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The Incel Rebellion

What is the deeper meaning of a new form of terrorism based on the sexual frustration of unlovable men?

by Daniel Pinchbeck

May 16, 2018


In a bizarre sign of the times, we’re seeing a new form of terrorism fomented by frustrated young men who identify as “incels” — involuntary celibates. The “incel rebellion” has become a movement breeding on internet chat sites like 4Chan and Reddit. According to David Frutelle, who’s charted its rise on his site We Hunted the Mammoth, incels are an offshoot of the male supremacy movement who find themselves incapable of dating, whether out of social insecurity or some deeper neurosis. They believe the attractive women they desire only go for dominant Alpha Male types.

“What makes the incel subculture so dangerous for the young men that engage with it — and for those outside the subculture who become the targets of incel rage — is that it takes the bitterness and sadness we sometimes feel when faced with sexual and romantic frustrations and turns this misery into a mode of being,” Frutelle writes. I hadn’t paid attention to incels before last week. I have been trying to catch up.

In 2014, an anguished 22-year-old, Elliot Rodgers, went on a stabbing and shooting rampage in Santa Barbara, Calif., killing six and injuring more than a dozen before ending his life in a car crash. Rodgers left behind a 107,000 word memoir-manifesto, ‘My Twisted Life’, in which he blamed his actions on the women who rejected him. He wrote: “If we can’t solve our problems we must DESTROY our problems… One day incels will realise their true strength and numbers and will overthrow this oppressive feminist system. Start envisioning a world where WOMEN FEAR YOU.” Accorded hero status by other incels, Rodgers has inspired copycat acts. Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland, Fla. shooter who killed 14 people, identified as an incel. Just a few weeks ago, a 25-year-old “socially awkward” tech student in Toronto went on an incel-inspired rampage, slaughtering ten people, eight of them women.

My attention was drawn to the incels by an unusual, even bizarre New York Times op-ed by the conservative Ross Douthat, considering whether there should be a “right to sex,” and if so, does society need something like a “redistribution of sex.” As a conservative Christian, Douthat prefers premarital abstinence and monogamy. Recognizing this is unlikely for the masses, he asks whether we need a “right to sex,” legalized sex work, or the mass production of lifelike sex robots to address the anguish of the have-nots.

Douthat’s essay was resoundingly attacked from many sides, and rightfully so. And yet, many questions are raised by his essay and other works that are not easily answered. He cites the Left Wing academic Amia Srinivasan, who wrote “Does anyone have a right to sex?” for The London Review of Books, as well as a blog post from the Right Wing libertarian economist Robin Hansen. I will get to Srinivasin in a bit. But first, Hansen, who argues “that those with much less access to sex suffer to a similar degree as those with low income, and might similarly hope to gain from organizing around this identity, to lobby for redistribution along this axis and to at least implicitly threaten violence if their demands are not met.” Hansen muses, “Sex could be directly redistributed, or cash might be redistributed in compensation” for purchasing sex.

Following this line of thought while taking a jab at Leftist or “libtard” views, Douthat writes, “If we are concerned about the just distribution of property and money, why do we assume that the desire for some sort of sexual redistribution is inherently ridiculous?”

In Harper’s Bazaar, Jennifer Wright responded to Douthat: “It’s not ridiculous. It’s terrifying. And it’s terrifying because it happens a lot. Many societies have ‘redistributed sex’ in order to motivate angry young men. ISIS does it. Women in Congo’s south Kivu province are often taken as sex slaves. Many comfort women who were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during WWII have begun telling their stories in an effort to insure their experiences will not be forgotten.” Wright notes that many individuals as well as groups — the obese, the handicapped — find themselves deprived of sexual contact, which is not an innate human right. But it is only hetero white men — due to their privilege, entitlement, and above all their propensity for violence — who make this a subject for public concern.

We must recognize that issues around sexuality and gender are not peripheral but central to the social and political upheavals of this time. It is possible that President Trump represents a last gasp of the patriarchal privilege written into the DNA code of the current global order. It is also possible that this “last gasp” could lead to truly devastating outcomes; for instance, a dictatorial and theocratic Pence regime taking control of women’s reproductive rights. At this point, nobody can say a Neo-Fascist White Supremacist takeover of the US is inconceivable. As psychoanalysts noted in the 1930s, the rise of Fascism seems inextricably linked to collective sexual trauma.

When the center breaks down, we need to pay close attention to what is going on at the periphery, where ideologies mutate and once radical, taboo, or insane beliefs can gain traction. It is all well and good to say that men and others “should” accept that sex is not a right. However, if deprivation and frustration — as well as a felt sense of forfeited status and pride — is causing some of these men to become mass murderers and inspiring others to join them (one Reddit incel group, before being shut down, had 40,000 members), it would be wise to explore deeper. Sex is not necessary for basic survival, like food or air, but the hunger for it is one of the most powerful motivating forces in human life. As we see in the steady stream of #metoo revelations, men will often risk everything — reputation, career, family — to get it.

In 2016, I was startled to learn about the relationship between Pick Up Artist (PUA) culture and the rise of the alt-right, which helped deliver the last election to Trump. According to some who have studied the phenomenon, PUA culture tends to appeal to men growing up with single mothers or in feminist households. Many of these men feel disempowered, guilty, ashamed of their masculinity, and culturally marginalized. They struggle to attract the women they desire. Through PUA instruction, these men seek to master various psychological tricks and mechanistic techniques, such as Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), to make them appear to be dominant Alpha Males. Treating women as objects to be manipulated, PUA training tends to amplify misogyny. Many incels, in fact, wanted to become successful PUAs, but failed.

The rise of PUA culture contributed to the ferocious alt-right backlash against feminism, “Social Justice Warriors,” and men deemed to be weak or effeminate, often called “cucks,” short for cuckolds. As Aja Romano writes in Vox, “In essence, many men who were drawn to these communities because they wanted to get laid and gain self-confidence have found themselves embroiled in a culture war, one that started as a way to boost individual male autonomy and evolved into a way to wrest back control of the country — nay, the world — from shrill feminists and their weakling cuck supporters.” This movement embraced Trump for turning back the clock to the old patriarchal system of control. Due to the distorting prism of the Internet, where online communities amplify extremist group-think, men who started out sexually frustrated have ended up as raving neo-Fascists.

In her essay, Srinivasan takes a detour through the evolution of feminist theories on sexual desire. Radical feminists of the 1970s like Catherine McKinnon argued that all hetero-normative sex under this patriarchal system could only be exploitative and tainted by violence. Later “pro-sex” feminists such as Ellen Willis argued that such views reinforced a neo-Victorianism that denied female desire, asking “women to accept a spurious moral superiority as a substitute for sexual pleasure, and curbs on men’s sexual freedom as a substitute for real power.”

Srinivasan writes:

“Since the 1980s, the wind has been behind a feminism which takes desire for the most part as given — your desire takes the shape that it takes — and which insists that acting on that desire is morally constrained only by the boundaries of consent. Sex is no longer morally problematic or unproblematic: it is instead merely wanted or unwanted. In this sense, the norms of sex are like the norms of capitalist free exchange. What matters is not what conditions give rise to the dynamics of supply and demand — why some people need to sell their labour while others buy it — but only that both buyer and seller have agreed to the transfer.”

Karl Marx believed that capitalism engendered “false consciousness”: as a result of indoctrination, workers identify with the system that oppresses them. They act against their own interests (for instance, by voting for candidates who reduce social services). But the once-popular idea in feminist theory that people, particularly women, can be in a state of false consciousness about their sexual desires has fallen out of fashion: “The important thing now is to take women at their word. If a woman says she enjoys working in porn, or being paid to have sex with men, or engaging in rape fantasies, or wearing stilettos — and even that she doesn’t just enjoy these things but finds them emancipatory, part of her feminist praxis — then we are required, as feminists, to trust her,” Srinivasan writes. What such a liberalized, individualist approach negates is the larger political and socioeconomic dimensions of our erotic lives.

Human sexuality exists at an ambiguous juncture between nature and culture. All around the world, as the book Sex at Dawn made one effort to document, we find a huge variety in how sexuality gets realized and expressed in human societies. Then there is our primate heritage. Scientists believe that minor differences in sources of food led to a wild divergence in erotic activity between our two closest ape relatives, the chimpanzees and the bonobo, living across the river from each other. Chimpanzee bands are run by dominant Alpha Males while bonobos are apparently matrifocal, with ongoing erotic contact between most community members. None of our primate relatives are at all monogamous.

Sigmund Freud, whatever his drawbacks, was most likely on to something when he noted that the building of civilization — religion, art, culture, Empire, war — required a tremendous repression of our innate eroticism. Freud called the process which channeled sexual energy into cultural pursuits, “sublimation.” Mid-twentieth century psychoanalytic thinkers Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse extended Freud’s ideas, believing the liberation of eroticism would cause the collapse of the patriarchy and a utopian flourishing.

“Sexually awakened women, affirmed and recognized as such, would mean the complete collapse of the authoritarian ideology,” Reich noted, hopefully. Marcuse, who lived to see the sexual revolution of the 1960s and its aftermath, was forced to modify his optimism when the utopia he envisioned didn’t emerge. He coined the term, “repressive desublimation” for a post-industrial capitalist society that emancipates sexuality to a certain extent while continuing domination and exploitation. Marcuse’s term “repressive desublimation” encompasses a system that includes MTV Spring Break, fashion advertisements which hyper-sexualize adolescent girls, Tinder hookups, and so on, in a regime of global inequality and injustice.

Srinivasan follows Willis further in her analysis. Willis recognized that, beyond the “axiomatic” idea that we have the free choice to our desires, whatever they might be, it is also critical to realize that “a truly radical movement must look…beyond the right to choose, and keep focusing on the fundamental questions. Why do we choose what we choose? What would we choose if we had a real choice?” In other words, since both men and women live in a world where our desires have been shaped by patriarchal conditioning and a long history of oppression, we still do not know how we might express our erotic drives in a truly liberated society.

While the sensible and natural response to the hateful worldview of the incels is one of revulsion, I think it is also necessary to try to understand them, just as we should seek to understand the lived experience of ISIS terrorists, right wing fundamentalists, or other types of destructive extremism. This requires empathy. It is only by integrating the idea that nothing human is alien to us that we can respond creatively and accurately to humanity’s most abhorrent expressions. With the rise of #metoo, public focus has rightly been on the predatory and toxic behavior of men. Ultimately, however, we are going to have to consider — and perhaps redefine — the ideological system that leads to the lived expression of love and sexuality by both genders, if we are going to heal our world.

The yearning for erotic variety remains a strong biological urge, despite the ideal of monogamy we inherit from traditional religious morality. This seems particularly, or at least more overtly, true for men — but both sexes are biologically hardwired to seek sex. When it comes to sexual access in our society, the truth is that men tend to encounter something like a hockey stick curve. Generally, successful males with public prominence or financial wealth get much greater access to sexual partners, both licit and illicit, as Trump’s dalliances with Playboy models, Russian sex workers, and pornstars makes clear.

Less successful men may envy men they perceive as more advantaged in this way. They may also feel anger at women for participating in a reward system they find inherently superficial and unfair. Another problem, in a society like ours, focused on celebrity and wealth, is that the qualities that bring men material as well as erotic rewards usually have no relationship to intentions and actions that are beneficial to collective well-being and long-term ecological health. In fact, often it is quite the opposite, and it is destructive or manipulative behavior that leads to sexual success.

I have had a long-term interest in finding a sustainable solution to the sexual economy issue. Ultimately this led me to Tamera, a community in Portugal that was founded by German radicals 35 years ago. The leaders of Tamera participated in the radical and utopian projects of the 1960s and 70s. In analyzing why these movements failed, they discovered it was due to core issues around love and sexuality, which they call “Eros.”

Even among the most progressive segments of the populace, they discovered, people had not yet reached the level of consciousness where they could fully address the power of Eros. In practice, this caused jealousy, cheating, hypocrisy, depression, and self-deceptions that broke apart communities and splintered movements. The founders of Tamera discovered these problems were beyond the control of the individual: The flaws in a dysfunctional social design, they realized, can only be addressed comprehensively. They left mainstream society to deconstruct inherited beliefs and patterns and build a “living laboratory” for the future.

As I wrote in my book How Soon Is Now?, the outcome of this radical and courageous experiment was a sex-positive community built on transparency, trust, authenticity, and non-possessive relationships. They developed different social technologies and practices that make ongoing authentic relating possible. These include gatherings called Forums, where community members sit in a circle. One by one, they go into the center where they verbally express or dramatically act out their relationships with others in the community, receiving “mirrors” or reflections back, in the third person. Something like the Forum — where sexuality is neither hidden nor stigmatized, but integrated through public witnessing and reflection — may be the best way, even the only way, to prevent inauthentic behavior as well as the abuses of male authority for sexual gain exposed by #metoo.

At Tamera, love is no longer the individual’s solitary burden as is the case in postmodern society. They consider Eros all forms of love, including love-making — to be a shared community responsibility, intrinsically political as well as spiritual. One Tameran practice is “Love Service.” Love Service reduces the inequality of sexual exchange that torments the incels as well as others who fall outside conventional standards of attractiveness.

An aerial photo of the Tamera Peace Research and Education Center in Portugal

Some community members voluntarily choose to undergo training to make themselves available to other members of the community wanting erotic contact. This takes place at a building designated for this purpose, called the “Temple of Love.” For instance, a younger man may choose to have sex with older women in the community who don’t have regular partners. A middle-aged woman might similarly be open to young men seeking out their first experiences. A basic level of erotic satisfaction is something that the community seeks to establish for all, regardless of status, age, or conventional ideals of attractiveness.

I consider the Tamera model to be truly revolutionary. It supersedes the ideology of the sexual liberation of the 1970s which focused on individual desire, as well as the pro-sex Feminism of the last decades which negates the political aspects of sexual love. They believe the conscious and intentional satiation of desire benefits the community as a whole.

In our alienated postmodern society, could we envision such a transformed approach to Eros, having a redemptive power? Could we design a new system rooted in cooperation rather than competition? What would that mean for society as a whole?

Participation in such a cooperative system, of course, can only be entirely voluntary. At Tamera, those who choose to perform love service do so because they believe the “redistribution of sex” supports the health, happiness, and harmonic functioning of the entire community. Individually, they experience it as a spiritual act of kindness and generosity, modeling reciprocity. Eros becomes something like a sacred offering — as Lewis Hyde describes “the gift” in traditional societies that naturally “moves toward the empty place.”

Our society’s inability to face the full dimensions of Eros, encompassing sexuality, love, connection, communion, is causing ever-more destructive effects. Whether it is the rise of incel terrorism, the rampant abuses of men in power, or the growing fury of the alt-right, we find ourselves in the throes of a collective pathology. Clearly, from within the current paradigm, we lack the tools and understanding to address the roots of this sickness. We therefore must explore new approaches like the one offered by Tamera.

As an interim prospect, the legitimation — and de-criminalization — of sex work would be of great value. De-stigmatizing sex work would be a hugely positive step. It would make the lives of sex workers far less dangerous and more secure while removing the ambience of shame and negativity from the profession. Otherwise, perhaps Douthat is right, and only the rise of the sex robots can save the day.