In April 2019, the federal department Public Safety Canada announced its intention to invest $2 million into researching the incel community – a term which has emerged from an online subculture composed largely of male heterosexuals who consider themselves “involuntary celibates.”
Through this research, Canadian authorities hope to better assess the risk of violence from the incel community and launch intervention campaigns to prevent members of the community from committing public acts of violence. The impetus for this research arose in response to a 2018 incident in which 25-year-old Alek Minassian drove his van into a crowd of people in a Toronto suburb, killing 10. Though Minassian had no prior criminal history, on Facebook, he had previously shared on online reference to the beginning of an “Incel Rebellion,” a post that alerted the department to the growing risk of violence posed by the incel community.
Unpacking the ‘Incel Rebellion’
If the term “incel” sounds familiar, it is likely because its associated online subculture is often cited following a mass attack. After the Parkland, Florida high school shooting, it was revealed that perpetrator Nikolas Cruz praised one of the incel community’s infamous “heroes” (Valentine’s Day, the day of the shooting, is now celebrated on some incel forums). In the same year, Scott Beierle — a self-described incel – shot and killed two women inside a yoga studio in a premediated attack.
Incel is short for “involuntary celibacy,” a term used cheekily by a queer woman in the mid-1990s to detail her own “late blossomed” dating life and perhaps encourage others online to share their own stories. But this etymology does not reflect incel’s current usage and population. Incels — who are nearly entirely men (women are largely barred from their online sites) — are defined by their seething and often violent misogyny rooted in their belief that a “sexual hierarchy” keeps them from finding joy and success with women. Women, in turn, are to be punished for their wickedness in denying incels pleasure – and a “manosphere” must be built in order to ensure male superiority at all times.
It is a central tenet in our Threat and Violence Risk Management practice that those on a potential pathway to violence have no comprehensive profile. Meaning you cannot, based a series of factors – whether those are related to gender, race, socioeconomic background or interests – fit someone into a “profile” of a person who will engage in targeted violence. This is what makes violence risk assessments so nuanced and complex.
However, it would be narrow-minded to ignore that those with associations with historically hateful and violent groups are more inclined to demonstrate concerning behaviors. The incels, who congregate on forum-heavy websites like Reddit and 8chan, are one such group.
In order stay current in the ever-evolving threat landscape, the incel community – and other subcultures like it – must be considered in the threat and violence risk assessment process if we are to prevent targeted violence. It is clear from the acts of public violence committed by incels or their sympathizers that, although women may be the initial target for violence, anyone can be on the receiving end of these acts.
Elliot Roger and the Birth of a New Strain of Violence
Incels are far from the first instigators of mass, targeted violence against women in the modern era. In 1989, a young man named Marc Lepine entered a class at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, Quebec with a rifle. He told the men to leave; he then shot and killed 14 women before pulling the gun on himself. Before he began shooting he shouted, “I hate feminists!” and later his published suicide note revealed his motives: “I have decided to send the feminists who have always ruined my life to their Maker.”
Many members of the institute’s faculty, as well as prominent psychologists and journalists, dismissed Lepine’s obvious sexist intentions. One Ecole Polytechnique director said in a resulting press conference, “Who cares?”
As a behavioral threat professional, I recognize that the post-event analysis did not – or was not willing – to address the inherent misogyny and accompanying isolation that compelled this individual to murder almost 20 women. Over a decade later, threat assessment professionals would again grapple with the question of gendered violence when it came to preventing harm.
In 2014, a young man named Elliot Rodger shot and killed 12 people near University of California – Santa Barbara before dying by suicide. Rodger’s motives became clear with the discovery of an over 100,000-word manifesto that detailed his pained relationship with the opposite sex. He detailed his “existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires all because girls have never been attracted to me.”
His anger was compounded by his perception that men of other races were inherently uglier than white men — Rodgers himself was of a mixed race — and that he is truly the “Supreme Gentleman.” As a result of his loathing and suffering, he promised a “War on Women,” after which most women would starve to death in concentration camps and men could be free.
In the incel community, to “go ER” meant to escalate one’s beliefs into a violent act. Minassian, the Toronto incel, had mentioned the “Superior Gentleman” in the same Facebook post that revealed his association with the incel community. This sort of connection demonstrates not only the strong tether between incels and their perceived martyrs, but how their cross-generational hatred can feasibly turn violent.
The Incel Threat Goes Beyond Mass Shootings
The threat that incels pose has been the focus of recent scholarship that gives some insight into how professionals are addressing them. Security Magazine recently published a piece warning of the threat that incels pose specifically to university campuses. The author mentions a 2015 incident wherein the shooter killed nine people at an Oregon community college and a manifesto revealed his interest in Elliot Rodger.
Another take can be found in Zack Beauchamp’s Vox piece, “Our incel problem.” Beauchamp details how he observed the incel community and interviewed several members – a unique feat given their distrust of journalists – and the various forms their sentiments take beyond mass shootings, namely sexual harassment and assault.
Emily Rothman, a Boston University expert on intimate partner violence, argues that these statements – even if exaggerated or falsified – are a risk factor. “It has been known for many decades,” she notes, “that it matters who you affiliate with, and that shapes your behavior in all kinds of ways.”
Much of what I assess during behavioral risk assessments is an individual’s tendency toward behaviors like stalking and harassment. The incel community demonstrates how focusing just on the most tragic events and largest body counts is not sufficient for assessing and determining an individual’s inclination toward harming another.
Putting Incels in the Behavioral Risk Assessment Framework
When I first encountered incels, I noted several characteristics I often see and look out for when it comes to determining an individual’s potential future behavior. These include:
- Desire for validation and a collective voice
- Normalization of extreme behavior
- Perceived grievances and the need to rectify those grievances
- Rejection, often beginning at a young age
- Channeling feelings in a socially inappropriate way
- Justification that they’re not alone
But beyond these characteristics, I stress that we need to see the world from their perspective to start unpacking their delusions and behavior. It is easy to read what many of their community post online and to minimize them to hateful young men – but this simplification will do little when it comes to assessing their future behavior.
This approach is discussed at length by Mandy Stadtmiller, who penned a rebuttal to the many “Incel 101” pieces sprouting across the internet with the question: how do we conjure compassion for these people, and in turn, help them? She focused on an interview with Jake Peterson – an incel who attempts to distance himself from the community’s violent and women-hating extremities – and thorough research on the phenomenon that shape people who join this community.
With this more intimate perspective, she is able to ascertain how many incels are the victims of the characteristics that I describe above; they feel like outsiders in an “always-online world.” She writes:
“The challenge in covering the incel movement is that in many cases the cherry-picked and sensationalist coverage reinforces these men’s persecution complexes and drives them further into a pit of rage-fueled nihilism. Attempting to find any kind of compassion is in no way to excuse or normalize the deranged among them. On the other hand, it is to see what options we have left in reaching them at all.”
In this way, my approach would be to first recognize that the incel community exists and its purpose is inherently dangerous. But then I would look to prevent a subject from doing harm to others or themselves. This is something that a proper behavioral threat assessment has the capability to do; it can systematically step into the other person’s shoes, not in an attempt to admonish or further isolate, but to better understand and empathize. As Stadtmiller argued, these acts do not attempt to “normalize” incel actions and beliefs, but to pave a way toward reaching them.
If we take these proactive steps, we can combat the “Incel Rebellion” before it leads to more violence.