February 13, 2020   6 mins

In the past year or so the word ‘Incel’ has become a ubiquitous online insult. Short for Involuntary Celibate, it was popularised by men who appropriated the label for themselves. The Incel community is overwhelmingly male (and growing) and to be an Incel (technically at least) is to have not had sex for six months or more.

As so the word has gradually crept into the vocabulary of every internet troll — partly I suspect because we still judge people by how much sex they have, or not in this case. We still view men who don’t have sex as failures in some way.

Incels are therefore an easy target. For men, calling someone an Incel implies something positive — a certain sexual abundance — about one’s own existence. For women it has begun to function as a putdown that ruthlessly dismisses unworthy suitors while simultaneously expelling them from the community of the good as misogynistic and creepy.

In the past decade there has been a three-fold increase in the number of men who have not had sex in the past year. In 2018 the Southern Poverty Law Centre added Incels to their ‘Hate Map’, describing them as “part of the online male supremacist eco-system”. Countless articles have appeared in the media equating inceldom with “toxic masculinity”, misogyny and violence. Most begin from the assumption that Incel ideology, so far as it exists, is a product of men’s domination over women. It is a backlash against feminism; the whingeing of men who have been taught by the tyrannical patriarchy to believe they are entitled to ownership of women’s bodies.

There is invariably some truth to this. The rise of the online ‘Manosphere’ is  a reassertion by men of traditional gender roles from which they benefitted immensely. The most notorious Incels, who have gone on murderous rampages, have indeed been narcissistic and entitled men. Elliot Rodger was a 22-year-old Incel who murdered seven people in Isla Vista, California, in 2014. Rodger epitomised entitled masculinity. Shortly before Rodger carried about the massacre, Dale Launer, a friend of Rodger’s father, gave the boy some not terrible advice for building relationships with women on his college campus. Rodger’s response is revealing. As Launer recounted to the BBC:

“As I told him, ‘When you see a woman next time you’re on campus and you like her hair or sunglasses, just pay her a compliment.’ I told him, ‘It’s a freebie, something in passing, you’re not trying to make conversation. Keep walking, don’t make any long eye contact, just give the free compliment.’ The idea being you might make a friend if you make someone feel good.

“I said to Elliot, ‘In the next few weeks — if you see them they’ll likely give you a smile — and you can smile back and eventually turn this into chit-chat.’

“I got in touch with him a few weeks later and asked if he did it. He said ‘no’. And when asked why not, he said, ‘Why do I have to compliment them? Why don’t they compliment me?’” [emphasis mine]

Rodger felt superior to others and referred to a “Day of Retribution” when he would kill those he was envious of — ‘Chads’, men who sleep with lots of women, and ‘Staceys’, feminine and attractive — as well as those who did not see the value he believed he possessed. He probably had a narcissistic personality disorder.

However Rodger was an outlier. Most Incels are non-violent and use the forums they frequent as a support group, a place to vent — often toxically — against a society which they feel has rejected them (at least when it comes to intimacy). It is this which inceldom is largely concerned with: intimacy rather than sex. Most have given up on dating entirely. Some embrace an ideology they call the Black Pill — a spin-off  the red and blue pills from The Matrix — which contains misogynistic tenets but adherence to which is not a requirement to be an Incel. The Blue Pill is the existing state of blissful ignorance; the Red Pill seeks to understand the system and manipulate it to its advantage; those who take the Black Pill accept the Red Pill’s tenets about women and society but resign themselves to a life of frustration and alienation.

Black pill ideology is often misogynistic and occasionally deadly. According to the Black Pill women are shallow and driven entirely by hypergamy — that’s to say the desire to hook up with a man of superior status to themselves whether in terms of looks, money or power. As with several other Black Pill assumptions there is an element of truth to this: women do tend to date “up”. However the Black Pill takes this concept to its deterministic absolute: on the forums Incels obsess over height and looks as if nobody who isn’t 6ft 4in with a six pack ever gets a date.

This is undoubtedly a convenient rationalisation for some. It’s easier to sit at home on the internet and lament the callousness and superficiality of wider society than it is to begin the long and arduous process required to become a more attractive man.

But the dating scene of 2020 is also radically different to the dating scene of twenty years ago, and this is a factor behind the growing number of Incels. The decline of traditional marriage has played a part. In the past there was greater societal pressure on women to ‘settle’ with men who they may not have been in love with or even sexually attracted to. The concept of arranged marriage, still popular in eastern cultures, where people pair up on the basis of suitability, is significantly different to our modern, Hollywood-style conception of idealised pairing on the basis of sexual attraction and finding ‘The One’.

Women are the sexual selectors on modern dating apps, where men are abundant and therefore of lower sexual market value (SMV). A friend and I ran an experiment on Tinder last year where we set up a profile purporting to be an attractive woman. In less than 24-hours the profile ran up over 2,000 matches. Tinder and similar apps are effective for the stereotypically good looking male. But the majority of men make do with few matches, often with women they are not attracted to. A recent study of Tinder found that “the bottom 80% of men (in terms of attractiveness) are competing for the bottom 22% of women and the top 78% of women are competing for the top 20% of men”.

As I recently noted for UnHerd, our promiscuous culture bends toward the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule whereby 20% of men date 80% of women. I wrote: “Women compete over the most desirable men, while the rest are increasingly turning towards porn and — before long, no doubt — sex robots.”

The sexual revolution and the gradual erosion of the pressure to settle down (what Jordan Peterson has referred to as “socially enforced monogamy”) has encouraged women (quite reasonably) to seek out the best partners for themselves. Some men refuse to reconcile themselves to this new reality. Others struggle in a digital dating environment where superficial qualities are prized to an extent that was not true in the past. In the world of online dating, which is how 40% of couples  in the United States meet, looks, height and social status are usually pre-requisites for matching with someone at all.

Offline, many Incels lack the basic social skills required to navigate relations with the opposite sex. According to an internal poll carried out on the website Incels.co, 26% of users of the forum said they had some form of autism. Flirting, which requires an innate understanding of nuanced sub-communications and unspoken sexual tension, does not come naturally to these men.

Moreover, mainstream dating advice for men is useless at the best of times and consists largely of feel-good bromides (often written by women) extolling men to ‘just be yourself’ or to let ‘fate’ take care of it. Real-life dating coaching, which takes clients out into bars and clubs in order to learn how to interact with women in a non-platonic way, is laughed at by the mainstream and dominated by charlatans calling themselves ‘pickup artists’.

Inceldom touches a nerve in wider society, which I suspect is why we have few conversations about it. All of us treat people differently on the basis of their physical appearance, however altruistic we may believe ourselves to be. As a recent article in Vice, which drew on a comprehensive body of research, noted: “Attractive people are generally assumed to be more intelligent, more trustworthy, and have better social skills.”

We shy away from talking honestly about this because to do so would be to acknowledge that there are some areas where true ‘equality’ — the ideal we strive for in most areas of political life — is unattainable when it comes to hooking up. The topic of sex and dating is already a minefield where egos swim amidst the unspoken and adversarial mating strategies deployed by men and women. There is very little altruism and equality when it comes to finding a mate. The sexual act is discriminatory by definition.

And it is leaving increasing numbers of men on the scrapheap. Some identify ideologically as Incels out of frustration. Some out of entitlement. Many seek to blame women’s supposedly unrealistic standards for their inability to form an intimate relationship. For others the situation is still more complex.

Incels arguably have something in common with the Japanese hikikomori, defined by Japan’s Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry as those who have “remained isolated at home for at least six consecutive months without going to school or work, and rarely interact with people from outside their immediate family”. Japan has around one million hikikomori.

Inceldom fits within a broader trend towards alienation and reclusive behaviour in modern societies, fostered by technology, changing dating preferences and — among other things — easy access to pornography. We don’t have our own hikikomori problem in the west just yet, but Incels are a growing phenomenon that society would do well to better understand — even if that is less satisfying than throwing the word around as an online insult.

James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was longlisted for the Orwell Prize 2019.