Incels are involuntarily celibate people, usually men, who blame a host of external factors for their inability to find a partner. The term incel has become more widely known in recent years after events such as the Toronto van attack, which killed 10 people. The perpetrator, Alek Minassian, was part of the Incel movement and active in online forums discussing a hatred of women. It was discovered that he had posted his praises online for Elliot Rodger, who killed 6 people and injured even more back in 2014. Rodger claimed it was an act revenge towards the women who had rejected him.
My guest this week is Dr Rachel Hannam, who gives us an insight into incels from a psychologist’s point of view.
What (or Who) are Incels?
Incel stands for involuntarily celibate. Incels are self-identifying members of a subculture (mostly online), typically made up of heterosexual men (although some are women) unable to find a romantic partner, despite deeply desiring one; a state they call inceldom. Discussions on Incel forums are often characterised by resentment, anger, self-pity, self-loathing, misogyny, racism, a sense of entitlement to sex, and sometimes the endorsement of violence against sexually active people.
Psychologically speaking, Incels usually believe they have no sense of control; hence the term “involuntary”. While we all may go through phases of rejection when it comes to dating or romance, Incels feel such a sense of defeat, rejection, and unworthiness that they start to believe they will be “forever alone”.
In my practice of psychology, I have seen young (and slightly older) men with sexual frustrations like this. While they don’t always self-identify as Incels, I hear echoes of inceldom. They are resentful and easily become angry at the stereotypically attractive men and women who seem to effortlessly date and mate. Yet, if we dig a little deeper, they secretly berate themselves for not being dateable.
Is Inceldom a Psychological Disorder?
“Involuntary celibacy” is not a medical or psychological condition. Some people who identify as Incels may live with physical disabilities or psychological disorders such as depression, generalised anxiety, Aspergers syndrome, and body dysmorphic disorder. However, others may just be letting off steam.
For the most part, I think the Incel movement disempowers young men, casting them as victims of our culture. In some ways, of course, they are negatively affected by our culture and by toxic masculinity. However, I think the wisest approach is to have empathy for these disconnected young men flocking to the movement, some of whom might be at a crossroads in their development.
(Note: I agree that empathy is important, it is also prudent to note that Incels often have a distinct lack of empathy towards women. Women are seen as as less than human and there have been instances of Incels harming people or encouraging each other to do so. While empathy is important, so is personal safety and I don’t think that the dehumanisation of women should be accepted or tolerated.- Amy)
For anyone involved, I would certainly hope that it is simply a stepping stone in their journey through life. In psychological terms, anyone who gets stuck in this stage for too long may be developmentally arrested.
A Developmental Approach to Inceldom
The late psychologist, Erik Erikson, identified several stages of psychological and social development that a person experiences during his lifetime. Each stage presents a unique challenge to be confronted. For example, during the first 18 months of life an infant must face the crisis of “trust versus mistrust” which is heavily determined by whether the child has a supportive or neglectful caregiver.
From the ages of 13 to 21, young people grapple with the issue of “identity versus role confusion.” It’s normal for them to experiment with various interests, styles, and activities. Rebelliousness is about negotiating the transition from the dependence of childhood to the independence of adulthood; a very trying stage for parents and teachers. During this stage begins the quest for sexual exploration and acceptance by others as a sexual partner.
The next challenge is “intimacy versus isolation” between the ages of 21 and 39. By their early twenties, the Incels are starting to fear that their relationship problems may be permanent, that they face a life of marginalisation, rejection, loneliness and, of course, celibacy. And so the Incel movement exists because of this unavoidable life crisis and the lack of success some men are having in meeting it. But this problem has been around as long as there have been people on the planet.
What to do about Incels?
In my work with these men, I validate their frustrations and grief of desiring to be romantic and sexual with another person and repeatedly facing struggle and disappointment, whether due to physical appearances, race, ethnicity, and or psycho-social challenges, such as depression, social anxiety or Autism. I believe that most Incels are not psychopaths who want to kill people. In fact, most are shy, lonely, nervous, awkward and angry. Considered this way, these men deserve our genuine empathy. Empathy helps people to gain clarity and accept themselves as they are. I believe empathy should always be step one.
After empathy, step two needs to be personal responsibility and practical action. A major challenge is helping people recognise their own role in the dynamic of rejection. This is difficult because it’s much easier to blame others than take responsibility for our own role in things. Sure, we can’t change our appearances and/or other limitations, but we can learn to start with self-love instead of self-hatred. Self-hatred fuels self-hatred, and in certain people, can lead to hating others so much that you want to see people hurt or killed. This is why I believe the Incel problem isn’t always an external issue so much as a self-image issue. In short, it’s not society rejecting Incels as much as Incels rejecting themselves.
Here are some practical suggestions for Incels:
- Decide NOT to be a victim any longer! Get off Reddit, 4Chan, etc. if this will help you do that.
- Get therapy and/or read self-help books. Work on yourself. Accept yourself. Learn to like yourself. You are one half of any sexual encounter or relationship. To be loved, be lovable.
- Avoid (like the plague) any of your peers who consider themselves “players” or women as “conquests.” Avoid self-styled “pick-up artists” and the like. These are examples of toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity will not help you; it will fuel bitterness and despair.
- Learn empathy. Read my article on the difference between self-pity and self-empathy and my blog on practising self-empathy.
- Understand the six different kinds of love. Figure out what kind of love you want in your life (beyond recreational sex). What kind of person is likely to want the same thing? Develop a plan for meeting that kind of person.
- And most of all, don’t hurt or kill anyone. Involuntarily celibacy is surely preferable to prison, for starters.