After stabbing three of his housemates to death, Elliot Rodger drove to Starbucks to pick up a coffee. It was a balmy May evening in Santa Barbara, California, and the 22-year-old had some last-minute organising to do before the sun set. He bought his drink, got back in his car, and began uploading a video to YouTube on his laptop.
The six-minute clip showed Rodger, his face bathed in sunlight, speaking slowly into the camera. “Since I hit puberty, I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires, all because girls have never been attracted to me,” he is recorded saying.
“If I had it in my power, I would stop at nothing to reduce every single one of you to mountains of skulls and rivers of blood... You deserve to be annihilated and I will give that to you.”
A couple of hours after the video was uploaded, Rodger went on to shoot and kill three more people, and injure a further 14. He then turned his gun on himself.
This incident, in 2014, brought the term ‘incel’ to international attention. The word – which is an abbreviation of ‘involuntary’ and ‘celibate’ – has now come to define a distinct kind of modern masculine rage; one fuelled by young, typically white, typically right-wing men who want to find a girlfriend, but can’t. The lack of sex and intimacy in their lives drives them to online forums, where they incubate themselves in bitter, hate-filled echo chambers. Rodger, for example, was an incel who wanted to kill the “entitled sluts” who had “deprived him of sex”. As was Alek Minassian, who killed ten people in Toronto last year, and Christopher Harper-Mercer, who killed nine people in Oregon in 2015.
While this rage has always existed in the darker corners of society, it has managed to slip into the spotlight this decade. Now, these angry, deluded and terrified men – men who believe they are entitled to sex and innately superior to women – are everywhere. (Solid research is hard to come by, but some stats have suggested that between 15 to 30 percent of millennial men in the US could be classified as incels).
There are plenty of reasons why. Culture has changed at an unprecedented pace over the last ten years. Marginalised or extreme views, once left to rot in the dark, are now getting increasing amounts of airtime on social media. We’ve also seen a fourth wave of feminism, which has empowered women to embrace sexual autonomy, to shun marriage (honestly, no one is interested), and to extol financial independence (this is the era of the girlboss and SheEO, after all). Many are just giving up on gender, and the tired traditions that come with it, altogether.
“So many young men are disaffected,” explains Professor Debbie Ging of Dublin City University, who has studied incels and the contemporary masculinity crisis in depth. “Most are no longer guaranteed a career or property ownership, and believe that feminism has discouraged women from marrying. They – like everyone – are also facing a world of zero-hour contracts and the erosion of workers’ rights.”
“Online culture spreads ideas rapidly, but these ideas are hugely simplified for mass consumption, so it’s much easier – and, for the right, politically advantageous – to blame women, LGBTQ people and people of colour for their alienation rather than to understand and dismantle the complex structural dynamics of neoliberal capitalism.”
Of course, this isn’t the whole story. The world of incels – or the ‘inceldom’ – may have been hijacked by louder, more extreme voices in the media, but they are a smaller part of a much larger picture. For instance, a recent poll by r/Braincels (the largest incel Reddit channel, which was recently shut down for misogyny) found that only 28 percent of its members were white, with the majority being from South Asia.
“An incel is someone who wants to have sex but can’t,” explains Tim*, 24, from New York. “We don’t all hate women, we’re not all white, and we’re not all homicidal maniacs. We’re also not all right-wing.”
Tim classifies himself as ‘poor-cel’: someone who believes they’re celibate because of their financial situation. “I’m an incel because, while I want to go and see sex workers, I have no money,” he says. “I don’t even have money for normal dates.”
There are also ‘currycels’ (people who supposedly can’t find a partner because of their Asian heritage) ‘heightcels’ (because of their height) or even ‘wristcels’ (because of their wrist size). ‘femcels’, or women who are involuntarily celibate, have also carved out their own community – though they are often shunned by male incels, who believe they are ‘fakecels’ (people who are celibate through choice).
Slatt, 20, from Cardiff, identifies as a ‘mentalcel’. “I have severe autism, savant syndrome, ADHD and acute narcissism,” he tells me. “I’m not a virgin, but I’ve never had a girlfriend or consistent sex with a girl.”
Despite having a “vibrant social life” and lots of female friends, the student says he is unable to meet someone because of his mental health struggles (he is in the majority; 78 percent of incels reported suffering from extreme sadness and anxiety, while 82 percent have considered suicide). “Incels are lonely,” he continues. “It’s hard to truly understand loneliness from person to person. I know a lot of people and I’m pretty popular, but I’m so lonely.”
However, Slatt, who describes himself as left-wing and a “Jeremy Corbyn stan”, is quick to stress that when it comes to personal politics, he is the exception rather than the rule. “A lot of incels are reprehensible. It feels like I’m one of the few who respects women and is progressive politically and socially.”
So, what do the next ten years hold for incels? And how do we prevent them from becoming even more radicalised? For Tim, the answer lies in the decriminalisation of sex work, and maybe in the proliferation of sex dolls. He also says that a society with a stronger, more supportive safety net would alleviate some of the pressures many incels face. “If I had the money, I’d leave the US for Finland or something,” he says. “I feel like there is no freedom, economic opportunity or mobility here, and that healthcare is shit.”
“I mean, it might be my depression, but I have a feeling that I will never get what I want out of life and will die in poverty.”
It’s also vital, stresses Ging, that people outside of the incel world pay close attention to what is going on inside it – particularly in its more extreme corners – and remain as understanding as possible. “We need to stop viewing the incel phenomenon as a homogenous mass of angry men’s rights activists and instead try to understand its complex power dynamics,” she says. “There are young men becoming radicalised because they are confused, because they don’t live up to idealised masculinity, because they feel humiliated and rejected.”
The online world, she adds, probably hasn’t helped much, and IRL initiatives need to be introduced. “Most ex-incels say that what got them out of it was human contact with someone they could trust, and even then it was difficult for them to leave behind a community that understood and validated their perspective.”
“If they could just spend more time in offline communities, and less toxic and hostile online ones, they would see that, in reality, [much of what they’re led to believe] is bullshit.”