In the late 1990s, a lonely teenager on the West Coast fired up his dial-up modem to find someone to talk to. He was a shy kid, too introverted to feel fully comfortable in the real world, and he logged on to the early internet’s bare-bones web forums for a sense of connection. There he found friends: other people who were awkward in real life, particularly when it came to sex and dating.
The group eventually became a community, one that began using a phrase to describe their romantic troubles — “involuntary celibacy.” Later the term would get shortened: “incel.”
The teenager, now a man who uses the handle “ReformedIncel” to keep his internet history out of his offline life, recalls the online incel world of the 1990s and 2000s fondly. It was a welcoming place, one where men who didn’t know how to talk to women could ask the community’s female members for advice (and vice versa). It was, he told me, “kind of an SJW [social justice warrior] community.”
In April 2018, about 20 years after the early incel community coalesced, a college student in Toronto named Sohe Chung decided to walk to the library. It wasn’t a short walk — the subway would have been faster — but Chung and her roommate, So Ra, wanted to enjoy the sunshine.
Chung and So never made it to the library. On the way there, a van hopped the curb onto the sidewalk and slammed into pedestrians. Chung was one of 10 killed; So was one of 16 wounded.
The van’s driver was a self-described incel — but the community today would not be recognizable to those who built it decades earlier. Today’s incels are almost entirely men and boys who pollute their online forums with posts blaming women for their sexless lives. Some posters even celebrated Chung’s killer the day of the attack, calling for other incels to follow up with “acid attacks” and “mass rape.” What was once an open-minded support group had degenerated into a place where praise for mass killers was tolerated, even normalized.
“Rage,” ReformedIncel says, “has completely taken over.”
In the year since Toronto, I’ve followed the incel movement closely, reading its websites and subreddits regularly. I’ve spoken with more than a dozen current and former incel forum posters, including two site administrators, and acquired logs of an incel chat room from around the time of the Toronto attack.
What I’ve found is more than just a community twisted into a grotesque parody of its original shape. I’ve found a story of how the deepest prejudices in a society can take purchase in new settings due to technology — transforming not only online spaces but real lives and potentially even the trajectory of our politics.
Over the past two decades, the incel community, which numbers somewhere in the tens of thousands, has fallen under the sway of a profoundly sexist ideology that they call “the blackpill.” It amounts to a fundamental rejection of women’s sexual emancipation, labeling women shallow, cruel creatures who will choose only the most attractive men if given the choice.
Taken to its logical extreme, the blackpill can lead to violence. The mass media has focused on the risk of more mass killings like Toronto and others before it, and that is indeed a serious concern. But the focus on incels as potential killers risks missing a more subtle threat: that they will commit acts of everyday violence ranging from harassment to violent assault, or simply make the women in their lives miserable.
Yet incels are not merely an isolated subculture, disconnected from the outside world. They are a dark reflection of a set of social values about women that is common, if not dominant, in broader Western society. The intersection between this age-old misogyny and new information technologies is reshaping our politics and culture in a way we may only dimly understand — and may not be prepared to confront.
Who are the incels?
Abe (not his real name) has dealt with loneliness for a long time. Nineteen today, he still recalls a ninth birthday at Chuck E. Cheese’s where none of the classmates he invited showed up. His mom cried while he distracted himself with arcade games.
In young adulthood, Abe developed a crush on his female best friend. When he finally got the nerve to ask her out, she said yes, and they dated for a month. But during that time, she cheated on Abe with her ex and eventually got engaged to him.
It was a crushing blow, and Abe turned to the internet for support. He found incel communities on Reddit, ones that helped reaffirm his belief that his looks were responsible for his terrible dating experience. The subreddits, he tells me, showed him “how manipulative some women can be when seeking validation” — that they are, in his words, “emotional tampons.”
Abe still wishes he had a girlfriend. He writes about wanting simple things, like baking at home with a partner or holding hands while watching a movie. But he doesn’t have much hope that’ll happen to him anytime soon. He spends his time posting near daily on Reddit, frequenting subreddits like r/Braincels (currently one of two main incel forums) and r/ForeverAlone.
“Of course, nobody knows what will happen in the future,” he tells me. “But it looks pretty bleak for me romantically.”
Abe’s experiences seem to be relatively typical for incels. They are overwhelmingly young men and boys with a history of isolation and rejection; they turn to the internet to make sense of their pain.
While there is no rigorous scientific study on incel demographics — the community is deeply hostile to outsiders, particularly researchers and journalists — their forums have conducted informal surveys on the demographics of their users. Combining this data with my interviews of incels like Abe (all of whom I’ve quoted under pseudonyms) has helped me put together a rough picture of your ordinary incel.
An informal poll of 1,267 Braincels users found that about 90 percent of forum participants were under the age of 30. The users are almost all men — women are banned on sight, but a handful do sneak in — and roughly 80 percent live in Europe or North America.
Despite drawing users largely from majority-white countries, Braincels has an ethnically diverse set of contributors; 55 percent of the site’s user base is white, with significant percentages of posters who self-identify as East Asian, South Asian, black, and Latino. A poll that ran on incels.co, the largest incel site outside of Reddit, came out with similar numbers on their user base’s age, race, and geographic distribution.
Incels seem drawn to Braincels and incels.co based on a sense that their looks or other personal traits — many users say they have autism — have ruined their romantic chances. They commonly share stories of personal trauma.
Miguel, who’s roughly 20 years old, described a childhood that destroyed his confidence with women.
“I was bullied heavily, which led me to develop severe anxiety and self-hatred. Because of my anxiety, I lack confidence, something women pick up on and [that] labels me a loser,” he tells me. “Most of the incels I know are around 16 to 30 years old. They have either been bullied, have autism, or just conventionally unattractive faces.”
John, a 30-year-old incel from New Jersey, tried pretty much everything he could think of to help himself succeed in the dating market. He works out regularly, eats vegetarian, and spends time reading up on fashion so he can try to dress well. He’s tried online dating for years and let some of his female friends set him up on dates.
But very few women have responded to his messages on dating apps. And when his female friends described him to their girlfriends, they would never describe him as “attractive” or even “cute.” Eventually, John concluded, he was just ugly — and there was nothing that he could do, no way he could eat or dress to fix that.
Like many incels, he was drawn to the community because he felt they were the only people who understood his experience. Other forum users were people he could commiserate with, virtual friends who swapped jokes and memes that helped everyone get through the day.
“Most people will not be in my situation, so they can’t relate. They can’t comprehend someone being so ugly that they can’t get a girlfriend,” John tells me. “What I noticed was how similar my situation was to the other guys. I thought I was the only one in the world so inept at dating.”
It’s hard not to feel for people like Abe or John. All of us have, at one point, experienced our share of rejection or loneliness. What makes the incel world scary is that it takes these universal experiences and transmutes the pain they cause into unbridled, misogynistic rage.
How the incel community became toxic
The founding irony of the incel community is that it was created by a woman — and a politically progressive queer one at that. Her real name is Alana (she asked to keep her last name private), and she’s an artist and consultant based in Toronto.
For much of her young adult life, she found dating terrifying: The rules were confusing, and she wasn’t even sure what to think of her own sexuality. When she was in college in the early 1990s, she began identifying as bisexual; she got into her first real relationship (with a woman) at age 24.
The experience of finally entering the dating pool made Alana want to help others with her difficulties. So she launched a website called Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project, one of the earliest online havens for people who wanted to have romantic relationships but couldn’t. She spent a few years monitoring her creation but came to realize that she couldn’t be an authority for these people and wasn’t fixing their problems. Feeling both futile and a bit like she’d grown out of the incel world, she ceased her involvement in the forums around 2000.
Though she’s horrified at what the group she started has evolved into, she has managed to build a happy and romantically fulfilling life — a future she hopes the young, lonely men of today can envision for themselves.
“People who haven’t had much luck with dating by their mid-20s, you could be a late bloomer like me,” she says. “Catching up to the romantic world is a mysterious, indirect process. Romantic connection seems to happen when you find joy in other aspects of life, then share that happiness with other people.”
This supportive spirit is part of what drew ReformedIncel to the early incel forums. In the beginning, it was neither exclusively male nor dedicated to a fatalistic anti-woman ideology. “We created our own little community,” he says. “We weren’t angry, and we certainly weren’t going to allow any violent rhetoric.”
Since the rise of incel terrorism in the past few years, ReformedIncel has become a kind of historian of the movement, documenting the nature of the incel community and how it changed over time. He emailed me a nearly 100-page, meticulously footnoted document on the degeneration of the movement he once identified with.
Incels in the late ’90s, ReformedIncel explains, didn’t see themselves as victims of female cruelty in the way today’s incels do. Many of them were in a rut, a sexual dry spell, and like current incels were seeking support from others with similar experiences. If men like Abe or John had encountered this version of the community, they would have been exposed to very different ideas about how the world worked.
But things changed in the 2000s. The nascent incel community became divided between two online forums: one called IncelSupport and another called LoveShy. IncelSupport adhered to something like Alana’s inclusive vision — it was open to men and women, and moderators banned misogynistic posts. That’s where ReformedIncel spent his time.
LoveShy, by contrast, had a less stringent moderation policy. Its male users were free to vent about women, blaming them for the incels’ lack of sex. The forum tilted overwhelmingly male; one of its administrators openly praised mass killers and encouraged another forum member to commit murder.
The degeneration of LoveShy reflects the rage that many men express offline. Angry, entitled misogyny is a fact of the world, and it was inevitable that this reality would shape virtual spaces as much as real ones. A forum for young, dateless men was always a prime candidate for where misogynist ideas would come to dominate. All it took was the opening of a venue uninterested in heavily policing its users for this real-world anger to become a defining feature of the virtual incel world — and that’s what LoveShy provided.
Nor was it the only such toxic space on the internet. During the 2000s and early 2010s, the LoveShy community cross-pollinated with members of other, similar online subcultures. One major forum was 4chan, the anything-goes prankster and alt-right site. Its r9k section contains incel-like ideas in addition to the site’s generalized ethos of racism and trolling, and remains an active source of incel recruitment. Two incels I spoke to say they found the community from browsing r9k.
The “manosphere,” a loose group of websites united by their belief in various male-dominant ideologies, was even more important in reshaping inceldom. It includes “men’s rights” activists and pickup artists, or PUAs, men who teach other men that they can sleep with women by insulting them and manipulating their psychology.
These overlaps produced a fairly large and networked group of sexually frustrated men, united in blaming their situation on women. These men appropriated the term “incel” for themselves and their idea, outcompeting the IncelSupport community for ownership of the term.
Then in 2014, a self-identified incel went on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California.
Elliot Rodger began his attack by stabbing two male roommates and a visiting friend: Cheng Yuan Hong, Weihan Wang, and George Chen. He then drove to the Alpha Phi sorority at the UC Santa Barbara campus, opening fire outside and in other nearby locations. He killed three more people — Katherine Cooper, Christopher Michaels-Martinez, and Veronika Weiss — and wounded 14 more before turning his gun on himself. All of the dead were UCSB students.
The attacks were a turning point for the incel community. The killer’s posts on PUAHate, a popular online forum among incels frustrated that pickup artist techniques weren’t working for them, rendered the term “incel” toxic. It was the final blow in the war for inceldom’s soul — the moment when ReformedIncel knew his side had lost.
“The thing about Elliot Rodger is that he used that word. And that pretty much devastated the original incel community,” ReformedIncel tells me.
He describes a loss of hope among the community, a belief that “the only future we could foresee” for incels was one darkened by Rodger’s shadow. So, as he says, “we just gave up.”
But Rodger more than redefined the term “incel”: He helped reshape the ideas that the community would come to stand for, pushing its angriest and most nihilistic impulses to the fore.
This posthumous influence stems from a series of YouTube videos and a 137-page manifesto, both of which make the motivation for his attack clear. The manifesto is a biography of sorts, describing Rodger’s life from birth till the attack. His grievances are laid out in excruciating detail.
“All I had ever wanted was to love women, but their behavior has only earned my hatred,” he writes. “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 manifesto at once repulsive and difficult to put down. The undeniable violence that suffuses the words seems to resonate with angry young men looking for someone to blame for their dating problems.
This is why Rodger, more than any of the other killers who targeted women, became the inspiration for the radical turn in the incel community. He is the primary incel “saint”; forums are full of memes with his face photoshopped onto old paintings of Christian icons. The phrase “going ER” is the term of choice among incels for committing mass violence.
Not all incels condone his actions; many seem to actively blame him for their group’s bad reputation. But he has come to entirely overshadow Alana and be considered the true founder of modern inceldom.
“ER was a real hero,” one incels.co poster writes. “Without him the incel community would have never existed.”
What today’s incels really believe
In the years since the Isla Vista attack, incels have hammered out their own distinctive ideology, a pseudoscientific sociology of sex with its own complex jargon that they refer to as “the blackpill.”
The blackpill’s origins derive from the broader manosphere’s concept of the “redpill,” a name referring to a scene in The Matrix where Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus offers Keanu Reeves’s Neo a choice between a red pill (which reveals the true nature of reality) and a blue pill (which would allow him to live in comfortable ignorance). Being “redpilled” in the manosphere means waking up to what’s seen as the truth of male-female relations, a key part of which is the idea that women are attracted to the highest-status men they can find.
The incel “blackpill” takes this even further. Incels believe a man’s sexual success is almost entirely determined by unalterable biological traits: things like his jawline, cheekbones, or eye socket shape. The result, in their view, is that modern Western society is defined by a kind of sexual class system.
At the top of the incel hierarchy are the most attractive men, “Chads.” Incels believe that roughly 20 percent of the population is made up of Chads but about 80 percent of women are only interested in men of this class. “Stacy,” the incel term for the most attractive women, will only consent to sex with Chad, Tyrone (the incel word for a black Chad), Chang (East Asian Chad), Chadpreet (South Asian Chad), or Chaddam (Arab Chad). Incels, in case you can’t tell, have serious racial hang-ups.
The bottom 20 percent of women will consent to sex with the vast majority of men who fall somewhere in the middle of the attractiveness tier, alternatively called “betas,” “cucks,” or “normies.” And at the bottom, of course, are incels: men who are so innately unappealing that they can never convince a woman to sleep with them.
Everywhere you turn on an incel forum, there’s an expression of rage or hatred, typically but not exclusively directed at women. Some it is built into their slang, like the ubiquitous use of the alienating term “femoids” (“foids” for short) to refer to women. Much of it is just raw, naked rage.
“Our whole lives we’ve had to endure the pain of being so physically repulsive to females that they’d never even consider giving us a chance. We are actually so genetically inferior that they HATE us. They need to suffer,” writes another incels.co poster. “Their hypocrisy is a crime [punishable by] torture for the rest of their slutty lives.”
The crossover between incels and fringe-right forums like 4chan lends the misogyny a racist and anti-Semitic tone. Incels refer to Asian women as “noodlewhores” and sometimes blame the rise of feminism on a Jewish conspiracy to weaken the West from within. Even forum users who identify as nonwhite — South Asian incels, for example, call themselves “currycels” — can be found arguing that whites are more attractive or expressing admiration for Hitler.
When I ask Sarge, the administrator of incels.co, about the anti-Semitism, racism, and misogyny on his site, he insisted that it was mostly trolling — trying to be provocative for the sake of being provocative.
“The fact we don’t mind politically incorrect speech is always shocking to outsiders,” he tells me. “A minority seems to have some anger toward women, yes. For the vast majority, there is no hatred.”
I’m not sure if Sarge actually believes the incels on his site don’t hate women or if he was just trying to spin me. But what he said simply isn’t true.
A recent paper by six scholars studied a random selection of threads on Sarge’s forum, finding that more than 50 percent used overtly misogynistic language (e.g., the word “bitch” or the phrase “dumb girl”). While 10 percent of users were responsible for most of the hateful content directed at women and other minority groups, “about half of the users in our dataset posted hateful messages at one time or another.”
One day in February, I looked at the profiles of the five most prolific posters on incels.co at the time. Each of them had posted something inflammatory or misogynistic within the past several weeks, and more frequently in the past few days, with no indication that what they were saying wasn’t truly how they felt.
One of the most frequent posters uses a GIF of Rodger as his profile image. He wrote that women were “trashy whores” and labeled feminism “a plot devised by females to escape from undesirable men and only get fucked by the high tier men.” Another one started a thread titled “why is ever ‘single’ woman a total fucking bitch,” in which he concluded “every ‘single’ foid over the age of ~19 should be fed to an industrial wood chipper.” I’ll spare you the other examples, but they are legion.
The problem is not that men who don’t have sex are intrinsically hateful. ReformedIncel, who still has trouble dating, is a testament to that. He channels his passion into other pursuits (he is, among other things, a big film buff).
Incel forums, ReformedIncel believes, necessarily tend in a toxic direction. Definitionally, a group of people who are “involuntarily celibate” are people who are not getting something they want, and the shared experiences they bond over are negative ones. “That’s in the nature of incel communities: It’s a community you don’t want to be a part of,” he tells me.
The early incels tried to counter this tendency by fostering a healthy commenting culture: maintaining a mixed-gender user base, banning misogynistic content, and giving one another advice on how to overcome shyness in the real world. But the dominance of the blackpill ideology in the current incel community has the opposite effect: It takes the intrinsic negativity of an incel community and turns it up to 11.
“Incel boards tend to be so toxic [now] because they’re basically venting and posting all of their frustrations online,” he says.
Andreas, a 17-year-old living in Denmark, is a testament to what this negativity can do to young minds.
A bullying victim who’s always had trouble with romantic relationships, he got dumped by the only girl he’d managed to date just as he was starting high school. He fell into a funk, a dark period during which he came across incel forums. The more time he spent there became, the more his feelings toward women darkened.
“I hated them,” he tells me. “I wholeheartedly hated them.”
Initially, Andreas saw the forums as a lifeline — a place to find other people who understood his pain. But as time went on, he noticed that the angry hopelessness of the other incels was making his depression worse, not better. He was staying up late at night, seething and not sleeping.
“Getting a dose of blackpill every time you go on there didn’t feel good in the long run,” Andreas says. “Having that in my head all the time made me go fucking nuts.”
So he quit reading incel forums. He still harbors some resentment toward women but says he doesn’t hate them anymore. In late March, he contacted me just to chat, saying that he was feeling better and working on more positive hobbies like playing the guitar.
Now that he’s logged off, he’s clearly happier and healthier. But I wonder what would have happened to him if he hadn’t.
Just how dangerous are incels?
The man who killed Sohe Chung last April, a mid-20s Canadian Armed Forces washout named Alek Minassian, left no doubt as to what his motivation was. In a Facebook post written shortly before the attack, he described himself as a foot soldier in a broader incel war on society.
“Private (Recruit) Minassian Infantry 00010, wishing to speak to Sgt 4Chan please,” he wrote. “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”
When news of the van attack broke, incel forums barely spared a thought for the victims. Even while readership of incel sites surged, as “normies” trying to figure out what could have sparked such senseless violence went to the sites, some users were celebrating the killing spree.
But perhaps the most telling conversations were happening away from the main forum. A researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch group provided me with logs from an incels.co Discord server, an online chat platform favored by gamers, from the day after the Toronto attack. In the exchange, screenshots of which are displayed below, site administrator Sarge discusses with two other users how to respond to a massive surge in traffic to the forum.
Sarge dismisses the complaints that the site is too tolerant of violent rhetoric, claims that he and the other moderators delete violent content, and yet appears unconcerned when another user points out that they don’t come close to getting it all. He casts the Toronto attack as a PR problem that will blow over. (Note: In 2018, the forum’s domain name was incels.me, which changed after its previous server host dropped them for violating its anti-abuse policy.)
The very username “St. Marcc Lepine,” the forum member mentioned as a risk by one of the others, should have been a red flag. In 1989, the real-life Marc Lépine went into a classroom in Montreal’s École Polytechnique university and ordered the men to leave, then shot all nine women who remained. He continued his attack outside the classroom before shooting himself in the head. In a letter, he claimed the attack was “fighting feminism”; he killed a total of 14 women during the assault, which remains the deadliest mass shooting in modern Canadian history.
This kind of mass killer praise — referring to Lépine as a “saint” in one’s username — is part of the culture of incels.co. Yet in the immediate wake of another mass killing, advocacy for violence isn’t treated as a serious concern by the forum’s administrator.
You’d think there should have been some kind of reckoning in the incel community since then. ReformedIncel certainly believes so: The Toronto van attack is what caused him to start documenting incel history, to try to figure out what went wrong.
But there’s scant evidence of similar introspection in current incel forums. During my time scanning incels.co, I found dozens of examples of posters celebrating mass killers or even outright justifying violence as a legitimate response to the incel predicament. A popular incel YouTube personality, who’s trying to become the first incel rapper, wrote a song glorifying Minassian’s attack.
While incel communities do vary — the posters on incels.co are far more likely to praise mass killers than those on Braincels, who tend to see them as giving incels a bad name — it’s clear from both research and my own observations that the community writ large has a problem with the normalization of mass violence.
The real question is how likely this is to spur copycats.
Like a lot of online subcultures, incel communities are steeped in irony and trolling. Posters frequently say provocative things just to vent or to get a rise out of people. But despite that, experts on mass violence are deeply concerned by what they see from the incel community.
“It’s great that a lot of these guys aren’t violent,” says Stephanie Carvin, a political scientist who studies terrorism at Canada’s Carleton University. “But if they’re glorifying someone who was violent ... a very small percentage of these individuals may feel more justified in acting.”
We know that Rodger, in particular, has had at least some influence on subsequent mass shooters, several of whom have referenced him in their writings. A man who killed two women at a yoga class in Tallahassee, Florida, last year released videos raging against women and comparing himself to Rodger and incels. Some incels today affectionately refer to the Tallahassee shooter as “St. YogaCel,” the kind of glorification that Carvin and other experts worry could inspire forum users to become copycats.
But focusing too much on mass killings obscures the other ways incels harm the people around them.
Take Sheldon Bentley, a Canadian security guard in his late 30s. In 2016, Bentley found a homeless man named Donald Doucette in an alley in Edmonton and stomped him to death. In a pre-sentencing filing last summer, Bentley described himself as an “involuntary celibate”; both a forensic psychologist and Bentley’s probation officer testified during the trial that anger at this status led to his violent outburst.
Bentley is one of the clearest examples of an incel taking out his rage on another individual. But if you listen to incels themselves, there are many more examples that happen with no documentation or criminal trial. Every now and again, forum users brag openly about how they hurt people — most frequently the women in their lives. I’ve seen posters boast about yelling at women, catfishing them, and even redirecting research funds away from work on cervical and ovarian cancer.
“Mass shooting, or death, is not the only thing in public health that worries us,” says Emily Rothman, an expert on intimate partner violence at Boston University. “There are multiple kinds of harms — and sometimes psychological aggression can have really severe, long-lasting impact on victims.”
The most chilling incel stories are about outright sexual assault.
One user claims to serially assault women on public transit. “I do it all the time, rub my dick on their back/ass until I cum,” he writes. A second says that he injected his semen into chocolate bars at his office to “punish” a woman who he thought was flirting with him but actually had a boyfriend. A third claims to have “groped so many women,” estimating his total at between 50 and 70 — and claimed he wanted to escalate to violent rape.
There’s no way to know how true any of this is. But even assuming a fraction of it is, what you’ve got is a community where men who target women are celebrated and incentivized to escalate.
One response to the comment about assault on public transit praised the user for getting “more action” than other incels. Another poster praised his fellow incels who assaulted women as “low-inhib legends,” suggesting it’s impressive if an incel can overcome inhibitions that warn him against hurting women. I’m not sure I can recall any posts condemning sex crimes as a violation of women’s rights, while I’ve seen dozens arguing women deserve no rights at all. That kind of socialization, a network of people egging each other on, really matters.
“If they’ve joined an online forum and they’re seeing other people inciting them toward violence, [then that’s] a risk factor,” says Rothman. “It has been known for many decades that it matters who you affiliate with, and that shapes your behavior in all kinds of ways.”
A smaller group of incels, numbering somewhere in the hundreds, takes this a step further. They are self-consciously working to convince other incels that raping women is a justified response to sexual rejection.
These extremists are clustered around a network of sites run by Nathan Larson, a Virginia-based advocate for rape who was convicted of a felony for threatening to kill President George W. Bush in 2008. He also ran for Congress as an independent in 2018 but withdrew from the race before Election Day.
Larson does not see himself as an incel — he claims to have raped his ex-wife — but has nonetheless been a well-known presence in the incel community. He managed to get himself banned from incels.co, though not before he built up a small following among the site’s more radical users. Some of the same people still post on incels.co and Larson forums.
The Larson network encourages incels to take “the rapepill” — defined as “the understanding that for civilization to survive, femoids need to be treated as subhuman objects whose purpose is to obey, and bear the children of, supreme gentlemen such as ourselves.” (The term “supreme gentleman” is one Rodger used to describe himself.) One of Larson’s sites, called Raping Girls Is Fun, currently has nearly 500 forum members; I’ve seen its users swap stories about the women they say they’ve assaulted and tips on how to commit rape most effectively.
It’s quite possible that the men who write on these sites were violent misogynists before they ever logged on to Larson’s forums. But it’s also entirely possible that Larson’s sites have radicalized some members of the incel community, men who may have started off like Abe or John or Andreas but went all the way down the rabbit hole.
Incels themselves do say that spending time on the forums — even the less extreme ones like Braincels — has shaped their worldview, and even their willingness to hurt women in their lives.
“If you look in my old posts you can see me say shit like ‘I don’t actually hate women’ and call me a cuck but at the time I believed that ... but yeah I hate women now,” one Braincels user writes. “I wish only for a painful death for as many of them as possible and I will go out of my way from now on to make women feel uncomfortable and make their lives harder in general.”
What incels tell us about our politics
Survivors of the Toronto attack like So Ra are still healing; friends and loved ones of Sohe Chung and the other dead are still grieving. Minassian, apprehended by Canadian police during the attack, is awaiting a trial scheduled to begin in February 2020.
And the ideas and forces that motivated Minassian — and Rodger, and others before him — are still out there.
Kate Manne, a philosopher at Cornell University, has spent much of her career exploring the subtleties of gendered oppression. The first chapter of her 2017 book on misogyny, Down Girl, begins with a discussion of Rodger and the Isla Vista shooting.
“The reason why I open my book with Elliot Rodger [is that] to me, it exhibits this logic of male entitlement and perceived female obligation that runs through the culture,” she tells me.
By this logic, thinking about incels purely as a criminal or terroristic threat is a mistake. They are also a political threat: a symptom of a broader radicalizing trend across the West.
Rodger and the incels who follow him aren’t just angry at individual women. Their critique is more systemic, extending to the basic structure of Western society itself. In their view, there would not be incels if women weren’t given the freedom to choose who they want to have sex with. The logical conclusion of the blackpill is, as one incels.co user writes, that “women should have never been given any rights.”
The blackpill bundles the incel sense of personal failure with a sense of social entitlement: the notion that the world owes them sex, and that there is something wrong with a society in which women don’t have to give it to them.
This line of thinking is a radical version of much more commonly accepted ideas about women’s proper social role. Incels are, as Manne puts it, one of several “forms of social protest to women not being unofficial service and care-industry denizens from birth — which has been the case for most of human history.”
To see an example of how mainstream some of the ideas animating incels are, look at a 2018 New York Times piece discussing incels by social conservative columnist Ross Douthat. In the piece, Douthat levels a critique of modern sexual mores that wouldn’t sound entirely out of place in a blackpilled web forum.
“The sexual revolution created new winners and losers, new hierarchies to replace the old ones, privileging the beautiful and rich and socially adept in new ways and relegating others to new forms of loneliness and frustration,” he writes. “Our widespread isolation and unhappiness and sterility might be dealt with by reviving or adapting older ideas about the virtues of monogamy and chastity and permanence and the special respect owed to the celibate.”
Douthat’s arguments are far more careful and nuanced than those of an incels.co user would be. But both share the same core sense that something important was lost when women’s sexuality became less heavily regulated by social norm and law, that things were in some important ways better when women were more formally slotted into social roles focused on supporting men.
This is a common vein of nostalgic thinking that you can find in arguments from mainstream social conservatives ranging from Phyllis Schlafly to the Moral Majority up to modern anti-feminist populists like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. The blackpill is an extreme and crudely worked out version of this much more pervasive reactionary impulse.
You could say something similar about other internet-native ideologies that have inspired violence. In the past year, there have been two attacks on houses of worship — the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and the Christchurch mosque attacks — inspired by so-called “alt-right” ideas about the threat to Western culture from Jews and Muslim immigration.
The alt-right’s ideas are themselves twists on age-old anti-Semitic and xenophobic tropes, as well as radical variants of arguments about immigration and diversity you hear on the mainstream American and European right. Like incels, the alt-right takes advantage of the broader cultural well young men drink from to recruit them to their odious ideology.
And while the ideas of these online reactionaries may be crude, they’re no less effective because of it.
The incel focus on the modern sexual marketplace, in particular, speaks to the specific anxieties today’s young men feel. Their attacks on feminism and women’s sexual autonomy resonate with those anxious about recent developments in moves toward women’s equality, like the #MeToo movement. More broadly, the rise of the blackpill can be seen as a reaction to the broader feminist advances of the past decades in the same way that the alt-right can be seen as a reaction to the civil rights movement and mass nonwhite immigration.
“Progress predicts backlash. Patriarchal cultures tend to be self-reinforcing, have a tendency to try and reinstate the status quo when it’s disrupted,” Manne tells me. “You can see in incel behavior the desire to wreak revenge and lash out from when things are disrupted from their point of view, which is not that dissimilar from anti-feminist movements of many kinds that have emerged following feminist social progress at large.”
Manne isn’t just speculating here. A wide body of research has found that gender advances invariably generate resistance, in which men and (typically smaller numbers of) women organize to protect the hierarchies they believe in.
The 2014 Gamergate controversy is a very clear recent example of how this species of backlash plays out online. A group of male gamers, angry with the rise of feminist video game criticism and games centering on nonwhite male protagonists, harassed several prominent women in the gaming community.
Gamergate showed how old sexist ideas — in this case, the idea that the male perspective should dominate pop culture products — can be transplanted onto new, online forms of organizing. The main Gamergate subreddit, r/KotakuInAction, still has more than 100,000 members. What began as pure backlash evolved into a community that reinforced its users’ grievances in a similar fashion to incel sites.
It is those fringe communities preying on anxieties about social change that we have to contend with now — and for years to come.
The internet allows these ideas to spread to young men and mutate with unprecedented speed. Every day, boys are logging on to Reddit and 4chan and being introduced to extreme ideas in what is effectively a mass social experiment whose results simply aren’t in yet. But it probably isn’t too bold of a prediction that there will be more Torontos and more Santa Barbaras, more Pittsburghs and more Christchurches — to say nothing of the more ordinary forms of violence and harassment that arise from these ideas.
Internet radicalism can manifest in troubling political organizing as well, as we saw in Charlottesville in 2017. It can even seep into the mainstream — see Rep. Steve King (R-IA) praising internet white nationalists and using their rhetoric on national television, or President Trump retweeting a neo-Nazi and referring to the “United the Right” marchers in Charlottesville as “very fine people.” Developments on the political fringes have a way of influencing mainstream politics nowadays; we can’t assume that radical sexist ideas like the blackpill flourishing online will stay cordoned in the internet’s dark corners.
There is no feasible solution to the human problem behind the technological nightmare of inceldom: the inherent loneliness and romantic failures of some young men. But providing a measure of comfort and support in more productive communities, one that channels this sadness into more productive directions, is not impossible.
That was the premise of Alana’s first incel forum. Currently, she’s is trying to resurrect the spirit of the early incel movement: She has founded a new project, called Love Not Anger, that tries to support young people struggling with the unhappiness that can arise from an unfulfilling sex life.
“The aim is to help people be less lonely, by researching why some people — of all genders and orientations — have difficulty with dating and creating effective support services,” she tells me. “The project doesn’t have ways to reduce violence directly. A lonely person who is not too far gone into their own hatred might benefit from whatever hope Love Not Anger can offer.”
She’s not alone in this. ReformedIncel and a few other veterans of the early incel forums are assisting with research, trying to recreate the spirit of the original boards and figure out some way to detoxify the internet for sad young men. It’s nice to get the band back together — even if, as ReformedIncel jokes, “we’re not the same teenagers we used to be.”
Can Alana and ReformedIncel succeed in what feels like a fundamentally broken online world? I honestly don’t know. But we all have to hope they have a shot.
Listen to this
Zack Beauchamp joins Jane Coaston and Matthew Yglesias to share his reporting on the originals and evolution of a troubling new internet community.