I was inspired to write this post by the recent BBC3 documentary Inside The Secret World Of Incels and an accompanying article by one of the men who featured in the documentary, “I used to be an incel”. I was deeply moved by both the documentary and the article and was prompted to reflect on my counselling work with men.
An incel is an Involuntary Celibate, someone who, despite a desire to be in a relationship and/or have sex, is unable to attract partners. People who describe themselves as incels are predominantly heterosexual men, and as the documentary explores, there is a whole spectrum of different types of incel, from thoughtful and sensitive Kissless, Handholdless, Hugless Virgins (KHHVs) who have never been kissed, held hands with or hugged anyone, to those convinced that making themselves more physically attractive will make them more attractive to women (known as “looks maxxing“), to those driven to stalking and shaming women for their perceived superficiality in only being interested in superficial, physically attractive men.
At the darkest end of the spectrum, “incel ideology” has been linked to four mass shootings in America, and the glorification and deification of the perpetrator of the first of these, Elliot Rodger. Incels meet and support one another in online forums, and there are many of these forums, reflecting the different levels of “inceldom”. The toxicity of the online forums in which openly misogynistic incels hang out is, as one would imagine, profound, as is the way they act as an echo chamber, reinforcing and amplifying the angry and confused ideas and beliefs of the desperate, lonely, alienated men who frequent them.
It would be easy to write this off as a sub-culture of men obsessed with sex and seething with rage because of their failure in this area of their lives. However, this would ignore the complexity of the issue, the way it is driven by digital technology and intersects in complex ways with with both feminism and what radical feminist author bell hooks describes as “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”, a system underpinned by powerful cultural narratives about both male and female identity which is being challenged more and more as gender roles and identities become increasingly fluid.
In my case, writing these men off as sex-obsessed misogynists would fail to acknowledge the deep empathy I feel for men in this desperate position, even those at the more extreme and frightening end of the incel spectrum. I do not condone their behaviour on any level and yet I recognise in them a part of myself, a psychic wound that for most of my life I did not know I had, a wound obscured by the layers of privilege I have taken for granted as a white, middle-class, heterosexual man. As a “new man” I have worked hard to avoid engaging in oppressive behaviour of any kind. However, for a long time I was only dimly aware of the extent to which I was oppressing myself, shaming myself, directing inward a potent but twisted aspect of my masculinity. Beneath this pathological self-control resentment bubbled and boiled.
It seems almost paradoxical that the way out of this dead end was to begin owning my power, my potency and my capacity to take control, to become harder rather than softer, more overtly masculine rather than less, but this has been my experience. First though I had to own my feelings – all of them, not only my resentment, my anger and my rage but also my fear, grief and despair, including my fear of being oppressed, dominated and controlled by women, a fear which I believes wholly underpins misogyny.
Many men may continue to assume the position of “top dog” in our culture, consciously or unconsciously, and defend this position vociferously, but this is only because they’re often protecting a deep sense of shame and a feeling of being the “underdog”. This psychological split is what drives both the male “winners” in our culture and the “losers”. It is only by finding ways to reclaim our healthy, balanced masculinity, one which runs deep enough to connect with these wounded parts in order to integrate them so superficial displays of power and control are no longer necessary, that men will find our true power.