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In 1997, Alana, an undergraduate student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, began a website called “Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project” to provide a friendly place for people who struggle with dating to talk with one another. It was on this forum that the term ‘incel’—initially ‘invcel’—was first coined. In a 2018 interview, Alana—who did not use her full name—described the website in its early years as “a friendly place,” and “there was probably a bit of anger and some men were a bit clueless about how women are unique, individual humans, but in general it was a supportive place.” Because her romantic life improved, Alana stepped away from the site in 2000, leaving others to moderate it.
Incels now comprise an often-violent anti-women movement rooted in online communities. The largely male incel community blame their inceldom (state of involuntary celibacy) on society—and women specifically. Incels view themselves as part of a repressed group subjugated by genetic determinism. A March 2020 user survey by a major incel forum, Incels.co, found that most respondents still lived with their parents and had never been sexually intimate or in a romantic relationship. Eighty percent lived in North America and Europe, with “most” identifying as Caucasian. Only half of respondents had attended college, even though most came from middle- and upper-class families. Seventy percent said they suffered from depression and more than a quarter claimed to be autistic.
A subset of incels has taken the community’s misogyny further, advocating for and justifying rape and other violence against women as a means for shaping their ideal society. Researchers have also noted that the incel community has “seamlessly integrated” with the far right, with several recent right-wing terrorists mixing aspects of both incel ideology and white supremacy in justifying their attacks. The spread of incel ideology has been underpinned by the rise of social media, with users establishing dedicated incel groups on platforms such as 4chan, Reddit, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Discord, while also using online message board forums such as Incels.co and Incels.net.
A 2020 study explored the role online forums play in promoting extremist incel beliefs. The study concluded:
[Sites such as] 4chan and Reddit encouraged extremist declamations in order to gain more visibility. Though incel forums were at this point spread across cyberspace rather than confined to those main platforms, they nonetheless began to espouse similarly edgy and at times extremist sentiment. This in turn created a feedback loop where outrageous statements were intended to generate an escalatory spiral of reactions and responses that disguised their true aggressiveness—a behavior known as trolling or shitposting.
Many of these websites and forums embrace and lionize incel violent extremists, with users referring to the attackers as “saints” and heroes.” A brief visit to either Incel.co or Incel.net shows many users with profile pictures of Elliot Rodger, regarded by researchers and the incel community as the first incel terrorist, who killed nine people in Isla Vista, California, in 2014. The shift toward this more extremist, violent rhetoric began in 2003 with the founding of a new incel website called LoveShy. It was in LoveShy that the incel community became almost exclusively male. At least one of the website’s moderators openly praised mass murderers and reportedly encouraged other members to commit murder.
From LoveShy, incels would gradually move to sites like 4chan and Reddit, where the community adopted even more extremist beliefs, in part due to the system of ‘downvoting,’ allowing users to adjust which posts are shown most prominently and drown out moderate users. Users on these new sites now claimed that incels must take control of their lives by exacting revenge for their perceived mistreatment. By the time Reddit banned its incel community, r/incel, for inciting violence, the subreddit had garnered 40,000 members.
Members of these incel forums celebrate successful attacks and ridicule incels whose attacks fail to inflict casualties or lead to only a few deaths. For example, one year after self-identified incel Scott Beierle, a military veteran, killed two women in Tallahassee, one Incel.co user said “the guy was in the military and only got 2 kills [ … ] i thought his trainin would make him plan to be as deadly as possible.” Similar posts played a role in Elliot Rodger’s 2014 attack, where, according to future incel attacker Alek Minassian, “other members of 4chan were giving [Elliot] encouraging support so that he would have the courage to start his rebellion.” Since their attacks, Rodger and Minassian are regularly idolized and hailed as heroes on incel forums.
Incel ideology revolves around the belief that society exists as a hierarchy created by genetic determinism, with physical attributes defining everyone’s status. According to this belief, the most desirable men and women are called “Chads” and “Stacys,” respectively, and sit atop this hierarchy. Incels exist in the lowest rung, supposedly shunned for their looks despite their “superior personalities,” while “normies” make up the middle of society and are oblivious to the true nature of the world. There are only a small number of Chads in society, who in turn attract most women, leaving the remaining women to date normies and no women for the incels.
Incels believe this hierarchy is the sole creation of women, who, they argue, are programmed to seek partners based solely on physical attractiveness, height, weight, and race. Incels insists that women do not care about personality, and thus the term “supreme gentlemen,” first used by Elliot Rodger to describe himself in his manifesto, is used as a self-identifier for many incels who see themselves as physically inferior but with superior personalities. To incels, their lack of sexual and romantic partners is the exclusive fault of women. Therefore, women are, according to scholars Bruce Hoffman, Jacob Ware, and Ezra Shapiro, “the primary target of incels’ hate and violence.”
Incels have expressed their misogynistic vitriol in several ways. On incel forums, users exclusively refer to women using derogatory terms such as “femoids” (a mix of ‘female’ and ‘humanoid’) or “FHO” (Female Humanoid Organism). Male users detest and harass even women who identify as incels. In one case, when a woman posted about her struggles on Incels.me other users responded by calling her a liar, a troll, a “vapid whore,” “lonely and unloved,” and “pig woman” before she was banned from the site. Examples of extremely popular sexist threads on these forums include ones titled “Why women are the embodiment of evil” and “All women are sluts.”
Incels refer to understanding and accepting their worldview as “taking the black pill,” a reference to the 1999 science-fiction film The Matrix. Characters in the film choose between “taking the red pill,” and are subsequently exposed to the real world, or “taking the blue pill,” which keeps them in ignorance. Far-right, anti-feminist groups use “taking the red pill” as a euphemism for when their people “fully recognize the inherently shallow nature of women, but also to understand better how men can manipulate and exploit these supposed female characteristic.” Incels view themselves as part of the red-pill community, but believe that individuals cannot change their status in society through manipulation, as red-pillers claim. Instead, taking the black pill requires adopting a nihilistic worldview in which the individual accepts “a reality where women and society are intrinsically biased against men who lack specific physical attributes, who therefore have no hope of ever being attractive to women or even accepted by society.”
Nonetheless, many incels believe action can be taken to change their celibacy. In one passage of his 141-page manifesto, Rodger writes about his ideal society in which women have no choice in their partner and rape is the norm:
They [women] are like animals, completely controlled by their primal, depraved emotions and impulses. That is why they are attracted to barbaric, wild, beast-like men. They are beasts themselves. Beasts should not be able to have any rights in a civilized society. If their wickedness is not contained, the whole of humanity will be held back from advancement to a more civilized state. Women should not have the right to choose who to mate with. That choice should be made for them by civilized men of intelligence.
These beliefs are widespread within the incel community. A 2019 study by Stephane J. Baele, Lewys Brace, and Travis G. Coan found that:
The Incel worldview rests on the evocation of a past golden age … of a patriarchal society where monogamy is the rule, traditional gender roles are accepted and followed, women and men marry early, and adultery is prohibited. All men have thus “access” to women and their “entitlement” to sex is never “denied” by women.” While incels diverge slightly on what led to the end of this supposed golden era, all agree that feminism is the sole culprit, destroying the institution of marriage and ushering in an era of sexual promiscuity. This supposed end of monogamy has allowed women to follow their ‘true’ instincts to only sleep with and date Chads, and, to a lesser extent, Normies.
Motivated by this ideology, incel forums are rife with violent, sexist comments towards women. Some commenters argue women should be second-class citizens, saying “femoids are nothing but sexual objects and thus should be second-class citizens.” or “women are for fucking and raising families, not for having ‘rights.’” Others attempt to explain how, in the absence of forced monogamy, “a woman’s tendency [is] to marry the best possible man that she can find. This stems from the biological imperative for her to get pregnant with the best genes possible.” Some incels believe that “hypergamous whores deep down [want] to be dominated and treated like shit to keep them attracted to you,” and that “the ideal male for a woman would be a Chad who will rape her and beat her on a daily basis.”