Erik’s radicalization shows that the incel phenomenon has nothing to do with sex — duh — and everything with entitlement.
By Michael Hobbes
Last winter, Erik sent a message to 20 of his least favorite porn stars, YouTube celebrities and “Insta-gays.”
“So are you like a real person or just another shallow empty fuckboy who works in an industry that props up unrealistic gay male beauty/sex standards and wouldn’t be caught dead with anyone below pornboy looks?”
Erik isn’t his real name. He’s 28 years old, he works for the government, he lives in the Midwest and that’s as specific as I’m going to get. “Speaking objectively,” he says when I ask him to describe himself, “I’m pear-shaped. I’ve got a tummy, man-titties and a big squishy butt. I also have a nice haircut, a clean face and a nice smile.”
I met Erik a few months ago, right around the time his flurry of porn-star trolling reached its zenith. He read my article about gay loneliness and messaged me to say that it resonated. “I feel like a failure as a gay guy,” he wrote, “because I’m 28 and I haven’t had much sexual experience even though I’ve been out since I was 18.”
The more I got to know Erik, the more familiar his story sounded. For years I’ve lurked on message boards for self-described “incels” — “involuntary celibates,” men who think they’ve been unjustly denied sex. What I heard from Erik were the same resentments, the same hurts, the same mixture of jealousy and desire I had scrolled through on Reddit.
With, of course, one crucial difference. The incels we’ve heard of — Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in Isla Vista in 2014, and Alek Minassian, who mowed down 10 people in Toronto last month — were both mass killers. Erik, even at the darkest points of his “incel-ar period,” as he calls it, says he never contemplated anything violent.
But his experience — how he gathered contempt for the people he wanted to sleep with and, eventually, got over it — says a lot about what’s really behind the incel phenomenon and why it seems to be getting worse.
A student signs on a remembrance wall in the Isla Vista neighborhood of Santa Barbara, California May 27, 2014. Twenty-two ye
LUCY NICHOLSON / REUTERS
A student signs on a remembrance wall in the Isla Vista neighborhood of Santa Barbara, California May 27, 2014. Twenty-two year old Elliot Rodger killed six people before taking his own life in a rampage through a California college town shortly after he posted a threatening video railing against women.
“Involuntary celibacy” isn’t about sex, it’s about status.
Erik’s radicalization began five years ago, when his family fell behind on bills and he had to take a second job to help them catch up.
“I didn’t have the time or the money to go out and meet people because I was always working,” he says. He was 23 years old, living with his parents, doing day shifts at a big-box retail store and nights at a call center, dialing for political donations. “I felt isolated and alone and crippled. The resentment started with myself. I would think, ‘What did you do to deserve this?’ Then the self-loathing became loathing of everyone around me: ‘Why am I propping up this family?’”
He describes a widening circle of resentment. He had no time for dates and no car for hookups. His first (and only) sexual experience had been a one-night stand, some dude he met on Facebook while studying abroad. His attempts at flirting in bars ended badly. One guy, whom Erik describes as “diva-pretty,” once told him, “I wouldn’t even rape you.”
He had started to think of the men he was attracted to — “slim, pretty-faced guys who looked like they had a lot of money, who lived that West Hollywood lifestyle, who could eat whatever they wanted and never gain a single pound” — as the cause of his failures. They were shallow, superficial, hoarding status and sex and power and denying it to him.
“The ones I hated the most,” he says, “were the gorgeous, white, rich gay men on Instagram saying, ‘You’ve just got to love your body’ or ‘It’s not about what’s on the outside.’ I would be like, fuck you. You don’t know what it’s like to be rejected. You haven’t weighed more than 100 pounds in the last 30 years.”
I tell Erik that he doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would actually enjoy the “West Hollywood” lifestyle all that much. VIP rooms, bottle service, duckface selfies? “Weren’t you just telling me that your ideal gay bar was somewhere you could wear a tux and sing show tunes?” I ask.
“It was more about attaining status than finding love or even sex,” he says. “Even though I didn’t actually want the lifestyle they were broadcasting, I wanted to feel worthy of having it — as affirmed by others. I wanted to be the alpha male.”
What’s at the heart of Erik’s experience, and the incel phenomenon more generally, says Jennifer Bosson, a masculinity researcher at the University of South Florida, is the concept of “precarious masculinity.”
“Manhood is conceptualized as something that has to be earned,” she said. “And once you earn it, you have to defend it. It can be lost.”
Look at almost any culture, she adds, and you’ll find that men, as a group, have higher status than women. But within men there are huge disparities. Cars, clothes, jawlines: Some guys have them and some don’t. For the have-nots, it feels like they’re not reaping the benefits of being in the dominant group, like they’re being denied what’s owed to them.
“When women lack power we’re just like, ‘Oh I’m a woman,’” Bosson says. “When men lack power, they’re like, ‘Hey, this isn’t fair.’”
In other words, the incel phenomenon has nothing to do with sex — duh — and everything to do with entitlement.
Erik found comfort in YouTube comments like the one above. They reflected his own ideas and made him feel he wasn’t alon
Erik found comfort in YouTube comments like the one above. They reflected his own ideas and made him feel he wasn’t alone anymore.
Misery loves company. And then it gets radicalized.
My personal theory is that it was the online forums, the constantly updated cheering section of like-minded misanthropes, that turned people like Minassian into monsters.
Though he doesn’t know of any dedicated message boards for gay incels, Erik still managed to find places where he could voice his resentments and get them reflected back to him. His forum of choice, he says, was “the scariest place on the Internet: The YouTube comments section.” He found articles and videos that critiqued gay male beauty standards, then scrolled down until he found snark and resentments that echoed his own. “It’s like, hey, this person is dejected and unfucked as well. We have something in common, we can share our loathing of people we perceive to be the problem.”
He shows me screenshots of what this looked like. “Your issues with body image are not the same as those of objectively ugly people, like myself,” is how one of the comments on a YouTube video begins. Another, a Twitter thread, starts with a message to a model tweeting about his mental illness: “how nice of a conventionally hot/pretty boy to tell us regular folk with our plain looks, mediocre sex lives, & non-Adonis figures such Noble sentiments.”
Seeing these echoes of his own experience, he says, felt like relief, like he wasn’t alone anymore. The more he built fellowship with the guys from the comment threads, the more he started to see his life in us-versus-them terms. He started celebrating the misfortunes of his online enemies. “Someone posts about their breakup on social media and I’d be like, ‘Oh look, the pretty person feels sad. They have no chance of getting anyone else, boo hoo.’” Some of the people he met online actually seemed happy, cheering on the misfortune of the pretty people, he says. Teach that narcissistic little fucker that life doesn’t revolve around him.
“I was being just as judgmental and shallow as I thought the enemy was,” he reflects. “The irony never occurred to me.”
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Curtis Puryear, a colleague of Bosson’s who specializes in online radicalization, tells me Erik followed a fairly typical pattern. Whether online or offline, being around like-minded people tends to result in having stronger views. Whether you’re a vegetarian or someone who thinks “Crash” shouldn’t have won an Oscar, being around a bunch of people with the same opinion usually makes you feel it more intensely.
The internet, Puryear says, allows you to find people and activate identities you never could if you had to rely on face-to-face interactions. If you live in a small town (like Erik does), it’s pretty hard to find enough fellow incels to form a community. On the internet, though, nearly any identity can become the basis for sharing empathy, information — and grievances.
“Feeling like you’re a member of a disadvantaged group brings some psychological benefits,” Puryear continues. “It’s a way to write off failures. You feel like the deck is stacked against you. If you’re an incel and you feel attacked, then that identity will become more important for you over time.”