The rise of ‘incels’
I find myself going back and forth on the question of how valuable it is to investigate the plight of incels, “involuntarily celibate” men who desperately want love and sex but find themselves incapable of forming relationships with women. Many people – mostly feminists – argue that demands to understand or empathise with incels are offensive, given the deep misogyny that underpins the incel world view. The strength of this argument is clear: why should women put effort into understanding a group of people who hate them? “Women are essentially corrupted and robbed of any romantic potential after they start patronizing night life for just a year, and sleep with even a minimal number of men,” writes one poster on an incel forum.
Nevertheless, I have been a voluntary observer of incels for years now, ever since incel poster boy Elliot Rodger killed six, plus himself, and injured 14 in a murderous rampage in Isla Vista, California, in 2014. On April 23 this year, suspected incel Alek Minassian rammed a rental van through a crowd of pedestrians in North York City, Toronto, killing 10 and injuring 16. It is alleged that shortly before the attack, Minassian posted the following on Facebook:
“Private (Recruit) Minassian Infantry 00010, wishing to speak to Sgt 4chan please. C23249161. The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”
In the lingo of inceldom, Chads and Stacys are men and women who are attractive, socially competent and sexually active, or at least appear to be so under the envious gaze of the incel. The motivation here is clear – a toxic brew of bitterness, jealousy, entitlement and obsession. Less clear is why this internal condition is shared, to varying degrees of intensity, by the thousands of other men who make up the incel subculture.
Given the increasing propensity for incels to commit heinous acts of violence against innocent people, it probably behoves at least some of us to take a closer look at why they exist. If you want to understand incels – and that’s a big if, given how troubling the involuntary celibacy subculture can be – there are two places to look. The first is the incels’ various online haunts, the messageboards, imageboards and forums.
The second is the work of French author Michel Houellebecq, especially his debut novel, Whatever. In Whatever, Houellebecq’s protagonist, a disaffected and mentally unstable software worker of 30 who hasn’t had sex in two years, writes:
“Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never … Sexual liberalism is likewise an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society.”
This is an economical formulation of the basic incel world view, especially striking because Whatever was originally published in French in 1994, 20 years before incels came to any kind of mainstream attention. The book is a funny and disturbing portrait of the utter alienation suffered by its main character, known only as Our Hero, and his workmate, an ugly 28-year-old virgin named Raphael Tisserand. Our Hero is seconded to accompany Tisserand on a series of work trips. Tisserand, not yet as psychologically desiccated as Our Hero, is on a futile quest to lose his virginity.
Both characters are contemptuous of women. Our Hero is repulsed by “women in analysis”, by which he means psychoanalysis, whom he believes to be “absolutely unfit for use … vile scumbags of such delirious egocentrism as to warrant nothing but well-earned contempt”. The “women in analysis” could be a metonym for any empowered, urban woman, and this description is very close to the incel archetype of the Stacy. One Stacy meme posted on Reddit describes Stacy as follows: “has countless orbiters and Chads blowing up her phone … Naturally curvy body gives men instant erections … Never works a day in her life, lives in luxury.”
The nexus between Houellebecq’s depiction of male sexual alienation in the 1990s and incel culture in the present points to an underlying feature of life under modern capitalism for many young heterosexual men. It’s difficult to acknowledge the descriptive correctness of this position without giving the prescriptive features of inceldom succour, but I have found this to be the most fruitful way of looking at things.
Women have been rivalrous goods in human civilisation for a very long time. This is not some quirk of ideology out of which we could have educated ourselves: it has been a crucial fact of material reality. Different societies have mitigated the disruptive potential of this rivalry in different ways, but most have used variations on the social structure we now call patriarchy. In order for society to be able to reproduce itself in a more or less peaceful fashion, women have been reduced to the status of property, with various taboos, prohibitions and institutions governing our behaviour.
One of the main functions of these practices is to provide men with some measure of certainty that their women, their property, are not at risk of being stolen by other men. In pre-1960s Western society, the favoured practices were virginity, marriage and housewifery. Feminist legal theorist Carole Pateman, in her groundbreaking 1988 book The Sexual Contract, describes marriage as “the vehicle through which men transform their natural right over women into the security of civil patriarchal right”.
The key concept here, and the one whose absence permeates both inceldom and Houellebecq’s Whatever, is security. Patriarchal security, delivered through monogamous marriage, ensured that most heterosexual men could be sure of accessing sex, affection, reproductive labour and so on, through marrying a wife. During the past 50 years, this security has evaporated. Out of the ashes of compulsory marriage has emerged a more or less free market in sex. Like the supersession of feudalism by capitalism, this state of affairs has produced some big pros and some big cons.
On one hand, women are granted measures of self-determination that would have been unimaginable in the past. We are no longer considered patriarchal chattel. I do not yearn to return to a time when my personal activities would be ruthlessly policed, and my sexuality strictly regulated, to ensure a stable society.
On the other hand, the death of these rules, as with the death of feudal rules, produces a ruthless and unstable state of competition between individuals for resources. This expresses itself most intensely in inceldom. When women are free to choose their sexual partners, they understandably tend towards men who are some combination of attractive, psychologically stable and financially secure. The free market, as always, isn’t exactly free – it produces winners and losers, and the sorting of people into these categories corresponds closely to various forms of unearned advantage, such as physical looks, inherited wealth, the benefit of early socialisation and competent parenting, and so on.
It seems the reason incels are largely unresponsive to the rising tide of radical leftism in first-world countries is because it cannot guarantee them a girlfriend. This is where the analogy between economic and sexual liberalism breaks down – it is possible, highly desirable even, to distribute material resources in a way that produces some measure of equality between people. If one accepts women’s inherent entitlement to personal freedom, the same cannot be said of sex. The best that the left can offer to incels is the hope that, under conditions of diminished competition for material resources, sexual competition might also recede.
Incels are not unaware of this. Many post on leftist forums and imageboards, pleading, demanding to know: “What will happen to incels under socialism? Will the state allocate us girlfriends?” How can we respond to this in a convincing way, without affirming twisted feelings of ownership over women? I don’t know.
Once you see the depths of desperation in incels, their unresponsiveness to traditional patriarchal revanchism on one hand and socialism on the other, it becomes easier to understand why many are so obsessed with destruction and vengeance. There is nothing left for them here, or at least it can feel like that, and in that absence grows an entitlement and distorted reality nourished by patriarchy and the papered-over misogyny that accompanies it. As Houellebecq’s Our Hero says, “Only suicide hovers above me, gleaming and inaccessible.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 5, 2018 as "Incel inside". Subscribe here.