On Tuesday, Alek Minassian was charged with ten counts of murder and 13 counts of attempted murder after driving a van into a crowd of pedestrians in Toronto. During the search for his motive, it was revealed that Minassian was active in the internet’s involuntary celibacy, or “incel,” subculture, which has long been criticized for its violent misogyny. And Minassian is not the first self-proclaimed member of this group to commit mass murder: In 2014, Elliot Rodger murdered six people and injured 14 others before committing suicide, and in 2015, Chris Harper-Mercer killed nine people and injured eight others before similarly killing himself. Minassian, for his part, referred to the group on social media as part of his motive for the murders. So, what is an incel? And why is this online community home to mass murderers?
“Incel” is short for “involuntarily celibate,” which started as simply a term for an individual, regardless of gender or sexuality, who wanted to have sex but couldn’t find a sexual partner. But the term was coopted by and has since come to define a specific misogynistic subculture. The men who are a part of this subculture believe they are owed sex by women, because women are inferior to them. Over time, the term has become internet shorthand for a particularly violent strain of misogyny, loosely associated with other forms of internet misogynists such as so-called “men’s rights” activists and the “pick-up artist” community, mostly sorted into what’s colloquially known as the “manosphere.” The largest group on Reddit, which had over 40,000 members, was banned in early November, for a litany of horrific actions, as the Guardian reports:
Members describe women as “femoids” and the men they have sex with as “chads”. There are many examples, documented on a watchdog subreddit called IncelTears, where incels have condoned or advocated rape, or described it as a made-up construct.
Last month a member asked for legal advice pretending to be a woman asking a “general question about how rapists get caught”. The poster asked how a woman who was drugged and raped by a random guy would start searching for their attacker.
It’s part of a larger trend of hatred that the Southern Poverty Law Center defines as “male supremacy,” essentially a hatred of women for existing that uses racist ideology and applies it to gender. Most worryingly, incels don’t even pretend to offer a justification for their actions. Arshy Mann, a journalist with the Toronto-based Daily Xtra, an LGBT magazine, has been researching incels, particularly their presence in Toronto, and notes that it’s often just sheer, unreasoning hatred of women:
The root of the problem is what’s referred to in feminist and psychological research as “male sexual entitlement,” which, as Everyday Feminism points out, is more deeply rooted than you might at first think:
It’s embedded in the way promiscuous men are idolized in Bond movies while promiscuous women get called sluts. Every action in our society that overvalues the sexual gratification of men reinforces male sexual entitlement. All of these normal behaviors seem harmless when looked at individually, but they are symptoms of a larger cultural attitude that overvalues male sexuality and expects female sexuality to exist for male pleasure.
The main question on many minds is simple: How do we shut down this hate? Part of it is simply addressing that entitlement in our own statements and behavior. Even how we present the pervasiveness of sex needs to change, really: The hype around Tinder and dating apps has obscured that Millennials are the least sexually active generations since the 1920s, at least if you go by self-reporting.
Another part of that, though, is not writing off the sheer hatred in play or its results. The only difference between a self-proclaimed “incel” and other mass murderers is a domestic violence arrest or conviction. Domestic violence only accounts for 10% of all gun homicide in the US, but 54% of all mass murders with a firearm, and domestic violence is 15% of all violent crime. There’s more at play here than a handful of men unable to face the fact their lack of sexual success is due to flaws in themselves they’re too afraid to confront. The signs point to, at root, something being fundamentally broken in the way we view not just sex, but emotional connection, and fixing it will be harder than shutting down a few websites.