The Danger of Incels—and How We Shift the Thinking of Men Attracted to These Groups

Incels blame women and society for their lack of romantic success. They operate in online groups in the so-called “manosphere,” where violence against women is often encouraged. (Pixnio / Creative Commons)

The sources of misogyny and violence against women are complex, and it is critical to examine them—not just during National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but always.

One such perpetrator of violence: incels, or “involuntary celibates.” The grievances of this group over their perceived sexual exclusion often takes the form of violence, especially violence against women. Society must come together to address the root causes of incel violence—or continue to face the deadly consequences.

Misogyny and White Supremacy Thrive in Online Male-Dominated Platforms

Incels are “typically heterosexual, white males, who adhere to a violent and misogynist ideology of male supremacy,” according to the FBI. A new research study with 348 men (including 156 incels) links incel culture with female hate, finding a connection with “misogynistic attitudes (hostility towards women, sexual objectification, and rape myths) … even after controlling for personality.”  Incels consider themselves “victims of feminism,” according to a 2022 study, and at least two active online forums for incels portray violence positively more often than negatively.

Incel violence has affected communities around the globe:

  • In New Zealand, authorities described a suspect in the attempted murder of two schoolgirls last month as an incel.
  • Currently being held without bail, Bryan Kohberger is accused of the 2022 stabbing murders of four University of Idaho students—three of whom were young women. One former FBI agent described Kohberger as having an “incel complex.”
  • A 19-year-old from San Antonio was arrested last year and described as an incel after threatening to take revenge at a conservative student conference.

In the U.S., boys lag behind girls in education levels, said Richard Reeves, author of the 2022 book, Of Boys and Men, Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About it—even as women enjoy better academic and professional prospects.

As a violence prevention researcher, I have interviewed over 100 young men and boys—including weapon-carrying teens, and men who chronically abuse female partners or have been abused themselves. Young boys and men report feeling left out, and they harbor an alarming level of hopelessness when they discuss their motivations for violence.

This widespread despondency among young men is troubling.

Incels also reportedly share in this despondency. Seemingly left out of the allures of modern-day romance, they attribute their exclusion from on-demand sexual conquests to several factors—from their physical appearance, to biological essentialism, to feminism, to the “woke elites.” There is also an undeniable crossover between incel culture and hyper-nationalist and alt-right directives.

In the “manosphere,” as incels call their online ecosphere, misogynist ideas and masculine entitlement thrive. Young men egg each other on to discuss and even perpetrate vile atrocities against women, children, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and other targets of their hatred.

To incels, hegemonic masculinity is embodied by so-called Chads—chiseled-jawed, attractive, alpha-male types, the genealogical lottery winners. They call females ‘Stacys’—women who are so mindless, promiscuous and sexually appealing, they deserve to be both ogled and hated. Rape threats and fantasies are common among incel circles.

Addressing Incel Violence in Our Own Communities

Incels have a hive mentality online, and many have access to deadly weapons and military training. This crisis of violence warrants serious consideration.

But this group is also not just faceless trolling entities online. Incels are likely people we know from our schools, workplaces and communities. Directly addressing misogyny and hate is one way to counter this movement.

A recent study suggests bystanders report violent extremism. Bolstering collaboration between local communities and law enforcement and enhancing reporting systems and policies can be helpful. It is important to overcome a lack of understanding about what characterizes violent extremism and how to distinguish incel radicalism from mental illness.

Studies show incels are increasingly turning to suicide and self-harm, and many report body image issues, bullying, shyness, anxiety, autism or other neurological challenges, and depression. But focusing on mental health as a solution has drawbacks. It is not uncommon for incels to reject seeking mental help; after all, they do not perceive themselves as having a mental illness but as victims of a broken society. Getting vital mental health help is also complex, and without specialized services for overt incels or those at risk for incel inclinations, this approach may fail.

But loneliness and despair are not the root causes of incel violence, and not all incels are violent or suicidal.

A more apt solution could be to treat them as younger boys, offering programs that have succeeded for other violent groups, such as batterer intervention programs, designed to rehabilitate people who abuse their partners. Cognitive behavioral therapy, trauma-sensitivity and gender justice frameworks underpin these programs. The focus here is on cognitively restructuring how these boys and men think about male supremacy, traditional gender roles and attitudes towards women—and themselves. Programs like this recognize the value of vulnerability in men, self-care and positive future orientation in boys and use these devices to help young boys develop a sense of self.

Schools, sports and youth groups are great places to start. Parents play a crucial role, too. By modeling how to express feelings, handle conflict, offer and seek consent, set healthy boundaries and communicate assertively, we can change attitudes and beliefs while they are still malleable.

Leading deradicalization specialists and psychologists have advocated for further study to reverse engineer why incels become incels, the push-and-pull forces. It is important to know which incels will turn violent. However, critics contend that this strategy gives incels too much power and significance; and implicit deradicalization is complicated.

Programs that consider the effects of power, privilege and sexism on the growth of boys and men and their relationships with others—as well as those that promote constructive male-male interactions, positive father involvement and gender-sensitive psychological services—hold the key to the best life outcomes for boys and men, according to the American Psychological Association’s 2018 Guidelines for Psychological Practice for Boys and Men.

Social media networks can and must also do more to proactively moderate and remove harmful content and violent organizations. This process, known as deplatforming, has been temporarily effective in silencing the culprits online and hindering their ability to recruit and spread hate. Of course, major incel forums, like Reddit’s r/Incels, that were once shut down often reemerge under new identities. Deplatforming pushes troublemakers farther into the internet and peripheral social networks, like Parler and Telegram, where their radicalism thrives.

To be sure, not all members of the incel group engage in or condone such conduct. It is crucial to distinguish between destructive ideas and those who identify with incels in spirit—the incel-curious.

It is crucial to not consider incels as just sex-starved nerds or socially awkward adolescents. Individuals, community members, teachers, neighbors, policymakers, healthcare providers and family members need to consider that left untreated and untamed, incels epitomize a brewing and unpredictable hazard everyone must address for the safety of all.

Up next:

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Chuka Emezue, Ph.D., MPH, MPA, is an assistant professor of women, children and family nursing at Rush University, a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project, and founder of the BrotherlyACT project — a community-engaged program of research dedicated to using technology to heal, humanize and empower violence-impacted young boys and men to create and lead a values-based life.