October 31, 2022

You may have already forgotten, but 2022 is supposed to be the year of the femcel. In case you have forgotten or never knew, a femcel is the female counterpart to an “incel”, or involuntarily celibate male, a woman who can’t find a partner because she is (again, supposedly) too ugly and/or weird. These women had to form their own team because they weren’t welcome in the largely online gatherings of deeply aggrieved guys who (I suppose) couldn’t accept their shy female counterparts because: 1) they are really pissed at/estranged from women generally, 2) incel sites are places where men can vent about women with mind-crushing hostility, which could be awkward if they were co-ed, and 3) incels mostly don’t believe it’s even possible that a female can’t get sex if she wants it.

Yes, that’s right. Women who want romance showed up on sites for men who want sex and they were not welcome, actually suggesting that these women couldn’t even get sex with self-identified desperately horny men. It’s like the sad, sad joke about a lonely man with a wooden eye who can’t get a girlfriend. He goes to a dance and sees a woman with a hare-lip standing alone. He thinks: no one wants her, she won’t refuse me! He asks her if she would like to dance; overcome, she presses her hands to her heart and says: “Would I? Would I?” Mishearing her, and thinking he’s being mocked (wood eye?), he backs away jeering: “Hare-lip! Hare-lip!” Insert weeping emoji face here.

Femcels differ from incels in significant ways: they are not as given to florid bluster and while they may express anger and contempt for men as well as for clueless pretty girls, they don’t shit-post about rape and murder. The femcel site I’m familiar with, “The Pink Pill”, is temperate and welcoming to “unattractive” lonely women; it signs off on its mission statement of mutual support with a heart emoji.

The media were publishing think pieces on femcels even before 2022, and some of them were even thoughtful. The Atlantic wondered what they really want. Elle, in a weird attempt at positive spin, announced that they are “reclaiming celibacy” as opposed to being forced into it. (Many publications took this stance, apparently agreeing with incels that it just isn’t possible for women to not have sex if they want it.) The Evening Standard described the tension between “really dark” homophobic/transphobic femcels and “TikTok” femcels for whom it was more about “an aesthetic than an ideology”.

I had become aware of femcels years before all this because, like many, I was fascinated with the incel phenomenon (unlike many, I had an unseemly sympathy for the motley crew). And in the barrage of articles and podcasts about incels, femcels would occasionally be mentioned in a sideways, sceptical or pitying tone that made me visualise a modest, tentative creature once again being slapped down as she tried to join the group. This image was amplified on learning, through conversations with friends and acquaintances, that most people seem to doubt their very existence, sometimes repeating the old and strange idea that no matter how ugly, a woman can always get sex.

What I find especially strange about this opinion is that most of these people, I’m pretty sure, have no trouble with the concept that gender is fluid — yet they seemed unaware that what we somewhat grossly call “sexual capital” is now also fluid. Actually, it seems some men have always been more desirable than some women. But it is even more that way now. In the past, when most women in most societies would not have sex before marriage, men were in the position of coming hat in hand; this hasn’t been true in America for a very long time. And so there are women who have trouble getting sex and love. At least with the men they want. And not all of them are ugly.

It may be true what incels say, that if femcels “lowered their standards” (that is, if they would have sex with anyone), they could. But I think this is probably true of young men as well: that they, too, could have sex if they would accept literally anyone. But surprise: just about no one of any gender wants to have sex with literally anyone.

So: I’ve known women in this situation. I admit that I don’t know if they couldn’t for their entire lives. At least one of the women who fits the profile had sexual relationships with two men when she was in her twenties — disastrous, disrespectful, borderline abusive (in one case) relationships — but then nothing for the next 40 years of her life. I didn’t know the other women as well, but well enough to know that they were… not having a good time. And there are others who I don’t know but feel like I can identify through a certain aura/facial expression/body language that tells me a woman is hurting in this way. Because that is what it is: hurting. Just like incels are hurting.

I can readily identify this kind of hurt because, very early in life, I came very close to it. If a few key elements — mostly social and developmental elements — of my life had been different, I could’ve become a femcel.

I have never forgotten — never stopped feeling heart-pain for — the two ugliest girls in my junior high school; I will call them Donna and Denise. I was going to describe them feature-by-feature so that you would know when I say “ugly” I don’t mean merely plain. But I can’t bring myself to do it. Even now it seems unnecessarily cruel. I was merely plain, and so socially awkward and ineptly dressed that I was sometimes called ugly. I was part of a whole gaggle of unpopular girls like that. But Donna and Denise were different.

Their physical ugliness was compounded by extreme social dysfunction (even worse than mine!), poverty, poor grooming and non-existent fashion choices. Donna, who was at least physically robust, seemed rightfully enraged at her situation; Denise, who was more delicate, looked like a wounded, frightened doe. (The one positive thing I can recall about them is that they seemed to have a genuine friendship; in my memory, Donna was subtly protective of Denise.)

They were treated worse than me or any other girl in that school. They were completely shunned. Even during the horrible school show, when boys jeered at or cat-called unpopular or slutty girls, Donna and Denise were stared at in total, hostile silence, as if they were too freakish to connect with even via insult.

During an interview about incels on my Substack with Naama Kates, creator of the Incel Podcast, I referenced Donna and Denise during a side conversation about femcels. Kates (somewhat rhetorically) repeated the opinion that they couldn’t really be compared to incels for the usual reason: with better grooming and maturation, such unlucky girls could eventually get some, even if they had to wait well into adulthood. “I doubt it,” I replied. “I mean, these girls were UG-ly.”

The simple-minded heartlessness of my words appalled me when I listened back to the audio; heartless and too simple because while these words were accurate in junior high, I was saying that they would always be accurate; I was saying it reflexively. Even though everything about me in junior high was off, including my looks, things changed a lot for me quickly in a few years. Yet here I was, mentally consigning my classmates to permanent loneliness based on what they, too, were like between the ages of 13 and 16. I dropped into this mindset even though in the course of my life I have seen physically unattractive women make good marriages and raise happy families; I have also seen pretty, even beautiful women who, while they can get sex, are unable to pair up at all. I went right back to the crude hierarchy that had imprinted on me as a pre-teen.

This dynamic of raw pain and dumb, ruthless response is palpable on “The Pink Pill” when women share their experiences, and visible in the disgusting online mocking of femcels for their supposed lack of hygiene and social grace. In the face of such pain and cruelty, the measured analysis of the media so far feels essentially kind but too rational, too polite, too normie. Elle postulated a “femcel revolution”, by which the author meant that some of them have chosen celibacy over being sexually demeaned; The Atlantic first set up incels as reactionaries with actual political goals (inaccurately I think, but that’s another story) and then wondered “what new world are femcels dreaming about?” I hope I’m not being presumptuous to say that I don’t think they are dreaming at all; I think they want to face reality.

Femcels themselves can be ruthless in their rejection of “average” women trying to give them hopeful positive messages about overriding conventional beauty standards and finding themselves beautiful as they are. (As one online forum moderator wrote last year: “Reminder to femcels, people who LIE to you and tell you that ‘you look fine the way you are’ are NOT on your side. They BENEFIT from you remaining ugly and not fixing your looks.”) They want the freedom to “talk about being ugly”; they want, in other words, freedom from bullshit.

This may sound dismal. But let’s face it: hope can be painful, especially when you see no basis for it. Femcels use a lot of incel language, and one phrase both groups share is “lie down and rot”, meaning: just give up. Sounds terrible! But I know from experience with despair that giving up like that can be a relief after continuous striving that hasn’t worked; it’s a relief to know that you have the option to just withdraw. At the same time, once I’ve lain down, I eventually find myself restless and bored; it’s actually hard to just lie there, and it takes a long time to rot. Something in me always wants to get up again and try, though maybe not the same thing in the same way. This is, of course, just me. But I can’t believe I’m the only one.

More than that, though, “owning” a negative identity is a kind of power. It’s oddly more dignified than trying to keep pushing the curse away; there is strength and confidence in calling it as you see it. And confidence can give attractiveness beyond beauty.

Perhaps this sounds like another species of bullshit. But while I have respect for anyone who wants to face brutal reality, it has to be acknowledged that there is more than one reality. As I wrote above, I’ve known plain and basically ugly women who married well. I don’t mean to say that marriage is the only or even best indicator of desirability and social success. But it’s one that many people recognise; it’s one that requires deep connection and emotional integrity, at least if it is going to be any good.

This is where it gets complicated and hard to talk about. One of the ugly women I knew who married well was also a classmate at high school. She was a friend, though not a close one. Cassie had some better physical traits than Donna or Denise — thick, wavy hair, a deep, warm voice and decent clothes, by which I mean not from Goodwill. She wasn’t popular with the cliques and, during the time I knew her, didn’t get one date in high school. But that did not impair her confidence, physical presence (she was a jock) and sense of humour. She was solid in herself in a way that many pretty girls are not. This has been true of every plain or ugly woman I’ve known who’s had relationship success, and it ultimately held Cassie in good stead.

For impossible to articulate reasons, I understand why Donna and Denise couldn’t be like that in high school. I think their trouble was psychic as much as physical bad luck; they both may have been complicated, sensitive people susceptible to a confluence of negative influences that overwhelmed their spirits and affected their appearance as much or more than their actual features. It is hard to develop confidence when you’ve been hurt so badly so young, when you’ve been told hundreds of times in hundreds of ways by the world around you that you are shit. You can “looksmax” all you want, but even if that is successful, if you are crushed and “ugly” inside, people can sense it and be wary or even contemptuous of the dissonance. Which is a whole other, more subtle problem.

But it isn’t impossible to find another way. Not always and forever. I finally found the old yearbook for my freshman class and looked up both Donna and Denise. I was touched to see that actually Denise had every chance of growing up to be a conventionally attractive woman. Although her height didn’t work for her back in the day (because of her stooped, cringing posture) she was, after all, thin and tall, with large dark eyes, full lips, a high forehead and naturally black hair combined with pale skin. Her protruding teeth could be fixed and her slightly bulbous nose overlooked; a good haircut would’ve worked wonders.

But what was most affecting: her sweet, gentle personality was so visible. Alone with a camera, she was not too scared to smile and it was adorable.

Donna was another story. I couldn’t see how she could ever become attractive. But she might have become something as good or better. She was smiling too, with actual pleasure plus the hint of wicked disgust that I remember — disgust at the cruel social order that had consigned her to such a low position. The strength of that smile was, to me, a better predictor of a possible happy outcome even than an improvement in her looks. Not because of the disgust but because of the vibrancy. How could I have thought these girls had no chance?

Even more, how could I have forgotten that, despite the mania for simple, predictable Sexual Market Value metrics, the reality of how people respond to each other and what influences us is complex and unpredictable.

A story: one of the physically ugly women I knew who married and had a son was 63 and divorced when I met her. She wasn’t a friend, but she was an extremely talented physical therapist who I got to know well enough to be introduced to her nice-looking 40-something boyfriend. I don’t know how long this relationship went on but I could tell by seeing them together that he really liked her. I mentioned this somehow during a dinner with mostly male friends of my husband, resulting in sarcasm all around — especially when they asked me what she looked like and I said: “Frankly, she’s ugly.”

One of them snorted and said: “She must be good at something.” And I said: “Yes, she is. She has an extremely powerful and skilled touch. And she’s naturally dominant. A lot of men secretly want to be dominated. And there are very few women who are willing or capable of doing that. She is both.” Not one guy argued with that statement; there was no snorting or sarcasm. There were a few beats of silence and then the conversation moved on.

I don’t tell this story to say femcels need to be dominant. My point is that there’s more than one way to roll and that this woman found hers.

Another story: a homely young woman used to work as a cashier at a grocery store where I live. She wasn’t ugly, but very plain and somehow too matronly for her age; she had an aura of hurt and hopeless loneliness about her. She never smiled. She barely spoke. She made minimal eye contact. For years, every time I saw her she was the same. I felt sad for her.

Then one day I went in with my face covered in red pustules. It was a disfiguring skin infection called folliculitis and I had it for about a week before I could see a doctor. The only upside about it was watching how people reacted to it. Most people averted their eyes; one actually gawked. But this sad young woman had a reaction that I still clearly recall, even though it was almost two decades ago. She was the only person to meet my eyes with a look of pure compassion.

It was very brief, but unmistakable; I felt her kindness directly in my heart. This lonely, plainly unhappy woman had the most loving response of anyone. I felt more than sad for her. I felt sad for the world. This woman had a reserve of goodness and care that is needed by so many people. And it wasn’t being tapped. What a waste of a precious resource. What a waste.