Anne Speckhard, Molly Ellenberg, & Sheikh Ali Executive Summary: This article explores prison-based radicalization to…
Anne Speckhard, Molly Ellenberg, Jesse Morton, and Alexander Ash
This manuscript has been published in the Journal of Strategic Security.
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. Presently, Western men and women marry at increasingly older ages and tend to be sexually active for years prior to marriage.[i] 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 toward women and society at large for feeling that they fail to include them in the prospect of sexual contact and partnership.
Alarmingly, over the last six years, some self-identified incels, and others claimed by the incel community as their own, 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 Portland school shooting 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 online community.[ii] This was followed in 2018 by Alek Minassian, who carried out a deadly van attack killing ten in Toronto before which he proclaimed over Facebook that “the Incel Rebellion has already begun!” while hailing Elliot Rodger as his hero.[iii] 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.[iv] While some incels distanced themselves from incel forums as a result of these acts of violence and 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.
All of this begs the question of whether the broader incel subculture actually represents a threat to society, potentially embodying the characteristics of a terrorist movement. 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. Yet, 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. To do so, the authors issued a comprehensive questionnaire over 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.
Before 2014, when Elliott Rodger killed six people and injured 14 in Isla Vista, California, there was virtually no scholarly literature studying involuntary celibates – incels. Since Rodger’s attack, as well as self-identified incel Alek Minassian’s Toronto van attack and incel-inspired Chris Harper Mercer’s Portland shooting, research has grown exponentially, examining everything regarding incels, from the online “manosphere” more generally, to textual analysis of language related to sexual violence and misogyny, to the ideology as described in online comment threads, to incels’ sociosexual desire, Big Five personality traits, perceptions of women’s mating preferences, the public’s perception of incels, and incels’ sexual frustration and use of pornography.[v] The quantity of studies on incels is increasing, but their quality and breadth nevertheless remain lacking. Notably, all of the studies which include primary responses from incels to research questions, as opposed to textual analysis and open-source data collection, utilized the same data set of only 28 incels.[vi] The other more widely cited articles do not include any direct experimental interaction with incels. Ergo, nearly all of the available research to date on incels is based on the researchers’ analyses of online comments and posts. This literature is incredibly useful and certainly improves the public’s understanding of incels as it looks at their online behaviors and attitudes expressed therein, but it lacks specificity and detail related to the psychology of incels that colors their online posts and commentary. The internal mindset of incels can be gleaned only by asking them directly about themselves. The present study aims to fill this gap by first reviewing prior research on the incel ideology and then building upon it using primary quantitative data from what is the largest sample of incels ever studied (n = 272).
Incels comprise a section of the “manosphere,” a collection of online forums promoting some forms of masculinity, hostility toward women, and strong opposition to feminism. Specifically, Ging places incels, along with other so-called “beta males,” within the geek and gamer realms of the manosphere, a culture marked by “victimhood and aggrieved entitlement.”[vii] The manosphere has thrived on web forums like 4/chan and Reddit, but the primary incel Reddit thread was banned from the site in 2017, leading incels to migrate to smaller, more niche forums, such as the one used to distribute the survey used in this study. One study of posts on a forum called incels.me notes that incels.me was used to create a community for people who feal isolated in the real world due to their inability to make sexual and romantic relationships with women, although the creation of such an in-group also necessitated the creation of a negatively portrayed outgroup of women and of non-incel men.
The high-profile cases of violence committed by incels and the notion that the incel ideology holds that the in-group is vulnerable and threatened by the out-group have led some to conclude that the incel ideology is a form of violent extremism and that incel forums constitute a source of radicalization.[viii] However, a competing argument could be made that incel forums allow for free speech and venting of anger over real and perceived grievances, thus allowing a means for avoiding real-life expressions of violence. That said, the 2019 study found that much of the language used on incels.me could be classified as misogynistic or homophobic hate speech, which is more likely to fuel and cement grievances rather than presenting a means of calming responses to them. The authors’ profile of the posters also suggested nuances among the forum members who, according to Jaki and colleagues, varied in their risk levels for violence, admitting that violent fantasies may simply constitute “verbal tactics of self-enhancement in an online echo chamber.”[ix]
Of course, a glaring limitation of the aforementioned analyses and assessments is the lack of direct interaction with the incels themselves. The University of Twente in the Netherlands conducted a small online survey of incels (n = 28), from which more detailed data could be gleaned. One study using this data found that incels scored higher on sociosexual (uncommitted sexual relationships) desire than non-incels and lower on sociosexual behavior than non-incels, though the former result was only marginally significant, and both had small effect sizes. The same study also found a significant, moderately strong, negative correlation between degree of inceldom (as measured through the survey) and general well-being, emotional well-being, social well-being, and psychological well-being. Degree of inceldom was also a significant predictor of the four types of measured well-being.[x] Another study using the same data found that incels scored higher than non-incels on neuroticism and lower on extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness. Incels and non-incels did not score differently on openness to experience.[xi] Yet another study of the same sample found that incels believed that physical attractiveness was important to women in their mating preferences more so than non-incels. Conversely, non-incels believed that interpersonal warmth was important to women in their mating preferences more so than incels did.[xii] Another study found that incels scored higher than non-incels on a measure of misogyny, which was also predicted by sexual frustration and by pornography usage. Based on this data, the researchers inferred that sexual frustration may be a mediating factor between inceldom and misogyny, but this relationship was not directly investigated in the study.[xiii]
Notably, nearly all of the literature on incels has recognized that incels are a heterogenous group demographically but has also assumed that there is some link to be investigated between inceldom, misogyny, and sexual violence.[xiv] This is a reasonable assumption, given that incels have been discussed in the mainstream media almost exclusively in the context of violent crime.[xv] The assumption is also unsurprising, as most of the data regarding the incel ideology has come from analysis of online content, which can be revealing but is also unreliable, as it may represent exaggeration amidst group polarization, rather than an actual representation of true beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. There is very little research that relies on direct questioning of incels or that compares the two. Therefore, these assumptions linking misogyny and sexual violence to incels may have been drawn from the most extreme and boastful online comments made by incels, rather than from the actual inner workings of incels’ minds and life experiences.
The Present Study
Given the dearth of primary data on incels, the purpose of the present study is to expand upon the existing research on the incel ideology and views of potential psychopathology in order to better understand the potential dangers posed by this community to the public and themselves. Moreover, this study aims to carefully avoid conflating all incels with those few who have engaged in sexual violence and furthermore to identify areas of need for incels who may not be violent at all but may be appropriate for non-judgmental and understanding mental health or psychosocial support to deal with frustration and exclusion and to potentially find ways to overcome obstacles to realizing intimate interpersonal relationships. The researchers designed and distributed a comprehensive survey that was completed by a sample of incels (n = 272), a sample approximately ten times larger than the only other known primary research sample of incels.
This study utilized a Google Forms survey that was designed by the research team after study of the forum, inceldom and in-depth preliminary interaction with some incels and the owner of the incel.co forum. It was sent out to active members of a large incel forum by the owner with an invitation for adult forum members who self-identify as incels to participate. The survey was kept open from December 7, 2020 to January 2, 2021. Before completing the survey, all participants electronically indicated their informed consent. The informed consent document indicated the purposes of the survey, that it was being conducted by Light Upon Light, a division of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE] and that it would be completely anonymous. After completing the survey, participants were given the option to enter their email address for the chance to win a monetary prize. Their email addresses were not linked to their responses. Participants were informed that they could choose to skip any question, quit the survey at any time, or not participate at all. They were also warned that some questions were emotionally charged and that they might experience some distress while answering them. They were provided with a link to the Samaritans, an organization with a number of different helplines to provide emotional support if needed. They were also given an email address that they could use to contact the researchers. Participants were required to be at least 18 years of age.
The survey itself included 68 questions in a variety of formats (multiple choice, checklists, short and long answer) covering a wide array of topics, ranging from participants’ social lives and personal experiences, their adherence to various facets of the incel ideology, their perspectives regarding incel-related violence, endorsement of those incels who have carried out violent actions and the debate over whether incels should be considered violent extremists, and demographic information. They were also asked about their psychological traits and symptoms, as well as their experiences with mental health professionals. The data was collected using Google Forms, which provides results in Google Sheets or comma-separated values [.csv] format. The .csv data was subsequently imported into IBM SPSS Statistics Version 26, where it was quantitatively analyzed.
In total, 312 people from the forum responded to the survey. Of those 312, 5.8 percent (n = 18) said that they did not identify as incel, and 8.0 percent (n = 25) said that they were under 18, even though they agreed to the informed consent procedure which clearly stated that participants needed to be 18 years old in order to complete the survey. All of these aforementioned participants were therefore excluded from the data analysis in order to confidently state that the sample (n = 272) is comprised of self-identified incels who are 18 or older.
Of the 272 respondents included in the sample, 271 stated that they were male, and one declined to state their gender. Therefore, the results do not require any disaggregation by gender. The sample was demographically diverse on a variety of fronts. Ethnically, 53.3 percent were White/Caucasian (not Middle Eastern or Hispanic), 9.6 percent were Black or African American, 7.0 percent were Middle Eastern, 7.0 percent were Hispanic, 5.1 percent were Asian (not including Indian), 5.1 percent were Indian, and 12.9 percent were another ethnicity or were not sure of their ethnicity.
The respondents resided all over the world, with the majority living in the developed world, including 32.4 percent residing in Western Europe, 30.9 percent residing in North America, 14.3 percent residing in Eastern Europe, 9.9 percent residing in Asia, 7.7 percent residing in Central or South America, 2.2 percent residing in Africa, and 2.2 percent residing in Oceania. They were also religiously diverse: 35.7 percent were atheist; 25.4 percent were agnostic; 19.1 percent were Christian; 5.1 percent were Muslim; 4.0 percent were Hindu, Buddhist, or Taoist; and 1.5 percent were Jewish. Twenty-four participants (8.8 percent) said they were another religion, and one declined to state their religion.
With regard to their sexual orientation, 93.8 percent said they identified as heterosexual and 4.8 percent said they identified as bisexual. One person said they identified as homosexual, and the remaining three participants said they identified as a sexual orientation other than heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual. The majority of the participants did not have a college degree, with 29.0 percent having a high school diploma or equivalent and 23.2 percent having completed some college. Beyond that, 7.7 percent had a two-year college or university degree (associate’s), 21.0 percent had a college degree (bachelor’s), 1.5 percent had completed some graduate school, and 5.9 percent had a graduate degree. This distribution is similar to that of the United States, where 28.1 percent of adults aged 25 or older have a high school diploma as their highest level of educational attainment, and 22.5 percent of adults aged 25 or older have completed a college degree.[xvi] It is also similar to educational attainment in the European Union, where 34.6 percent of adults aged 25 to 54 have completed any level of tertiary education, compared to 36.8 percent of this sample. Additionally, 11.0 percent said they had not completed high school, and two participants did not state their educational level. This educational distribution is unsurprising, given the age distribution of the sample (mean=24.84, median=23, mode=20).
While the entered age range was 0 to 69, it is likely that the true age range of the participants was 18 to 52. Given the sexually suggestive connotation of the number 69 among this population and the fact that no ages between 52 and 69 were entered, it is likely that the participant who entered his age as 69 did so in jest and is not actually 69 years old. Socioeconomically, 65.4 percent identified as lower-middle, upper-middle, or middle class. Another 30.1 percent identified as working class, 2.6 percent identified as upper class, and 1.8 percent declined to state their socioeconomic status. These self-identified socioeconomic statuses are consistent with self-reported income levels, when split by whether the participants were still in school or not, as students may have low incomes but identify with the socioeconomic status of their parents.
In terms of income, the sample split into four groups, those who were still students, those who were working students, those who worked and those who were unemployed. Of those who were still students, 62.7 percent said they earned less than ten thousand dollars per year, yet only 27.7 percent said that they considered themselves working class, compared with 65.1 percent who said they were lower-middle, upper-middle, or middle class, and 3.6 percent who said they were upper class. Of those who worked, 31.8 percent said they earned less than ten thousand dollars per year, 28.2 said they earned 10 to 30 thousand dollars per year, 17.6 percent said they earned 30 to 50 thousand per year, and 12.9 percent said they earned 50 to 70 thousand dollars per year. Of the participants who said they worked and were in school, 32.3 percent said they earned less than 10 thousand dollars per year, 22.6 percent said they earned 10 to 30 thousand dollars per year, and 19.4 percent said they earned 30 to 50 thousand dollars per year. Of the participants who said they were not in school and did not work, 69.9 percent said they earned less than 10 thousand dollars per year. Across the whole sample, only 14 participants said they earned 90 thousand dollars or more per year, with four of those earning 90 to 100 thousand dollars per year, six earning 100 to 150 thousand dollars per year, and four earning more than 150 thousand dollars per year. Sixteen participants did not report their income level.
What Defines an Incel?
While the popular definition of incels might be broad and generally refers to a frustration about perceiving and experiencing oneself as excluded from popular Western mores in which youth engage in sexual relations, often with multiple partners over time prior to marriage, and see themselves also excluded from romantic sexual and marital relationships as well. However, 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, while this particular forum allows only men to be members, 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.
Despite disagreement over the exact criteria of inceldom, participants largely fit into the popular definition of being excluded by perception, and in reality, from sexual and/or romantic relations with women. Although most participants said that they did not exhibit specific traits of unattractiveness by societal standards (unusually short, overweight, physical conditions such as a lazy eye, a cleft lip, skin lesions, or other deformities, balding, etc.), they generally rated themselves as unattractive. On a scale of one to ten, only 15.4 percent rated themselves higher than five (mean=3.86, median=4, mode=3). Their romantic experiences were also limited but not non-existent, although 51.5 percent admitted that they had not ever had a sexual or romantic experience. Commonly reported romantic and sexual experiences included kissing (32.7 percent), paying for sex (19.1 percent), and having unpaid sex (12.9 percent).
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.[xvii]
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 tenants of the black pill: 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%).
Participants also expressed the extent of their agreement with various statements regarding the blackpill specifically. On average, the participants agreed (rated as 3, 4, or 5) that the blackpill is “true” (95.6%), “objective” (92.6%), and “depressing” (87.5%). They generally disagreed (rated as 1 or 2) that the blackpill is “comforting” (59.9%), although some proponents of the blackpill state that there is relief in being set free by the truth. There was more variation regarding whether or not the participants believed (rated as 3, 4, or 5) the blackpill is “worrying” (70.2%), “liberating” (74.6%), and “refreshing” (64.0%).
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 reporting 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 therapy. Indeed, there is significant discussion among the incel community on the forum that suggests that therapy 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.
While this study provides a great deal of exploratory information regarding the background and makeup of individual incels, popular and academic interest in incels still lies primarily in the question of whether the group poses a significant public security threat. From the respondents’ perspective, incel groups are communities, movements, self-help groups, and groups defined by a shared circumstance, but 17 of the survey participants agreed with the statement that incel groups are “groups willing to endorse violence.” Nevertheless, it is important to stress that nearly half of the survey participants (46.3 percent) completely disagreed (rated as 1) with the opinion that incels are violent and dangerous, while only eight very much or completely agreed (rated as 4 or 5) with that opinion.
Despite the general disagreement with the idea that incels are dangerous, the participants were well aware of the individuals who gave them that reputation. For instance, 53.3 percent said they had read Elliot Rodger’s manifesto, and 63 respondents said that they at least somewhat (rated as 3, 4, or 5) admired him for his attack in Isla Vista, which gives lie to some degree, with their also claiming that incels are not potentially violent. Similarly, 59 said that they at least somewhat admired Alek Minassian and 49 said that they at least somewhat admired Chris Harper Mercer. While agreement with these statements was not endorsed by the majority, it is nevertheless alarming that between 18 and 23.2 percent of respondents admired these killers.
Participants were also asked about their own thoughts of violence. In response, 38.2 percent of the participants at least somewhat agreed (rated as 3, 4, or 5) with the statement, “I sometimes entertain thoughts of violence toward others.” Moreover, 56 respondents, comprising 20.6 percent of the sample, at least somewhat agreed with the statement, “I would rape if I could get away with it.” In comparison, a study based on a sample size of 86 college men found that only 13.6 percent said that they would commit rape if they could get away with it, though that study also found that putting rape into relatable terms, rather than using the word rape itself, increased the likelihood of endorsement. Thus, when asked if they would “force a woman to sexual intercourse” without consequences, 31.7 percent of the college men surveyed said that they would. Such a study offers an interesting comparison and suggests that the alarming data included in the incel survey should ideally be juxtaposed against similar data collected from non-incel control groups, and also that it would be useful to phrase the question of rape in relatable terms to incels to see if it enhanced reported levels of endorsement as well.[xviii]
Importantly, the vast majority of the participants (82.0 percent) completely disagreed with the Canadian decision to designate incels as a terrorist group and most did not see incels as dangerous. The fact that very few participants actually believed incels to be violent and dangerous indicates the group’s apparent belief that incels generally will not act on their violent thoughts despite many harboring such sentiments endorsing misogynist beliefs, expressing hate speech on the forum, and a meaningful portion of them admiring others who have carried out violence against women in the name of inceldom.
Although the number of individuals who strongly agreed with the statements of admiration or endorsement of violence is small, it was possible to predict such agreement. The extent to which a participant considered themselves a misogynist was significantly predictive of agreement with the statement “I would rape if I could get away with it,” F(1, 263)=44.328, p<0.001, R2=0.144. Agreement with that statement was also significantly predicted by self-reported dangerousness, F(1, 263)=54.340, p<0.001, R2=0.168. Self-reported misogyny was also significantly predictive of agreement with the statement “I sometimes entertain thoughts of violence,” F(1, 269)=40.801, p<0.001, R2=0.128; as well as admiration of Elliot Rodger, F(1, 268)=58.974, p<0.001, R2=0.177; Alek Minassian, F(1, 268)=53.427, p<0.001, R2=0.164; and Chris Harper Mercer, F(1, 267)=43.682, p<0.001, R2=0.137. This variable was also significantly predictive of self-reported dangerousness, F(1, 270)=35.766, p<0.001, R2=0.114. All of the aforementioned dependent variables were significantly correlated with one another. Participants’ self-reported misogyny was also significantly correlated with agreement regarding the negative statements about women reported previously, except “Women in general only care about status when considering male partners.”
It appears, therefore, that incels vary in but are cognizant of their own misogyny, and that the higher level of embraced misogyny, the higher the likelihood of violent ideation. Worryingly, although participants lauded the attributes of the forum, they also agreed to some extent that their membership in the group had made them more misogynistic, with only 27.2 percent of respondents completely disagreeing with that sentiment. Self-reported misogyny and extent of agreement with the sentiment that the forum increased feelings of misogyny were highly correlated (spearman’s rho=0.507, p<0.001).
Time spent on the forum daily was also significantly positively correlated with self-reported misogyny (spearman’s rho=0.250, p<0.001), but not with agreement that the forum increases feelings of misogyny. As previously mentioned, the participants also agreed (rated as 3, 4, or 5) that participation on the forum had some positive impacts on their lives, namely that it made them feel at home (81.6%), feel less lonely (80.5%), feel a sense of belonging (89.3%), feel understood (92.6%), and have freedom of speech (91.9%). While all of these can be highly beneficial for one’s mental health and psychosocial wellbeing, these attributes can also have a compounding effect by reinforcing previously held beliefs, such as exacerbating misogyny. Likewise, the forum might also foster a sense of anger related to giving into hopelessness and helplessness about sexual exclusion, rather than seeking positive solutions or alternatives that led to fulfillment in other ways.
In line with this, survey participants tended to agree that the forum helped them learn about the blackpill (88.2%) and feel hopeless (72.8%). Moreover, self-reported intensity of depressive symptoms was significantly correlated with agreement that the forum made them feel depressed (spearman’s rho=0.342, p<0.001) and that the forum made them feel suicidal (spearman’s rho=0.310, p<0.001). Parallel to those correlations, the participants’ self-reported intensity of suicidal thoughts was significantly correlated with agreement that the forum made them feel depressed (spearman’s rho=0.222, p<0.001) and that the forum made them feel suicidal (spearman’s rho=0.436, p<0.001). Moreover, the intensity of participants’ self-harm was significantly correlated with agreement that the forum made them feel like harming themselves (spearman’s rho=0.364, p<0.001). Perhaps most worrying, participants’ self-reported dangerousness was significantly correlated with agreement that the forum made them feel violent (spearman’s rho=0.417, p<0.001). Participants’ agreement with the statement “I would rape if I could get away with it” was also significantly correlated with agreement that the forum made them feel violent (spearman’s rho=0.325, p<0.001), as was participants’ self-reported misogyny (spearman’s rho=0.339, p<0.001).
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 non-violent. Likewise, while the forum currently offers them a sense of belonging, understanding, and a place to vent, it also appears to increase their sense of depression, suicidality and misogyny, the latter of which was correlated with endorsements of violent attitudes and behaviors. Clearly, the forum could potentially offer more positive support than pushing the black pill ideology to a group whose grievance appears to make them feel angry, depressed, suicidal and hopeless. It is also important to stress, however, that it is unknown how these symptoms might manifest absent incel community involvement.
Most incels in this survey (71.3%) 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 through a “lookist” lens stimulates a belief that nothing short of plastic surgery to alter their physical appearance can help.[xix] 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, may be standing in their way of making successful sexual and romantic partnerships.
As a result of their feelings of hopelessness, incels turn to online communities such as the forum used in this study in an effort to find community, understanding, and belonging. The respondents generally agreed that participation on the forum was more helpful than harmful, but there remains an admitted concern among them that the sense of understanding and belonging gleaned through participation, particularly in coming to believe in the black pill ideology, serves to compound certain maladaptive characteristics. Thus, even though participants did not, on average, highly agree that the forum made them more depressed, suicidal, or self-harming, those who were already prone to such psychopathology did. In this respect, concern is warranted, as we have already learned from school shooters and terrorism studies that, while large groups of individuals may be radicalized into endorsing violent attitudes, only a very few go on to commit violent acts. However, with the ready availability of guns in the U.S. and the potential for copycat crimes, there remains significant cause for concern.
Furthermore, participants who rated themselves as highly dangerous were also more likely to say that the forum made them feel more violent, and participants who rated themselves as highly misogynistic were more likely to say that the forum made them feel more misogynistic. Additionally, self-reported levels of dangerousness and misogyny were both highly predictive of agreement with the sentiment, “I would rape if I could get away with it.” Nevertheless, the community should not be treated as a monolith. Interventions, policies, and practices that stigmatize an entire community already suffering with social isolation, public rejection, and sexual exclusion is hardly helpful to prevent the few that may enact violent crimes.
In conclusion, incels’ self-report that the forum offers a useful means of venting anger, creating community and belonging, and sharing their grievance – a general mistrust of the mental health system and belief that mental health interventions and therapy are not useful – suggests that the forum might be an effective place to consider creative mental health and psychosocial interventions that came across in a positive, humanizing manner to counter hopelessness and despair. All the more important would be to involve incels or former incels in the design and development of such interventions. The survey results make clear that such efforts should target reducing the risks of harm to self and others while promoting an alternative narrative to the black pill, in which 94.9 percent of the survey respondents endorsed believing.
Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne, Ellenberg, Molly, Morton, Jesse, and Ash, Alexander. (February 3, 2021). Involuntary Celibates’ Experiences of and Grievance over Sexual Exclusion and the Potential Threat of Violence Among Those Active in an Online Incel Forum. ICSVE Research Reports.
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 five years years, she has interviewed 258 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 200 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 150 Facebook and Instagram campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals, both locally and internationally, on the psychology of terrorism, the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS. Dr. Speckhard has given consultations and police trainings to U.S., German, UK, Dutch, Austrian, Swiss, Belgian, Danish, Iraqi, Jordanian and Thai national police and security officials, among others, as well as trainings to elite hostage negotiation teams. She also consults to foreign governments on issues of terrorist prevention and interventions and 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, CBC 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
Molly Ellenberg is a research fellow at ICSVE. Molly is a doctoral student 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 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 and UC San Diego Research Conferences. Her research has also been published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, the Journal of Strategic Security, the Journal of Human Security, 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.
Jesse Morton was once a prominent radicalizer in the West. As a co-founder and chief propagandist of Revolution Muslim, a New York City-based group active in the 2000s, he helped to insert the narrative of Al-Qaeda and Salafi-jihadist ideology into the American ambit. Morton had direct contact with some of the most prominent extremist preachers in the West. Revolution Muslim was connected to a number of terrorism cases. Jesse holds a bachelor’s degree in Human Services and a Master’s in International Relations from Columbia University, with a concentration on the Middle East and nonprofit management. He has lectured at Imam Muhammad ibn Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and Sunderland University in Casablanca, Morocco, and is widely read in classical Islamic theology and jurisprudence and historical relations between the United States and Middle Eastern nations. He was included in Foreign Policy Magazine’s 2017 ‘Global Thinkers’ listing and is a certified substance abuse and mental health counselor in New York State. Jesse worked briefly at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, while there he focused on issues such as the propaganda of terrorist organizations, Islamic and jihadist ideology, countering radicalization and extremism and promoting disengagement. He currently consults with organizations countering violent extremism and is the research coordinator of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s Against Violent Extremism (AVE) Network in North America.
[i] Twenge, Jean M., Ryne A. Sherman, and Brooke E. Wells. “Changes in American adults’ sexual behavior and attitudes, 1972–2012.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 44, no. 8 (2015): 2273-2285. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-015-0540-2
[ii] 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
[iii] 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
[iv] 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
[v] Byerly, Carolyn M. “Incels online reframing sexual violence.” The Communication Review 23, no. 4 (2020): 290-308. https://doi.org/10.1080/10714421.2020.1829305; Jaki, Sylvia, Tom De Smedt, Maja Gwóźdź, Rudresh Panchal, Alexander Rossa, and Guy De Pauw. “Online hatred of women in the Incels. me forum: Linguistic analysis and automatic detection.” Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict 7, no. 2 (2019): 240-268. https://doi.org/10.1075/jlac.00026.jak; Rummelhoff, Katrine. “Incels and Misogyny; what’s so appealing about hatred?.” Master’s thesis, 2020. http://urn.nb.no/URN:NBN:no-83151; Passmann, Allegra. “The cociosexuality and well-being of incels.” Bachelor’s thesis, University of Twente, 2020. http://purl.utwente.nl/essays/82703; Bieselt, Helena Elisabeth. “Personality of Incels and its extent as predictor of involvement and activity in the Incel community.” Bachelor’s thesis, University of Twente, 2020. http://purl.utwente.nl/essays/81574; Ünes, Aylin. “Mating preferences of women as perceived by incels.” Bachelor’s thesis, University of Twente, 2020. http://purl.utwente.nl/essays/82750; Stickel, Johannes. “What Incels Can Tell Us About Misogyny: Evaluating Sexual Frustration and Pornography Usage as Potential Factors for Misogyny.” Master’s thesis, University of Twente, 2020. http://essay.utwente.nl/83875/
[vi] Rummelhoff, Katrine. “Incels and Misogyny; what’s so appealing about hatred?.” Master’s thesis, 2020. http://urn.nb.no/URN:NBN:no-83151; Passmann, Allegra. “The cociosexuality and well-being of incels.” Bachelor’s thesis, University of Twente, 2020. http://purl.utwente.nl/essays/82703; Bieselt, Helena Elisabeth. “Personality of Incels and its extent as predictor of involvement and activity in the Incel community.” Bachelor’s thesis, University of Twente, 2020. http://purl.utwente.nl/essays/81574; Ünes, Aylin. “Mating preferences of women as perceived by incels.” Bachelor’s thesis, University of Twente, 2020. http://purl.utwente.nl/essays/82750; Stickel, Johannes. “What Incels Can Tell Us About Misogyny: Evaluating Sexual Frustration and Pornography Usage as Potential Factors for Misogyny.” Master’s thesis, University of Twente, 2020. http://essay.utwente.nl/83875/
[vii] Ging, Debbie. “Alphas, betas, and incels: Theorizing the masculinities of the manosphere.” Men and Masculinities 22, no. 4 (2019): 638-657. https://doi.org/10.1177/1097184X17706401; Kimmel, Michael. Angry white men: American masculinity at the end of an era. Hachette UK, 2017. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=7WVGDgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT7&ots=zdDnooevrQ&sig=VFXE0GcNYkF7C9yAeBb1j30I5Lc#v=onepage&q&f=false
[viii] Hoffman, Bruce, and Jacob Ware. “Incels: America’s Newest Domestic Terrorism Threat.” Lawfare blog 12 (2020). https://www.lawfareblog.com/incels-americas-newest-domestic-terrorism-threat
[ix] Jaki, Sylvia, Tom De Smedt, Maja Gwóźdź, Rudresh Panchal, Alexander Rossa, and Guy De Pauw. “Online hatred of women in the Incels. me forum: Linguistic analysis and automatic detection.” Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict 7, no. 2 (2019): 240-268. https://doi.org/10.1075/jlac.00026.jak
[x] Passmann, Allegra. “The cociosexuality and well-being of incels.” Bachelor’s thesis, University of Twente, 2020. http://purl.utwente.nl/essays/82703
[xi] Bieselt, Helena Elisabeth. “Personality of Incels and its extent as predictor of involvement and activity in the Incel community.” Bachelor’s thesis, University of Twente, 2020. http://purl.utwente.nl/essays/81574
[xii] Ünes, Aylin. “Mating preferences of women as perceived by incels.” Bachelor’s thesis, University of Twente, 2020. http://purl.utwente.nl/essays/82750
[xiii] Stickel, Johannes. “What Incels Can Tell Us About Misogyny: Evaluating Sexual Frustration and Pornography Usage as Potential Factors for Misogyny.” Master’s thesis, University of Twente, 2020. http://essay.utwente.nl/83875/
[xiv] Rummelhoff, Katrine. “Incels and Misogyny; what’s so appealing about hatred?.” Master’s thesis, 2020. http://urn.nb.no/URN:NBN:no-83151
[xv] Byerly, Carolyn M. “Incels online reframing sexual violence.” The Communication Review 23, no. 4 (2020): 290-308. https://doi.org/10.1080/10714421.2020.1829305
[xvi] U.S. Census Bureau. “U.S. Census Bureau Releases New Educational Attainment Data,” March 30, 2020. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2020/educational-attainment.html.
[xvii] Moonshot, C. V. E. “Incels: A guide to symbols and terminology.” (2020). http://moonshotcve.com/incels-symbols-and-terminology/
[xviii] Edwards, Sarah R., Kathryn A. Bradshaw, and Verlin B. Hinsz. “Denying rape but endorsing forceful intercourse: Exploring differences among responders.” Violence and Gender 1, no. 4 (2014): 188-193. https://doi.org/10.1089/vio.2014.0022
[xix] Moonshot, C. V. E. “Incels: A guide to symbols and terminology.” (2020). http://moonshotcve.com/incels-symbols-and-terminology/