Pin It
Screen Shot 2019-07-12 at 12.29.42
Catfishman, from The Secret Life Of Incels, courtesy of the BBC

The sick world of incels: men who feel rejected so turn to revenge

We talk to an academic from BBC Three’s new documentary ‘The Secret Life Of Incels’ about what motivates incels to leave internet forums and commit violent real-life crimes

Incels themselves might not be pleased about it, but the term “incel” was actually started by a woman. In 1993, Alana – known by her first name only, presumably for her own safety – created an online relationship support group for people like herself, who were experiencing unwanted sexual inactivity, to discuss their thoughts and feelings with other people. She called the forum’s newsletter “Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project”, which she shorted to INVCEL and then INCEL. “It was a friendly place,” she told the BBC years later, adding that a couple even met over the site and got married. As for Alana, she eventually worked out that she was queer, started dating, and stopped focussing on the forum.

Twenty five years later, “incel” has a much more sinister meaning than Alana had ever intended. The term describes a group of men who define themselves by being involuntarily celibate. That is, they are not having sex but want to have sex and they blame women for their shortcomings in this area, with some incels becoming violent as a result. Dr Kaitlyn Regehr, an expert on incels and one of the people behind BBC Three’s new documentary, Inside The Secret World Of Incels, reminds us that incels are just one form of online misogynist. These groups range from MRAs (men’s rights activists), to PUAs (pick up artists), to people who don’t identify with any specific acronym but get their kicks from abusing women online anyway. Incels are an extreme form of this culture, who desire to voice their anger to others or to seek out revenge. 

In the BBC documentary, we see this definition come to life via three incel protagonists, followed over eight months. One incel goes by the pseudonym Catfishman, and spends his time luring girls on dating apps by posing as a male model. Catfishman tricks these young women into meeting up with him, appears wearing a mask, accuses them of only being attracted to handsome men, while shouting insults like “you’re fat” or “you’re ugly” until they either flee or ring the police. Then there’s Matt, a more sympathetic character who loves dogs and assures us that you can be an incel without being a woman-hater. He simply counts himself in the 80 per cent of men that women find unattractive (according to a much-cited-by-incels study from OKCupid) and finds the less hateful forums to be supportive. And finally, there’s James, a Northern Irish man who seems to have discovered incel forums online after he was experiencing paranoia, severe insecurities and a lack of body confidence.

Alongside the detail with which it recounts the mass murders committed by self-professed incels Eliot Rodgers, who stabbed and shot six people in Santa Barbara in 2014, and Alek Minassian, an incel who drove a truck into ten people in Toronto in 2018, what makes this new documentary so hard to watch is its relative objectivity when it comes such distasteful and deluded subjects. Catfishman remains poker-faced and full of conviction as he explains that he does not see women as real people and considers whether some women deserve to be killed for rejecting men like him. Interestingly, this sense of rejection seems to feed a vicious cycle for incels: these men feel unwanted by society, and become embittered and spiteful, but the more embittered and spiteful they become, the less likely they are to ever find a girlfriend. As with Catfishman, who terrifies women and then acts like their running away is confirmation of his theory that he will never find love, a lot of what incel culture revolves around is a kind of sad, self-fulfilling prophecy of aloneness. 

Dr Kaitlyn Regehr explains that, while incel culture forms one puzzle piece of society’s wider, seemingly unsolvable misogyny problem, its specificity comes from where it lives: mostly on social media, Reddit and dark web forums. In 2017, Reddit banned its biggest incel forum (with 40,000 users), but more have sprung up. “The thing about the incel community, particularly the very dark corners of it, is that you enter this echo chamber where this violent discourse is fed back to you on loop, constantly, and it becomes normalised to you,” explains Kaitlyn, “it’s appealing for individuals that feel isolated or left out of society and it really provides a space in which they can go deeper and deeper into it.” 

On top of that, online, incels are exposed to endless imagery of people who they perceive to be living better lives, something that can be tough for anyone to stomach, incel or otherwise. “We’re so new into this social media age that I don’t think we can fully understand what it’s like to see a whole bunch of people having fun without you all the time. And that’s essentially what Facebook and Instagram do, right? Whether it’s true or not, the entire discourse is to promote your idealised lifestyle, which often includes idealised relationships,” she says. “It’s a relatively new phenomenon that we share so much of our interpersonal relationships. But one result is that we have these people, who were already living online, looking through social media and being fed images of perfect couples, and they feel left out and angry.” Completing this sometimes deadly online concoction, says Kaitlyn, is the fact that, on the internet, or via dating apps, women are more exposed and accessible to these angry men; “as a result,” she says, “you have a lot of people who are going to want to exploit that exposure and accessibility in a variety of ways.”

Kaitlyn explains that on incel forums, as in most subcultures, members have their own codified language: “They may express violent fantasies that they wish act upon ‘normies’, which is a term for people in relationships, or ‘Chads and Staceys’, which are terms they use to talk about popular men and women.” As detailed in a recent Dazed Beauty article comparing incel forums’ approaches to cosmetic surgery with pro-anorexia sites and weight loss, it is popular for incels to share pictures of good-looking men (the ‘Chads’), rate them, and then try to emulate their look with steroids or by undergoing procedures like jaw surgery. Also in these forums, says Kaitlyn, incels spend a lot of time valorising Elliot Rodger, who they think of as a saint: “One of their terms is “going ER”, which means going on a killing spree. This is something that is promoted within the community. Now there are a lot of incels who say that they aren’t going to actually act out on that, this is just a part of their fantasy as if it was gaming culture. But the problem is, of course, that some people do, and have.” 

As an academic, one of Kaitlyn’s main areas of research is the moment in which incel culture tips over into actual violence. She explains that Elliot Rodger really flipped the switch in this regard. Before he committed his crimes, he posted a now-famous video that said: “I’ve got so much fucking hate in my body right now (...) tomorrow I will have my revenge against humanty (...) girls gave their affection, sex, and love to other men but never to me (...) I’m 22 years old and still a virgin, I’ve never even kissed a girl.” He then targeted the student area of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and tried (but failed) to infiltrate a sorority house. In one heartbreaking scene, the BBC documentary hears from the parents of Katherine Breann Cooper, a girl Rodger killed. “Rodger was when we started to see a clear link between this voicing of violence online to this violence moving off screen and onto the streets, and that kind of becomes a part of the incel narrative – the community does think of him as a martyr,” explains Kaitlyn, of how Rodgers created a kind of domino effect that led to later crimes like Manassian’s, or the 2018 Scott Beierle shooting in Tallahassee. 

As unforgivable as these crimes are, the documentary explores the idea that some incels could be motivated by mental health problems, or trauma. Kaitlyn agrees that this might be the case, adding that these issues aren’t necessarily the cause of the problem, but it is the environment these vulnerable people find themselves in that radicalises them. If they were less isolated, they might receive checks on their behaviour. “They’re not engaging with the same normative functions that we have outside of the internet,” she explains. “So, if you go to a job everyday and you interact with people and you get into a dark place and begin to feel super angry at women, there’s probably going to be someone around you to say ‘dude, you’re going a bit far, let’s shake you out of this’.” Online, conversations about violence can become normalised, and some take this literally. “That is not just with incels,” she says, “that is with Islamic extremism or white supremacy... it’s the same process that happens.”

“I think it’s all about entitlement to sex – and this is something that has historically been very gendered” – Dr Kaitlyn Regehr

One thing that complicates this theory is that incels are almost exclusively men; women do not seem to have the same responses to the perceived injustice of being left single, despite being endlessly exposed to the heteronormative idea that they must “Find The One” or else remain a spinster, an idea that is enforced from rom coms to social circles. Why don’t women have the same response as men to these pressures? “That’s complex,” Kaitlyn responds. “I think it’s all about entitlement to sex – and this is something that has historically been very gendered. If we can assume that a lot of these incels grew up in the pornography age, they have Google in their pockets and can research any sexual act, at any time of the day – it’s no wonder that entitlemtent to sex is heightened. It’s also very rare in pornography that you would have a conversation about whether sex is between two consensual adults.” Donald Trump saying “grab them by the pussy” is an example of this sense of entitlement, she says, but with incels, it’s saying: ‘I deserve sex so much that if you dont give it to me, you deserve to die.’

As for how to counter this thinking, Kaitlyn believes that better mental health support for men could be useful, as could grassroots initiatives to promote stronger digital literacy in schools and universities, for instance education about social media’s effects on mental health, or classes about consent, or digital sex education more generally. However, she also believes that social media platforms should accept their accountability in how they engender incel culture, and do more to temper it – “both in terms of monitoring content but also algorithms that feed back constant hate content to these individuals.” A few months ago, Instagram announced they were going to monitor self harm imagery, and remove it so that it would be less likely to influence others to self harm. Kaitlyn believes the same should be done for misogynistic content: “If you have an individual who’s going down that rabbit hole and is indulging in this content there are things that social media platforms could do. You don’t need to be told to follow a whole other group of people who are also spewing violence.” 

To some extent, monitoring incel culture boils down to a free speech issue: you cannot police people’s thoughts, or prevent them from expressing their feelings. While Kaitlyn agrees with this, she points out that we seem to be comfortable policing Islamic extremism online, but are not willing to take the same steps for misogyny. This feels like a double standard. “I’m not particularly interested in regulations, but I am interested in classification, and why, in the example of the Minassian case in Canada, we have someone who is being accused of ten accounts of first degree murder, but no charge of acting out a hate crime. People in those forums he engaged with aren’t being charged for the incitement of hatred, because we do not classify elements of the incel movement as a hate crime.” Kaitlyn believes that, in the extreme examples, like if someone is saying ‘I am going to go out in an hour’s time and kill a bunch of people in the name of Elliot Rodger’, there should be some sort of intervention: “If someone is saying that, then I think we should listen to them.” 

When Inside The Secret World of Incels airs on Sunday, Kaitlyn expects to be inundated with online abuse and misogynistic threats, as she has in the past, although a lot of female academics receive this, whether they research incels or not, she points out. Delving into online misogyny is gruelling work that, at times, leaves her feeling emotional, but she will continue studying incel interactions on the web in order to try to better understand it: “The internet is in so many ways lawless, it’s like the Wild West. There aren’t enough checks for that and this is why we’re seeing these extreme behaviours. Incel forums may seem like supportive communities to some people and, in some ways, they are – but ultimately they are perpetuating violence, and feeding isolation from the rest of society at large. There’s a pattern here, a continuous cycle.”

BBC Three’s Inside The Secret World Of Incels will be available on BBC iPlayer from Sunday 14th July