We still know very little about the 26-year-old man who killed nine people and injured seven more in an Oregon community college classroom last week. Even before the fatalities had officially been totaled, there were whispers that Chris Harper-Mercer might have belonged to a fringe group that is much-reviled on the Internet: men calling themselves “incels,” for “involuntary celibates.”
Harper-Mercer had described himself as “involuntarily” single in online forums; the AP has reported that his writings included complaints about his lack of girlfriend. In the hours before the Oct. 1 shooting, someone posted a mysterious threat to a Pacific Northwest college in a so-called “incel” forum on the anonymous message board 4chan.
Whether or not the poster was actually Harper-Mercer—a question we don’t have the answer to yet—other self-identified incels have taken it as a call to arms, threatening violence at half a dozen other schools around the country.
This being 4chan, there’s no telling if the threats are meant sincerely, or merely as crass pranks. But it has certainly drawn attention to the Internet cult of the “involuntary celibate”: people—almost always straight men—who have either never had sex or haven’t found a willing partner for an extended period.
On forums like 4chan’s /r9k/, Reddit’s r/ForeverAlone, and the old-timer Love-Shy.com, incels gather to swap stories and debate the causes of their situations. Some have physical handicaps or psychological disorders that have prevented them from meeting women; some just have bad luck; some are cripplingly introverted—hence “love shy”—or anxious.
The vast majority of them are sick of getting dredged up with the Chris Harper-Mercers and Elliot Rodgers of the world.
“There are definitely aspects of that attitude in the incel community, but it’s not at all the norm,” said the 21-year-old moderator of the Reddit forum ForeverAlone, which has more than 41,000 subscribers. (The Washinton Post has agreed to his request to not use his name in this story.)
If that seems like a large number, it’s only a fraction of America’s total incels: The social psychologist Brian Gilmartin estimated them at 4.7 million in 2012—or roughly 1.5 percent of all adult men. The Centers for Disease Control reports that, within the past year, roughly six percent of men ages 25 to 44 have not had any sexual partners. Not all of those men identify as “incels,” of course—but it’s still a pretty sizable population.
Given that size, it’s impossible to talk about the “average” incel. Media accounts typically paint them as “fat, unemployed, basement-dwelling neckbeards,” to quote another member of Forever Alone; but what little research exists into the phenomenon paints a much different picture.
In 2001, two researchers at Georgia State University surveyed 82 self-identified incels they found through an online forum. Some were, as the stereotypes suggest, adult virgins who suffered from autism or another mental or physical illness. Some were just singles who couldn’t meet people because of how often they worked or where they lived. Others were actually married, but not sexually active—either their partner was no longer interested, or something prevented them from being intimate. Frequently, they felt they had missed key sexual milestones in their adolescence and couldn’t catch up from there.
The 21-year-old Reddit moderator described himself as “insecure”: He’s funny and gregarious on the phone, but he says being raised in an ultra-conservative Christian household has given him some hang-ups that make it hard to pursue girls.
Whatever the incel’s exact situation, the ones in the Georgia State survey tended to feel the same way: frustrated, depressed—angry, even. Those feelings echo the results of a survey on Forever Alone, when moderators asked members to explain what being “FA” meant to them: “Intense isolation,” one respondent wrote. “Chronic rejection.” “Having no one.”
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Many of FA’s members, the group’s moderator believes, suffer from severe depression; he can recall three forum members who have attempted suicide. Both Gilmartin and the Georgia State researchers suggest that involuntary celibacy is part of a self-sustaining package of psychological issues: depression, neuroticism, anxiety, autistic disorders. Those problems prevent incels from forming relationships—which in turn makes their depression and anxiety more extreme.
“If you hate yourself and believe you’re unworthy of anyone’s affection ... you won’t be worthy of anyone’s affection because nobody is attracted to self pity,” the Reddit mod said. “It’s a self fulfilling prophecy, but one that’s incredibly difficult to break out of. The loneliness is devastating.”
The big question, for parents, teachers and investigators, is figuring out who among this vulnerable population is merely temporarily lonely—and who is potentially violent and/or mentally ill. The groups are distinct, but because they coexist in many online forums, it can be difficult to tell.
Forever Alone uses an automated bot to delete any mentions of Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old who killed six people in Isla Vista, California, in 2014. Moderators are also on high-alert for misogynistic, derogatory or threatening content. Other communities aren’t quite so vigilant: A network of incel blogs with names like “Rants of an Incel” and “CoAlpha Anti-Modernist Incel Blogger” demonize women for rejecting their advances and advocate a return to a patriarchal society where women can’t vote or choose their own partners.
On 4chan’s /r9k/, some anonymous users lauded Harper-Mercer as a hero who killed deserving “sluts” and “chads.” (“Chad” is basically a derogatory term for a conventionally attractive guy who has success with women.) They’ve joked that it’s the start of a national “Beta Uprising”—a revolution in which beta males who have been overlooked by women finally get revenge.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation warned Pennsylvania schools after a /r9k/ member posted that he would “take up arms against a university near Philadelphia.” Classes were also suspended at Eastern Kentucky University after graffiti appeared in a school bathroom, reading “KILL ALL BY 10/8/15 THIS BU OOP.” On /r9k/, posters have theorized that “BU” stands for Beta Uprising.
“It’s obvious that there are more and more young men who just can’t take it anymore,” one poster wrote on Sluthate, the outgrowth of an incel forum that Elliot Rodger frequented. “The sad thing is: The modern world is anti-male and literally drives men crazy.”
As offensive as some of these sentiments may be—particularly in the wake of a deadly shooting—there may be a small, distorted grain of truth in the incel-victimization theory. Most of the moderators in Reddit’s Forever Alone flatly refused to talk to me: The last thing they needed, they said, was yet another article linking them to violence or caricaturing them as freaks.
They point out that society has nothing but derision for straight men who struggle to get girls. That we stigmatize both shyness and virginity in adult men, even though both are, in many cases, completely natural.
In a 2006 paper on the “medicalization of shyness,” the sociologist Susie Scott frets that we’ve pathologized a trait that’s really nothing more than a constructed social preference, branding awkward men as creeps or losers when they’re really just ... different.
“We are different,” the Reddit mod said, with a sigh, “and people don’t like different.”
Maybe that differentness calls for compassion—not another moral panic.