Misogynist “incels”: From the internet to real life violence: In the wake of the Plymouth murders

Marina Kontara
Brussels, Belgium


The shocking news of a mass murder has come from Plymouth, Britain. The horrific events have caused heated debates inside and outside the British borders. On August 13, a 22-year-old man, Jake Davison, commenced his killing spree by murdering his mother. He then wandered for a while in the streets of the city, shooting six other people.  Four people were killed, including a three year old girl, while two others were seriously injured. At the end of his deadly rampage Davison ended his own life.

As the police, journalists, and the public began to search for the motives behind this heinous act, discussion has turned its focus to the incel “community”, to which the perpetrator appeared to belong. The events in Plymouth are strongly reminiscent of mass murders that occurred in the US, Canada and other countries a few years ago, which were also linked to incels. 

So what are incels?

The word is an abbreviation for “involuntary celibates” and was first used by Alana, a Canadian bisexual blogger. In the 1990s, Alana created a website to share her experiences of her not particularly active sex life and her erotic loneliness. The website soon became very popular, was awarded by LGBTQ collectives; eventually in 1997 it was transformed into a community where people of all genders and sexual identities shared their experiences, feelings and thoughts – a kind of an online forum for mutual help. In the years that followed, around the early 2000s, two trends developed within the community: one continued the original pattern of the project, while the other brought together exclusively straight men who shared the idea that their “inceldom” was the responsibility of the women who rejected them. Alana herself, frustrated by this development, abandoned the project, but the incel community continued to be active on various internet forums, evolving the original ideology by trying to make it a concrete worldview.

Thus the “manosphere” was formed, which developed through threads on sites like Reddit, 4chan and 8chan, and gradually built its own language and subculture. The manosphere has even been the subject of scientific research. Interesting conclusions from this research show that the “manosphere” is the most important sub-group of incel ideology. This is one of the most dangerous misogynistic trends that has grown and magnified online.

The theory of incels

According to incel beliefs, men are divided into categories: there are the good-looking men, those who are lucky enough to be born with a certain body type (incels define in detail the dimensions of the skull, the angles of the face, the thickness of the wrists and ankles). They are called “chads” and they are the ones chosen by the majority of women. Alternatively, women choose men with lots of money and good jobs. Incel logic argues that women will eventually get bored of  these men and divorce them.  Flowing from this, incels further believe that the court systems are set up to favour women by giving them good divorce settlements. 

In the incel world, men and women are categorized on a scale of 1-10, based on their physical traits  and their beauty, which as we have seen is defined by specific… technical standards. According to their logic, a woman worth, say, 5, should be paired with a man also worth 5. In reality, however, this is not the case, because women are by nature “hypergamic”, cunning and conniving. Women allegedly use various tricks to manage to have men who are “worth” more than they are. They argue that women alternate  these same men frequently (or have more than one at the same time), so that “low-value” men are left alone. 

That is, they are condemned to involuntary celibacy and become incels. According to their theory, their bad luck is the fault of women and how women control society. They also believe that the phenomenon has been magnified in recent years because of social media and dating apps These apps, like instagram or tinder, allegedly feed the vanity and “hypergamy” of women. Flowing from incel logic, this means that low value men/incels are even more harmedand condemned to eternal loneliness. 

In this way, a spiral is formed in which incels exchange opinions and experiences in the forums in which they participate, further reinforcing their distorted perception of the world and their hopelessness. This perception they call knowledge, naming it “the red pill”: it is a direct reference to the movie Matrix, where “the protagonist is asked to choose between two pills: the blue one will make him continue to live in an illusion, while the red one will show him real life. Therefore, for incels, ‘real life’ is the false belief that women are responsible for their difficulties with integrating into society.”. Ironically, the movie’s makers came out as trans later on, and explained that the movie was a trans allegory, rejecting in practice the incel co-option. 

In these online discussions, in addition to opinions, incels also exchange selfies, challenging other incels to confirm the scenario with comments such as: “you are indeed ugly, because your wrists are too thin” and “your face is not angular enough, so no woman will bother with you, because they all want chads or rich guys.” The more time they spend in this toxic climate, the more they embed the “red pill knowledge”. Then several paths open up to those in the “community”. Some choose the solution of pick-up artists, those who study techniques originating from marketing, advertising and psychology, which they evolve, adapt and use to conquer women. Some of them even make it a lucrative profession. Others are simply convinced that nothing is going to change, so they just wait to die: this situation is summed up in the NEET (No Education Employment or Training) or LDAR (lay down and rot) condition. 

In its extreme version, this red pill realisation results in the “black pill”, the condition in which knowledge about the nature of society and the responsibilities of women has been transformed into full acceptance, in a way that can lead to suicide. There are many online threads on incel forums, where someone posts a message expressing suicidal tendencies, and in the comments below other members of the community urge them to carry it out, and in some cases even call on them to “punish those to blame”. Of course, not all incels reach this extreme, but those who do so can be very dangerous. 

Revenge, subculture, misogyny

The first incel mass murderer was George Sodini in 2009 in Los Angeles, who killed three women, injured nine others and then committed suicide. The most iconic figure in the incel community, however, is Elliot Rodger, who in 2014 in Isla Vista, California murdered six people, wounded 14 others, and then also committed suicide. He had previously published a 137-page manifesto and several YouTube videos in which he identified himself as an incel, and although he promoted pick-up artist hate (i.e. hatred of incels who try to find techniques to “get out of their situation“), he concluded that he wanted revenge for the rejection he had experienced from women. 

Other violent acts were perpetrated in the years that followed. Most of the crimes took place in the US and Canada, and most perpetrators made sure to leave notes or posts on platforms such as Facebook, in which they made reference to their ideology and to Rodger in particular, calling him a martyr or their spiritual leader. The nature and pattern of these crimes led in some cases to the authorities treating them as “misogynistic terrorism” (e.g. Christopher Cleary who in 2019 was convicted of attempted terrorism). The term is also used by some in the academic community. 

Based on the findings of Kayla Preston, Michael Halpin, Finlay Maguire’s research, the profile of the average incel is a white male of lower or middle class background and a high school (or college) graduate. 

As already mentioned, at the core of incel theory is the notion that the responsibility for the social marginalization experienced by these individuals lies with women because to them,women seem to be hypergamic and possess a huge sexual power with which they manage to control and shape society. 

One could look for the psychological causes that lead people to blame other people for their disadvantaged position, instead of looking for them, for example, in the social system and making up their minds to work to change these conditions. 

The key point is that incels and their theory are direct  products of the patriarchal framework of the capitalist system. Even if there is a psychological element behind the rise of these dangerous ideas, misogyny did not grow magically in the heads of the incels. Rather, it is inherent throughout all of capitalist society, reproduced within contexts such as the family or the school environment and permeating work and economic relations, fields such as fashion, advertising, marketing and even medicine. 

From the moment we are born, all of us are trained to comply with specific gender roles and to fit within specific gender stereotypes. Girls dress in pink and play with dolls and kitchen utensils. The boy’s bedroom is blue, filled with cars, balls and construction toys. While strides forward have been made in a number of areas, tradition still dominates. The girls are pushed towards fields of study such as languages, social sciences and art – and are meant to become mothers anyway. Boys, respectively, will find well paying, respected jobs with their primary purpose in life to be a provider, supplier of  money and material goods to the family. 

Incels accept this gender divide. So, in this context, they believe their conclusions that the woman ought to satisfy the sexual, recreational or social appetites of the man, to be quite legitimate. In their mind,  that is why she exists, that is her destiny. If instead she chooses not to do so, or if she chooses another man (more handsome? richer? just different?), she is at fault, she has broken the rules and therefore must be punished. The person who has experienced this rejection then takes it upon himself to punish her. But it doesn’t stop there, all women must be punished, according to incels, as they believe all women to be the same.  Society, by extension, must also suffer the consequences for its failure to uphold the rules. Incels advocate for the literal murder of women, and in their mass murders, they also kill men. This is because their enemy is not only the women who rejected them, but also the chads those women chose. Patriarchal systems are responsible for the deaths of countless women, but people of all genders -men included- suffer at the hands of the sexist, binary way of organising society. 

The incel subculture was formed within this social context as a response, or even a refuge or comfort for all those men who failed to materialize the stereotypical male model they were taught as children that they must fit into. And in the times of the internet, it has understandably spread rapidly to large parts of the western world – however it is not limited to the west alone.   

It is worth noting here: the way and the tools used by incels to define the categories of people (skull size, facial angles, etc.) clearly refer to the racist categorisations of people that were often adopted in the past by part of the scientific community in order to “prove the inferiority of the black race or the female sex”. These ideas have been revived in recent years within the alt-right ideology that has produced ‘leaders’ such as Donald Trump. And if incel seems like an exotic fruit that thrives in the distant US, or Anglo-Saxon Britain, a quick search on Facebook shows us that this exotic fruit has been introduced also in other parts of the world like Belgium, France or Greece. 

A collective response to a huge social problem

The patriarchal social model operates in a divisive way within society. The incel is a representative example: they blame women for their marginalisation and, in extreme cases, they solve the problem with revenge, like self-appointed punishers. The culture of division within the lower social layers only serves those who exploit them. For incels, if their misery is women’s fault,  that flows to a world view where they don’t see the real faults. 

They don’t blame the employer who doesn’t pay them enough, the state that denigrates public health and education, the capitalist caste that destroys the environment and sacrifices everything on the altar of its super-profits. Nor do they see that a range of mental health, self-esteem, social skills issues have been forced upon people by a system that alienates us, imposes power-relationships, relationships of dependency and self-interest. Therefore, they will never turn against these forces. 

In order to fight against these horrific misogynistic acts of violence, and to fight against sexism more broadly, ordinary people must come together and be united against patriarchal models of society. Regardless of gender and sexual identity, the working class and the poor masses have more in common with each other, because it is us who makeup the majority of society.  Just as the capitalist class peddle racist rhetoric, they also use patriarchal tools as a conscious means of dividing us. The rigid gender binary insisted upon by the upper echelons has seen consequences for all genders in the forms toxic masculinity and now incels. . It is necessary to collectively demand certain basic things that will help reduce this kind of phenomena:

  • Inclusion of sex education at all levels of school: sex education that includes the concepts of gender, gender roles, consent, relationships as a whole.
  • Psychological support from an early age, in and out of school, for children with difficulties in integrating into the school and social environment, or who are bullied.
  • Relevant support and specific training for teachers and parents themselves.
  • Social care and financial support for the unemployed. Unemployment is certainly a factor that exacerbates feelings of marginalisation and mental disorders such as depression, factors that can lead an individual to seek refuge in theories that place the blame ‘elsewhere’ and offer the supposedly protective framework of a group. 
  • Gender-based violence is pervasive on the internet and social media. It is therefore necessary to strengthen the prosecution of cybercrime and not underestimate the dimensions of these phenomena online. 

These issues sadly will not disappear overnight, and we cannot rely on meaningful change to come from the ruling classes around the world. To truly tackle these issues, ordinary people of all genders and sexualities must come together in  collective campaigns to force our demands to become reality.  This is a crucial first step in the fight for true human liberation, but we cannot have faith that these issues will be eliminated within the capitalist system. Social division is a fundamental aspect of capitalism and cannot be simply done away with. This is why the struggle against gender oppression must go hand in hand with the struggle to overthrow capitalism. 

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