While it would seem that the manosphere is exclusively the domain of miserable white men, there’s a surprising number of women among it, too. And so, throughout this week, we will present you with six features that explore the lives and beliefs of these women, from femcels to Honey Badgers: Who are they? What have they experienced in life to end up cavorting with men who — to varying degrees — deny their humanity? And why do we know so little about them?
On April 23, 2018, 25-year-old Alek Minassian plowed his van into a crowded sidewalk in one of Toronto’s busiest neighborhoods, killing 10 people and injuring 16. It was one of the deadliest acts of domestic terrorism in the city’s history, and the latest in a string of mass murders committed by men whose rage was born out of celibacy.
After the attack, Minassian told investigators he was an incel, a person who cannot find a sexual or romantic partner despite trying to. He’d never had sex or a girlfriend — in fact, all his encounters with women had made him “embarrassed and angry,” and his murders were his attempt at revenge. They were, as he told Canadian police, retribution for “not getting laid.”
A few days later, Mary — a 43-year-old Black woman in Philadelphia whose hypothyroidism and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) has saddled her with a similarly rocky relationship to sex and dating — heard about what Minassian had done and thought, “Yeah, I can relate to that.”
It wasn’t the violence she connected with — she found that part revolting. It was what caused it. Like Minassian, Mary was involuntarily celibate, and though she made a “damn good” effort not to be, she knew firsthand how devastating a life of sexual isolation could be. “We had a lot in common, him and I,” she says over the phone on a break from her administrative medical assistant job. “I’m not up here about to kill nobody about it — that boy is crazy — but let’s just say there were parts of his story that felt like mine.”
There was the constant romantic rejection, for one. Then there was the frustration of seeing other, supposedly better-looking people get what they wanted. Mostly, though, they shared a sense of exclusion from the so-called “sexual marketplace.” Minassian felt like he was ineligible to date, and Mary did, too. As an obese middle-aged woman whose chronic diseases made it next to impossible to keep the pounds off, she got what it was like to be shut out of a dating pool that seemed to value everything she wasn’t. “Judging by society’s standards — which we all know are bullshit — I’m everything a dateable woman shouldn’t be,” she says. “That’s a horrible, lonely feeling. A person can only take so much.”
She didn’t condone what Minassian did, she says, but empathy for a sexless, cold-blooded killer? That part came easy.
Curious to know whether other celibate women felt the same way, she typed the words “female incel” into Google. She wasn’t expecting much — inceldom as we know it has always been framed as the exclusive bane of men — so when she discovered a series of online communities for involuntarily celibate women like herself, she was floored. Not only were there tens of thousands of them filling fora with stories that sounded conspicuously similar to hers, they had an official name, too: femcels.
In one sense, femcels are similar to male incels in that they claim to have trouble finding someone to have sex with or date because of their looks or personality. But while everyone feels that way from time to time, femcels believe the physical, mental and cognitive inadequacies they have are unique and extreme. According to femcel canon, their “defects” — which are arbitrary and entirely self-defined — must “exceed those of normal” women and exist in a much more “severe form.” These could be related to their looks, age, disabilities, medical conditions, mental illnesses, the repressive cultures some live in or some combination thereof, but whatever the case, femcels believe they make their sexual situation entirely out of their control. They were dealt a shitty hand, the sentiment goes, and the only way out of the lonely hellscapes they live in is to “ascend” (femcel-speak for “get hotter”).
If there’s anything femcels and incels can agree on, it’s that conventional “hotness” is everything: it’s what finds you partners, helps you make friends, lands you a job and allows you to function normally in society. In their worlds, it exists on a 1–10 scale, with each numeric level being personified into archetypal characters they compare themselves to or spew jealousy or hatred at. By self-definition, involuntarily celibate people occupy the lowest rungs — 4 or below — and are exceeded by “normies” who clock in at 5 or 6. “Beckys” are basic, not unattractive 6s or 7s, and “Stacys” are elite and untouchable 8s. “Chad” is Stacy’s conventionally attractive fuckboy counterpart; the Channing Tatum character in 21 Jump Street whose heart-circled name fills pages of femcel diaries but who’ll forget theirs the moment they meet.
Together, Becky, Stacy and Chad make up an unholy totem of power and privilege at which both femcels and incels direct their obsession and despair, reflecting every insecurity and fear back at them tenfold like a taunting funhouse mirror.
That’s about all femcels have in common with incels, though. The two are are distinct groups with their own cultures, values and norms, and though it’s tempting to see them as gender-swapped versions of the same sexless basement-dweller, they’re better thought of as a pair of phobic, incompatible fraternal twins: birthed from the same belly but raised in completely different homes, in completely different states, in completely different worlds.
Funny thing is, you only hear about the brother. There are incel websites, incel meet-up groups, and at one point, there was even a twisted incel dating site (it’s since been shut down, possibly because incels have recently been classified as a hate group). Nearly every major publication, from the New Yorker to the Washington Post, has covered the rise of incel culture in all its hideous angles, and mountains of academic research published by dedicated and well-funded incel scientists line the annals of Google Scholar. Incels also have a number of murderous micro-“celebrities” like Minassian and his “mentor” Elliot Rodger, and there are even incel T-shirts, if “cesspool of proto-males but make it fashion” is your look.
The fact that they appear to be killing people and themselves over their celibacy at alarming rates is the obvious cause of their ubiquity, but there’s another, more telling reason why polite society hears about Minassian but never Mary: Few people other than femcels themselves believe it’s even possible for women to be involuntarily celibate in the first place.
“The logic for this is that there are supposedly men out there who will sleep with any woman, so all a woman has to do to get sex is make herself available to literally anyone,” says Nick Chester, a journalist and femcel expert who spent months researching and interviewing women navigating incel spaces for Huck Magazine. “Incels frequently call women ‘volcels,’ which means ‘voluntarily celibate’ and is a slur within the incel community. They’re always challenging the validity of each other’s ‘incel’ status and accusing one another of being less of an incel in a bizarre hierarchy based on who is the least fuckable. Women seem to be at the bottom of the pecking order with regards to this.”
According to Deborah Tolman, a feminist psychologist and professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Hunter College, that idea comes from the myth that male sexuality is always monstrous and out-of-control. “Somewhere along the line, we got the idea that the male desire is so strong that it cannot be overcome,” she says. “That’s a false and damaging stereotype that makes us think that men ‘must’ have their needs met or they’re somehow, fundamentally not being men.” By that logic, she explains, women “can’t” be involuntarily celibate because somewhere, at some point in time, some man will need to bone so utterly badly that anything will do.
Female sexuality, on the other hand, is assumed to be controllable (optional, even). And because women are supposedly so “pious” and “pure,” the stereotype says they should never succumb to their urges toward these “monstrous,” hypersexual men. In the upside-down world of incel dialectics, then, female incels just don’t make sense.
Perhaps that’s why, despite the fact that there are tens of thousands of involuntarily celibate women on sites like Reddit and Lipstick Alley — and that the accidental founder and official “patient zero” of the incel movement was a woman herself — femcels and the worlds they live in are virtually unknown. As of now, not a single academic study on femcels has been published online; there are no femcel-specific researchers to speak of; and, if all your fingers are intact, you can count the number of news articles about them on one hand. Social media is similarly devoid: The #femcel hashtag on Twitter is sparsely populated at best, Instagram is no better and YouTube, which has become a seething hotbed for incels armed with Final Cut, has just a handful of videos from women, the majority of which borderline on parody and are torn to shreds in the comments.
With such poor visibility, it’s no wonder that people like Greg, a 29-year-old incel living in Denver, likes to compare the elusive femcel to Santa Claus. “They’re not real,” he says, echoing the same sentiment splattered over every incel forum and YouTube entry. “They’re a myth made up by entitled women who play the victim to get sympathy and attention from men but refuse to lower their standards. Everyone knows that if something has a pussy, some man will fuck it.”
Rapiness and heteronormativity aside, Greg does bring up an interesting point: In a digital universe where using the word “female” and “celibacy” seems about as believable to people as “Bigfoot,” femcels like Mary must struggle not only with the very real pain of being forever alone, but also the assumption that they don’t even exist.
That’s the thing, though — in the most paradoxical of ways, many femcels like Mary actually agree. “Some people in the femcel and incel communities are like, ‘Oh, I’m so hideous, no one will ever touch me,’” she says. “Well, anybody with a brain knows that’s bullshit. If you’re a woman and you have a vagina, there’s a man somewhere willing to have sex with you. Now, whether his hygiene is up to par, whether he treats you like a person, whether he shames you and abuses you and calls you a ‘disgusting cow’ afterwards and whether you’ll feel worse about yourself than you did before, well, that’s all negotiable. I’m sure any one of us could set up shop behind a dumpster and let the first drugged-out creep cop a feel, and any incel could, too. But who wants that? Who wants to stoop that low?”
What femcels are saying, she explains, isn’t that sex and dating are categorical impossibilities. They just don’t have the same options for either as someone who conforms to conventional beauty standards, or even as men, who set and enforce them. And if you think there’s any “choice” in that other than protracted celibacy, Mary has some choice words for you: “You’re just wrong.”
It’s all a bit complicated and hard to process, but, as APieceofFemShit writes in a Reddit post explaining what femcels are, “The complexity of the femcel condition or the personal inability to understand does not disprove or nullify it.”
So, then, who are these women who say they can’t have sex and relationships, and why do we insist on wiping them off the map?
Getting pelted in the face with an egg wasn’t as bad as Zoe thought it would be. Nor were the mocking taunts of “Hey, sexy” from the men in the car that had slowed down to harass her on her walk home. Neither registered, actually: As a femcel whose abusive and neglectful upbringing left her with severe social anxiety and a persistently “sickly appearance” until her early 20s, the 25-year-old Brit was used to being tormented for how she looked.
“I grew up in such a stressful environment that I never really learned how to take care of myself,” she writes over Reddit DM. “My face would leak blood and pus in public, I had a noticeable missing tooth and I couldn’t even properly close my mouth because my overbite was so bad. My hair was falling out, my clothes had holes in them and I had such extreme IBS that there were times when I couldn’t even go outside. I was bullied every time I left my house.”
It wasn’t just by strangers, either. In grade school, one of her only friends dumped her because he said her looks were ruining his reputation. “We can be friends again once you get plastic surgery!” he said, as if that were some kind of consolation. A few years later when she managed to secure her first boyfriend, he admitted he was “settling” for her. “Our entire relationship was based around my appearance,” she says. “They would make fun of me constantly. It was pretty much just him and his family telling me to wash my face, brush my hair or see a dentist.”
Home was no better. Her mom drank heavily and abused her father, and the stress of being with them was so bad that she started sleeping on the street. Though all she wanted was to be loved, she knew in her heart — and from years of experience — that until she “ascended” (femcel for “got hotter”), that was never going to happen. “I was basically a leper at that point in my life,” she says. “The rejection and the social isolation was so intense that my life became unlivable. I thought about suicide all the time.”
Though what makes someone a femcel differs from person to person, Holly Richmond, a sex therapist who frequently works with late-in-life virgins, trauma survivors and other people who can’t access the kind of sex and relationships they want, says Zoe’s reaction is common from people who are denied sexual or romantic connection. “It’s hugely damaging to a person’s mental wellbeing and physical health when they feel sexually ignored or romantically undesirable,” she explains. “Most humans are social, sexual creatures. But when we feel isolated, alone and unable to connect with others on an intimate level, it’s a pretty straight line to frustration, anger, depression and anxiety.” In some cases like Minassian, she says, it can even lead to violence and hate.
For some femcels, the only respite from this so-called “fate” is to take shelter in commiserating online communities like Reddit’s r/TruFemcels, the current beating heart of the femcel community and the most concentrated locus of its culture. Zoe first came across it after becoming fascinated with the lives of ugly women and searching for stories that reflected her own. She wanted to understand them, but more so, she wanted to understand herself — if she read enough posts and made enough comments, maybe she could come to terms with what was happening to her.
So, she dove in, instantly discovering that she wasn’t just an ugly face and a lonely heart; she was one of 22,400, a drop in an ocean of other women who, despite their extremely diverse backgrounds, knew the type of rejection she’d experienced firsthand. There were fat femcels, disabled femcels, mentally ill femcels, queer femcels, ethnic femcels, femcels who’d had sex, femcels who’d never been kissed — all women who fascinated and comforted her at the same time. “Unattractive people are really the only people who can be both attacked and invisible at the same time,” she says. “I was drawn to the community because of their stories.”
So long as she met the forum’s membership criteria — be a 4 out of 10 or below and unable to get a partner because of it — she was free to co-mingle and condole with them as she pleased. “Vent, dear sister,” the sub’s description reads.
And vent they do. Users post everything from mild memes to elaborate, voyeuristic essays about the perfection of other women to full-blown suicidal ideations with every shade of grey in between. One woman confesses she’s been putting off college so she could get cosmetic procedures to make herself more attractive, another talks about how the hardest rejections are from friends, not men, and there are almost too many posts about the utter heartbreak of watching “normal” men and women flirt with each other to count. “One of the saddest things about being a femcel is that you see other people get what you want,” says Zoe. “You might like a guy because he is one of the few people who isn’t mean to you and then watch him pursue and eventually date someone more attractive than you. This happened multiple times, and it didn’t get easier. It reminded me, at the time, that I wasn’t enough. In essence, I suppose I felt inferior, lost, doomed and inadequate.”
Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of women blame their celibacy on their physical appearance and the injustice of the lookism they feel is perpetuated by meathead Chads who go gaga for Stacy’s bodacious bod. Femcels spend a great deal of time comparing themselves to other women — often over things like “skull type,” that seem to take on a life-or-death significance — and pouring over their features with an excruciating level of detail with the not-uncommon comparison to Becky and Stacy.
“I stand and look more closely at pretty girls than any man ever could and measure her beautiful extremities, all that smooth skin, the line of her back, her smile, her hair, her nose, her beautiful eyes,” writes redditor vcardthrow1 in one of TruFemcel’s most popular posts:
“Each feature is like a counting of all the ugliness contained in my own fucking disgusting person. Fuck — I get it. I get what she does. I am in awe of her — I understand why they seem like dreams come into drab real life, to men. And it makes me hate myself so much, feel so fucking hopeless, I wonder what fucking deity I pissed off that I couldn’t just be ‘average’ … I’m so fucking disgusting. Not a single body part — not one — was left unravaged. Acne scarred, hairier arms than most men, hair on my disgusting saggy tits, yellow worn away teeth, a mud flap nose bigger than any I’ve ever seen on another woman in real life, on a small, wide, shapeless, recedent pigskull face. Could these people ever imagine someone like me, or someone like you, Femcel?”
Reading posts like these, it becomes clear why so many believe women like vcardthrow1 don’t exist: because it’s painful to think about. It’s inconvenient to imagine their anguish, impossible to relate to it if you’ve never been that low and cognitively grating if it contradicts what you think you know — that “any” woman could get fucked or wifed up if she’d only lower her standards. Men could too, of course, but a vile and raging inceldom is much more in line with what we’d expect from a group of people who, according to stereotype, will spontaneously combust if denied access to sex.
Plus, explains Mary, lowering your standards and “taking what you can get” doesn’t get you much. While few femcels have ideations of Chad and Stacy and would be happy to settle for their “looksmatch” — or at least someone who’d notice them — r/TruFemcels is full of stories of women who say they fall into relationships with people who treat them with same sort of disdain the rest of the world seems to. And while plenty of them have perfectly functioning sex drives (TruFemcels is actually a pretty horny place), it’s hard to feel wanted when the majority of your sexual or romantic experiences have been defined by partners who treat you like Zoe’s did — by making it clear you’re just a stepping stone on the path to someone hotter.
The feelings of sexual inadequacy and insecurity that come from that can complicate femcel’s options for intimacy, too. “Middle schoolers have more sexual experience than some of us here,” writes vcardthrow1. “I’m horrified of the prospect of a man seeing my disgusting fucking body, my repulsive man feet, the hair, smelling me, the ingrowns on my crotch after hair removal, my hairy lower back — and touching me. I grow weary and horrified at the prospect of sex. In real life I picture someone… hurting me. Laughing at me. Giving me a fucking disease after ghosting me.”
Of course, haters will say getting a disease after being ghosted doesn’t count as involuntary celibacy. Vitriolic incels might even call that “pickiness.” They’ll argue that the fact that a femcel could even get an STD in the first place means she doesn’t exist. But what most femcels want isn’t the kind of casual sex they could theoretically get were they willing to stoop that low. They want love, or at the very least, some sort of meaningful, mutually respectful connection with a person who treats them like, well, a person.
“When you’re ugly like we are, casual sex just for the sake of getting laid is not that,” says Phoebe, a 19-year-old femcel in Australia who first started identifying with the label after a long string of rejections from crushes. “It’s degrading for us. Men will sleep with us just for the fun of it and that feels worse than being alone.”
“It’s frustrating as hell,” echoes Mary. “I’d like a partner and I’d like to be having an active sex life, but there are trade-offs to that. I’m not going to trade my self-respect for validation through a one-night stand. I’m not going to put my sexual and emotional health at risk sleeping with some rando that I don’t even know. If that’s what I have to do to be sexually validated at this point, then I guess I’m not going to be validated. And that’s just the bottom line.”
But unlike incels, femcels don’t seem to be particularly angry at the people whose rejection puts them in such a miserable place. Quite the opposite, actually: They’re angry at themselves. This reaction isn’t unique to femcels, but a stereotypically “feminine” quality that Tolman confirms most women share. As my former colleague Tracy Moore discovered in her investigation of Nice Girls (the female equivalent of the toxic Nice Guy), most women who blame their bad luck with sex and dating on their appearance feel embarrassed and sorry for inconveniencing the people they find attractive with their attraction to them, not entitled to their attention.
“Then, there’s the woman who explains that, because she’s ‘extremely unattractive,’ she doesn’t have great luck with men,” writes Moore. “But she tries to flirt anyway, and feels awful. ‘I’ve realized that I actually valued my faint hope of maybe receiving a spark of interest in return over those men’s comfort, and I’m ashamed to even think about it.’ Again, the result is soul-searching and quiet shame.”
Similarly, when Phoebe was ghosted by her high school crush two years ago and then repeatedly taunted by a series of men on Reddit who either catfished or feigned interest in her only to disappear, she wasn’t upset with any of them. She empathized with them, actually. “I can’t blame them for rejecting me,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to date me either. I was clingy, awkward, ugly and mentally ill. I don’t know why I thought I even had a chance in the first place.” At one point, she was so convinced that she’d be alone forever because of how she looked that the very way she saw herself began to change. The features of her face started morphing into unrecognizable elements, melting into what she calls a “series of weird features and flaws all thrown together.” Eventually, she just stopped looking.
Reactions like hers are one of the most telling reasons why we think femcels don’t exist — men rage outward; woman rage inward. “Women will almost always take the blame for their shortcomings,” says Tolman. “We’re socialized to do that. We’re taught that good women silence aggression, anger and rage and swallow it up, because if we don’t, you know what we get called.” (Everyone say it together now: “Bitch.”)
That’s why it’s hard for femcels like Phoebe to buy into the argument that they’re just entitled women who need to lower their standards. “We don’t feel like we’re owed anything,” she says. “If anything, most of us believe we deserve nothing at all.”
In her Nice Girls piece, Moore noticed a similar, almost pathologically unentitled attitude among the dating-challenged women she spoke with: “A woman stepped up to the Reddit confessional booth to unburden herself with the admission that she got very upset when people she liked didn’t like her back: ‘I wouldn’t take it out on anyone and just kind of wallow in my own misery, but I still had to have that moment of realization that no one owed me anything…’”
It’s for that same reason that you’re unlikely to see a femcel Minassian anytime soon (and why femcels haven’t received nearly the same level of attention as male incels). While Mary “wouldn’t put it past some of them” and there are some genuinely disturbing posts on TruFemcels, it seems, for the most part, that the only “revenge” involuntarily celibate women want for their suffering is a new nose, better face and different life.
Mary, however, is one of the few femcels who doesn’t feel that way. She actually likes herself just fine. She’s cute enough, makes good money and has a life outside of Reddit where she gives dating the old college try. “Look,” she says. “I’ve been in this fat, Black body for 43 years and I’m good with it. I’m not on Reddit to tear myself down like most of these girls are. I joined the community hoping to find like-minded women who I could talk to about what I’m going through, but all I found was these sad, young, mostly white girls who want nothing to do with me and spend so much time online that they actually think all the shit they see on social media and Reddit is real.”
What’s real to her, she says, is logging off Reddit, putting herself out there and working with what she’s got.
This coming weekend, in fact, Mary has an out-of-town date with a man she met on WooPlus, a BBW dating site. Few men she matches with treat her like a legitimate option — most of them are “pump and dumpers” that fetishize her weight or encourage her to be unhealthy so she gains more of it. Still, she’s hoping this guy will be different. “I’d rather put myself out there in what ways I can than sit around on Reddit and insist no one will ever love me,” she says.
Maybe they’ll hook up. Maybe they won’t. Either way, she has to try.