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What Is an Incel and Why Do They Get Such a Bad Rap?

Joining incel forums and complaining about not getting dates

If you spend any amount of time online, you’ve almost certainly seen the term “incel.” This term grew in popularity in predominantly male spaces and is generally associated with boys and men. In recent years, the media coverage of incels has often been overwhelmingly negative. To the point that, for many people, the term is intrinsically linked to violence and misogyny. So, it’s fair to ask, what is an incel and is it okay to be one?

The first thing you need to know is that “incel” is just shorthand for “involuntary celibate.” While the term has gained greater attention in the last decade, it’s not new. In fact, it was a twenty-something-year-old woman in the 90s who coined the term. Yes, you read that right, a woman. While the term is now almost entirely associated with males, it originated as a catch-all term for all involuntary celibates. The term was meant to launch a movement to bring greater attention to their situation.

The term didn’t immediately catch on, but it has since grown into a “movement,” albeit one with seriously negative associations. That raises the question, though: Why can’t we talk about male sexlessness sympathetically? Younger people overall are having less sex, for various reasons. So why do virgin men still receive so much derision and mockery? It’s a complex question, and it’s one that I’ll unpack by exploring the social stigma of incels.

What Is an Incel?

Not every person who isn’t having sex is an incel. Whether male or female, lots of people choose to be celibate. This can be for a variety of reasons. Maybe a person is avoiding sex because they’re an athlete in training. Maybe they’re religious or trying to live a more spiritual or centered lifestyle. Maybe they’re staying single to focus on themselves. There are countless reasons a person may abstain from sex. If it’s their choice, it’s a perfectly healthy one.

“Incels” as a term was coined by a woman named Alana in the 1990s. She created a website called “Alana's Involuntary Celibacy Project.” Her goal was to create an inclusive space for incels to discuss their issues and experiences. It was designed for men and women; Alana was, herself, an incel. It turned out, though, most of the users of her site were men. And many of those men didn’t like Alana, feeling a woman couldn’t truly be an incel. Any woman can have sex anytime they want, they argued.

Alana was essentially pushed out of her own movement by these male voices. Since then, the movement that she kickstarted has been dominated by men and their perspectives. Now, because the movement focuses on difficulties that celibate men face specifically, it has remained mostly male. Which is a shame, because the movement could benefit greatly from female voices. For one thing, it might help men understand the reasons for their celibacy.

The causes of involuntary celibacy

Incels often blame feminism for their involuntary celibacy

By definition, an incel is someone who isn’t having sex but wishes they could. Circumstances, either external or internal, have forced them to lead sexless lives. Many incels say it’s society’s fault. They blame everything from feminism to the sexual liberation movement to just the culture in general. These guys believe they should be having sex, but the world has conspired against them. Alternatively, critics of the incel movement say it’s much simpler: incels are just men with bad (sometimes antisocial) personalities.

Maybe it’s both. There’s no denying society has evolved considerably in the last half-century, and as such, social rules have changed. There was a time when men basically had all the say in relationships. Relatedly, men had the jobs and, therefore, the money, so women had to rely on them. As a result, even so-called “low-status men” could have relationships and, by extension, sex. This was a time when men had all the power; they didn’t always use it to the best ends.

The world has changed, and that’s upended male/female relationships. Women have more power, and therefore more options, so men have to work harder to stand out. If you feel that societal shift has hurt your social status, it's understandable you’d feel bitter. But just because you’re unhappy doesn’t mean society is worse. Most people agree that greater gender equality is good for society.

If you’re waiting for a return to the 1950s (or 1850s), you’re never going to be happy. Women won’t willingly give up the freedoms and societal power they’ve fought for decades to gain. This means that being an incel really may be about your attitude. You can’t seethe with anger at women and then be surprised when they want nothing to do with you. Healthy, consensual sex is about mutual desire. If that’s not your goal, you’re the problem, not them.

Are Incels Actually Dangerous?

It’s not fair to paint all incels as bitter women haters. Especially among teenagers and young twenty-somethings, being a virgin is quite normal. In those age groups, involuntary celibacy is far more common than you might think. In fact, as a whole, the younger generation is having less sex (more on that in a bit). So, being an incel isn’t so strange. And it certainly isn’t a reason to feel angry at the world–or women.

Still, understanding what an incel is meant acknowledging the darker side of the movement. There is a violent subset of the movement. The most notorious example was Elliot Rodger, a mass murderer who became a “hero” for some incels. In the writings and videos he left behind, he expressed a deep hatred for women. He claimed his act was “revenge” for being “denied” sex. There was nothing heroic about the killing spree Rodger went on before killing himself, though. He was just bitter.

This idea that men are “owed” sex and are therefore being denied something is toxic and, honestly, pathetic. Sex is not owed to anyone; it is a willing act between consenting parties. The incels who have embraced Rodger’s ideology are dangerous. Not necessarily because they’ll repeat his actions, but because their sense of victimhood is self-defeating. Instead of bettering themselves, this type of incel lashes out and blames others for their shortcomings.

When you can’t see the role you play in your own unhappiness, you grow bitter, which leads to deeper unhappiness. That’s what unfortunately happens with a lot of people who consider themselves incels. Thankfully, if you don’t want to get caught in that cycle, you don’t have to. The first thing you need to understand is you aren’t alone.

Male Sexlessness Is Becoming More Common

Envying other men who are able to get dates

Decades of movies, shows, and songs have convinced many people that everyone is having sex all the time. It’s not true. The media has always exaggerated how much sex people are having; as the adage goes, sex sells. This bombardment of overly sexualized media can make you feel like you’re the only one not having sex. In reality, if you are a virgin–even an incel–you aren’t alone.

Young male virginity on the rise

A 2022 survey found 25% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 hadn’t ever had partnered sex. One-fourth of Gen Z adults are virgins. For men specifically, it’s actually one-third. Many of those respondents said they had engaged in sexting or cybersex, which means they’re open to sex. There are millions of people who have sexual desires but have not, for whatever reason, had physical sex.

After years of explicit sex in pop culture, Generation Z is pushing back. Sure, recent shows like Euphoria and Sex Education are about highly sexualized teens. But, in the real world, teens and young adults are more cautious about their sexual exploits than previous generations. There are countless reasons, but the bottom line is that more people are virgins now, both by choice and not. Young male virginity is on the rise. So, if you’re fretting about a lack of sex, don’t.

It's okay to be an incel

Despite decades of societal change and sexual liberation, mockery of virgin men is still common. In 2005, the Steve Carrell movie, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, got big laughs out of its ridiculous premise. In reality, there are tons of virgins in their 40s and 50s and older. People remain virgins late in life for various reasons, everything from religious belief to early trauma. With so many younger people foregoing sex these days, maybe older virgins will one day stop being a punchline.

We aren’t there yet, though. There are worse fates than being mocked for being a virgin, but that doesn’t make it any easier. For men who feel celibacy has been forced upon them, it can be both humiliating and deeply emasculating. All the stats in the world aren’t likely to change that. But no amount of self-pity or anger is going to make someone want to sleep with you.

Does that mean that if you’re an incel, you’re just doomed to stay one? Of course not.

Taking control of your life

Practicing mindfulness to avoid the anger associated with being an incel

So, what is an incel? An incel is someone who hasn’t yet achieved a fulfilling sexual experience. Any definitions beyond that are based on perceptions that you or others bring to the table. Your sexual and romantic experiences will be hampered by cynicism, even if that cynicism feels earned. If you don’t want to be an incel, you need to stop blaming others or society. Those are realities that you can’t change. Focus, instead, on what you can change. Namely, yourself.

The first thing you need to do is get offline. While some pockets of the incel community are helpful and supportive, much of it is bitter and toxic. That negativity is corrosive, and it’ll bleed into every relationship you try to have. When you do date, that bitterness will be apparent to others, and they’ll be turned off. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You also need to stop conceiving of sex as though it’s something you are owed or deserve. No one owes you their body, no matter what you do for them, no matter how you treat them. If your partner feels obligated or coerced into sex, then neither of you is enjoying the real thing. You want someone who is enthusiastically involved with you.

Too many men believe that if they are unhappy, it’s someone else’s responsibility to fix it. That simply isn’t the case. Work on yourself, grow as a person, and take responsibility for your own mental well-being. Work toward personal growth, and your celibacy is far more likely to come to an end sooner than later.

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