incel behaviour

There’s no denying that there are lots of sexually frustrated young men looking for someone to blame for their dating problems. Many of them have taken other forms of aggressions against women.

For example, a group of male gamers who were angry at the rise of feminist video game criticism harassed several prominent women in the gaming community during the 2014 Gamergate controversy. However, incels don’t seem to limit themselves to online harassment.

A scan through incel forums reveal chilling accounts about outright sexual assault. There have been claims of users serially assauting women on public transit, ranging from rubbing themselves on unsuspecting women to groping them with fantasies of rape. 

While incels are often thought to be a product of the west, there’s a growing trend in Asia spurred on by young male populations who see their (generally) uncontested patriarchy being challenged by the growing women’s rights movement.

The trend is most visible currently in South Korea. A Realmeter poll in 2018 of more than 1,000 adults found that among Korean men in their 20s, 76% of them oppose feminism, while nearly 60% think gender issues are the country’s most serious source of conflict. This has given rise to South Korea’s unique brand of incel: there are groups like Dang Dang We that are “fighting for justice for men.”

Incidents of outrage of modesty in Singapore can also be considered actions of incels; they’re perpetrated by men who often share their views with other men in online forums or chat groups such as Telegram. According to a RSIS commentary, young Singaporean men may also feel a sense of male victimhood when it comes to issues like National Service (and how it sets men back in their careers) as well as the dissatisfaction of “losing girls to white immigrants.”

How to stem the spread

While not all incels are violent, it’s often the online ecosystem that breeds and encourages extreme attitudes. The incel community is mainly present online on dedicated incel websites, but also on social media (ie. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc) as well as unregulated forums like 4chan. Every day, boys are logging on to sub-Reddit, 4chan, and other social media and being introduced to misogynistic ideas that may lead to violence.

Detecting incel-motivated violence before it occurs may not be feasible, but monitoring online harassment may help to assess misogyny indirectly, before it manifests as physical harm or mental distress. This is where tech companies can help: they can deny the incel movement’s online presence by de-platforming them (ie. some sub-Reddit incel pages have been banned due to harmful content).

The worldview of incels is that they believe their situation is beyond their control, so they blame everyone and everything else (especially women) for their misery. This belief in not being in control can lead to mental health issues like anxiety and depression, which is why raising awareness of the topic early on may help prevent boys from becoming violent incels, and also strengthen their mental health so that they don’t see themselves as victims.