Romantic Terror: Why Do Incels Turn to Murder?

Involuntary celibates exist across all genders and sexualities; so why is it the straight men whose loneliness is galvanised into blood-lust? Intersections investigates...

Feature by Conor Nelson | 01 Jun 2018

Thanks to a recent deluge of think-pieces prompted by violent acts of terrorism in Toronto, you're more than likely to have learned a new word lately: incel.

An incel is someone – typically male – who is 'involuntarily celibate'. The incel feels that they should be having consensual sex with others, but that they just can't seem to make that happen. Some consider this a curse, others an identity to claim and share with others online.

The latter might seem a little paradoxical to the uninitiated. If a person wanted sex so badly, wouldn’t it be counterproductive to dwell on the fact they are unable to find willing sexual partners? But on the whole, incels don't care. To wear that label is to embrace a kind of angry, resentful passivity. Whole online forums have been erected around this identity, where self-proclaimed incels share their anecdotes of sexlessness, their frustration and rage.

You might be familiar with the idea of pick-up artists, who form another online subculture famed for misogyny. They share tips convincing men that they too can be transformed into chick-magnets [sic] if they just game the system correctly. In contrast, incels encourage one another to sink into misery, to feel branded as unlovable – and then share memes about how everyone else sucks.

Maybe this makes you feel pity for the incel. It shouldn't. Incels probably hate you. If you're a conventionally attractive person who's having sex they’d likely mock you online, deeming you a ‘Chad’ or a ‘Stacy’, condemning you as idiotic and stereotypical for doing what they wish they could. If you're having sex and they don't think you're attractive? Then they're confounded and they hate you. How have you stumbled across the divine knowledge, the secrets of sex, that they haven't?

You'd be forgiven for thinking that all sounds like harmless (albeit self-indulgent) moping. It was once tempting to think of incels as a bad joke. But the unfunny truth is that incels are now out for more than attention. One is reminded of the evergreen Margaret Atwood adage: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” A few incels, thinking women and men are laughing at them, are now willing to kill.

The first time incel terrorism made the news was in 2014, when Elliot Rodger killed six people, injured more and then killed himself. Rodger left behind extensive textual and video justification for his actions, having essentially created a proto-incel manifesto. Poring through his output, it becomes clear that he was a misogynist loner, who planned his attack as an act of retribution against a world he felt had rejected him. Take, for example, the following quote, reportedly published online by Rodger: “If we can’t solve our problems we must DESTROY our problems... Start envisioning a world where WOMEN FEAR YOU.”

He lusted after the many Stacys he felt would never love him and hated the Chads he felt he could never become, because of his body type, his interests and his race. His philosophy, which he compiled into a ‘manifesto’, was motivated not just by misogyny but by internalised racism. He was half-Malaysian, and often blamed his 'Eurasian' heritage for his romantic failures, and because of this he fetishised whiteness just as he fetishised unavailable women. His ideas live on, permanently housed on the internet.

In April 2018, Alek Minassian was charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 13 counts of attempted murder following an attack in Toronto, wherein a van ploughed into pedestrians. Before the attack, Minassian posted online identifying himself as an incel – but also as a combatant, ready to fight in some grand revolution against the sexually normative masses, following the command of the late 'Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger'.

Perhaps you're of the opinion that these two incidents, though upsetting, aren’t signs of a pattern. You’d be correct in the sense that many members of the incel community aren’t plotting acts of domestic terrorism. Lots of these men simply employ incel forums on Reddit or 4chan to explore their confusion, rather than their bloodlust.

But consider how incels are being empowered by the current political climate to convert perplexity into fury, and how the terrorist incels making the news are the tip of the iceberg. For each mass-murderer, there’s a hundred men stalking the object of their desire, dozens threatening to ruin an ex-girlfriend if she dares move on.

The Incel Genesis

This is a far cry from where incel ideology began. The concept was, in fact, coined by a queer woman. ‘Alana’ in Toronto wanted to sum up her lonely frustration, starting an online community for people like her, who felt left out. When she found a partner, she abandoned the site and moved on with her life. Beyond her gaze, her idea grew thorns and is now almost exclusively used by heterosexual men channelling their fury.

From a queer person’s perspective, it's intriguing to see how straight dudes have taken the incel memo and rolled with it into dark, new territory. Many queer people grow up feeling isolated, resenting the normative (hetero)sexual economy that’s working around them. As a gay teen, I felt sure that no one would ever touch or want me. Straight people benefit from endless opportunities to practice flirtation, watch countless versions of their love in the media and are encouraged to pair off even at school dances.

It took me years to learn that (not) having sex didn’t define me and that virginity was hardly a torment – indeed, it was barely a state to name or notice. These revelations, though, did not save me from a path of vengeance and violence. I never thought that other people deserved to die for not touching me in the first place.

Incels, however, feel that their virginity and/or loneliness is a brand that isolates and yet unites them – and that their position is worth screaming over. Why do they feel this way? The answer is obvious – even borderline buzzword: toxic masculinity. We live in a world which teaches heterosexual men to express their feelings only in certain codified ways, predominantly as shows of force. They are taught not to cry and encouraged not to feel. Anger is the only sanctioned negative emotion they are meant to show.

To prevent future violence of this sort, society must address this diseased form of masculinity. The way to do so is obvious: by dethroning the structures that sustain this rigid perspective of manhood. We should embrace body positivity, racial justice and freedom of gender expression, allowing individuals to feel like they could be loved regardless of how they look and dress. We must encourage men to express themselves with compassion, by rewarding warmth and questioning anger.

We need to destabilise the idea that sex is something that one is owed. The ideology of the incel, at its root, posits that men deserve women’s bodies like running water and that inability to find a sexual partner equals failure. We need to kill that concept, for the safety of the world’s women and the sanity of its men. But above all, we need to encourage men to regard sex as an expression of fun, love and joy – rather than a prized commodity worthy of warfare.