While the rhetoric of male incels may seem like a 21st-century phenomenon, there’s nothing really new about a rise in young men with grievances about their status as sexual partners and value to broader society. What is new is how men who identify as “involuntarily celibate” have created a vocabulary to describe the symptoms and perceived causes for their suffering — a dense digital manosphere with ever-shifting discourse about Chads, Stacys, alphas, betas, cucks and the ever-important redpill.
For evolutionary biologist Robert Brooks, the conflict brewing in inceldom became a source of fascination, especially as a lens to consider his past research on how the animal kingdom and human society cope with competition and sexual mating. “From an evolutionary point-of-view, we tend to think that competition for mates is a really big thing, especially for young men. Incels are doing their best in terms of striving for status and respect, but finding that they struggle with that — and believing they’re the ones permanently losing out to Chads or alphas or all the other terminology they use for people. Then they’re voicing their frustrations locally, including online,” says Brooks, director of the Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.
Although incels have been demonized for violent lone-wolf killings and disturbing manifestos, researchers continue to find that the ideology of incel victimization is extremely broad, coalescing young men (and women) who exist on a spectrum of belief and commitment. Moreover, it’s become clear that the rise of inceldom online is rooted in real social pressures that affect men, such as income inequality and the urge to gain status through relationships.
Brooks, along with his colleagues Khandis Blake and Daniel Russo-Batterham, devised a study to see whether the online discourse of incels correlated with material conditions in their communities. By scraping an archive of millions of tweets, they identified incel talk and tracked where the rhetoric was being spread. What they found was fascinating: Indeed, incel chatter appeared to be greater in areas with higher levels of inequality and fewer single women in the “dating market.”
I recently sat down with Brooks to dig into these findings and get his take on what fuels incel activity — and whether monitoring social media can help us understand how to alleviate these pressures.
Your study found that Twitter discourse from incels or people using incel terminology correlates with higher income inequality, areas with more men than single women and a closing “gender gap” in terms of earning power. Can you talk about these findings?
A biased sex ratio is always going to make it harder for the more abundant sex. So in situations where there’s a surplus of men, it’s actually a sort of buyer’s market for women. We’ve seen that documented in Australia and in contemporary China, for example. When there’s more women and fewer men, as is often the case on American college campuses at the moment, the conditions suit the men and you see that the whole sexual climate becomes one that’s more male-centric. So we predicted that areas with male-biased sex ratios would lead to more incel posting. And that’s exactly what we found.
Income inequality and the difference between what men and women are making also make a difference, especially the broader inequality. Hypergamy, or the act of “marrying upward,” is a real evolutionary concept and explains a bit of the struggle that incels are seeing. When women earn the same as men or outearn men on average, then as that man, you have fewer women who might find you attractive than if there’s a gender wealth gap. In fact, the poorest men are put in a position where they have to attract a woman with something else that they can bring to the relationship. Income inequality makes it so the difference between being wealthy and poor leads to a huge gap in status.
We, as a society, are very oriented to seeking status. So it’s clear that in high-inequality situations, there are fewer men who fit the bill of being able to improve a partner’s material circumstances.
All of these things have impacts, including the unintended consequence of alienating all sorts of young men and making them available for radicalization or just leading them toward violence. And we see that this has happened historically, too.
How did you start caring about incels? There don’t seem to be many evolutionary biologists assessing the manosphere in this kind of way.
I’m very interested in the conflicts that are inherent to sex and sexual reproduction. We often think of it as a very cooperative business that sometimes goes wrong, but really, it’s inherently conflict-ridden. You can be trying to start a family, or simply want to reproduce, for most animals, yet at the same time not have another’s interests much at heart. A lot of my research has been based on this conflict.
What happens online is a consequence of social pressures we see around the globe. You hear the expression “the internet hates women,” as if it were a sentient thing, but with a bunch of our work, we’ve shown that things that people do on the internet are still driven by, or at least correlated with, local circumstances. Khandis Blake’s work on online misogyny in the U.S. has shown, for instance, that looking at the location of misogynistic tweets can predict the level of violence against women and girls [in that region].
We thought the incel problem was a good opportunity for study because they use such a specific set of terms that are reasonably easy to track and get a signature of where people are tweeting from.
What surprised you about this world while you were researching it?
Men who identify as incel are obsessed with alpha and beta status. But there’s not a lot of primates that have a true alpha-beta kind of arrangement. The closest might be gorillas and how silverbacks are true alphas. That terminology was used by people to describe dominance hierarchies back in the 1950s and 1960s, but now it’s stuck in the popular imagination. There’s this obsession with becoming an alpha, but it’s really just about being visible to women.
What would you tell a man who identifies as an incel and looks at your study and thinks, “See, I’m justified in feeling the way I do” because this rhetoric correlates with real-world issues?
There’s no doubt whatsoever that any kind of broad societal change — whether it’s increasing income inequality or moves toward gender equity or new technology — makes winners and losers. There are gonna be people who suffer from that even when there’s a net benefit across society. In that respect, you have to have a certain sympathy — it’s not nice being young and invisible.
But if you’re in that position and you identify that this is a consequence of creeping gender equity and feminism, you do have to stop and think: “If I’m collateral damage, what’s the effect on other people?” Are you demanding that we roll back the sexual revolution, which was probably the largest and most rapid emancipation of any group in the history of humanity with enormous social good across all sorts of areas, just so you can benefit from the particulars of that previous situation that suit you? That’s selfishness in the extreme, and why this rhetoric gets so little sympathy from not just feminists, but the broader public.