Article Thumbnail

‘Incel’ Shouldn’t Be an Insult

When you mock someone as a sexless loser, it feeds a dangerous movement

In what ranks among the most iconic putdowns of the 1990s, the heroine of Clueless is informed that she’s nothing but “a virgin who can’t drive.” To this day, anyone who has attended an American high school can feel the sting of those words — an accusation of embarrassing inexperience that suggests the victim isn’t only undeveloped but in some sense defective.

Incels, or the involuntarily celibate, have made those feelings of brokenness into the foundation of a nasty and oppressive worldview. They gather on web forums to share in the misery of believing that no one in their right mind would ever be attracted to them. Such self-loathing is fertilizer for the seeds of outward hate: Misogyny and racism are rampant in the community. Of course, those ills are woven throughout the internet — so when you come up against a trollish enemy peddling that sort of line, calling them an “incel” might be the same knee-jerk response that had us smearing each other as “virgins” when we were teenagers. 

It’s also an impulse worth examining, as game developer and YouTube personality Liana Kerzner has often noted:

Reading Kerzner’s tweets, I have to agree. I’ve reported extensively on incels, as well as the violent threat they pose, and always come down hard on their toxic rhetoric. But not having sex isn’t one of the failings for which they can be taken to task. Loneliness is not a moral wrong; it’s a social fact. 

Even if I knew that someone I disliked had been celibate against their will for a very long time, I would never call them an “incel” — unless they identified that way, which is an early step in an unfortunate process of radicalization. When a man takes on this label, he has begun to see himself as systematically deprived of intimacy, belonging to a confined underclass. It’s a far cry from your buddy confiding over beers that his last few Tinder matches fizzled out. 

Every now and then, someone points out that “incel” culture began not with an embittered and entitled man, but a Canadian woman who wanted to create a support group for those unlucky in love. This took the form of a website, the Involuntary Celibacy Project, where users could connect, blow off steam and ultimately encourage one another to keep putting themselves out there. It’s a reminder that “incel” has a much darker meaning today only because a mob of extremists coopted the term, built exclusively male spaces around it and developed junk theories to dodge personal accountability while smearing and harassing “normies.” 

Throwing around the pejorative “incel” brings you into partial alignment with that destructive ideology, since the word now contains an acknowledgement that certain men are rejected by society just for how they look — that they are “unfuckable” regardless of how they think or behave.

Really, it only works to apply “incel” to somebody who identifies that way, as a shorthand to describe their worldview, which functions as self-fulfilling prophecy: It’s all the more difficult to obtain sexual release when you regard it as a resource hoarded by stuck-up women in part of a grander scheme to enslave men. Incels are a niche subgroup that catastrophize a problem in a way that makes it worse. We aren’t helping when we try to shut down random haters and cranks by borrowing the category for an easy epithet, because all it does is reinforce incels’ conviction that the sexless are automatically invalidated and discarded as subhuman, their opinions meaningless by definition. 

No need to aid the recruitment drive. Having a dry spell doesn’t mean you’re an asshole — and, crucially, getting laid doesn’t mean you’re a model of virtue.