On Monday April 23rd 2018, the driver of a white van ran over a pedestrian in the streets of Toronto, Canada. Then, the van climbed onto the sidewalk and proceeded to plough over people indiscriminately. The incident ended with 10 victim fatalities and 14 people injured, according to the Toronto Police.
Soon after the attack, there was immediate media speculation as to the reasons behind the violent act. After the dismissal of links to organised terrorist groups and further analysis of the attacker’s life, both the New York Times and Vox reported that in his last Facebook post, the alleged attacker, Alex Minassian, made a pledge to the “Incel Rebellion”, hailing Elliot Rodger (who killed six people in a stabbing and shooting spree in Isla Vista, California in 2014).
What does incel mean?
The term “incel” stands for involuntary celibate and it is used within some internet platforms to describe men who do not want to be celibate, but are unable to find sexual partners – in their opinion, because of the devaluing of masculinity and the rise of feminism, among other reasons. Until recently, the sub-Reddit known as /incels was one of their main online communities, but Reddit banned it in December 2017, as reported by the BBC.
Incel communities are part of what is known as the “manosphere” – a network of blogs and forums that discuss men and masculinities. While not all parts of the manosphere support incels and their views, the community itself is self-referencing, and one might begin their entrance in the manosphere on websites that discuss issues of parental custody and end up on discussion threads in the infamous 4chan forum, which was behind a targeted attack on women known as GamerGate – discussed as being one of the proponents of alt-right strategies by The Guardian.
Furthermore, as any other community, incels use specific terminology – Minassain, on his Facebook post, alluded to killing “Chads” and “Stacys”, for example. Chads are the opposite of incels, being men who have a lot of sexual relations with women, whereas Stacys are the desirable, but ultimately unattainable, women who are also sexually active. Much of such language is misogynistic in its core, such as the use of the word “femoid” (female + humanoid) instead of woman, which emphasises the dehumanisation of women and their perceived inferiority to men.
How are incels related to women’s rights?
The theme of women’s rights is implicitly present in the rhetoric of such groups – from discussions on women in the workplace to questions of custody battles, the hard won rights that women have achieved in the last century are framed as being the reason for men’s rejection by women. These allegations, allied with the use of violent language, raise a lot of questions regarding the online spaces and how they impact both the perpetration and perpetuation of violence against women.
In its core, the idea of incel is extremely pervasive for women and human rights. Media outlets such as The New York Post and The Guardian have discussed the implicit entitlement in the idea behind “involuntary celibacy” – the idea that men are owed sex by society. More specifically, the idea of involuntary celibacy seems to encapsulate the idea that women owe men sex, and that not being able to have sexual experiences with the women they desire gives men the right to retaliate.
“Involuntary celibacy”: terrorism or something else entirely?
The attack by Alek Minassain has not been unique in its motivation – sexual frustration not only being part of Elliot Rodger’s attack in 2014, but also, as The Cut reports, hails back to 1989 when Marc Lepine, claiming “feminism ruined his life” killed 14 women at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. Parts of the manosphere have been monitored for years by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which reported on how groups discussing men’s rights were linking their beliefs with mass murderers such as Anders Breivik and George Sodini.
Nonetheless, Oxford professor Debbie Cameron discusses how the language of terrorism, which has been taken up by several feminist pieces on media outlets such the New York Times and Elle, might not be the best in describing the ways in which disenfranchisement, gender violence and the internet have conflated to allow for fertile ground for misogynistic views.
To consider incels and the culture of the manosphere in the same way as terrorism is to ignore the nature of misogyny itself, which is the idea that women who do not fulfill specific gendered roles deserve hatred from men. In this sense, misogyny is directly opposed to women’s rights – everytime a woman achieves a position of power, any legislation that fights for domestic abuse victims is approved or a woman refuses a man sex, misogynists become more enraged. The growth of women’s autonomy that results from the upholding of women’s rights allows for misogynists to feel entitled in their hatred and justified in their violence.
Whereas the mainstream media has given attention to incels after the Toronto attack, the movement is not new by far. The idolisation of Elliot Rodger showcases that the sentiment permeating incel ideology has existed for at least half a decade, but has remained hidden from public scrutiny because of the spaces in which those discussions take place. While important in maintaining the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable in political discourse, the refusal, as put by Zoe Williams in the Guardian, to credit incel with connected and developed thinking that characterises an ideology does allow for the festering of such a movement within the remotes confines of the internet. In fact, it is only the contemporary demonstration of traditional forms of misogyny – and while the internet has allowed for incel to find a community of its own, it has by no means created a new terrorist group
What does the incel controversy mean for violence against women?
How then, to understand the question of incels and the rise of misogyny in the age of the internet? If such groups cannot be ignored because of their violent potential, but should not be acknowledged as terrorists, how can this phenomenon be dealt with?
The answer is complex. While it is important to acknowledge the similarities with what the Guardian discusses regarding the case of the so-called alt-right, online spaces allow for radicalisation and a potential for violence which is not restricted to those spaces. Misogyny feeds on the belief that the advancement of women’s rights is somehow detrimental to men’s lives, and that belief can be seen in any opposition to women’s rights.
The media and human rights activists should not consider the attack in Toronto as the symptom of a new disease – instead, it is necessary to understand this tragedy as part of the opposition to the ideas of human rights and gender equality.