The term "incel," short for involuntary celibate, began life as a slur wielded online. Specifically the term refers to young, typically heterosexual men who claim they are unable to have sex because modern society, and particularly women, persecute men. In the past two decades, internet forums supercharged the idea's spread and made it into a community, replete with its own slang, ideology, and heroes.
If you haven't heard the term, you've probably heard of some of their adherents, who occasionally make headlines for public acts of violence. A recent example is Johnny Deven Young, a 25-year-old from Southern California who is charged with going on a pepper spraying spree against women who rejected his crude advances. Perhaps most memorably, there was mass murderer Elliot Rodger — a Santa Barbara City College student who, in 2015 went on a mass shooting spree that killed seven people and injured 13 others in Isla Vista, Calif. Rodger spent time on forums linked to the Incel Movement, as he documented. Then there was vehicle-ramming attacker Alek Minassian, who self-identified as an incel and who in 2018 murdered 10 people in Toronto when he drove a van through a crowd of pedestrians.
Now a recent study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences claims to have deepened scientists' understanding of what makes incels tick. To do so, Dutch and British researchers surveyed a pool of 349 predominantly heterosexual and single men who were experiencing unwanted celibacy — but, importantly, not always men who self-identified with the Incel Movement nor the term. The goal was to determine whether unwanted celibacy in itself is linked to misogynistic attitudes among men.
Speaking to Salon by email, the study's corresponding author Dr. Pelin Gul — a professor in the Department of Psychology, Health and Technology at the University of Twente in the Netherlands — claimed that the study demonstrated that "the state of unwanted celibacy applies to the general population and [are] not exclusively characteristics of men who identify as incel (involuntarily celibate)." Gul added that "it wasn't known especially in the social psychology literature that unwanted celibacy (besides personality traits like disagreeableness, political conservativism or social dominance) is linked to misogynistic attitudes. So, our study provided the first evidence for these two unexamined hypotheses."
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Despite the stereotype of incels as white basement dwellers, they are in fact racially, economically and in many other ways quite diverse. Some of the tenets of the Incel Movement include the belief that women discriminate sexually against men that aren't conventionally attractive and that all women are hypergamous (obsessed with pursuing the most attractive possible men), and therefore deserving of hatred.
"There certainly is a 'vicious circle' element of incel ideology: members of the Incel Movement retreat to online spaces where they spew hateful rhetoric and mobilize against a common outgroup, and those ideologies then strengthen and affect the individuals' real-world relationships with the very women they wish to court."
Dr. Jacob Ware, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who focuses on domestic and international terrorism and counterterrorism, told Salon by email that the study's conclusions seemed "sound enough," although he added that it was based on a small sample size.
"There certainly is a vicious circle element of incel ideology: members of the Incel Movement retreat to online spaces where they spew hateful rhetoric and mobilize against a common outgroup, and those ideologies then strengthen and affect the individuals' real-world relationships with the very women they wish to court," Ware explained. "It is not clear whether their misogyny drives them into the movement or if the movement creates and worsens the misogyny they then weaponize in their online and offline worlds."
Describing it as an "interesting study," Dr. Sophia Moskalenko of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) wrote to Salon that she is "glad to see more survey data on incels, something that's severely lacking at the moment. The conclusions seem justified by the data the researchers collected."
Yet not all researchers were satisfied with the study's methods. Dr. Tim Squirrell — Head of Communications and Editorial at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue — wrote to Salon that he has "significant misgivings" about the study because the researchers recruited incels online.
"Incel subculture has a substantial tradition of trolling and attempted media manipulation, and there is substantial mistrust of both journalists and researchers in incel spaces," Squirrell explained. "As such, I would be concerned about the validity of this sampling method, and therefore any conclusion drawn from the study."
While he argued that the study's main conclusion — namely, that "the failure to satisfy a fundamental motive of human existence, namely the motive to acquire a romantic or sexual partner, contributes to individuals' support for multiple forms of sexist and misogynistic views" — "is not necessarily incorrect," the researchers may have done little else than measure "expressed attitudes, which may be different than the beliefs those individuals privately hold." If the survey respondents wanted to manipulate the outcome of the study, they could have easily done so.
"Incel subculture has a substantial tradition of trolling and attempted media manipulation, and there is substantial mistrust of both journalists and researchers in Incel spaces," Squirrell explained. "As such, I would be concerned about the validity of this sampling method, and therefore any conclusion drawn from the study."
Moskalenko had her own criticisms of the study. Noting that the vast majority of self-identified incels are not violent and reject violence, Moskalenko disagreed with the researchers' suggestion that the difference between violent and non-violent incels could be explained by "exposure to violent incel content." (Gul, for her part, also told Salon that the vast majority of incels are not violent.) Moskalenko added that "the media sometimes create boogie men out of straw men" and "I think incels might be an example of that."
Moskalenko has worked on two separate surveys of incels, both of which were published in peer reviewed articles, and has extensively studied the data elsewhere.
"I conclude that for most incels, the motivation is largely to find a likeminded community online, to share their loneliness, frustration, sadness, and anxiety (rates of mental health symptoms reported by incels in my study and others' are staggering)," Moskalenko argued. "Almost all incels in my studies report having been bullied. I suspect the Incel Community is a place to cope with that trauma and share that grievance."
Like Moskalenko, Squirrell said that the vast majority of incels will not engage in violent acts of terrorism like Rodger and Minassian. The more common problem — which is consistent with the recent study's findings — is that the Incel Community inflames their pre-existing misogyny and worsens the personal problems they wish they could fix. In addition, being an incel makes a person more likely to mistreat others.
"The misogyny that infects incel spaces is severe and violent, and people who have been steeped in those narratives are highly unlikely to be able to treat significant others with the respect and dignity needed to sustain a healthy relationship," Squirrell told Salon. "Our concern should be oriented less towards rare but horrific instances of high profile violence, and more towards the interpersonal behaviors of people who have been immersed in subcultures where extreme ideologies are ubiquitous."
"Almost all incels in my studies report having been bullied. I suspect the Incel Community is a place to cope with that trauma and share that grievance."
Of course, while incels are not by and large violent, violent acts have been committed by perpetrators who explicitly identified as incels.
"Incels have committed several acts of terrorism," Ware said. "The ideology has also inspired numerous other instances of violence where ideological justification has been less obvious. Although it is not a public safety threat on the scale of Salafi-jihadism or the violent far-right, incels will continue to pose threats to specific communities and targets."
Going forward, Gul hopes that there will be additional research on links between unwanted celibacy (as opposed to specifically being an incel) and "desiring a more gender traditional and conservative society such as support for male dominance over women, and whether unwanted celibacy would hypothetically affect political movements and attitudes in society too, including voting."
Gul expressed some sympathy for those who ended up in the clutches of the Incel Movement. "Journalists and writers in popular media should be careful to not publish posts that further stigmatize incels, that present them as a violent outcast, because the majority of incels are not violent," she noted. "It's hard not to feel some sympathy."
Of course, that does not mean that we should sympathize with their hatred for women, she added. "It's right to be ambivalent about incels in general. But there is quite a variety of people who identify as incels or participate in incel forums. The majority of incels are not violent and there are even incel groups that explicitly ban expressions of anti-women rhetoric."