A terrorist attack in Toronto this week has shed light on an online community of “involuntary celibates”. Who are they - and how did they get so angry?
When Jonathan was 17, he moved to a new school and started vandalising the desks.
Like many teenage boys, he was frustrated and hormonal – but unlike other teenage boys, he wasn’t drawing dicks or that cool pointy “S”. Instead, Jonathan wrote “shit about women” around the school.
“There was nothing going in on my life,” the now 21-year-old tells me. Isolated and suffering from depression, the Australian teenager found it difficult to make friends and often skipped class to smoke weed. “I was not interacting with anyone except my teachers and parents for weeks on end.”
When girls at school made up rumours that he was following them, Jonathan’s normal teenage sexual frustration evolved into a hatred of women. He even began to despise his female teachers.
“I hated every man because I thought he was getting laid,” Jonathan explains. “I hated every woman because she wouldn’t sleep with me.”
From the ages of 17 to 21, Jonathan was an incel – and you were probably a normie.
Incel is short for “involuntary celibate” – a person who wants to have sex but isn’t having it. “Normie” – short for “normal” – is the nickname used by the incel community to describe pretty much everyone else. But there are also “Chads” (attractive men who have lots of sex) and “Stacys” (the female version of a Chad).
With no friends at school, Jonathan turned to the internet for comfort. Every day for four years he would visit Reddit’s r/Incels, a subreddit for involuntary celibates that was eventually banned in November 2017.
“The whole sub was made to make you hate women,” Jonathan tells me over Reddit’s direct messaging service. In the past, the subreddit had advocated rape and frequently referred to all women as “sluts”, with one poster even suggesting women should be “farmed” for “breeding”.
“It absolutely made me more misogynistic towards women,” says Jonathan now.
On 23 April 2018, ten people died in Toronto after a van mounted the pavement and drove into pedestrians. The accused murderer, 25-year-old Alek Minassian, posted to Facebook minutes before the attack, which he called “The Incel Rebellion”.
“We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!” wrote Minassian on the site.
Elliot Rodger was a 22-year-old Californian man who killed six people in 2014. He frequently posted on the misogynistic online forum PUAhate, which he described as “a forum full of men who are starved of sex, just like me.” He later added: “though unlike me they would be too cowardly to act on it.”
The victims of Monday’s attack have been described by Toronto police as “mostly women”.
It’s not unusual to be a 17-year-old virgin. How did Jonathan, a normal teenager, come to see his virginity as a burden, and how did this burden evolve into a hatred of all women?
“Incels have an aggrieved entitlement to women’s bodies and the fact they’re not getting it has made them really angry because they feel that women have denied them sex,” says Dr Debbie Ging, a professor of media studies at Dublin City University and author of Alphas, Betas, and Incels: Theorizing the Masculinities of the Manosphere.
“A lot of very young men are seduced by the incel community,” Ging explains, saying many teenage boys are caught in “a vortex of negative feelings”.
The internet is instrumental in transforming this self-hatred into a hatred of women and society. Dissenting and reasoned voices on incel forums are often shunned, and Jonathan explains that anyone trying to be positive on the incel subreddit would be derided with the word “cope”. The forum was fatalistic, and on its new replacement – r/Braincels – users are similarly negative, describing themselves as “subhuman” and women as “parasitic pieces of shit”.
“You either agree with all of it or ‘fuck off normie’,” says Jonathan, explaining how the space radicalises individuals. Dr Ging calls it “a classic case” of an echo chamber. “Other ideas don’t really get in and other sources are mistrusted.”
John*, a 22-year-old from Seattle, says online incel communites made him “disenfranchised and disaffected”.
“A Machiavellian mindset takes over because you feel justified to do any harm to others for any personal gain,” he says, also over Reddit’s messaging service, “[My] views on women changed from seeing them as human beings to irrational entities that deserve to be exploited.”
John describes incel communities as “a secret club” that were aware of the “reality” of women that the rest of “normie” society ignored. After losing his virginity to an escort, he realised that sex wasn’t as important as he thought, and slowly his views on women changed. Although he still suffers with depression and low self-esteem, he says his life has now changed for the better.
“I think this should be recognised as something that is part of a bigger political movement which is anti-feminism and anti-women,” Dr Ging says. She theorises that the destabilisation of the labour market means many men can’t obtain traditional markers of masculinity – a career and a home.
“Things that would’ve guaranteed you status as a man have kind of gone,” she says. Instead, Ging argues, a new type of masculinity has evolved – quite paradoxically, as incels often describe themselves as “beta” or “beta-fags”, acknowledging their own percieved lack of manliness.
“What they are trying to do, by running women off the internet and with their extreme misogyny and their feelings of aggrieved entitlement, is they’re trying to infer some kind of male hegemony online,” says Dr Ging.
“This is not some kind of quirky edgy subculture: it has real political consequences.”
Bálint is the most surprising former incel who speaks with me. He is a 16-year-old high school student from Hungary, and says he was an incel aged 14. This is not an unusual age to be celibate or a virgin, as only 23 per cent of people in the UK lose their virginity aged between 14 and 15.
“I think I made myself feel bad about something normal, because my environment was changing a lot, so I yearned for some kind of consistency,” Bálint says. He explains that his friends would come and go and he wanted a romantic relationship for stability.
“I was self-loathing, I hated myself, so I thought everybody else hated me too,” he explains of his mindset. “I felt as if the only girl who ever trusted me was only using me, and I would never get a girlfriend because I wasn’t Chad Thundercock.” Bálint visited online MGTOW forums, which stands for “men going their own way”. He says these forums answered his most-burning question, “Why can’t I get a girlfriend?”, with their misogynistic narratives about women being shallow, manipulative cheaters who only desire alpha males.
“The answers were wrong, but it felt better than having none at all,” he says. Of r/incels, Jonathan says: “The people who post there are bitter older virgins and young dudes can just lap it up.”
Not all incels are young, and many incels I speak with struggle with other problems in their lives. One has Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), a mental disorder where sufferers are obsessed with flaws in their appearance. Many mention depression. Jeremy, a 20-year-old from Canada and former incel, says he has Asperger’s and social anxiety.
“That made interacting with people much harder which probably contributed to becoming [an incel],” Jeremy says. “I was feeling sad, like everyone around me got to experience something awesome but not me, like I was worth less than everybody else.” Jeremy never engaged with online forums for incels, which he fears would’ve made him more depressed and bitter.
It is not wrong to pity incels, to explain their behaviour, or to want to help. Not all incels are radicalised into hating women, and many are simply seeking comfort online. Yet it cannot be denied that many incel communities are toxic places that condone and inspire acts of violence.
“Being socially awkward or feeling that you are unattractive is a horrible and very lonely place for any person to be in,” says Dr Ging, “but then you think, hang on, lots of women are involuntarily celibate and they don’t go around… setting up online communities dedicated to violent misandry and the pornographic degradation of men.
“What this does bring to light is the toxic socialisation of boys and men to be violent, to repress emotion, to feel entitled to women and sex, and to resort to violence as a means of solving things.”
Two months ago, a moderator of the Braincel subreddit took to the forum to issue its users a strict warning.
“If you glorify or defend a mass shooting, you get a ban.”
You don’t stop being an incel just because you’ve had sex. The former incels I speak with all had different routes out of the community, from growing more mature and looking for alternative sources of information to cutting down their drug use. Would banning online communities help? Jonathan says that the subreddit being banned actually helped to change his thinking, but Dr Ging says censorship isn’t always the answer.
“I think incels will probably find each other online anyway,” she says. “But it is a critical thing, and I think social media companies should take a stance on this, particularly in light of recent events.”
After the tragedy in Toronto, the mainstream media is now taking incels more seriously, and many are realising the dangers of this form of online radicalisation. Questions remain, however, about how exactly to prevent a similar attack.
Jonathan says incels should seek counselling through friends or psychologists in order to end their feelings of victimization, while Jeremy says the media need to see this as a “mental health crisis.” Most importantly of all, awareness needs to be raised.
“Incels aren’t necessarily fedora-wearing neckbeards that live in their mother’s basement,” Jeremy says, explaining that men who are successful in other areas of their lives can still become a part of extreme online communities.
“They live among all of us.”