A Dalhousie University sociologist who researches the incel community says it’s important for us to know more about them, their misogynistic views of women, and the dangers of their online harassment spilling over into real world violence.
“There’s not a ton of research on this, which is surprising to me because a lot of people are really interested in the topic,” Michael Halpin said in a recent interview.
“I think it is probably the thing in my research life that I get asked about the most and there’s surprisingly little content on it. Most of the papers about incels have really come out in the last two years.”
In 2018, the word “incel” made Oxford Dictionaries’ word-of-the-year shortlist. Described by the dictionary as “a member of an online community of young men who consider themselves unable to attract women sexually,” they also typically hold views “hostile towards men and women who are sexually active.”
Halpin found himself digging into the world of incels shortly after the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Living in the US at the time and wanting to delve deeper into the reasons behind the win, Halpin began researching online communities primarily frequented by conservative young men.
“I was reading a lot of comments on there and realized that there was a whole group of people that I had absolutely no experience with (in terms of ) how they saw the world,” Halpin recalled.
“The more I read about what they were saying, the more Trump’s victory made sense to me in the sense that I could see that he had a lot of support.”
Among the many groups of aggrieved young men, Halpin found two that were especially likely to support Trump and his policies. The first was a group referred to as NEET – Not in Education, Employment, or Training. These young men often still lived with their parents and had little in the way of future prospects.
The other were incels.
“When I started looking at their websites, it was very interesting on a sociological level what they were doing and then obviously on a human level pretty horrifying,” Halpin said of the content.
“Then what drew me into focusing on them in particular is just how extremely misogynistic they are. The level of hatred that they have for women is something that I still find shocking, even a couple of years into it.”
“Stuff so foul you probably can’t print it”
At the outset, Halpin and his collaborators had — for a brief moment — something resembling pity for the extent of self-loathing displayed by incels. But he said the things that made them sympathetic figures were “by far” drowned out by their “extreme and hostile” misogyny and their endorsement of violence against women and the removal of women’s rights.
In studying the global incel phenomenon, Halpin and his team turned to the largest English language discussion board for incels, which has a membership of more than 10,000. Although the group’s members hail from many countries, when they do self-identify, most say they are from Canada or the US.
Halpin said their initial goal was to better understand incels. What makes their work different is they used a much bigger set of data than previous studies. In addition, most research looked at incels as part of a larger online masculinity trend. They were solely focused on what Halpin describes as the unique culture of incels.
“When we started the project, there were a lot of popular culture pieces and think pieces about incels, there were popular audience books, but there was less scholarly research,” Halpin said.
“They’ve been written about very briefly and in ways that were more impressionistic, like dropping into a subreddit for a day, being like, ‘Oh, this is very misogynistic, here’s my opinion piece about this.’”
Halpin and his collaborators wanted to document the extent of misogyny and the discussions of violence taking place.
The content of those discussions can get pretty violent and disturbing, so much so that Halpin described it as “stuff that’s so foul you probably can’t print it.”
“I’ve looked at a lot of really negative things online. I’m a man and I hear lots of negative things about women. So where I was expecting the misogyny to be was like here,” Halpin said, inching his hand above his head.
“And it’s just astronomically far past that. They degrade women on such an intimate and pervasive level. I’ve written about a lot of depressing things in my research career, and it really does depress me reading it.”
“Women should be property”
In a research paper published in the journal Methods in Psychology in May, Halpin and Norann Richard outlined the methods used to analyze more than 9,000 comments on the incel community discussion board over a three-month period in 2019.
Some of the popular threads that generated high user engagement included topics like women are animals, women are objects, humiliating women, assaulting women, incels and racism, and just be white.
They note the many humiliating and degrading terms incels use when describing women, and how some incels believe women should be property, have their rights removed, and be distributed among men by a central authority.
“Incels discuss violent fantasies, such as ‘burying women alive,’ hoping that women ‘get raped by boatloads’ of men, and stating they would ‘share some bullets’ with women that reject them. Incels also share and develop ‘Tinder experiments’ to further humiliate women,” the paper states.
In another research article published in May with lead author Kayla Preston and Finlay Maguire, Halpin looked at how incels blame dating apps and social media for “amplifying the gender practices” that make men become incels. Halpin said they wanted to know how incels described why they joined the community.
While in their view women are to blame and responsible for everything, incels do partly blame their situation on the media environment.
“They perceive social media — Tinder, Instagram in particular — as massively increasing the number of incels,” Halpin explained. “They see these forms of media as making it easier for women to select only attractive men.”
Really attractive men who get all the attention and have many women interested in them are referred to as “Chads” by the incel community, with the archetypal Chad being actor Chris Hemsworth.
Incels, Halpin explained, believe women engage in something called hypergamy, meaning a woman will always “trade up” for a more attractive partner. Using a number scale to rate women from one to 10, if a woman is a seven, incels believe she’ll always trade for an eight or nine or 10.
“So as a man, you have no security in a monogamous relationship, your partner will always leave you for a more attractive man, and they think that Tinder and Instagram make that much easier,” Halpin said.
“They think that the men who are 10s, these Chads, the Chris Hemsworth-type people that walk around Halifax or Toronto, or wherever, that they use Tinder to maintain relationships with eight, nine, 10 women at the same time. And because they are taking so many women out of the dating pool it leaves a deficit of women.”
One of their solutions? Government, or society, should force everyone to date someone who’s physically comparable to themselves, something they call a “looks match.”
“They skew into very fascist, anti-feminist, anti-woman government social policies very quickly,” Halpin said.
Not ‘just a bearded white dude in a basement’
He and his collaborators are also interested in how racially and ethnically diverse incels are.
Halpin described it as a “weird environment” where someone who’s legitimately mourning the fact the Nazis lost the Second World War and expressing the need for Nazi governments in Canada and the US is on the same discussion board with people from South Asia or people who identify as Black talking about how white privilege plays into Tinder matching.
“A lot of people imagine an incel to just be a bearded white dude in a basement who’s bitterly typing away on the computer,” Halpin said.
“We observe people who are enrolled in super prestigious programs at the top universities in the world, people who claim very high socioeconomic status.”
What brings them together is many see their incel status as more important than every other allegiance in their lives. Halpin refers to this as a master status, or a part of your identity that trumps the others.
“Some of them will argue we may be from different backgrounds, different countries, of different social standings, but we’re all united by the fact that we’re incels,” Halpin said.
“We’ve been cast out from society and we’re the only brothers that each other has and we need to have a bond together and, of course, like a lot of that unity, the centrepiece of that unity is hatred for women.”
Halpin and his collaborators note how the incel community has been linked to many acts of violence, including mass murders. Those include Elliot Roger’s 2014 killing of six people in Isla Vista, California, and Alek Minassian’s 2018 murder of 10 people in Toronto.
“There’s some people in that community who absolutely think that those types of attacks are harmful for the community, there’s people in the community who think that they’re government psyops like to make incels look bad,” Halpin said.
“But there’s a non-trivial amount who really are celebrating mass killings of primarily women, but women and men. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the name of the incel ideas.”
“Ready-made audience for these types of ideas”
The form of discrimination they all feel impacted by is lookism, a term used to describe judging people based on physical attractiveness. Halpin said they believe social media is gasoline on the fire of lookism and hypergamy, which is increasing the number of men who become incels.
“They think that society will become more unstable and we’ll have more people like Elliott Rogers, we’ll have more people like Alek Minassian,” Halpin said.
“And/or we will get a men’s rights movement that really controls female reproduction, so enforces monogamy, no divorce laws, women not working, being completely dependent on men. Those are the types of ideas that they have, so it is very depressing research.”
Halpin believes people need to know about incels and these ideas they embrace. He pointed to the discussion board where 10,000 people are posting, wondering just how many more are reading and agreeing with the content but not posting.
While he’s conflicted about calling incels a terrorist group, Halpin believes “without doubt” there are people in that community who not only applaud mass killings but want to see more of them and “will be cheering” on their website if it does happen.
“In that sense alone, I think that they’re very much worth social concern,” he said.
Despite being a diverse group, Halpin said incels are bonded by their hatred of women and desire for solutions that include government and social policies that would take women’s rights away, and we all need to be aware of them.
“There’s a lot of people out there who have these beliefs, and a lot of them advocate for really regressive social policies for women,” he said.
“If there was a politician who popped up and was advocating for things like changes in divorce laws that were punitive to women, changes in employment laws that were punitive to women, government-regulated dating or reproduction, there’s a ready-made audience for these types of ideas…and you never know how politics change in a country.”
Halpin is collaborating on other research projects related to the incel community, including one digging deeper into the misogynistic content of the website based on his data.
He believes while many women — especially younger women — are already concerned about this because it regularly impacts their online lives, it’s an eye opener for those who don’t frequent discussion boards or know much about the incel community.
“For the most part it is just the internet, but a lot of people live their lives online and a lot of this harassment is happening to women every day that they’re at work,” Halpin said.
“And then, of course, sometimes it translates into real world violence, which is not small scale real world violence either. Even though it is a discussion board, and maybe 10,000 people sounds small to some people…it is definitely worth being aware of and attending to.”