I Just Learned What is Incel

What is Incel by popular California lifestyle blogger, Design Mom

What is Incel by popular California lifestyle blogger, Design Mom

I’m sure you’ve heard the horrible news out of Toronto. As I’ve been reading about what happened, I kept seeing the word “incel” used when referring to Alex Minassian — the man who drove the van into the crowd and killed ten people. But I didn’t know what it meant. And then this Twitter thread by Arshy Mann showed up in my stream — it gives an overview of  what is incel, a bit of the history, and explains why people are talking about it now. 

WHAT IS INCEL?

“Incel” refers to “involuntary celibate,” essentially meaning that a person can’t get laid because of their looks/personality. The incels make up one segment of the broader “manosphere”, a collection of online masculinist communities that interplay with one another.

Incels differ in important ways from Men’s Rights Activists. While both movements are misogynistic at their core, MRAs deploy a human rights framework to argue men are oppressed. Incels don’t talk about rights, they just hate.

Incels often play out violent fantasies online. People who report on the community, like David Futrelle, have been trying to warn us that more incels will turn those fantasies into reality. Even now they’re talking about acid attacks and mass rapes.

Incels & the broader manosphere are an important component of what we’ve come to think of as the alt-right (depending on your definition of that term). Misogyny is the most common gateway drug to other forms of hate.

For further reading, Mr. Mann recommended a book called Kill All Normies, to better understand the rise of these toxic masculine online subcultures. He recommends this essay to understand the rise of 4chan (an online platform that plays a big part in the what is incel story). To really understand incels and the manosphere, he recommends looking at the archives of We Hunted the Mammoth — the author has been researching incels for years and just wrote this piece for Elle. And lastly, for a more crowdsourced approach to understanding incel culture, Mr. Mann recommends a reddit feed called Incel Tears.

I clicked some of the links and fell into a wormhole of… I’m not sure what. Horror? Holy cow. My stomach hurts.

My head is still trying to wrap my head around what I’ve read. Some of my random thoughts:

– I’ve seen MRAs talked about for years, but was under the impression it wasn’t a real thing — just a few isolated men that were dealing with some mental health issues. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term incel until yesterday, or if I have, I didn’t notice it. Based on responses to the Twitter thread, I’m not alone. 

– I remember first reading about MRAs after the Elliot Rodger killing spree — and how he somehow blamed all women because he didn’t have a girlfriend. At that time, the comments in support of Elliot Rodger seemed so bizarre and nonsensical I had a hard time believing they were real. I suppose I may have started ignoring stories about MRAs, thinking would surely go away. Clearly I was wrong and they’ve only grown stronger.

– It was fascinating to read some of the responses to the Twitter thread. Some people mentioned that women have been trying to draw attention to the danger of MRAs and incels for many years — since Gamer Gate and even earlier. But that they haven’t been taken seriously, and just told to “ignore the trolls.” They feel this story is only getting attention because men were killed as well as women.

– As people have discussed the situation, one person mentioned that the only way to fix it, is to make sure each child is loved and cared for when they’re young. Although that sounds good (and I’m sure couldn’t hurt), someone pointed out that if that was the problem, then we’d also be seeing women who weren’t loved as children, go on killing rampages. Other people think the problem is men growing up with a sense of entitlement.

– I don’t pretend to know the cause or the fix, but I’m sick about the whole thing. I’m sick about lost lives in Toronto. I’m sick that there are people who are cheering on the violence. I’m sick picturing a whole lot of young men stewing in their hate. What a discouraging day of reading.

Where are you at on this subject? Were you already familiar with the term Incel and MRA? Do you know the history of the word? It seems like “involuntarily celibate” could actually be a really useful term; what a bummer it’s been co-opted and corrupted. When you try and imagine causes or fixes for the incel subculture, what comes to mind? Do you know anyone in real life who claims to hate feminists? If yes, do you feel like their hate overlaps or stems from incel subculture? Have you read anything good that sheds light on the topic? Does reading about incels make you want to change any aspects of how you parent? I’d love to discuss this with you.

P.S. — All the photos related to the Toronto killings are obviously super depressing. So I’m sharing a photo from when we dried poppies in France, using phonebooks.

54 thoughts on “I Just Learned What is Incel”

  1. Lindsey Joy Fox

    Gabby, I’ve been reading your words for years and have admired you ever since I discovered this blog. I often describe you as a “stylish, engaged and thoughtful leader” when people ask. As a Canadian, I knew I could rely on you to write something wise about what happened in Toronto, something that would include a reflection on Incel, and toxic masculinity. Thank you for bringing awareness through your writing. Xx

    1. I appreciate the comments of how to avoid your son to become an incel. Unfortunately I think it’s too late for my husband and I. Our unemployed, helpless, immature 35-year old son lives in his room, hating women and minorities. He said he’s an incel and a Nazi. I find myself resenting him more each day. He won’t go to a psychiatrist or make plans for a future. He won’t leave his room, drive, or talk to people. My husband doesn’t take the incel and Nazi beliefs seriously. If I had my way, I would drop him at the curb and leave him. I have been patient until he told me about the incel / Nazi thing. I used to drive him to psychiatric and dental appointments, in the past, before he got this bad. I sound like a horrible person, and I probably am. I’m tired of having a hateful, entitled son up in his room. I think bad parenting and computer addiction are mainly to blame for his problems. But he’s 35, so I think he also needs to be accountable for his horrible attitudes.

  2. The “Ask Science Mike” podcast episode from April 16 dealt with this issue. That was the first I heard of it. He links it to white male privilege and changes in culture. It’s a helpful listen.

    1. Thank you for this. I loved Ask Science Mike when he was on the Typology podcast as a guest, but don’t listen to his own podcast. I will definitely listen to his take on this.

      And Gabrielle, thank you for informing us on this. I’m filing it under “stuff I don’t want to know about but absolutely need to.” I absolutely think the sense of entitlement many men feel is to blame, but I also feel that entitlement attitude comes in part from not getting the love they needed as kids and not being able or allowed to express their feelings in our culture. The issue is complex and will take many approaches to solving it. I do feel many boys and men are falling through the cracks in our society, and we need to address this.

      Also, how hate foments online is a huge problem–just like any gang or herd mentality where what you wouldn’t do alone suddenly becomes okay when a group is doing it or cheering it on.

      1. I should add to my own comment: nobody gets the love they needed in childhood, because it’s impossible as parents are fallible and everyone is human. But this manifests in different ways in different people, and for some it’s more extreme.

      2. “Also, how hate foments online is a huge problem”

        I think this is so true. And beyond heavy moderation of comments/discussions, I haven’t heard of anything that really works to combat it.

  3. Wormhole of Horror indeed. Good info here, thank you for bringing awareness to this depressing topic-I learned a lot. Also thank you for posting that poppy photo.

  4. I was 100% like you and I aware of the sub…cultures(?) of the alt-right before this week. I live in Toronto and am trying to wrap my head around everything. I keep circling back to the bright glimmer of this story (and one I think you must appreciate given your other writings)- the astounding calm and descalation of the confrontation during the apprehension where no guns were used. It gives me hope.

    1. Totally. When I realized the perpetrator had been taken into custody still alive, I was honestly stunned. I’m impressed with the reactions I’ve seen from Canadians.

  5. Thank for you for educating me. I feel like I’m pretty in the loop, yet this was entirely new to me. Scary, super dark and sad, and incredibly tragic when it leads to horrific violence. Yet important to be educated about. I’m also super interested in what causes this subculture to thrive.

  6. Hi there,
    I’m living in Toronto thanks for mentioning what happened. I’ve shared the perfect photo for you on facebook and this article is exceptional.

    While the darkness of incel and toxic masculinity is being explored there is still no verifiable facts connecting the troubled man with this movement.
    Thanks again for superb content!

  7. As a society, we must ask ourselves serious questions about these men. These men were once newborns, sons, neighbors, students, friends. What has gone so terribly wrong in their lives to reach this point?

    I took the time to read about Elliot Rodger (I do not remember this murder spree), and his story is basically the same story each mass shooter has to tell – a life of loneliness, rejection, bullying, broken family life, suspicions of or actual mental illness or autism, warnings by those who know them well (the police visited Elliot Rodger more than once), falling through the cracks of society. Even the term “toxic masculinity” seems a kind of bullying epithet sent from society towards these men.

    Unless we find a way to interrupt all the things that go wrong in these boys lives before they grow up to be angry teenagers and young men, these kinds of attacks will continue. We think guns are the problem, but the Toronto attack shows guns are not the problem. The problem is broken young boys who grow up with no way to reasonably assess their lives and find ways to deal with their deficits.

    The idea these episodes and this dark backwater of lost men is a “boy problem” because girls are not doing the same kinds of things, is a maddening one. The lack of understanding of the vast, vast differences between males and females – not just physical, but biological, hormonal, emotional, societal, cultural – plays out very negatively for boys, girls, and our society. Girls facing the same situations as these boys react in totally different ways than boys. Where boys are more likely to act aggressively towards others, girls are much more likely to act aggressively towards themselves. They are more likely to internalize the pain and turn to drug or alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity, cutting, eating disorders, suffer depression, attempt suicide, etc.

    1. Thank you for pointing out that girls will react differently than boys in similar situations, and that the problem is the breakdown of the FAMILY. Just what I was thinking!

      1. My second cousin is a childhood friend of the perpetrator’s father. I can assure you, this is a “textbook family” – a father, a mother, two sons three years apart, upper middle class, who live in a single family home and own a nice car. Alek Minassian most certainly did not commit this horrific crime because he came from a broken home or didn’t attend church enough.

        I think this tragedy is the perfect moment to discuss the devastating problem of toxic masculinity, without glossing over the fact that those who kill with mysoginistic intent have in common exactly that one feature: that they kill with mysognistic intent.

        1. “My second cousin is a childhood friend of the perpetrator’s father. I can assure you, this is a “textbook family” – a father, a mother, two sons three years apart, upper middle class, who live in a single family home and own a nice car. Alek Minassian most certainly did not commit this horrific crime because he came from a broken home or didn’t attend church enough.”

          I did not comment of the specific Toronto case because publicly not may details had been released when my response was written. I did go to read about Elliot Rodger who has apparently inspired the incel community. His life is the classic story all these people share.

          I am glad you know your information kind of first hand, but the bottom line is – people who are healthy don’t do these kinds of things. Perhaps Alek’s case has differences in it, but we already know from his social media posts he was angry at feeling like a social outcast, FOR WHATEVER REASON. Those feelings are not normal. The more these kinds of events happen, the more we learn about all the components that lead perpetrators to do these kinds of events. (And… families can appear very normal from the outside, and be very dysfunctional on the inside. That reality tends to be true more often than not in these kinds of cases.)

          It does society no good to label these hurting people “toxic.” Already, you are feeling ostracized and then you find out people think of you as toxic. How does that help?

          (And I am in no way excusing the despicable actions of the people who perpetrate these kinds of events.)

          1. Hi Carole, my comment was in response to Alea’s claim that these tragedies somehow have to do with “the breakdown of family”, whatever that may mean. I wished to point out that that cannot be it, because this case is a glaring counterexample to that.

            I agree that Alex Minassian no doubt suffers from many underlying issues. But there are millions of people with moderate to severe Asperger’s who would never, ever display any violent impulses. Did his problems make him more susceptible to bad ideas? Perhaps. He could very well have been particularly gullible and easily manipulated, making his meeting of Incel ideology a disaster waiting to happen.

            But my point is that we should be addressing these sorts of ideologies themselves, because, even if they mostly only take up space on the internet and make us want to vomit, they have been the triggers in enough cases that are otherwise dissimilar that perhaps we should be thinking about whether this is something we are comfortable allowing to go unchecked.

            I don’t think of the individuals who end up in these circles as toxic (unless they act on their hatred, like Alek Minassian), but I do think of their ideologies as toxic. There is an important distinction to remember between an idea and the believer of that idea.

          2. That you Catherine for bringing up Asperger’s. There is a growing body of evidence, that along with the other things I listed, that many of these boys/men are somewhere on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum. Most of them are also medicated for those conditions or other mental health issues. All the circumstances are complex. Each set of circumstances is unique. However, I think THE common circumstances is not connecting socially with the world around them. They feel rejected and outcast. And one of the strongest symptoms of Aspberger’s/autism is the inability to read social cues, body language, have a conversation. They often avoid eye contact or stare at others. Those things are the basis of forming human connections.

            So that’s why it’s frustrating to see so many reject these men, call them names even, when they may be suffering from things they have no control over. I doubt we would call someone born with a physical disability a disparaging name, or someone suffering from a genetic birth defect a name. I thought as a society we were far past that.

      2. This has nothing to do with the breakdown of the family ( whatever that means) This kid had a very ‘normal’ family. Families have been ‘breaking down’ for decades. There have been sexually frustrated and mysoginistic men for decades as well. The difference now is that they can google their hate/issues/point of view and very quickly find people who are just like them from around the world.

    2. I guess I don’t understand where you’re going with your last paragraph. Yes, instead of going on killing rampages and hating society or men or other groups, women tend to turn their hate inward, and hate themselves. Obviously, self hate is very harmful, but to my mind, it’s less harmful than going on a killing rampage, right?

      And as a long time commenter, you won’t be surprised to know I 100% disagree that Toronto somehow shows we don’t have a gun problem. As you no doubt already know, the vast majority of gun deaths in our country aren’t related to mass shootings. Sadly, most gun deaths have become so common here, they don’t even make the news.

    3. When you wrote this: “Even the term “toxic masculinity” seems a kind of bullying epithet sent from society towards these men.”

      It reminded me of a tweet I read yesterday:

      It’s a view point I think we forget. Yes, toxic masculinity hurts girls and women, but it also hurts boys and men.

  8. Hello Gaby.

    There are many forms of hate.
    Did not know about the name of this hate: Incel.
    The hate for women is known, has centuries!, but seldom in an individual aspect.
    But the subculture and the liberty internet provides to trigger the growing of this subculturea, the interaction between individuals… and other forms of hate is scarying.

    Thank you very much for educating us.

    1. Misogyny has existed since the beginning of time. I get it. But I feel like why does Incel or this group even get recognized? It’s so confusing to me. They wouldn’t exist without the internet. Why give them the time of day, why acknowledge. It’s so freaking weird to me. They aren’t Incel, they are disturbed. Giving them a “normal” sounding name just makes it acceptable and I refuse to accept it. Boys/men like this are disturbed, spend way too much time online, need to get a life, get out in nature, join a sport, dance, do art, get a safe hobby, hang out with people, take care of a relative,go for a walk or something.Get OFF the computer. Idle hands………………..

      1. “They wouldn’t exist without the internet.”

        I think this is so true. I remember feeling the same way when I first encountered online sites where women would come to gossip about bloggers. It was so bizarre to me. I remember thinking that without the internet, the false stories that flourished would have been shut down quickly in real life.

        I can imagine a women calling her sister and wanting to gossip about an online writer they’d learned about. No big deal. The sister might laugh and agree that the writer was outrageous in some way. But if the woman called her sister again and again to talk about that writer, the sister would surely be quick to point out that it was weird to be so obsessed with a stranger. And the woman would check herself and move on.

        In internet land, instead of someone you trust telling you that your obsession is starting to get weird, you can easily find other people who are equally obsessed with the same things you are. And suddenly you’re part of a group of women who brutally criticize bloggers — and even their children — and it somehow feels normal because so many others are participating.

        Not sure if I explained that very well…

        1. You certainly did. I continuously come back to your sight because of your insightful thoughts and eloquence. :)

  9. Thank you for explaining this. I read it online and kind of skipped over it. My (former) social work brain makes me think there is a secondary issue with this guy that may explain his “incel” subculture. thanks for teaching me something new today

  10. I think what made me pause for a moment is that men in the “Incel” movement feel that they deserve to have sex and that women en masse are keeping them from their due privilege. Think about that for a moment. An intimate relationship is not something finds and develops…They expect it and if it’s not given, they will make others suffer the consequences for their hurt. The men who are killed are the “Chads” and the women deserved it of course. Additionally, the online group think gives strength that their opinions and actions are justified and shared by many men. I really hate to say this but it will not be long before there will be a mass shooting in the name of this cause.

  11. I’ve long been aware of MRA and Incel culture, and it has affected the way I live my life online. In fact, I’ve avoided Reddit since before GamerGate because of the poisonous misogyny there. And that’s bananas! Because so much good stuff happens on Reddit, too. And it’s not as though Twitter and Facebook are free of male entitlement and hate.

    I wish misogyny were explored more in the mainstream media because it’s so prevalent and destructive, and it only leads to worse things. And, like racism and other types of hate, it’s passed down through the generations.

    1. That drives me nuts. Women, in a worthwhile attempt to keep ourselves safe and alive, miss out on resources, events, and mentors that could really be helpful. Bananas is right!

  12. I am thinking about the young man who killed people at Virginia Tech. “Incel” could probably be used there.

    I find the term “involuntarily celibate” to describe this particular group of men rather passive, as though these young men just found themselves in a situation and had no hand in the matter. Frankly, I would imagine the reason they’re celibate (when they apparently don’t want to be) is because of choices they have made. Men and women can be involuntarily celibate and not turn into hate-filled people. They can feel sad and lonely, but they don’t necessarily turn that into hateful anger and violence.

    These men have chosen this term to diffuse any responsibility they had in their matter. We need a better term that highlights the role that their misogyny has in this celibacy.

    1. I feel the same way. I can imagine the actual term “involuntarily celibate” could be useful in certain contexts, and I don’t like that they’ve co-opted it and use it as an excuse to develop their hate.

  13. Wow, this is fascinating and scary. I also see a parallel with the young men who practice radical Islam and who commit attacks in hopes of being rewarded with virgins in the afterlife. Testosterone and the male sex drive certainly wreak havoc on society. Maybe the solution is to start putting estrogen in the drinking water…

    1. I agree. We seem to have a tendency to talk about someone becoming radicalized only in terms of religious belief, but people can become radicalized to any ideology, not just religious ones.

      I would say the white male mass shooters in our country are men (and in some cases boys) who became radicalized. We don’t talk about them like that; instead we say they have mental health issues (and I suppose at some level, deep radicalization, religious or otherwise, probably looks a lot like mental illness). But I never hear of anyone talking about young men who practice radical Islam as having mental health issues.

    2. Also, when you wrote: “Testosterone and the male sex drive certainly wreak havoc on society. Maybe the solution is to start putting estrogen in the drinking water…”

      It reminded me of a conversation I had with Ben Blair. I wonder if the next phase of evolution will include less testosterone. Now that we no longer fight bears to get food, and we have machines that can do our heavy lifting, is testosterone causing more problems than benefits?

      I don’t actually pretend to know all the jobs testosterone does in the body, but I found the idea of evolution limiting testosterone in the future to be interesting.

      1. Limiting testosterone is an interesting thought, but I don’t think it’s the answer. Fortunately, I think the majority of men are able to control their masculine testosterone-driven urges (at least the men I know and love).

        I don’t think it’s a matter of hormones. I think it’s a matter of what many commenters have mentioned above: society valuing “manly” men who don’t think or feel or emote. “Real men” only DO and act. The happy, fulfilled men I know are kind to all people, talk about their feelings, and have productive hobbies that allow them to create or expend pent-up energy. I don’t think that it’s a matter of changing hormone levels. Our hormones are there for a reason…testosterone is necessary for men to be healthy individuals, just like estrogen is necessary for women to be healthy individuals. For example, depression is often a symptom of low testosterone in men.

        Blaming the problem on hormones seems like another cop-out, just like blaming the anger of feminists on being PMS-y, or “hormonal” (eye roll, that’s NOT the reason women are angry). Billions of men, for thousands of years have had the self-control to be non-rapists, non-serial killers, and non-mass murderers.

        1. I don’t think of it as “blaming it on hormones” as much as recognizing hormones cause men to be men, and women to be women. Those differences are profound. One thing that is pretty obvious from people who have transitioned from one gender to another, is that hormones are powerful, powerful shapers of humans. We cannot control our hormones… rather they control us. Again, not an excuse for bad behavior at all – just a reminder and reality check.

  14. I did know what the word “incel” meant but was only vaguely aware of its prevalence. Like everything else that seems to be burgeoning these days, I’m certain these are things that have always been with us, that the veil is lifted (through Trumpism, through the rise of the alt-right, aided by technology and access to firearms, etc.) and that we must wrestle with ALL of it. I don’t know what else to say — it seems sometimes like we don’t know anything at all, really, about the true heart of darkness. At the same time, our resistance to all forms of misogyny, racism, etc. must be constant. May we be strengthened by one another and rest when we need to —

  15. I had no idea “incel” was a “thing” and reading the resources you listed was eye-opening and a bit terrifying.

    Being the mother of sons and having my dad as my only living parent we have some interesting and productive conversations. I’ve been interested in the “Men’s Shed” movement in Australia. My friend took me to visit one in Sydney and the philosophy and work they do resonated with me and my perception of men’s health… especially watching my sons, husband and father struggle at times.

    Here is a link on Men’s Sheds.

  16. Michelle Cornwell

    Very good introspective comments here on incel, being involuntarily celibate. *I did not know about the whole man shed movement going on down under, and I’m so down with the female sort of counterpart possibly, moon circles, championed by Lucy Aitken-Read in New Zealand.
    Talk about involuntarily being celibate takes my mind to the boggling reality that China has 37 million more men than women, India 34 million more and they are now reaching maritable age. Apparently, the planet has never seen such proportions before. I know Japan already has some extremes with their ‘herbivore’ men like with the government subsidizing dating events, the bridal migration happening to fill the shortage with foreigners, and India already has serious sexual harassment/eve teasing issues. There are so many known and unforeseen emasculation issues that will be heightened in the coming years, different than the white male incel culture here but also related in the root definition of the word.

    1. Oh my. Your comment really has me thinking, Michelle. I’ve hard about the imbalance of men and women in China and India, but didn’t remember the numbers being so high. It’s so hard to fathom.

  17. The term and subcultures are new to me, but I believe that internet trolls and hate-filled commenters have these same issues: no partners, alone, rejected–therefore angry.

  18. Oh my goodness- talk about feeling out of the loop. I had no idea about incel or MRA. Part of it sounds like an excuse for violent behavior and the other side of it sounds like mental illness. What a disturbing outcome but thanks Gabrielle for educating us. mary in Az

  19. We all have involuntary difficulties we encounter in our lives. Infertility; cancer and other illnesses; loss of spouses, children, or others we care about; depression and other mental illness; learning difficulties and many others. We didn’t sign up for these, but they are part of our lives anyway.

    It isn’t even fathomable that society would see it as okay to perpetrate these types of violent attacks on someone who *might* have caused this pain, and many of these don’t even have a something that *might* have caused it.

    It’s hugely unfortunate that somehow incels, as they call themselves, feel like not only is there a cause of their pain, but they somehow have the right to respond violently.

    I teach my children every day about healthy, non-violent ways to deal with conflict and their own emotions. It’s hard work and takes seemingly endless repetition, but I persist! It will contribute to them being healthy, contributing members of society. Perhaps these lessons need to be taught more vigilantly.

    1. “It’s hugely unfortunate that somehow incels, as they call themselves, feel like not only is there a cause of their pain, but they somehow have the right to respond violently.”

      Yes. I think that’s the entitlement people are referring to. They have an expectation that life will go a certain way for them.

  20. I think the phemenon of male mass shooters and the whole incel thing are linked in a way. It’s about men (usually white) who feel that they are not getting what they think society owes them. Some men (usually white) seem to be incredibly fragile. As society has changed, there is no fixed roadmap on how to be a man. These men seem unable to handle the fact that they must compete with women for jobs, people of color have made strides over the past 50 years (not enough strides, of course), etc. Add in the fact that good jobs that require less than a college degree have mostly disappeared, and it seems that these men are incredibly angry and blame everyone but themselves for their own crappy lives. I think that’s really what it comes down to. I feel some sympathy for how difficult things have gotten for working class men (although, college-educated men have also fallen prey to becoming radicalized), but at the same time, I feel impatient. What are my three daughters and I supposed to do for such disaffected men? Nothing. We owe them nothing. They don’t seem to see it that way. I have wonderful men in my life: my husband, dad, brothers, and friends, so I’m certainly not anti-man. I can think of reasons why men can fall prey to the delusion that women owe them their bodies and their servitude, but some of it is still a mystery to me.

    1. I see a link too. I think that even if a mass shooter doesn’t identify as incel, they’ve still become radicalized in a similar way. They seem to be convinced life owes them something, and that there’s someone to blame for their problems.

  21. Add me to the sea of voices that believes this is an issue having to do with male misogyny and entitlement. FYI, there was a fascinating Reply-All podcast episode last week about the creation of the term “Incel” – it was actually from a community created by a queer Canadian woman! It’s a pretty short episode and well worth a listen.

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