The term “incel” is everywhere. What was once a niche piece of internet slang now populates international headlines and is a frequent topic in discussions about gender, misogyny, violence and extremism.
“Incel” is a portmanteau of “involuntary celibate.” In its most basic form, incel describes someone, usually a male, who is frustrated by their lack of sexual experiences.
The Anti-Defamation League, which works to address hate and extremism, defines incels as “heterosexual men who blame women and society for their lack of romantic success.”
“Incel” can also be used as a pejorative to describe someone who has misogynistic viewpoints or behaviors.
Beyond that, the incel identity shatters into several facets, some of which are considered dangerous both to the public and to the very individuals who claim it.
However, it’s important to understand the complex ways the term “incel” is used, as well as how it originated and why it connects to certain ideologies.
Despite its intersections with misogyny and overwhelmingly male groups, the person credited with coining the term “incel” was actually a woman. Alana, who is known only by her first name, first popularized the term in the 1990s through a personal website called “Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project.” The term “incel” became a part of the language she used with her followers as they discussed feelings of shyness and social awkwardness. However, as the term spread, it began to take on different meanings.
“With a term like ‘incel,’ and with any term of identity, the definition lies in how people use it to describe themselves and others,” Brette Steele, senior director for Preventing Targeted Violence at the McCain Institute, tells CNN. “That explains why the origins of incel differ from its current usage, and why it’s so hard to arrive at one exact definition.”
Online forums dedicated to incel culture are a reliable way to see how the term evolved and is used today. A subreddit, or forum on Reddit, called r/incels was one of the most visible meeting places for self-identified incels until it was banned by Reddit in 2017 for “violent content.”
Incel forums have been studied by public policy researchers because of the misogynistic rhetoric and high-profile violence some members of the incel community embrace.
A 2022 study published in the journal “Current Psychiatry Reports” and filed in the National Library of Medicine outlines some ideologies that tie incel communities together:
- an appearance-based hierarchy, in which how one looks is considered the most essential key to both sexual relationships and one’s place in society
- a belief in female “hypergamy,” the notion that women are too sexually selective and use their privilege and sexuality for social advancement above all else.
- a dislike of feminism
“As it was feminism that promoted and encouraged women to have a deserved right to sexual agency, there has been much discussion in incel forums dedicated to the reversal of gender equity, many of the proposed solutions involve some form of coercion, rape, or a complete return to enforced monogamy under strict patriarchal rule,” the study states.
“Such highly concerning comments are imbued with feelings of sexual entitlement, which incels do score higher on than non-incel males.”
Incel culture is also, by nature, a part of internet culture. Memes and community-specific slang are a big part of how incels communicate. One of the most important symbols in the incel community is the idea of a “red pill” or a “blue pill.” This metaphor is taken from the 1999 movie “The Matrix,” in which Keanu Reeves’ character Neo must choose between taking a blue pill, which will keep him in a state of peaceful ignorance, or the red pill, which will awaken him to an uncomfortable but enlightening reality.
“For incels, the reality presented to them by the red pill is that love and sexual satisfaction are commodities that women deny them, and that women, not men, control the sexual aspects of society,” says Steele. “Under this assumption, sex and relationships become almost like a game with specific challenges to overcome.”
When people are described as “redpilled,” it means they have accepted this reality. The metaphor of red pills and blue pills is also used among other groups associated with the alt right, including QAnon believers and other conspiracy theorists.
The “black pill” is similar to the red pill, but describes a more nihilistic view that the reality of the red pill is unavoidable and unchangeable.
- Stacys: Attractive women atop the female social hierarchy, these women are to be both desired and scorned, as in incel culture, attractive women are the reason for their sexual failures.
- Looksmaxxing: Some groups of incels are less concerned with perceived social and political reasons for their situation. Instead they focus, whether positively or negatively, on their own perceived flaws. Looksmaxxing is the act of getting as attractive as one can, through grooming, style or exercise. Incel communities share overlap with other online communities where young males meet, and one can see the influence of video game culture in words like this. Other things can be “maxxed” in this way, like wealth or personality.
Incels are considered a part of a larger web of ideologies, groups and media sometimes described as the “manosphere.” This includes pick-up artists, so-called men’s rights activists, “alpha male” influencers and more. Incel groups, as well as the manosphere in general, attract predominantly young males searching for meaning and community.
“Youth are searching for that sense of belonging, that kind of grounding to explain what’s happening to them. In the last few years, more youth have had to turn to communities online. We’ve seen a degradation of in-person social skills,” Steele told CNN in a 2022 interview.
These different groups tend to share overlapping misogynistic views that paint women as drains on society, and as objects that should be submissive to sexually dominant men.
The mental health issues, isolation, bitterness and misogynistic thinking that often characterizes incel culture can lead incels to align themselves with increasingly extreme beliefs. Experts and studies have noted incel culture frequently intersects with far-right ideologies and White supremacy.
Over the past 10 years or so, several incidents of mass violence have been perpetrated by men who identified themselves as incels or publicized their beliefs in male supremacy.
Elliot Rodger, who went on a stabbing and shooting rampage in Isla Vista, California, in 2014, was a self-described incel. After the attack, which killed six, injured more than a dozen and ended with the 22-year-old’s death at his own hands, Rodgers became a celebrity, inspiration and meme among incel communities.
Other incidents also show that incel behavior, and its violent consequences, aren’t limited to the US. The man behind a 2021 van attack in Toronto that killed 10 spoke of an “incel rebellion” to “overthrow the Chads and Stacys.” He also called Rodger “The Supreme Gentleman.” A man who killed five during a shooting rampage in Plymouth, England in 2021, expressed solidarity with incel culture and had a fascination with violent men.
The US Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center said in 2022 that it would further investigate incel ideologies, while citing the 2018 case of a 40-year-old man who attacked a hot yoga studio in Tallahassee, Florida, killing two women and injuring four others before shooting himself.
Steven Driscoll, the assistant director of the National Threat Assessment Center, told CNN in 2022 that there is more interest in studying misogynistic extremism and the ways such ideas are spread.
“You often see a crossover between misogynistic views and White supremacy, far-right ideology, as well as in some cases far-left ideologies,” Driscoll said.
“The body of research examining misogyny as an extreme ideology and incels specifically, as well as its intersection with other ideologies like White supremacy, as a field of research, is growing.”
Psychologists observe that incel culture can also be dangerous to the very men who find comfort in it.
A 2022 study published in “Evolutionary Psychology Science” surveyed a sample of self-described incels. Researchers found 75% of the incels they questioned were clinically diagnosable with severe or moderate depression, and 45% with severe anxiety.
“(Incels) are suffering extraordinarily high levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness,” said William Costello, the lead author of the study and a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin. “They are also, as a group, particularly averse to seeking help from mental health professions.”
Another 2022 study in the “Journal of Sexual Medicine” found those who identified as incels were more likely to experience higher rates of depression, paranoia, and negative thoughts about their relationships with others.
Dr. Giacomo Ciocca, the lead author of the study, concluded that these negative psychopathological actors contribute to extreme incel behavior, and treating the core reasons people search out such identities could help mitigate the dangers such behaviors pose.
“Incel people struggle with their condition, and they feel that women are responsible for that,” Ciocca told PsyPost about the study. “They are suffering, but incapable to change their situation so they blame others. The violence comes from there, from resentment. Once again, emotional education and psychological counselling should be promoted in schools as preventive programs.”