For many people, the days following the deadly van attack in Toronto in late April were the first time they heard the word "incel." But other people more familiar with online culture may have already been aware of the term — and if they weren't, they likely were familiar with the beliefs and actions of the online communities that embrace it.
The term "incel" is short for "involuntary celibate," an online community of men who say they want to have sex but have been rejected by women. The term was initially coined in the early 1990s by a queer university student in Ottawa, who started a site to reach other people who shared her struggles with dating. The student eventually left the site and community behind, and it has since morphed into something quite different and much darker.
Today, incels are one of several different online communities in the "manosphere," a collection of male-focused online communities, some of which position themselves in opposition to feminism. Other communities in the manosphere include Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) and men's rights communities.
At their heart, many of these communities share similar characteristics even if the names are different: a feeling of isolation, a belief that they aren't getting something they feel they're entitled to, and a conviction that women — or more specifically, feminists — are to blame for what they lack.
The heavy media attention on the incel community — coinciding with the mainstream Canadian and American coverage of Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto professor and author seen as a hero by some incels — means that many of us now know what an incel is. But how is an incel made?
The role of toxic masculinity
At the heart of the incel community lies toxic masculinity, something that incels both embrace and feel victimized by. Many of the men who identify as incels believe they do not receive sex or affection from women because they don't fit a stereotypical ideal of masculinity — athletic, perhaps, or physically fit. At the same time, they can embody other aspects of those stereotypes, such as aggression or rage, sometimes to dangerous ends.
Toxic masculinity is something that a lot of people understand even if it's difficult to define. It's "boys will be boys" and "real men don't cry." It's the negation of any male emotion that isn't a form of aggression, and the idea that there is only one very narrow way to look like a man, act like a man, be a man.
Toxic masculinity has real consequences for men. "People who are unhappy with their sex life tend to suffer from self-esteem issues and a lack of self-worth," Dr. Sal Raichbach with the Ambrosia Treatment Center told HuffPost Canada by email.
Men are four times more likely to die by suicide than women in Canada; the risk is highest for men older than 40 who are single or divorced. One meta analysis from Indiana University Bloomington found that men who exhibit certain behaviours that are stereotypically masculine — homophobia, risk taking, and exercising power over women were among them — had worse mental health, and were more likely to reject the idea of getting help for mental health.
The danger of an online outlet
A lifetime of buying into toxic masculinity can dissociate men from their feelings, making them feel angry or ashamed if they have thoughts or actions that go against what they see as allowed or safe, such as crying or showing their emotions or any vulnerability.
Men may resist treatment for mental illness because they think it's a sign of weakness to seek help, and untreated, unacknowledged depression can manifest as anger, frustration, violence, and risk-taking behaviours.
Typically, someone who is self-conscious or insecure would turn that negativity inward toward themselves, Raichbach said. But with online forums and groups, people can find a sense of community that relieves some of the loneliness. This can be a positive thing, but when that community is violent and misogynist and the conversation revolves around that instead of mutual support, the effect is very different.
"These online forums may start out as an outlet for the isolation and anger from their perceived inability to attract the opposite sex, but can quickly turn into hate-filled discussions that are potentially dangerous," Raichbach said.
People on incel forums and sites talk with anger about Chads — conventionally attractive cisgender men who they see as getting sex easily — and Stacys — cisgender women who pretend to be "good girls" until a Chad comes their way. Women are dismissed and dehumanized as females or femoids, excluded from the incel community because it's believed they can get sex when they want it. Gay men are also excluded, for the same reason.
This set of norms and shared language, with common enemies, can increase the sense of community belonging. It's a powerful tool for people who feel like they don't fit in anywhere else, and a dangerous one when the community's underpinning is violent.
Some incels revere the most famous among their ranks as heroes of sorts. The Facebook post police say Alek Minassian put up shortly before the Toronto van attack said, "All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger" in reference to a California man who killed six people and himself in 2014.
During that attack Rodger posted a video online where he says the day was one of "retribution," talks about exacting revenge for being rejected by women, and refers to himself as "the supreme gentleman."
Who gets radicalized?
There are a number of factors behind every crime, and Minassian's alleged actions in Toronto in April are still under investigation. But connections to the online incel community and a particularly violent strain of misogyny are clearly influences in several recent high-profile, deadly acts by young men who feel like they are not getting something they are owed.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has highlighted the risks of so-called "alt-right" violence, including some perpetrators who were associated with the incel community online, or have been celebrated by them after the fact of their crimes.
One of the difficult truths is that it's not entirely clear who will go from holding extremist beliefs to joining an extremist community or committing violence in the name of those beliefs. One 2014 study on "lone wolf" terrorists found that there was no uniform profile beyond the fact that most were male.
But there are some common situations emerging for those who go deep into extremism. Terrorism expert J.M. Berger said in a talk that often when radicalization takes root in a person it's because they are dealing with a problem — either personal or social — that the extremist philosophy promises to solve.
A brief from the U.S. Department of Justice pointed out that due to the easy availability of online communities and materials, this radicalization can take hold gradually.
Others who become radicalized may lack purpose in life — their extremist beliefs provide them with one. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also says that disagreement with government policy, hatred towards certain types of people, and a perceived lack of opportunity also contribute to radicalization. And groups like the incel community looking to bring new members into the fold, and make them heroes, seize upon these weak points.
Of course, not every young man who lacks a clear path, or who struggles in life, becomes radicalized; most, in fact, do not, and many of them overcome these struggles and move on. It is not entirely clear why this is the case; a special issue of the American Psychological Association's journal looked at the problem in 2017 but conceded that the problem is complex, and many questions are not yet answered.
And the strain of violent misogyny currently being celebrated within the incel community is not new: consider the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal, where 14 female students were killed by a man as he spoke of his anger about feminists. The man responsible, Marc Lepine, didn't have the opportunity to go online and find others like him, but got to the same end point as Rodgers and others have more recently.
But now that incel favourites like Reddit and 4chan do exist and are easily accessed, the onus is on parents, educators, and other mentors to work to keep other young men from being radicalized by them — especially those who may be prime targets for their violent ideologies.
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