In May, Jack Peterson went on a Tinder date. With a woman. They ate at an Italian restaurant in downtown Chicago, and made casual chitchat about themselves. It was an ordinary date in every way. But for 19-year-old Peterson, it was an achievement of epic proportions.
Until recently, Peterson identified as an “incel,” or involuntarily celibate. Incels believe that, due to reasons entirely beyond their control ― too short, too bald, too weak a jawline ― they cannot attract a female partner. They believe they’re doomed to remain alone, forever.
For many incels, this fatalistic worldview is paired with a toxic hatred of women, whom they blame for their lonely predicament. Incels regularly denigrate and dehumanize women in online forums; some even fantasize about raping and killing women for rejecting them.
Peterson says he joined the movement for the male camaraderie, not the misogyny. He bonded with other men about feeling ugly and inadequate. But then something happened that made him want to leave.
On April 23, Alek Minassian rammed a van into a crowd of pedestrians in Toronto, killing 10, eight of whom were women. Hours before, he posted a cryptic message to Facebook, celebrating the “Incel Rebellion.” He also praised Elliot Rodger, the 2014 mass killer who named hatred of women as motivation for his murderous rampage.
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Suddenly, everyone wanted to talk to incels. When the media started calling, Peterson, who was a volunteer staffer at a popular incel website and hosted a relatively new podcast called Incelcast, decided to go public. His motivation was simple: He wanted the world to know that not all incels were violent misogynists. Some were just like him, he said, outcasts from society, self-professed losers with no one but each other.
He went on Canada’s Global News, where he advocated scrubbing misogynistic content from incel sites and banning references to Rodger and other killers. He spoke to the BBC. He was profiled in The Daily Beast. He talked and talked, and people seemed to listen. He had emerged as an unofficial spokesperson for incels.
Then a week later, Peterson abruptly quit the community.
He announced his departure in a video he posted on his personal YouTube channel in early May. Filmed in his bedroom, movie posters of “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Eraserhead” as well as a Chicago Cubs pennant hanging on the wall behind him, he explained that he had asked the owner of incels.me “to permanently ban my account so that I can no longer post on the forum.”
Somehow, he glimpsed a path out.
Initiation Into The Tribe
Peterson, whose legal name is Kalerthon Demetro, grew up in Chicago, the son of a single mother. A high school dropout, he was a lonely teenage boy with unlimited access to the internet.
His first foray into online communities came at the age of 11 on the message board 4chan. As a kid who was depressed, anxious and bullied in real life, online he found a community where he felt like he belonged. It was his safe space.
As he entered his teen years, Peterson became reclusive, sometimes going weeks without leaving his home. At some point, he discovered the pickup artist community, watching videos on YouTube on how to seduce girls. He hadn’t had much luck in the dating department, and it was here he got the idea that dating was akin to a game. It was clear he was losing.
After that, he stumbled on videos posted by a user who called himself Steve Hoca. The videos were about his life of “true forced loneliness,” or TFL, another term used by men who believe women are unfairly denying them companionship and sex.
Then, about a year and a half ago, he started reading the Reddit forum r/incels. He’d heard the term incel before, on 4chan, but now ― reading men’s stories of rejections and loneliness ― he was starting to realize that the term applied to him. He was an incel too.
He was only 17.
“I always felt that there was something wrong with me because all these other people were having sex and getting in relationships and I couldn’t,” he told HuffPost in a series of interviews.
Warren Spielberg, a psychologist and expert on the problems of boys and men, compared incel sites to gangs, which also offer a sense of belonging to vulnerable youth.
“All gangs form around an enemy,” Spielberg said. “In this case, it happens to be women.”
Society teaches boys that they must lose their virginity and attract women to be real men, he explained. When they fail to do so, he said, they are flooded with shame, which is sometimes transmuted into rage.
“They are angry that women are not saving them,” Spielberg said.
In November 2017, Reddit banned r/incels for inciting violence against women. By then, Peterson was fully immersed in incel culture. For the first time in a long time, he said, he made friends.
When a new site, incels.me, was launched to fill the gap, he was an early and regular user. Over the next five months, he wrote 7,202 posts.
“It was like a full-time job,” he said with a weary laugh.
Peterson said he kept incels.me open on a tab on his computer almost all day, every day, and read it constantly. He and the other users talked frankly about how ugly they felt, how alone they were, how little they were doing with their lives. Underneath it all, there was a constant one-upmanship of despair.
While there is scant research on the incel community, a recent survey of about 300 active participants on incels.me offers some insight into their users. They are young ― over 66 percent said they are under 25, like Peterson ― and almost two-thirds said they don’t have any real friends. Over half said they have considered plastic surgery. Most said they have mental health issues like depression or neurological differences like autism.
“I don’t have a girlfriend or any friends or anything going for me at all but at least I have you guys,” Peterson wrote in March. At times, the posts turned painfully sincere. When one poster asked what other incels would do if they had a girlfriend, having never had one, Peterson replied that he’d hug and kiss her.
The Ugly Underbelly
Peterson describes the incel community as a support group. But alongside posts about misery and unhappiness are threads that celebrate female murder and discussions on rolling back the rights of women.
After growing up on 4chan, where people post provocative and offensive stuff for shock value, Peterson said he’d grown accustomed to the blatant misogyny.
“I tried to sift through all that stuff to find the good content,” he said.
Sometimes, he engaged with other incels who went too far. In March, a user wrote a message titled “Another roastie bites the dust,” referring to the murder of a model by calling her a derogatory word for female genitalia. Peterson responded, “violence isn’t a good thing.” When someone asked about the advantages and disadvantages of rape, he replied, “cons ― you’re raping someone. that’s not a good thing bro.” When another user posted a list of laws that would benefit incels, which included banning women from voting and working, Peterson wrote, simply: “the laws are already fine, we’re just too ugly to succeed.”
Peterson is adamant that he does not hate women. If he hated anyone while he identified as an incel, it was himself. Many of his old posts brim with self-loathing and references to suicide.
“i’d rather be a literal cockroach than an ugly man,” he wrote. When one user asked people to describe themselves in a single word, Peterson chose “garbage.” At one point, a user claimed that women were not human. “yeah they are bro,” he wrote. “we’re not human.”
He does not deny that there is a strain of genuine hatred and violence within the incel community, calling some of them “fucking crazy people.” He also admits he wrote things that he now regrets.
When asked about the lasting effects of submerging himself in a subculture that dehumanizes women, Peterson said he isn’t sure how it affected him. He so rarely interacts with women, he said, it’s hard to gauge if his time as an incel warped his ability to empathize and communicate.
The Path Out
After the Toronto attack, media interest in incels exploded. There was one problem: It was almost impossible to find an incel willing to talk on the record. Once Peterson went public with his story, his phone rang nonstop with media requests.
And for the first time in a long time, Peterson started talking to people outside his insular community.
“Doing these interviews, and going on TV and stuff, it literally kicked me out of my front door,” he said. “It forced me to be productive. It was a wake-up call. There’s other stuff in life than sitting online and talking about how much of a loser I am.”
He met journalists, many who were women who were empathetic and curious about his life. That seemed to make a big difference. Experts who work with boys like Peterson said they often just need to make a meaningful connection with a caring, healthy adult.
“These guys need exposure to men or women who are willing to say, ‘Wow, what you’re saying doesn’t make sense and it seems like it’s really hurting you,’” said Robert Heasley, a co-director of the Men’s Resource Center in Philadelphia who spent three decades studying masculinity.
Peterson echoed that sentiment in his talks with HuffPost.
“When I finally was exposed to all these normal, sane human beings who were kind to me, it just made me feel like a bad guy, being a part of this group,” Peterson said.
He didn’t want to wallow in such a defeatist place, he said in the video he posted about leaving the incel community.
“There are things that I want to do,” he said into the camera. “If I remain in this community ― and nothing against this community, I’ve made friends ― but if I remain, I will never truly be able to get out of the rut that I am in. I will never be able to ascend.”
He is now going through a sort of re-education process. He’s been reading as much critical coverage of incels as he can, trying to understand other people’s perspectives. And he is hopeful about pursuing a more productive, engaged life. A life that might include women.
He even has a few more Tinder dates set up.
“I’m starting to feel like, OK, maybe I am just a normal guy who had some bad experiences and stayed inside for a couple of years,” he said. “Maybe I can be a normal person.”