Last week, Toronto joined the regrettable list of cities that have suffered mass violence. It played out a lot differently than most of the mass murders in the United States: guns were not involved, the perpetrator was taken alive, and there was only the briefest, token effort to connect the violence to Islamic terrorism (this, because there was no link). But I’m not sure I can bring myself to get all “Canada proud” about those details, because the alleged motives of the alleged killer are, frankly, even more depressing.
The suspect is a 25-year-old white man named Alek Minassian, and according to a Facebook post made shortly before the attack, he aligned himself with an online community called “incels” — involuntary celibates. I knew a bit about this group before the attack, from podcasts and social media. It’s the sort of movement that advocacy groups — in this case, feminists — warn us about for years, but which only become front page news after they spill blood. Then, in the rush to capture the news cycle, a lot of writers and journalists make easy mistakes about the root cause of the movement.
Here’s my hot take. Incels form an online club composed of men — probably mostly young men, almost certainly mostly cis white straight men — who feel oppressed because they don’t have access to sex. There’s really no word to use besides entitled — they feel entitled to sex, and they seethe with rage and resentment against, well everyone else: straight men who are sexually active (their code word for such men is “Chads”), conventionally attractive women who reject their advances (“Staceys”), and even “unattractive” women (“Beckys”), because they still apparently lust after Chads, even though Chads are “out of their league” according to the incels.
In other words, they see themselves as the victims of a cultural conspiracy, oppressed and persecuted, because other people have partners and they do not. However, I’m not sure if “partners” is the right word, because they do not factor any sort of partnership into their proposed solutions. Incels are not willing to pay for sex (because, I assume, they feel that would be beneath them?), but they aren’t above demanding that women be forced to have sex with them. In the perfect world according to incels, rape is not only legal but a government-mandated service that helps to balance the scales of sexual access. Think The Handmaid’s Tale, but with even more rape.
One of the curious things about the incel mindset is how rigorously in-group it is. Women, for example, are not allowed to join the club, even though I’m sure plenty of could describe themselves as “involuntarily celibate” (in fact, the term was coined by a bisexual woman before being annexed by the manosphere). The participants rationalize their chauvinism in various ways — for instance, “women can’t be truly incel because men are always willing to sleep with women” — but they all boil down to a lack of understanding of how women think and feel. Or maybe a better way to say that would be: a lack of understanding that women think and feel.
Because let’s not mince words: the attitudes driving the incel movement stem from misogyny, pure and simple. Anyone who believes that women owe them sex has already failed a basic empathy test. They can’t understand that women’s bodies belong to women, and no one ever has an obligation to share their body with someone else. No matter how lonely or horny a man is, his pain does not entitle him to inflict suffering on other people. That’s not negotiable, and the harder incels double-down on the premise that women are to blame for their misery, the further they get from achieving their goal (ie. to have sex).
Incels blame their celibacy on a culture that promotes unreasonably high standards of masculine attractiveness, brainwashing women into thinking “Chads” are their only viable option. Like many humans, incels project their own point of view onto others. They treat women like objects, so women must see them that way as well. They’re missing the point. Maybe our culture does have high standards for men, but rippling muscles (or bulging wallets) are not the only standards by which women choose mates. Women (and men, for that matter) are attracted to people who respect them — and that, in short, is why incels remain sexless. It’s not a conspiracy against guys of their body type or income level; it’s a perfectly reasonable form of sexual selection — “treat me like a human being, not a piece of meat, and we can get to know each other better.”
If incels were able to see through their mistrust and hatred of women long enough to listen to some feminist voices, they might recognize that the best target for their anger is patriarchy, the system which brought us toxic masculinity. In our neoliberal capitalist patriarchy, self-worth is measured by acquisition. The heroes of our age are mostly billionaires, whether real (Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg) or fictional (Don Draper, Walter White, Batman). And in the boys’ club that is patriarchy, one of the most important currencies is women. So incels feel tremendous cultural pressure to flaunt their manhood by attracting the right type of mate. It’s not even sex, it’s the cultural cachet that comes from presenting oneself as a sexual alpha.
That’s why most of the conservative responses to the “incel problem” miss the mark. Ross Douthat’s New York Times article on “The Redistribution of Sex” caters to incels by giving serious consideration to their grievances, but no amount of complimentary nookie is going to make them feel better. Capitalism is an economic system calibrated to making people feel bad about themselves, mostly so they buy more crap. And patriarchy means there’s always going to be some dude with more power than you, making you feel like your sexual conquests are never adequate. In the meantime, any system that pairs up women with misogynists is bound to create more grief and suffering. Incels who become uncels are not going to suddenly stop hating women; they’ll become spousal abusers.
My solutions to most cultural problems are soft and cuddly: get together, sit down, talk it out, cultivate empathy. To quote Carol Lynn Pearson, “An enemy is someone whose story you haven’t heard yet.” Part of me wants to hear the stories of incels, believing that if they truly feel heard and understood, their hatred will shrink. But some problems don’t work that way, and some enemies are more systemic. I have no desire to sit down with a Nazi and hear the reasons why they don’t believe my daughter has a right to exist.
The same goes for incels. We don’t need a nuanced debate about how to fix their problems. Their outlook is the problem. Their creed is hate speech, and they deserve the same degree of stigma that Nazis get — at least, until they prove they’re willing to hear some other people’s stories, instead of moaning about their own hard luck.