Reddit user U wants company. That’s what he tells me when I message him to ask him what keeps him in the online groups he is involved with. “The incel community is very predatory against its members and outsiders, yet I keep coming back,” he writes.
‘Incel’ stands for ‘involuntary celibate’: a community of male virgins on the internet well known in recent years for their misogyny that has turned violent. In 2014, a young man called Elliot Rodger (who was a member of this group) killed six people in a murderous rampage after declaring himself frustrated with his virginity in two separate videos and a manifesto. Re-uploads can be found on YouTube. “You girls have never been attracted to me,” he pronounces slowly, face lit up by yellow sunlight as he leans back into the seat of his car. “I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me. But I will punish you all for it.” Four years later, Alek Minassian killed ten people in a vehicle ramming attack after uploading a Facebook post decrying “The Incel Rebellion has already begun!” In his filmed police interview, he speaks about the imageboard website 4Chan, his communications with Elliot Rodger over Reddit, and the idolization of the Pepe the Frog meme.
This sort of worldview can seem almost comical in its hyperbole. Incel vocabulary is filled with slang, from ‘chad’ (an attractive male who can sleep with any woman) to ‘cock carousel’, which (as one user tells me) is when “girls ride endless cocks belonging to Chad”. Scrolling through an incel forum may feel like you’re entering a completely different universe. After their subreddit was banned in 2017 for violent language against women, the most extreme incel views retreated to more specialized forums, and titles of posts can be highly unpleasant. U sticks to the small incel communities on Reddit that were allowed to carry on undisturbed: “a lack of moderation leads to some very disturbing content that, regardless of my gripes I have with people, I can’t stand to see.” Another user (I’ll call him F) points out something else about these forums outside of Reddit. “Incel support groups are mostly about blind rage and nihilism,” he says. Though not technically an incel “by the definitions incels use”, he agrees with some of the views they espouse and is a self-confessed misogynist. Nihilism, though, is something he seems keen to avoid.
But nihilism is undoubtedly a problem. In fact, underlying this rampant sexism is an utter hatred for life. On incels.co, one of the most openly sexist incel forums, many posts are tagged ‘suicidefuel’. Posters talk about how they want to ‘rope’ (kill) themselves fairly frequently, sometimes encouraging each other to do so. Even F, who decries the nihilism of the incel subculture, is at times shockingly grim in his outlook. I ask him about which incel beliefs he subscribes to: “Generally speaking I agree that if you’re ugly enough it’s over.” The nature of a life being “over” simply because of your looks and your lack of relationship might seem startling, but it is a relatively consistent one, even in the fringes of the incel movement.
Communities of specifically male virgins have been gathering on the internet since the creation of the first message boards. The origin of the Involuntary Celibate movement is probably the 4Chan board /r9k/, created in 2008. Originally a board that filtered out reposts, it quickly became a group sharing personal stories of social anxiety and depression, often linked to relationships with women and being single. However, just like with the incel.co, the most notable thing about /r9k/ is the utter despair about life: loneliness, hopelessness and abandonment dominate many threads, the origin of a certain brand of nihilism that the incel community also upholds. In 2018, user ‘shuaiby’ live streamed his suicide on YouTube, after holding up a handwritten sign reading ‘Bye R9k’ in a reference to the board. Though I won’t claim that /r9k/ had directly contributed to the young man’s death, it is clear the page is often treated as a refuge for those who are struggling with their mental health. Similarly, a site called Wizardchan is an alternative to 4Chan specifically for adult male virgins. This, too, predates popular ‘incel’ forums, having launched in 2012. There is a board on Wizardchan dedicated specifically to discussion of depression (/dep/). These are not healthy environments; posts about awkward experiences often receive replies with encouragements of suicide, and the communities often become echo chambers of users insulting each other’s appearances and chances at happiness.
This is coupled with the fact that nobody wants to talk. Incels are notoriously difficult to reach once radicalized. If an outsider tries to post in any incel forums, they are banned immediately. I write a Reddit post on a subreddit dedicated to asking questions of incels. The first reply reads: “You should consider walking directly into traffic instead of writing a shitty article that no one will read.” This aggression makes it more difficult to understand men like this. Why bother humanizing those who seem incapable of empathy themselves? But perhaps the point isn’t to understand or empathize exactly, but analyze the source of the rage and ask why so many men find this community to be the answer to their troubles. “We are not animals in a zoo,” another informs me. He gets several upvotes.
Men do talk to me. After the immediate anger, a few step forward to be quoted. We have discussions, relatively long ones, about their loneliness at university and the way they felt women pointedly ignored them in the street, about their autism and their difficulty interacting, about their theories on women’s rising standards, the freedom they claimed that women had to have as much sex as they wanted. Sometimes I get the distinct impression these men are trying to educate me, eager to share and explain their viewpoint. One links me to an article. Another tells me about his experience on Tinder: “When I catfished on Tinder everything was proven true beyond any reasonable doubt. I was instantly drowning in matches using a picture of chad.” They shift from sympathetic to disgusting halfway through messages; one user laments the fact that “Any talks about men being rightfully angry, especially about the lack of power, including the lack of power over women, is unacceptable in the current liberal system, so it will be banned.” I hesitate to ask him to elaborate but I do. I question him on that rather frightening clause about “power over women”. I don’t get a reply.
The important thing to remember is that none of these men knew that I was female.
There is something horrifically sad even in this unforgivable misogyny. These insular internet communities have created something powerfully strangling, a language and worldview that is entrapping not only to women but to the men who began it. “I relate to experiences such as rejection, pain, missing out on what people my age experience,” U tells me. He’s nineteen, and is already under the impression that fellow incels have opened his eyes to realities of which he was previously unaware. Their usernames are often self-deprecatory, identifying themeslves as ugly and unwanted – sometimes, as I scroll through these forums inundated with references to suicide and self-hate, I can’t help but be reminded of the epidemic in men’s mental health. According to the Samaritans in the UK men are three times more likely than women to commit suicide, and in the USA, male deaths account for seventy-nine percent of suicides. On incels.co, men sometimes talk about the therapists they have tried, claiming they’ve never worked. They feel patronised, lonely, abandoned by the system. Some of them are living with their parents or see no way to escape a social anxiety that plagues them. Others obsess over their height, their wrist size, their weight, and their jaw in a tone reminiscent of extreme body dysmorphia, claiming it is the reason they can’t get laid: as the popular meme goes, “the only difference between a chad and an incel is a few millimetres of bone.” Something has failed these men, radicalised and frustrated, turning them to the internet instead of professional help. But it isn’t women – it’s something more systematic than that.
As a closing question, I ask F what he would like people to know about incels. What is something that people misunderstand? “We aren’t responsible for every asshole on the planet, we aren’t responsible for every misogynist, we certainly aren’t the reason you had a bad date that one time,” he begins in a usual defensive fashion. But a paragraph down, the tone seems to change as he begins to distinguish what truly makes an incel. There is something else, other than a lack of relationship success, something deeper and darker in the way he defines himself. Our conversation ends on his vehement instruction: “Don’t use [‘incel’] to describe romantically unsuccessful people, virgin or not. They didn’t do anything wrong, and they don’t deserve to be grouped in with me.”∎
Words by Matilda Houston-Brown. Art by Ng Wei Kai.