You know it’s gonna be a spicy video when I start out with a content warning: today I’ll be talking about misogynist violence, rape, and murder. Good times!
Last week, I stumbled upon a study that was just published in the British Journal of Sociology called ““This is a political movement, friend”: Why “incels” support violence.” Incels? Misogynist terrorism? Politics? Science? I’m in, you crazy bastard.
Catharina O’Donnell, a sociologist at Harvard decided to take on the task of evaluating thousands of comments on an incel forum following the 2018 Toronto van attack, in which a self-described “incel” purposely plowed his van into pedestrians, killing 10 people and injuring another 16.
If you’re on this channel you probably already know this, but just inc ase you’re new here, “incel” stands for “involuntary celibate.” While it began life as a term coined by a lonely lesbian, it has been taken up as a title of honor primarily amongst young cishetero men who feel that they have no hope of ever being able to have sex with a woman, usually due to their physical looks. It’s not synonymous with virgin – all of us have been a virgin at some point, and it’s easily possible to be a grown adult virgin who doesn’t consider himself to be a victim, and who doesn’t virulently hate women, attractive men, or the “normies” of society who ignore his plight. “Incel” encompasses all that extra baggage.
This recent paper simply examined how incels reacted to the van massacre, and then identified the major themes in those reactions to better understand why extremist groups celebrate violence and conversely why members of those groups may go out and commit that violence. So this wasn’t all just to learn more about incels, but also to explore the general ways that any radicalized echo chamber might behave.
O’Donnell identified four purposes the incels felt violence served: first was increased attention. When the van murderer identified as an incel, the incel forum rejoiced because they thought this was their cause going “mainstream.” They encouraged one another to post what were essentially “Incel 101” type of posts in the hopes that the murder pushed more new visitors to their forum, who they could recruit as new incels. O’Donnell points out that this is common to non-incel terrorists as well: largescale violence is seen as a necessary means to achieve publicity.
Purpose number two was “revenge.” Incels were very excited to see a fellow incel enact revenge: on women for refusing to have sex with them, on attractive men for stealing all the women, and on “normies” for not caring about incels. So, basically, everyone who doesn’t identify as an incel. O’Donnell points out that this is also common across other “terrorist” ideologies, as even bystanders are presumed to not be fully innocent.
While revenge and publicity were considered by nearly all the incels to be positive outcomes, a smaller but still substantial number clearly felt that the attack also fulfilled the purpose of achieving political goals. This one is a bit controversial, since incels aren’t exactly the most politically motivated, or politically educated, group out there. But there was definitely a pattern of people who thought the attack would further the goals of rolling back women’s rights and stopping feminism, which they see as being antithetical to their own goals of being able to have sex with whatever woman they want. Any law or societal norm that assumes women are anything other than holes for men to stick things in is, per se, bad.
The final purpose O’Donnell noted was “Reinforcing masculinity through misogyny,” and this is a big one which is why I saved it for last. O’Donnell found what many other researchers have recently been identifying: there are a few key ways that men in our society perform masculinity. One of those is by having lots of sex with women: that’s widely seen as a marker of the successful manly man, and incels, by definition, are lacking that marker. What’s another common marker of masculinity in our society? Violence. Violence (and aggression and anger) are seen as “masculine” traits, so for many men who desperately want to be accepted as manly but who aren’t having sex, “violence” is the next “acceptable” way to demonstrate masculinity.
It’s interesting because of how many researchers have noted misogynistic violence can be an end in and of itself but it can also be an underpinning of other terrorist attacks. As the New York Times described in 2019:
The man who shot nine people to death last weekend in Dayton, Ohio, seethed at female classmates and threatened them with violence.
The man who massacred 49 people in an Orlando nightclub in 2016 beat his wife while she was pregnant, she told authorities.
The man who killed 26 people in a church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., in 2017 had been convicted of domestic violence. His ex-wife said he once told her that he could bury her body where no one would ever find it.
The motivations of men who commit mass shootings are often muddled, complex or unknown. But one common thread that connects many of them — other than access to powerful firearms — is a history of hating women, assaulting wives, girlfriends and female family members, or sharing misogynistic views online, researchers say.
The question is this: are men who commit domestic violence more likely to go on to commit terroristic acts, or is domestic violence so common that we just happen to find it every time we peer into the background of a new terrorist? Wow, two possibilities, each extraordinarily depressing in its own special way.
That’s what makes these studies on incels and terrorism so interesting. Because while it’s interesting and important to know how self-described “incels” respond to violence committed in their name (and therefore how the encourage more incels to do the same), you have to understand that incels are just one part of a much larger community of the “manosphere,” which includes pick-up artists who treat women as barely sentient sex dolls waiting to be manipulated into sex, “men’s rights activists” (MRAs) who spend their timenot working on real men’s issues like circumcision or suicide but by harassing feminists like me, and “men going their own way” (MGTOW) who simply dismiss women as lesser animals who are nothing more than a distraction from them achieving nirvana.
And that large community of men who to one degree or another openly hate women is itself just one part of a larger society that, despite significant advances over the past century, still hates women, wants to control women, wants to limit women, and wants to kill women. How else do you explain Texas, the 2nd largest and most populous state in the union, outlawing abortion when research shows that this will not necessarily stop abortions but will increase the number of women who die trying to get unsafe abortions?
That’s one reason why it’s relatively easy for our media, our government, and our law enforcement agencies to label, say, Islamic terrorism as “terrorism.” That’s the “classic” American understanding of terrorism since 9/11, to the point that some researchers worry that (correctly) labeling male and white supremacist violence as terrorism might end up harming innocent Muslim people by dragging them into something they have nothing to do with, and it also may cause people to want to enact “counter-terrorism” measures that won’t actually work for these different types of terrorism and just end up hurting Muslims and other minorities.
But yes, on 9/11 Al Qaeda had a clear ideology that Americans recognized as being antithetical to theirs (whether true or not, like “they hate our freedom” or “they hate Christianity”). Meanwhile, it’s very difficult for those groups to label a male supremacist as a terrorist, because HIS ideology is “I hate women,” and our society includes a hatred of women as a fundamental tenet. There is a man out there who is genuinely shocked when a misogynist guns down women in a massage parlor, despite the fact that a small voice in the back of his head says “those whores deserved it.” And he’s not alone.
Politicians can ban Muslims (or people from predominantly Muslim countries) from immigrating in a theatrical attempt to stop Islamic terrorism, but how can you stop misogynists from living amongst us? They’re already here in full force, and far too many people are somewhere on the woman-hating spectrum. As Solzhenitsyn wrote: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Stopping misogynistic terrorism requires a much more complicated solution than people would like to accept. Over on Reddit, where I first noticed the incel study, commenters illustrate this perfectly, like with this upvoted comment: “Imagine how different the world would be if religion instead preached the art of courtship and how to engage in witty banter, instead of dogmatic principles and absolving accountability.”
If only these men could get laid, they wouldn’t commit mass murder? No. Again: incels are a subsection. A much larger number of misogynistic terrorists get all the sex they’d like, and they still hate women. The actual solution involves complete structural change – a society that values women, that protects their autonomy, where women reporting crimes are treated the same as men reporting crimes, where stalking and harassment is taken seriously by authorities, where men don’t have easy access to guns – and we just don’t want to do all that.
Reading this incel study, and then reading various other studies about misogyny as a “gateway” to worse behaviors, reminded me of one of MY stalkers from back in 2012. A Skepchick reader sent me a link to a guy’s website where he was selling music with titles, lyrics, and images about murdering me. He had clearly spent a good deal of time imagining it. And while I had men sending me death threats every day back then, he was unique because he wasn’t trying to get my attention to scare me. He was just quietly fantasizing about murdering me, and that scared me. Also, he lived about a 3-hour drive away from me.
I wrote about all this shortly after it happened, but briefly, the cops didn’t care, and the FBI cared at first but then they just stopped caring. An anonymous person with an IP address from near this guy’s hometown started harassing and threatening me via email and social media and I let the FBI agent know that I was scheduled to give a talk in that town soon and didn’t know what to do. The agent told me to do whatever I wanted to make myself feel better and that’s the last I heard from them.
I decided to look up the guy up and discovered accounts claiming that two years after I warned the FBI about him, he was arrested and charged with domestic violence for pushing his mother down a flight of stairs. He is now an out-and-proud Nazi, with a YouTube channel called “Adolf Stalin” and lots of social media pics of him doing Nazi salutes.
So yeah, that’s me just randomly picking one of my misogynistic stalkers as a case study and yep! He’s now a Nazi with a domestic abuse case against him. It checks out.
Some researchers think that this underlying misogyny might be the reason why you often see people of color join white supremacist groups – it’s not because the white supremacists suddenly believe people of color are equal to them – it’s that they all found common ground by hating women, and the white supremacists (like the Proud Boys, for instance) get the bonus of hiding their racism behind their minority brothers to be more appealing to the mainstream media.
Altogether it’s not a pretty picture, but I do think it’s great that researchers are continuing to explore these online echo chambers to learn how men become radicalized. Eventually, one day in the distant future, maybe our governmental authorities will take it upon themselves to take a look at the data and make positive changes. In the meanwhile, I’ll continue to not be surprised every time we learn a new mass shooter has a long history of hating women.