Moments before a van driver fatally struck ten pedestrians in Toronto on April 23rd, the suspect, Alek Minassian, posted a cryptic message to Facebook that invoked the 2014 Isla Vista shooter and called for an “Incel Rebellion.” Since the attack, renewed attention has been paid to the ‘incel’ community, a once-obscure online forum for misogyny that may have influenced Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista perpetrator, and Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter.
‘Incel’ is short for ‘involuntary celibate.’ It is a moniker used by mainly young, white men to describe a predicament they believe they are forced into by non-compliant women who spurn their advances. Online forums hosted on websites such as Reddit or 4chan abound with men who believe that their sexual agency is being denied to them deliberately and unjustly. Like any subculture, the community embraces its own strange vernacular that reflects its view of the world. Women are denigrated out of hand, useful insofar as they can provide intimacy, and good-looking men are resented bitterly for their presumed sexual achievements.
Incel is not an entirely new phenomenon, and misogyny is a behavior as old as time. But the way incel members organize, interact, and disseminate their ideology is unique to the current moment. To better understand what drives the men who participate in these forums I spoke with Jeff Scott, a 20-year-old college student in West Virginia and self-described former incel. He explained why this kind of discourse was so attractive to him at a young age, and what it takes to get an incel to reform his thinking.
How did you first become involved with the incel community? I got started back when I was 14 through the social media website Reddit. At the time I felt very socially isolated. I felt very isolated in particular from women. I didn’t really have any interactions with women. I’m an only child. I never grew up around women. It just felt good to meet other people that had a similar isolated mindset as I did, that could feel the same types of problems that I felt.
The extreme rhetoric about women in these online forums didn’t put you off? It wasn’t as extreme when I started. There was a lot of name calling, and there was a lot of talk of people owing sex, things like that. Back when I was starting, there wasn’t the type of extreme violence calling for rape and murder, like in the case of Elliot Rodger and the Toronto attacks.
But even the less extreme stuff was very hateful towards women. That didn’t deter you? It didn’t when I started, no. Unfortunately, that was one of the things that drew me to it. I felt like I didn’t really have a good understanding of women, or other people in general. I didn’t know what I wasn’t doing that other people were doing. How they were receiving, if not sex, attention from women. I felt like I was entitled to what they were receiving. I saw myself as better than them, or even as them.
Who were your male role models growing up? I don’t know if I really had any honestly. I kind of winged a lot of it. I would say that the ‘incel’ subreddit gave me a false sense of what masculinity was at the time.
What was the overarching philosophy of Reddit’s incel community? Their worldview essentially was that if you were kind to someone or generous to someone, they owed you something in return. In regard to women, this was most often seen as sex. But it could be seen in other relations too. There were people on there who talked about how they were nice to guys that they wanted to be friends with. And in general, if you did something to someone then they owed you something back, regardless of how little that might be. There were guys that thought holding the door open meant that you were owed a blowjob.
It was a little bit out there. It comes from people seeing douchebags or more “alpha” individuals receiving attention from females while maybe not treating females kindly. These guys thought that if they hold open doors, if they act respectfully, then they’re owed sex. They feel like by giving these things to these women then they’re owed sex. And, for having acted kindly and for having been ‘nice guys,’ they think it's unfair for people who are not like them to be receiving what is rightfully theirs.
I’ve seen words like ‘normie’ and ‘chad’ get thrown around. What do these terms mean? There’s a lot of slang. Normie is generally what they call anyone who’s not in the ‘incel’ community. Chad is the alpha-male type. Stacys are attractive females that aren’t giving up sex. I think it’s kind of interesting that there’s no real word unattractive females. These guys want eights, nines, tens. They want supermodels. They’re not looking for anyone less than top of the ladder, even though they might not be top of the ladder themselves. They don’t even have a word for anyone that would be below that level.
So sex isn’t always about sex as much as it is about status among their incel peers. It’s kind of how you lay claim to the woman, in their view. There’s a lot of self-hatred in this group, and there’s also a lot of arrogance. They honestly believe that they’re worthy of any woman they desire. I think some of these guys think that they could go out and bang Scarlett Johansen if they wanted to.
What are the interactions like on ‘incel’ forums? There’s a lot of irony. It’s hard to tell sometimes who is seriously holding these feelings versus who is on there just to say these controversial things and try to provoke people and get reactions. There’s a lot of people, I believe, that are part of this subcommunity to laugh at it. And there are people, like Elliot Rodger, who are part of it because they’re a murderous psychopath that uses this belief to fuel their desires.
What is behind their obsession with sex? Incel means that you’ve never had sex. It’s hard once you’ve had it for a long time to really see it from the same viewpoint as someone that’s like 14, 15, or 16, desperate for it, and unable to get it. A lot of these guys really are just like 16 year olds in their mentality and in their views on sex, except there are guys who are 23 or 24 years old, even upwards of 40 years old. They don’t get it, so they don’t ever lose that mystique around it.
This obsessive tracking of every favor, every gesture by a woman. Are they really that paranoid about why they’re not receiving sex? Yes, they are absolutely that paranoid, and sometimes beyond that paranoid. These are people that spend their entire existence essentially within their own heads. They have nothing but paranoia to keep them company.
Why is sex their number one goal? What is every single song about? What is every single movie about? Sex is so ingrained in modern culture. It is such an integral part of what we are taught makes you an adult. What do you call a sex movie? An ‘adult’ film. It’s just intertwined with culture and has become a symbol of masculinity. These men feel unmasculine for not having obtained this. They feel like children.
What would it mean for a user to actually have sex and then leave the community? Most of these men very much want to have sex. They very much want to have these deep relationships. They want to be part of these crowds that they view as socially superior to them. I do not think that’s something they really admit, especially not in these in these incel communities. They would get booted right out. A lot of the other people in these communities are pretty much all that they have in their lives. They don’t have friends outside of the ‘incel’ community. They don’t have social relations outside of the internet. I don’t feel like if these men had sex they would really change their minds much. I very much doubt that sex would change a misogynist into someone that really respected women. Viewing women as nothing more than sex dispensaries is pretty much what incels believe in. I don’t think that’s something you can lose by just having sex.
How can you take someone who’s been sucked in to this vortex of misogyny online and get them to evolve their thinking? I think they have to take a look at your life and make a decision for themselves. Whether or not spending your time with hatred is a productive and joyful way to live your life. That’s how it worked for me. I realized that living a life that was so filled with venom and so filled with hate was unproductive. It was making me miserable. It was not something that I wanted to continue onward with. I just think you have to make people recognize that.
What would you say to another 14 or 15 year old who, like you, felt socially isolated and started to gravitate toward these forums? I would ask them if these are the type of men that they aspire to be, if these are the type of thoughts that they aspire to have. I would tell them that it does get better, but only if you actively pursue betterment. Good things don’t just happen to you. You have to actively pursue those things.
What separates someone like Elliot Rodger from the more curious observers? Most of the community does not advocate for violence. They have some very deeply problematic beliefs, but they don’t advocate for massacres or uprisings. I know with the Elliot Rodger video, the idea of an ‘uprising’ sounds crazy when you hear it. But then some people actually do act on it. He actually went out and he shot people. He honestly believed that it was part of some kind of global strife. It’s odd to see something that’s so steeped in irony and meme culture actually have real life impacts in regard to violence.
Do you think Reddit’s incel community could turn a curious observer into someone like an Elliot Rodger? To essentially radicalize someone? No, I do not. I don’t believe that anyone that would commit murder would do so because of something like the incel community on Reddit. I believe that it takes a special type of sickness of the mind to do something like what Elliot Rodger did. Something that’s not really bred of anything but his own personal troubles.
Maybe you’re just uncomfortable to admit that you were part of a community that can breed mass murderers. No, I’m not. I believe this is about truly anything. I believe that murderers and psychopaths (and whatever else you want to call them) are that way for reasons beyond their community, which they just use as a kind of scapegoat to enact their violence.
Even if you say a lot of these people don’t advocate for violence, feeling entitled to sex implies a kind of inherent violence. If you believe sex is owed to you, then the only way to receive it would be through violent means. Do some of the older users understand that their casual misogyny is actually a form of violence? No, I don’t think they do. I think that’s part of the immaturity that comes with a misogynistic mindset and comes with an ‘incel’ mindset. It’s just a deep immaturity that really prevents a deeper understanding of the types of things that they are promoting.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Asher Stockler is a writer and reporter based in New York City.