The archetype of the violent incel has been codified by figures like Elliot Rodger, the 2014 Isla Vista killer, and Jake Davison, the 22-year-old, self-identified incel who killed five people in England last year. But the spectrum of misogynist violence continues to evolve, with fatal events such as the Atlanta shooting of Asian women and the U.K. police murder of Sarah Everard showing how complicated it can be to identify threats of violence and understand the ideology within.
The police officer who sexually assaulted and murdered Everard, for instance, didn’t claim to be an incel — yet evidence in the aftermath suggests a history of targeting women. Then there are the many instances of non-fatal violence perpetrated by incel men, such as cyberstalking and sending consistent online threats.
Governments have been slow to react to this, and in an illuminating example, the U.K. Law Commission recently argued that men’s hatred of women is too complex for the state to police effectively.
So where does that leave us?
To understand the complexities of misogynist violence and where it will go in 2022 and beyond, I spoke at length with three experts: Julia DeCook, an assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago and an expert on conspiracies and the manosphere; Grant Wyeth, an analyst and researcher who has published work on the dangerous male bias of family courts and the politics of prosecuting misogynistic violence; and Tauel Harper, senior lecturer at the University of Western Australia, who has done extensive research into incel culture and the mass media that influences it.
What have we learned about the spectrum and intersectionality of misogynist violence, which includes online threats but also real-world attacks on women by men who identify as “incels” or lean into similar tropes?
Julia DeCook: The Sarah Everard case was what caught my attention the most because of how people were talking about it: Namely, how few people were making the connections between what happened to her and the incel killers that we see emerging. This is a point that I keep trying to make whenever I present research: The problem isn’t incels, per se. The problem is patriarchy and misogyny and what the scholar Rachel Pain calls “everyday terrorism.” Violence against girls and women, whether through domestic violence or sexual violence or femicide, affects the material conditions of girls and women around the world.
Grant Wyeth: There is a lot of crossover between misogyny and racial abuse. The Atlanta shootings were clearly part of this intersection, with Robert Long claiming he was motivated by a sex addiction. Men who see sex as an act of domination attack women of minority backgrounds in order to demonstrate their dominance.
This seems to become more pronounced as white men in particular have lost some of their cultural dominance. The public space is now far more open to women and people of non-white backgrounds, and this has created a real resentment. I think it comes from a perspective that there are natural hierarchies, and an ingrained belief that the world is made up solely of oppressors and the oppressed — and if you’re not one, you’re the other.
Tauel Harper: I think about the thread from Gamergate to the present. Gamergate was a lot of things, but it was primarily a backlash against the perceived injustices of women in the games industry. There’s this whole argument that people like Steve Bannon and [Milo] Yiannopoulos realized that, “Hey, we’ve got a mob of angry young men who feel really disenchanted with society. So we can politicize this and move it toward these kind of alt-right ideas.”
It’s also clear that misogynist violence is widely underreported. If the root of your disenchantment is expressed as “women don’t like me, and I feel alienated from women,” it’s something people are very reluctant to talk about. What I do notice when we have an attack, as we did in Melbourne last year, it’s not always labeled as “incel violence.” But when you look at the particulars, you find that the person is heavily involved in various online communities with misogyny and alt-right spaces, too. And a lot of the alt-right content speaks to a feeling of disempowerment.
What have been the failures of the broader public and governments to understand and respond to this?
Harper: It’s so much about not making the missteps that have been made in securitizing Islamic violence and religious extremist violence, especially in terms of creating a suspect community. Our work is very aware of the nuance between someone who has affinities and sympathies with incel ideas and somebody who’s likely to commit violent acts. So how do you deal with problematic behaviors without alienating the rest of the community? The alienation is exactly the thing that contributes to these behaviors. It’s a thorny issue.
This is a problem that’s grown for a long time. I don’t think it’s just the internet’s fault. But what the internet has done is provide a way for them to find other people who are feeling the same way, and radicalize them with the same talking points and fantasies of physical violence.
DeCook: In science and technology studies, which is my wheelhouse, we talk a lot about classifications and their consequences — basically, the dilemma of how creating taxonomies can impact the way we perceive issues like crime, race and gender. So that relates to this big interest in “predicting” incel violence and creating a list of characteristics to be on the lookout for. It’s not dissimilar from what the Los Angeles Police Department used to classify “gang members,” or what we’ve seen in the flawed history of “Countering Violent Extremism” programs. It’s algorithms and checklists, but the problem comes when it’s used as a tool of mass surveillance, which is what happened to the Islamic community after 9/11.
Wyeth: In recent years, we’re starting to make connections between forms of violence. The connections between misogyny and racism. How terrorists also abuse women. How authoritarianism has the subjugation of women at its core. How many of the perpetrators of the January 6th insurrection had histories of domestic abuse. So we’re starting to understand how different forms of violence cannot be siloed. That there are significant overlaps, and really deep psychological drivers to this violence.
I think what needs further investigation is how misogyny is gaining traction within mainstream political parties. We’re starting to see a prominent recognition of this within the Republican Party. But the Chinese Communist Party and the BJP in India both now actively promote hierarchical ideas of gender relations. There was a piece in the New York Times recently on male backlash movements in South Korea, and how presidential candidates have felt the need to give a nod to them.
When parties of government hold these hierarchical ideas, it makes it far more difficult for the state to respond to violence against women.
What shifts do you see happening in reaction to the last several years of misogynistic violence and public attacks?
Wyeth: In the U.K. there have been some recent positive advancements. In December, a new national approach was instigated with an onus on policy to check a perpetrator’s history. To not approach domestic violence as an isolated incident, but to investigate it as a pattern of behavior. This seems like something that should be obvious, but it hasn’t been the way police approached domestic violence previously.
There is now a better understanding of patterns of behavior. The U.K. is starting to acknowledge that there are ideological components to violence against women, rather than just some bad male tempers. But institutions are always slow to change.
DeCook: Manosphere lingo is becoming extremely popular on TikTok, and I’m not even talking about the dudes who promote how to be an “alpha male.” Terms like simp and concepts like “hypergamy” are being used by people who don’t seem to be members of the manosphere. A lot of women are using them. So one of the most concerning things I see, anecdotally from being on social media, is how successful the manosphere has been in mainstreaming this language. And that language carries ideology embedded in it. And the more it proliferates in the mainstream, even without people understanding the origin, the more that ideology can spread.
Harper: The mechanics of discussing this as a society falls straight back into a kind of narrative about identity politics — a gender war of male versus female. That dynamic is really problematic and ultimately dangerous, because this is such a broader societal issue.
That includes how the media portrays this. Whenever the media wants to cover incel violence, and it’s obvious that they do, there is a stereotype of “Sexless Loser Goes on Gun Rampage.” But more often, there needs to be a focus on the conditions that give rise to the violence.
What kinds of history or context should the public consider?
DeCook: What the right has been really successful at, and this goes back to the era of Phyllis Schlafly and the “Stop ERA” [Equal Rights Amendment] movement — they’ve convinced people that the feminists and the gays and POC are coming after you and infiltrating your communities to overthrow you. The idea of the “Great Replacement” is a long-standing white supremacist conspiracy, but what we’re seeing is a right-wing discourse that pushes the idea that we’ve becoming “too progressive.”
Right-wing propaganda of this kind has been really successful, and I think the notion that feminism has “gone too far” and that incel violence is a reaction to it is just propaganda at work.
Harper: This isn’t merely about individuals, but the context they live in. The “thought leaders” of the incel movement have been in North America, like Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian. But incel culture is definitely a huge issue in places like Norway and Australia, too.
For other reasons in these places, it’s less likely to result in real-world extremist violence. In Australia, it’s harder to get guns. In Norway, there’s more of a confidence in a social safety net. This is one of the things that we’re really trying to get at with our research: We want to deal with this in a general way that doesn’t create a suspect community. What we need are approaches that deal with this problem as a basic social matter, rather than only targeting individuals. Profiling suspects gets you a lot of false positives.
Wyeth: One of the major issues raised by the Law Commission for England and Wales recent report was that making misogyny a hate crime may raise the bar for convictions. Justice systems worldwide already have appalling records on convicting rape and sexual assault. To add further evidence to this could make the justice system an even more hostile place for victims.
I’ve also argued that there is a risk of a significant backlash from men if the state was to alter its values. Many men hold a deep psychological belief in their own natural authority. We can see the support for Donald Trump as partly to do with this belief that men feel like they’re losing something, that their place in the culture is threatened, and they’re going to resist this loss. This kind of male resentment is clearly a massively destabilizing force.
What do you see on the horizon?
Wyeth: There’s obviously a need for constant consciousness raising. But how this is done is incredibly complex. Here in Australia, both the government and civil society organizations have placed ads on TV about domestic violence, yet there’s been research that indicates that these ads have a counter-effect — that men become aggravated by them.
So there’s a real complexity in how to confront these behaviors. I think positive male role models tend to have a more positive effect. They allow other men to come to an understanding of violence through their own intent. It doesn’t feel like something is being forced upon them. Obviously, this starts in the household at childhood. But it can be present in schools and sports teams and other interest groups. It’s incredibly important to keep men engaged in positive civil society groups instead of getting mired in the darker corners of the internet. Unfortunately, the pandemic has made this far more difficult.
Harper: The irony in Australia is that our Department of Security and Defense is hyper-funded. We’re spending billions on a submarine, or whatever. But the fact of the matter is that violence against women is still the number-one threat to most peoples’ safety and their feeling of security.
In practice, I don’t want anyone in the Department of Defense taking control of this because they will just broadly target “incels” and exacerbate the problem. What needs to happen is governments need to address issues such as isolation, loneliness and alienation as being fundamental to addressing the security in our communities. Can we spend funding into community programs and outreach that’s sustained?
DeCook: People want the solution to misogynist violence to be easy. Like, we’ll host another high school assembly and have comprehensive sex education and stuff. Well, there are countries with very comprehensive sex ed that still have raging misogynists everywhere. So that’s clearly not enough, right?
bell hooks wrote about this in her book, The Will to Change: Men need feminism just as much as women do. But as hooks writes, even if someone tries to raise a feminist son, the minute that he’s around other young boys and men, they’ll often adopt their ideologies in order to fit in socially.
We’re not just seeing a “crisis of masculinity” in America and around the world — we’re seeing a crisis when it comes to all the facets of what it means to have an identity and agency. One of the hardest parts of this conversation is that the temptation is to pathologize misogyny — “Oh, incels just need to go to therapy.” Well, no — no amount of therapy alone is going to fix this. Reducing access to guns isn’t going to fix it.
Until we start addressing all the systemic barriers to men leading fulfilling, deeply emotional lives, we’re not going to see any progress.