The deadly April 23 van attack in Toronto has put the spotlight on an obscure online community of men whose sense of sexual rejection has, at its extreme, grown into a justification for rape, murder and other kinds of violence.
The attack, which killed 10 people and injured 14 others, was allegedly carried out by a 25-year-old self-identified incel — short for “involuntary celibate” — named Alek Minassian, who dropped a hint about the motive before the assault.
“The Incel Rebellion has already begun!” Minassian announced cryptically on Facebook just minutes before a group of pedestrians were mowed down with his van. “We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail to Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger.”
To most people outside the incel movement, Minassian’s elliptical references made no sense. But to incels — men who cannot find sexual partners and use online discussion forums to vent about it — they were terms of art: “Chads” are sexually successful men and “Stacys” are women who shun incels.
And Roger, who killed six people and injured 14 others in Isla Vista, California, in 2014 after being rejected by women, is looked up by some in the community as something of a patron saint.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremism and hate groups, views incels as an outgrowth of the “pickup artist” movement, a “male supremacy” community of men who swap tips and strategies on how to seduce women, with the more extreme members going as far as advocating rape and murder.
The center earlier this year added male supremacy to its map of hate ideologies, saying it was “fundamental to the foundation of the racist alt-right, and in many ways served as its gateway drug.”
“It’s part of the larger manosphere and ties into the larger tableau of the alt-right in that it is an amalgam of many ideologies, many of which are pulled from the history of white supremacy and white nationalism,” said Ryan Lenz, an investigative reporter for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Barbara Perry, a University of Ontario Institute of Technology professor who has studied extremist groups for more than two decades, agreed, saying masculinity remains central to the largely male-dominated alt-right movement’s ethos.
“This notion of anti-feminism, this notion of traditional gender roles, has long been a part of the movement,” Perry said.
But far-right radio host Alex Jones, a prominent voice of the alt-right, pushed back against the characterization, telling his listeners the day after the Toronto attack that incels are not “a right-wing movement of men.”
“It’s a movement of scumbags,” he said.
Ironically, it was a Canadian woman who coined the term “involuntary celibate.” In the 1990s, the woman, then a student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, created an all-text website she called “Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project.” It was aimed at people — both men and women — who, like herself, were celibate through no choice of their own.
“It feels like being the scientist who figured out nuclear fission and then discovers it’s being used as a weapon for war,” the woman told Elle magazine after the 2014 Rodger shooting and stabbing.
Rodger’s rampage put the community on the map. In a 137-page manifesto titled My Twisted World, Rodger identified with the incel movement and explained why he had decided to punish both men and women.
“All of those beautiful girls I’ve desired so much in my life, but can never have because they despise and loathe me, I will destroy,” Rodger wrote. “All of those popular people who live hedonistic lives of pleasure, I will destroy, because they never accepted me as one of them.”
The 22-year-old, who killed himself after the attack, became an overnight martyr for many incels, who came to calling him “Supreme Gentleman” and celebrated May 23, the anniversary of his massacre, as “St. Elliot Day.”
They continued to frequent Reddit, 4Chan and other forums to air their grievances, but when some members called for rape and murder, Reddit stepped in. In November, Reddit shut down a subreddit where many of its 40,000 self-described incels denigrated women and openly condoned rape and murder.
But outside their community, the incels largely escaped notice until the Toronto attack. And when word got out last week that Minassian may have been one of their own, many incels were quick to glorify him.
On Incels.me, a popular incel hangout, one commenter wrote, “Saint Alek’s bravery might have just woken up 1,000’s upon 1,000’s of incels. Welcome, men.”
Another commenter wrote: “It is a good time to be an Incel. Our brothers are launching their counterattack, getting their revenge. Thank you St. Rodgers, thank you St. Minassian.”
Some reject violence
The canonization of Minassian worries extremism watchers, who say the violent rhetoric can inspire copycat attacks. But not all incels condone violence. Some say they’re unfairly portrayed as an extremist movement prone to violence.
“I feel that equating incels with violent criminals would set a dangerous precedent — further alienating young men with nothing to lose, as well as amplifying the ‘When in Rome’ effect,” one commenter wrote on Reddit. “A distinction needs to be drawn between those who fit the description of an Incel and those who cope with those feelings in undesirable ways.”
University of Oregon sociologist Randy Blazak said 99 percent of the violent language used in the incel sphere is made up. For law enforcement, Blazak said, the challenge is “to figure out which of it is fantasy violent role play and which of it is actually connected to real crime.”
Perry said Minassian represents “a fringe of the fringe.”
“I wouldn’t suspect that we’re going to see more of this kind of violence,” Perry said. “Certainly it won’t be a common threat, unlike what we might see from those who are more racist and Islamophobic in their perspectives.”