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Anne Speckhard, Molly Ellenberg and Alexander Ash
As published in Homeland Security Today:
In recent years, there has been growing concern about the potential threat of violence, including terrorism and mass murder, that could stem from the community of men who self-identify as involuntary celibates (incels). Incel-related violence represents acts of targeted violence based on anger over perceived and actual experiences of sexual exclusion in a modern world where sex before marriage has become a norm for many. Incels see themselves as involuntarily celibate because they feel undesirable and excluded from engagement in romantic or sexual liaisons. The incel community operates almost completely online and provides an outlet for members to express anger, frustration and blame over perceptions that women and society at large fail to include them in the prospect of sexual contact and partnership.
Many news stories have focused on the few self-identified incels, and others claimed by the incel community as their own, who have taken this anger out in acts of violence, including the 2014 killing of six people and injury of 14 in Isla Vista, California, by Elliot Rodger, followed by the 2015 Chris Harper Mercer school shooting in Portland killing nine and injuring eight, an attack in which the perpetrator praised Elliot Rodger before carrying out his own. While Rodger did not self-identify as incel, his manifesto detailing his grievances became canon to the some in the online community.[i] This was followed in 2018 by Alek Minassian, who carried out a deadly van attack killing 10 in Toronto before which he proclaimed over Facebook that “the Incel Rebellion has already begun!” while hailing Elliot Rodger as his hero.[ii] After a 17-year-old self-identified incel fatally stabbed a woman in Toronto in 2020, the Canadian government moved to designate the case as terrorism, and many called for the movement itself to be branded as a terrorist movement.[iii] While some incels distanced themselves from incel forums as a result of these acts of violence as well as the Canadian terrorist designation, and other online forums were shut down (though many had been shut down prior to the designation), other forums carry on in which acts of violence on behalf of and carried out by incels continue to be lionized.
These violent acts have led some to assert that the broader incel subculture represents a threat to society, potentially embodying the characteristics of a terrorist movement, but there has not been significant research into the subject. To ascertain whether that is or is not the case, we would need to know more about what the incel community’s experiences, perceptions, grievances, online expressions in favor of violence and real-life potentialities to enact violence are. To date, there is a dearth of rigorous research and primary data collected from interactions with incels themselves that can help answer these crucial questions. This article begins to fill that void by describing preliminary results from a comprehensive questionnaire distributed among active users on the largest and most active incel-affiliated communication forum in the world, with over 20,000 registered users and 1,000 regular daily users. In all, 312 answered the questionnaire and 272 of their answers are analyzed herein.
What Defines an Incel?
When offered a list of potential requirements of inceldom, incels themselves were not in agreement with regard to what constitutes inceldom. For instance, 9.6 percent of respondents said that incels were not exclusively male and 25.0 percent said that incels were not exclusively heterosexual. Furthermore, while incels generally complain of exclusion based on looks, income, lack of social skills, or other perceived deficits from modern day “hook up” culture, serial monogamy involving sexual and romantic relations prior to marriage and marriage itself, 40.4 percent of respondents said that one did not need to still be a virgin but could identify as incel even if they had previously engaged in intercourse, and 27.6 percent said that one could identify as incel even if they were not physically unattractive. In the same vein, 34.9 percent reported that incels need not be “outcasts of society.” There were also disagreements regarding more specific criteria: 63.2 percent said that incels had to be older than 18. In agreement with popular notions of sexual exclusion, 69.9 percent said incels could not have kissed another person for at least six months, and 77.9 percent said that incels could not have had sexual intercourse for at least six months.
Finally, only 44.1 percent said that incels had to believe in the “blackpill,” which refers to acceptance of their inceldom as a permanent and hopeless state of being, a negative outcome attributable to the current societal order including the rise of feminism, women’s rights, and women’s abilities to support themselves financially without a man, online dating and women’s superficiality in choosing a mate based on prestige, earning power and good looks. In this sample, 94.9 percent said they believed in the blackpill and 71.3 percent said that they believed their inceldom, and hence their frustration over being unable to experience sexual or romantic relations, to be permanent.
The Blackpill and Incel Ideology
Beyond debates regarding the definition of incels, an important question remains over whether incels share an ideology or whether they simply share a common grievance of feeling excluded from romantic relations and sexual contact. The results of this survey support the idea that inceldom is associated with a specific ideology. This ideology is encapsulated in the incel notion of the blackpill, which is an expansion of the online far-right community’s notion of being “red-pilled,” which references the popular movie The Matrix, in which taking the red pill awakens the person to the true reality of their situation. The concept of the Red Pill originated on Reddit, as did the incel movement.[iv]
Participants were asked to express the extent to which they agreed with statements associated with blackpill-related statements. Responses were gauged on a Likert scale from 1 to 5. All percentages represent the number of participants who rated the statements as 3, 4, or 5. Participants agreed with the following tenets of the blackpill: that “women, in general, can always get sex” (98.9%), that “Western society is more favorable to women than men” (96.7%), and that “looks are important in starting a relationship” (98.2%). They also disagreed with statements negating the black pill ideology: (rated as 1 or 2) that “men, in general, can always get sex” (94.9%) and that “personality is important in starting a relationship” (57.4%). To a lesser extent, the participants agreed with underlying beliefs put forward in the black pill ideology of inceldom (rated as 3, 4, or 5): that “equality between men and women has not been good for me” (80.1%) and “feminism is responsible for the state of relationships today” (87.5%).
The survey also explored participants’ views of women that are also expressed in the black pill ideology in terms of their feelings of sexual rejection by and potential anger at women. On a Likert scale from 1 to 5, participants agreed (rated as 3, 4, or 5) that women are “self-centered” (93.0%), “never satisfied” (94.1%), “always looking for something better to come along” (95.2%), “not loyal” (89.7%), “manipulative” (92.6%), and “selfish” (90.1%). To a lesser extent, participants agreed (rated as 3, 4, or 5) that women “only care about appearances when considering male partners” (88.6%), are “hateful” (76.1%), “like to be dominated” (85.3%), “like to be mistreated” (68.0%), “only care about money when considering male partners” (62.1%), and “only care about status when considering male partners” (72.1%). Clearly, there was a strong view among incels that women are hateful and selfish. They were also asked to what extent they considered themselves to be misanthropist (x̅=3.50) and misogynistic (x̅=3.34), with 76.1 percent rating themselves as 3, 4, or 5 on the misanthropy scale and 70.6 percent rating themselves as 3, 4, or 5 on the misogyny scale. Participants’ scores on these variables were strongly correlated with each other.
Participant Social History and Psychopathology
Participants were asked to answer a variety of questions regarding their social experiences and current symptoms of psychopathology, given the aspects of inceldom defined by the participants that suggest that personality traits precluding positive social interactions contribute to incels being “loners,” regardless of their physical appearances. Many of the respondents perceived their early adolescence negatively, which could be related to either appearance or lack of social skills or other factors altogether. Only 24.6 percent reported that their experiences in middle school and high school (ages 12 to 17) were positive. Indeed, 28.7 percent said that they did not have friends during that period. Moreover, 80.9 percent described themselves as shy during that time period and 63.6 percent said that they were ostracized in middle and high school. The participants also reported specific school experiences that contributed to a feeling of emasculation. For example, 86.4 percent said that they were rejected by girls in middle school and high school, and 60.3 percent said that they had trouble with sports during that time. Only 12.9 percent said that they had never been bullied.
In regard to current psychological symptoms, participants were asked to rate the intensity with which they experienced various symptoms on a scale from one to five as well as to indicate whether they had been formally diagnosed with associated disorders. Nearly all the participants agreed (rated as 3, 4, or 5) that they experienced depressive symptoms (84.6%). Many of the participants also endorsed having symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (44.9%), and 46.3 percent said they experienced symptoms of posttraumatic stress, although it was unclear if the trauma causing this posttraumatic stress predated their inceldom or if their PTSD related to their overwhelming sense of sexual rejection and inability to partner with a woman. Additionally, nearly all said they experienced anxiety symptoms (80.1%), and 66.9 percent agreed that they have suicidal ideations. With regard to disordered behavior, 33.5 percent of participants reported ever engaging in acts of self-harm ever (rated as 2, 3, 4, or 5), and 41.2 percent of participants reported ever experiencing problems with drug and alcohol abuse (rated as 2, 3, 4, or 5).
Despite so many participants reporting psychological symptoms, only 51.5 percent said that they had ever tried psychotherapy. Indeed, there is significant discussion among the incel community on the forum that suggests that psychotherapy is unhelpful to incels. This survey underlined that view, as only 15 survey participants said that therapy made them feel better about themselves. Those who had not tried therapy reported that they viewed it as “a scam,” “a waste of money,” or that it would not help them fix the physical aspects to which they attributed their status as incel. It remains unclear, however, whether the respondents who indicated psychological concerns had experienced symptoms prior to their inceldom, or if their onset occurred after their involvement with the community. Clearly, autistic-related or similar behaviors were not caused by being sexually rejected, yet they could be contributing to their inceldom. Nevertheless, while many clearly viewed their inceldom as causing them distress, few saw psychotherapy or other clinical interventions as a solution, with 92.3 percent agreeing at least somewhat (rated as 3, 4, or 5) with the idea that being in a sexual relationship would improve their quality of life, and many felt their frustrations would be better addressed with solutions that offered them a better means of realizing sexual or romantic ambitions. For instance, 55.5 percent of the participants agreed at least somewhat (rated as 3, 4, or 5) with the idea of getting plastic surgery to change their appearance.
From this sample of over 250 self-identified incels, it is clear that although incels may share both common grievance and ideology, their willingness or even desire to act violently as a result of that ideology is far from ubiquitous. Indeed, it appears that most incels on this forum are depressed, lonely, and nonviolent. Although it is certainly valuable to analyze online posts, there is a great deal to be learned from actually asking incels themselves about their feelings and experiences, and it is clear that there is a common motivation to be understood and to engage with those trying to understand them.
Most incels in this survey (71.3%) sadly see their situation as permanent, and while the vast majority (97.1%) report having some sort of psychological issues and features of autism (44.9%) most do not think that psychological support is an answer for them. Instead, an ideology that revolves around interpreting the world as seeing and valuing them only through a “lookist” lens stimulates a belief that nothing short of plastic surgery to alter their physical appearance can help.[v] This seems to show how deeply incels suffer from their perceived and actual sexual exclusion as well as a denial that some of their psychological issues, such as features of autism, anxiety, depression, PTSD, etc., may be standing in their way of making successful sexual and romantic partnerships.
The results of this survey indicate a number of future directions. First, the widespread experience of psychological symptoms indicates the need for future research on the prevalence of a variety of psychological disorders among the incel population, specifically major depressive disorder, generalized or social anxiety disorder, and autism spectrum disorder. It will also be interesting to inquire whether these disorders predated, or perhaps even contributed to, the individuals’ self-identification as incel, or if they arose as the result of their inceldom. Furthermore, given these psychosocial challenges, combined with negative views of professional mental health treatment among the survey respondents, future study is necessary to examine possible innovative ways to provide professional psychosocial support to incels in a way that is creative, compassionate, understanding, and nonjudgmental, perhaps utilizing incel web forums as a way to promote such psychosocial support.
Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne, Ellenberg, Molly, and Ash, Alexander (February 15, 2021). A Glimpse Inside Incel Ideology. Homeland Security Today
About the Authors
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past three years, she has interviewed 260 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as 16 al Shabaab cadres and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 240 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 125 Facebook campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting foreign governments on issues of repatriation and rehabilitation of ISIS foreign fighters, wives and children. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly writes a column for Homeland Security Today and speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard
Molly Ellenberg is a research fellow at ICSVE. Molly is a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Maryland. She holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego. At ICSVE, she is working on coding and analyzing the data from ICSVE’s qualitative research interviews of ISIS and al Shabaab terrorists, running Facebook and Instagram campaigns to disrupt ISIS’s and al Shabaab’s online and face-to-face recruitment, and developing and giving trainings for use with the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project videos. Molly has presented original research at the International Summit on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma, the GCTC International Counter Terrorism Conference, UC San Diego Research Conferences, and for security professionals in the European Union. She is also an inaugural member of the UNAOC’s first youth consultation for preventing violent extremism through sport. Her research has also been published in Global Security: Health, Science and Policy, AJOB Neuroscience, Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, the Journal of Strategic Security, the Journal of Human Security, Bidhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies, and the International Studies Journal. Her previous research experiences include positions at Stanford University, UC San Diego, and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.
Alexander Ash is the administrator of http://incels.co, currently the biggest incel forum on the web. The forum has remained controversial throughout the years, and it has increasingly become the focus of research by academia as interest in the community intensifies. Ash has retained a scholarly interest in incels since he became aware of the community in 2017, and has attempted to explain the incel world since to a public that tends to conflate the general incel community to incel-affiliated extremists. He is actively engaged in attempting to help the incel community deal with issues such as mental health and social isolation.
[i] Witt, Taisto. “‘If i cannot have it, i will do everything i can to destroy it.’the canonization of Elliot Rodger: ‘Incel’ masculinities, secular sainthood, and justifications of ideological violence.” Social Identities 26, no. 5 (2020): 675-689. https://doi.org/10.1080/13504630.2020.1787132
[ii] Collins, Ben, and Brandy Zadrozny. “After Toronto attack, online misogynists praise suspect as’ new saint’.” NBC News 24 (2018). https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/after-torontoattack-online-misogynists-praise-suspect-new-saint-n868821
[iii] Cecco, Leyland. “Canada Police Say Machete Killing Was “incel” Terror Attack.” The Guardian 19 (2020). https://www.theguardian.com/ world/2020/may/19/toronto-attack-incel-terrorism-canada-police
[iv] Moonshot, C. V. E. “Incels: A guide to symbols and terminology.” (2020). http://moonshotcve.com/incels-symbols-and-terminology/
[v] Moonshot, C. V. E. “Incels: A guide to symbols and terminology.” (2020). http://moonshotcve.com/incels-symbols-and-terminology/