Before Alek Minassian murdered ten people — mostly women — in Toronto by driving a van down a crowded street, he made a Facebook post that read “The Incel Rebellion Has Already Begun!”
Once esoteric, this violently misogynistic ideology has now made its way to the mainstream. Incels, short for the “involuntarily celibate,” are men who believe society is to blame for their lack of sexual experience. Their beliefs are not entirely uniform, but what unites them is the conviction that women, who are vapid, cruel, and only attracted to “Chads ” — muscular men — are at fault.
“When they say they can’t find anyone to have sex with them, they mean they can’t find anyone who they consider adequately ‘high value,’” feminist writer and activist Jaclyn Friedman told Motherboard. This sort of language is common, as is the commodification of women’s bodies, which to incels are easily categorizable. “Roastie,” for example, is a term they use for a woman who has had too many sexual partners; the term refers to roast beef, signifying a woman’s labia. I didn’t, honestly, think there was a more messed up slur than to call a vagina “loose,” but I was wrong.
Incels congregate on incels.me, Reddit, and 4Chan, and posts range from serious questions about necrophilia (reading I do not recommend) to debates over whether or not the men would sleep with a prostitute (one called seeking a prostitute a “cucked version of masturbation,” another asserted he would only sleep with a prostitute if she were a virgin.) They worship Elliot Rodger, the terrorist who killed six people and injured fourteen in Isla Vista, California in 2014. Part of Rodger’s manifesto reads, “I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it.” Incels often refer to “ going ER ” (referring to Elliot Rodger).
Though the entire concept of an incel — the term, ironically, coined by a queer Canadian woman in the nineties — is built on misogynistic ideals, it isn’t clear how large the subset of violent extremists is within the larger umbrella. From time spent on the incel forums, it seems like more than enough to be worried. Concerning news of a deadly shooting (that turned out to be fake), one post read, “Let’s hope it was one of ours.”
One suggestion in the race to “solve” the incels problem came from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who argued that the conversation needed to turn to redistribution of sex. Incels, though distasteful, might be right! We need to rethink the distribution of sex so that these men’s unhappiness is addressed. Part of his argument is well summed-up by the Incels.me post that read “can’t wait for robot wives, seriously.” Seriously.
The problem, in Douthat’s piece, was framed as a lack of access to sex, not the violent misogyny of this extremist group whose ideology has already let to fatalities. It’s not entirely surprising that a columnist at the New York Times would get it this wrong; it’s more an indication that this is how some men are thinking about this issue. He wanted to be fair, wanted to meet them on their terms.
But it’s misguided. We shouldn’t pander to men who act like entitled children; we need to keep having real conversations about the culture of male fragility and entitlement. We shouldn’t expect women to sleep with misogynists who write that “c—s take so much for granted […] God I fucking hate them so much” and “We need to focus more on our hatred of women. Hatred is power.” No one owes anyone sex. No one is guaranteed sex. Accepting that and treating people as an end, and not a means to an end, is vital in this conversation.
Since I started writing this, yet another school shooting has occurred, the 22nd this year. 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis killed ten people at Santa Fe High School in Texas. The mother of one of the victims, Shana Fisher, has made claims that her daughter was harassed by Pagourtzis, and believes that her daughter rejecting the boy has something to do with the shooting. She told the LA Times, “He kept making advances on her and she repeatedly told him no.”
Though this shooting isn’t tied to incels directly, it points to a culture that teaches men they are entitled to sex, and when they don’t get it, that violence is the answer. What mass shooters have most in common is gender and a shared history of violence towards women, but still the media blames mental illness and terrorism. It’s absolutely vital, going forward, that we stop ignoring the relationship between misogyny and increasing levels of violence towards women.
In working on this essay, I kept returning to a recent New Yorker article by Jia Tolentino, who wrote, “In spite of everything, women are still more willing to look for humanity in the incels than they are in us.” Why am I looking through something I’m already aware of (i.e. the incels’ forums) for answers? Aren’t answers to this problem the same as those to questions of how to end misogyny? Shouldn’t we be looking for men to come get their people, instead of expecting women to bear this dangerous burden?
I don’t want to say “Men, this is your problem” because it isn’t. The individuals who are most likely to be targeted (which is a scary word to have to use) by incels are women. But it’s precisely because it is our problem that we cannot be the ones to bear the brunt of the work dismantling the misogyny that leads to this kind of extremism. Women can’t possibly engage in real dialogue with incels. I don’t think the people who ask, “When have you ever seen a woman have a conversation?” are particularly interested in engaging with us, meeting us in the middle. It’s our problem, but we can’t do the work to solve it, so men must.