It's a balancing act.
Image by Lia Kantrowitz
Jason is a 30-year-old who grew up in a big city in India but now lives in Gothenburg, Sweden. He gets lonely there, what with being a cultural outsider and living alone—something he has long hoped to fix by getting a girlfriend. He doesn't identify as "incel" per se, although he certainly meets the baseline qualification of being involuntarily celibate, which is how he found himself asking the braincels community for advice. Despite Reddit banning the main "incel" community in November for its violently misogynistic rhetoric, adherents have found new homes elsewhere on the site that effectively serve the same purpose: providing a sense of belonging for guys whose identity is constructed around the fact that they aren't sexually active.
Although Jason is reluctant to align himself—however tangentially—with a subculture that recently made headlines after a self-described member was charged with killing ten people in a Toronto van attack, he posts on braincels in between publishing personal ads for women to talk to on the phone. "I'm unsure if it's actually helping," Jason, who did not reveal his real name, told me via Reddit. "But at least there is a group which acknowledges that it is unlikely for some people to get into longterm relationships due to some traits, be it looks or personality or body language, which one may find very hard to change if at all possible and which may force one to question their identity."
When Jason asked braincels for advice on seeking therapy as an incel, however, the responses he received were, in a word, discouraging. Still, Jason told me he was determined to continue trying to understand social norms and gain some perspective on how people perceive and respond to his body language.
If he does, he might do well to link up with someone like Sam Louie—a psychotherapist near Seattle who helps people with relationship issues. While the idea of sex therapy often conjures up images of men compulsively seeking gratification a la Michael Fassbender in Shame, Louie also treats the opposite—those who aren't having sex at all. Typically, Louie said, these people don't say right off the bat that they want to work on getting laid, but it becomes obvious after a number of sessions that's what they're really after.
"A lot of young boys don't have a male role model telling them it's OK to be a virgin, there's nothing wrong with that," he told me. "There's not enough of a buffer between peers and society telling them that if they've graduated high school and are still a virgin, then they're really screwed up."
I called the marriage and family therapist (MFT) up to discuss a current patient of his, and what it's like to try to help a virgin in his early 30s learn to attract women while simultaneously dismantling the idea that having a sexual relationship is the end-all-be-all of human existence.
VICE: I'm interested in the process of validating some of your lonely patients' frustration but also helping them realize their lack of romantic success is at least partly their own fault. Can you walk me through what that looks like?
Sam Louie: I have one current client who comes to mind at this point. When he first came in, he mentioned really struggling with being in relationships. But then when this incel thing happened in Toronto, he started talking more about it. He said that was him a number of years ago when he was in college, that he had the same level of vitriol and hate. By the time I saw him, he had a lot of rigid, black-and-white thinking that a lot of women were a certain way. His own definition of masculinity, or hyper-masculinity as he described it, had been shaped because he had spent a lot of time in Reddit groups that had catered to the incel community. He realized it was toxic, but the mentality was difficult to break. A lot times he would blame not being white, not being blond, not being strong, not being tall. So that obviously put him, he thought, in an unwanted category.
Well, how do you help someone work through that when they're blaming these immutable characteristics, some of which actually do face prejudice?
I wish there was a one-size-fits-all solution, but for him a lot of it is asking what his strengths are, what he's good at, and what he values in himself. What does he feel competent in that he can lean on for some measure of feeling affirmed? One thing was that he had a girlfriend, but they were never sexual, which he blamed on his ethnicity because she ended up ditching him and dating a more stereotypical white guy. That made him feel more inadequate.
What made it difficult in that relationship was that he was often shamed for the things that he liked—video games, art, drawing manga. His girlfriend thought it was stupid and corny. Even in therapy, I asked him what he liked [and] he said it wasn't what most people like, and it took time for him to even trust me that I wouldn't ridicule or dismiss his interests.
How important is building that kind of trust and rapport?
Once he saw me he was already out of it and he was trying to put her out of his mind. Once I did inquire a little bit more, it came to seem like he wanted a relationship more than he actually liked the other person.
So what do you do in those situations? A pick-up artist, for instance, might encourage some more traditionally masculine activities, like going to the gym. Does a therapist do any of that, or just press finding a more suitable partner?
So he was starting to go to the gym, and I said it was fine if he was going to do it for his own health or benefit, but if he was going to do it to try and attract another woman, then it could continue the cycle of inadequacy. I think one major shift that he needed a little bit of changing was his wardrobe, body language, and hairstyle. In the beginning, he didn't even comb his hair. After a few months, I did say, "Have you ever considered that your presentation can affect that?"—in the most diplomatic way possible.
How did he react?
Finally, he was like, "OK, maybe I should care for myself." I said, "Hey listen, when I go out there and a woman just doesn't care for herself, like you, and doesn't brush her teeth, and doesn't comb her hair, everything is mismatched, and there isn't a clean appearance, I'm going to think that she doesn't care about herself. If she doesn't have enough self-respect to care about herself, that's going to be a very hard person for me to date, and what I want to ask about you, is your lack of self care a sign of lack of self-respect?" I used an example and said, "I have some friends who are married, and they look married. And I have some friends who are divorced and are trying to date, and I've had to tell them that they still look married." And finally he put two and two together and agreed.
That sounds like you're kind of toeing the line with what a PUA would say minus the misogyny. How much of your advice is practical, versus attempting to dismantle the ideology he had been steeping in on Reddit?
I mean, I just told him to buy a pair of jeans—he had only ever worn slacks. Jeans are important in this age. He should at least own one pair.
I think maybe a third at the most is just practical stuff, like coaching. He was also on dating apps and talking to three women for a few weeks, and I had to ask if he had asked any of them out yet. I told him that if he wanted to get somewhere he couldn't spend hours on end exchanging messages. The sooner you meet the better, so you can assess if you like them in real life. So he's working on that.
The other practical piece is body language. I had to explain that eye contact means a lot. But then as part of dismantling the ideology, he began to think the opposite of the incel ideology and that he didn't want to make a woman feel intimidated by eye contact. But it still comes up in terms of the black-and-white thinking. He'll say things about needing to be super buff, or that nobody likes Asian men according to statistics from Match.com, so no one will ever date him. That's a lot of generalizations—no one will ever date him?
Are the guys who come to see you for being involuntarily celibate overtly angry?
There's a lot of self-anger and self-rage about what they did wrong. It did externalize before because [the same patient] liked a girl he met online, and went to see her out of state, but then she got back together with an ex. Now there's a lot of hatred—not necessarily toward her, but toward the ex. Just a boiling over hatred. I have to say, "You've never met him. This is a reflection of her, not a reflection of you." So a lot of cognitive-behavioral therapy about how thoughts impact feelings. He also gets [upset] because virgin-shaming is very big online. But mainly, these people, if they're really entrenched in this ideology, like my patient was, need to get out of that toxic environment on their own before they can even think about getting help.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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