Last week’s tragedy in Toronto, where police say 25-year-old Alek Minassian plowed a rental van into a crowd on the sidewalk, killing 10 people and injuring 16, has cast a spotlight on so-called “incels” — male “involuntary celibates” who gather in dark corners of the internet to discuss their sexual deprivation and, often, anger at female rejection. In a Facebook post before the attack, Minassian announced an “incel rebellion” and hailed Elliott Rodger, the woman-hating spree shooter who killed six people in California in 2014.
At this point, nobody knows whether Minassian, who reportedly struggled with emotional and social problems, belonged to any incel online groups or even took an interest in them before his apparent psychotic break. Nonetheless, there has been no shortage of media commentary about the danger of “misogynist terrorism” and of internet-enabled murderous male rage against women. On Twitter and elsewhere, progressives have shared awful and hateful tidbits from incel forums and expressed their loathing of incels. (I saw one Twitter poster rail against hate speech while using the handle “kill an incel for christ.”)
There is no question that incel forums feature some ugly and disturbing content, from rants about the evils of giving women rights to bizarre proposals for a state-run sexual rationing system that would require women to have sex with men unable to find willing partners — as well as outright revenge fantasies. But is this typical of all the men involved in these discussions?
A rare sympathetic look at incels, by New York journalist Mandy Stadtmiller in The Daily Beast, argues that for many men, online incel communities are simply support groups for dealing with loneliness and failure. Even violent language, says Stadtmiller, might be more about blowing off steam through dark humor than encouraging violent action.
A 2015 Washington Post story on incels after another deadly rampage by a man rumored to have some connection to the group — Oregon college shooter Chris Harper-Mercer — also found that the vast majority of incel posters were appalled by violence and hatred of women.
Many feminist and progressive commentators believe that to sympathize with incels is to validate toxic male entitlement. But these lost boys, many of whom suffer from mental health problems or neurological conditions that make human interaction difficult, are hardly the vanguard of patriarchy. And one doesn’t need to have a malignant sense of entitlement to feel deeply distressed by the lack of sexual and romantic companionship.
While it would be absurd to look for valid points in extremist incel rhetoric about the evils of women’s liberation, there is no question that the new landscape of male-female relations can be frustrating for lonely, struggling young men (especially when their problems are often compounded by fatherlessness and a lack of male role models). Norms and rules are in flux. An awkward romantic overture might now invite not only to rejection or ridicule but an accusation of harassment or stalking; yet most women still seem to prefer for men to make the first move. Men are denounced for expecting sex, but also mocked for being virgins. Critiques of unhealthy norms of masculinity often devolve into male-bashing.
Stadtmiller warns that sweeping vilification of incels on the basis of cherry-picked, sensationalist comments can only exacerbate the men’s persecution complexes — and make it much harder to reach them. This doesn’t mean, of course, that misogyny should be condoned. But collective blame targeting men or attacking anyone who can be labeled an incel is hardly the answer. If women’s progress leaves large numbers of men behind, it will be a Pyrrhic victory.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.