The man who murdered ten people in Toronto with a van, like the 2014 Isla Vista killer, considered himself an "incel," or involuntary celibate. Incels are men who blame the world, and especially women, for the fact that they are virgins, or aren't having sex as often as they want. They see women as manipulators who choose powerful but shallow men, and unfairly ignore and even torment good guys like themselves. Resentment becomes an excuse for misogyny, and sometimes, for violence.
In the aftermath of the Toronto massacre, some people were quick to use the killer’s celibacy as an insult. As just one example, a New Statesman piece referred to the killer as "pathetic" and noted that there was an "inclination to dismiss these men as sad losers dwelling in their parents’ basements." This fits a common pattern with men like this. Violent incels are portrayed as radicalized sad sacks, or as failures who have weaponized their own inadequacy.
But there are two problems with portraying incels as outcasts or failures. First, it mirrors their own rhetoric, and their own view of themselves. Secondly, it makes incels appear unusual or special.
There are two problems with portraying incels as outcasts or failures. First, it mirrors their own rhetoric, and their own view of themselves. Secondly, it makes incels appear unusual or special.
The truth is more unsettling. Incels are, in many respects, fulfilling gender norms. They haven't failed to be men. And when they embrace misogyny and violence, they become exactly what we expect men to be.
Incels see themselves as being unusually unhappy or hard done by. But perceiving oneself as a sexual failure is common for people of every gender. I certainly did. I was a virgin until I was 27. I wasn't saving myself for marriage; I was just bad at dating, somewhat unlucky and shy. My (now) wife, was, thankfully, very determined and refused to let a little shyness stop her.
Looking back now, it’s easy to be flip. But 20 years ago, my virginity was a source of substantial anxiety, unhappiness and self-loathing. Young men are supposed to have a lot of sex. And if you're not having a lot of sex, you're supposedly contemptible. I had good friends, and was not especially miserable on other fronts. But I was not having a lot of sex, and, as a result, I felt ugly and broken a good portion of the time.
20 years ago, my virginity was a source of substantial anxiety, unhappiness and self-loathing. I was not having a lot of sex, and, as a result, I felt ugly and broken a good portion of the time.
The cultural pressures are everywhere, for both men and women. Sex is presented, in movies, films and advertising, as so central to the human experience that it goes without saying that anyone who isn’t sexually active must be miserable. But I don't think my misery was because of some sort of biological imperative. Like most people, of every gender, I had figured out by my twenties that you can orgasm without the help of other people. And, as I mentioned, I had plenty of close and meaningful friendships. My feelings of worthlessness were learned.
But again, that feeling of worthlessness wasn't odd or strange. For that matter, people of every gender can feel that they're not performing their gender correctly. Normative standards for gender expression are designed to make people feel like they are abnormal if they don’t conform. I had friends who were dating when I wasn't, and many of them (men and women) were also unhappy. Many of them felt like they were not doing it right (whatever "it" might be.)
Incels think they're uniquely oppressed by gender expectations. But the truth is, gender expectations feel constricting and painful for everyone. Not least for people who aren’t straight cisgender men.
But while gender roles don't hurt straight men more than anyone else, the discomfort of straight men is an especially powerful lever. A patriarchy needs a way to call men to their masculinity. A society in which men dominate needs to get men to do the work of domination.
Men are born into patriarchy, but if patriarchy is going to perpetuate itself, men need to assent to it and work to maintain it. Patriarchy attracts men in part through material rewards, like higher pay or better jobs. But anxiety is also a powerful motivator. Men learn that they aren't real men unless they sleep with (the right) women. They learn that real men are entitled to women. Women become a status symbol; a thing to assert a man's own manliness. And since men also are supposed to assert their masculinity through violence, the results are predictable.
None of this absolves misogynist murderers. It simply means that their murders are acts of deliberate terror. Patriarchy is maintained in part through the ongoing threat of violence against women who aren't sufficiently deferential. That violence takes lots of forms, from misogynist comments to street harassment to domestic violence. The violent attacks by incels are less frequent, but still part of the pattern.
Incels have deliberately adopted an oppositional identity. It's tempting to take them at their word, and link their sexual failure to their evil. But there's nothing wrong with living in your parents’ basement.
Incels have deliberately adopted an oppositional identity. It's tempting to take them at their word, and link their sexual failure to their evil. But there's nothing wrong with living in your parents’ basement — whether you're a man or a woman. And no matter what your gender identity is, there's nothing wrong with not having sex in your 20s or 30s — or never having sex at all.
What's wrong is a culture which tells men they're entitled to all the power and tells women they're not entitled to much of anything — not even sadness or angst. Part of the incel narrative, after all, is the idea that men are the real victims.
Ultimately, the incel movement's hatred is banal, not deviant. Shame and misogyny are familiar motives far beyond one particularly poisonous internet clubhouse. It would be nice to be able to say that incels are as isolated and shunned as they claim. But they're not.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the book "Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948."