~This is Part One of a Three-Part Interview Series~
The word “incel” today is synonymous with misogyny. Often conflated with acts of terrorism, rape, abuse, and many other forms of despicable behavior, it’s a loaded term to say the least.
The media has done a pretty bang-up job of running a smear campaign on this community.
I won’t pretend there aren’t misogynistic and toxic spaces in the incelosphere. I just find it interesting that the tame corners of the incelosphere are ignored and that perfectly reasonable incels are branded as misogynists. For real, an incel can say something objectively true like, “Being short is a disadvantage in dating” and half of reddit is ready to accuse them of sexism. Or the JBW theory (‘Just Be White’); incels might actually be the only group of people labeled as hateful for pointing out white privilege.
You’d think anyone actually concerned about men being radicalized in toxic online spaces would want to build connections with that community, try to understand them, or at the very least resist the urge to relentlessly mock them all over the internet. The entire reason they have formed their own communities is because they were looking for other people who understand them. Making fun of them isn’t a great way to show understanding or empathy.
We should take the time to treat their grievances seriously, because a lack of human connection is a serious grievance. Loneliness causes a plethora of mental health issues. Loneliness also causes physical health issues. Humans need connection with other humans.
Okay, I hear you saying, but incels aren’t just sad, sad boys, they are a hateful online subculture! Yeah, but….no. That’s not correct. Incel is a life circumstance. It’s not a subculture. It’s also not exclusively men. But for those of you who can’t be convinced, at least meet me in the middle and have some empathy for the lonely virgins who don’t self-identify as incel.
Overall, as a society, we really don’t have empathy for that group of people. Outside of incel communities, lonely singles receive a ton of blame and gaslighting.
“It doesn’t matter how you look.”
“Women don’t care about height. I happen to have a six foot tall boyfriend, but it’s actually really inconvenient. I’d prefer a short guy.”
“I know this one ugly guy who slays.”
“Women care most about personality.”
“Just take a shower/go to the gym/get a hobby/get a degree/change every fucking thing about yourself because you aren’t worthy of love as you are.”
It’s not surprising to me that lonely singles would form their own communities when hit with an onslaught of insulting and condescending advice. And I say that as someone who gave all the condescending advice at one point in time. I didn’t realize back then the harm I was doing.
Fellow non-incels, we can’t fix incels, we have no advice or wisdom for incels. The best way to help and support incels is to listen and acknowledge that their pain is real. It’s important to resist the urge to blame them for their anguish, which is, in fact, what we do when we suggest all of the ways that they could change or improve themselves.
Today I have the honor of sharing with you my conversation with Rachel (name changed for privacy’s sake), a lesbian incel and a former admin for one of the very first incel forums: Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project.
According to the incel wiki, Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project “was founded in 1993, and as such was the second-oldest incel website.” This forum is where ‘involuntary celibate’ was first shortened into the word ‘incel.’ On Alana’s forum, the word applied to both men and women, and it didn’t have the same charged implications that it does today. It simply meant a person who was unable to obtain intimacy.
I’d really like to challenge my readers to reconsider how they think about incels. This is something I’ve had to do myself many times as I continue my research and learn more about involuntary celibacy. I started out, back in 2019, thinking incel communities were incredibly violent and that they were radicalizing young men, turning them into terrorists. I was still sympathetic to them, I still felt they had legitimate grievances, but I did view their communities as dangerous. I can now see that’s all media hysteria. “Misogynist terrorists from the land of 4chan!” is a little more attention-grabbing than “Here are some lonely people who suffer from a lack of intimacy for a variety of reasons.”
My view on female incels has also changed over time. I have to admit, I found it difficult to wrap my head around female incels. I’m not exactly sure why. But I’ll admit it could be due to some kind of subconscious bias. All I know is that taking female loneliness less seriously than male loneliness is a really jerk move (and I’m out here admitting I’m a jerk sometimes). Now I see that women can also suffer from involuntary celibacy and it’s cruel to minimize that experience.
These are just a couple of examples of views I held that have been challenged and ultimately changed. I want to ask you, my dear readers, to be willing to have your views challenged too.
There are some bad people who call themselves ‘incel.’ There are also some really decent and good people who call themselves ‘incel.’ People who are romantically-unsuccessful are diverse and unique just like any other group of people.
Through the interview I’m about to share with you, I learned that a focus on self-improvement advice was one of the problems of early incel forums, and Rachel tells us a bit about how this was harmful. According to her blog, Alana started the project because she struggled with intimacy and was a late bloomer, not beginning her first relationship until her mid-twenties. She wanted to create a place for people to talk about their issues with dating and forging connections. The Involuntary Celibacy Project was part support group and part research project. It was started with good intentions. That’s why it’s so tragic how the term incel has been associated with such terrible things: misogyny, mass murder, hate, and rage. Plenty of incels are decent and very few of them are violent. Alana wrote about the way the word ‘incel’ has been twisted, saying, “my social media stream was filled with people making comments like “incels are human garbage”, and I felt like they were attacking all the lonely single people including my past self. I felt an existential anger, deeply frustrated that my old project was misunderstood by the general public as well as horribly twisted by men in the movement. My original purpose was to get MORE respect and support for lonely virgins, but people became even LESS tolerant of all the lonely virgins because some of them have nasty misogynist attitudes and a few committed murder. The project backfired.”
Alana’s forum was filled with men and women, straight people and gay people, people from different countries and different walks of life, all united by their struggles with romance and intimacy.
Rachel was an active member of this forum and has many unique takes on the topic of inceldom that I haven’t seen explored elsewhere. She’s an incredibly insightful lady and I’m thrilled she’s taken the time out of her busy life to speak with me.
Without further ado, my interview with an admin of Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project.
Hello Rachel! I’m so thrilled you’ve agreed to let me interview you.
To start, would you mind introducing yourself to my readers and telling us a little about yourself?
I’m a 42-year-old lesbian from provincial New Zealand, and I have identified as an involuntary celibate since 2003. However, I don’t think it’s wise to pigeonhole myself into any other identity or group. Partially because of my quest to become more attractive to partners, I have occupied all kinds of quite contradictory spaces at times. I have changed and reinvented many times during my life; I contain multitudes! Also, I have a passion for sharing what I know about involuntary celibacy, but I have not been approached to help with research very often over the past 17 years.
So, you were a member of Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy project, and went on to become an admin, right? I read that you joined her forum in 2003 and became an admin in 2008.
Yes, that’s mostly right. Alana’s project fizzled out before then, but the forum she created remained, and when I first joined, it was administered by a man whose online name was Lee.
What was that experience like?
Joining the forum was a mixture of being relieved, daunted and insulted. I was relieved to find that there were other people in the same situation as me, but I felt extremely intimidated and small because I immediately read a lot of advice that assumed I functioned at a much lower level than I do, and outlined all the ways I would have to change. They covered all the things I already knew I did, like grooming, social skills and eye contact, and when I tried to assert that I already did all these things, I was always told that if I did, I wouldn’t be single, so I must also lack self-awareness and should have people observe me –which they did – and my friends found nothing abnormal! But then, they said my friends were either too much like me or too kind to be honest. At this stage, nobody knew me yet, but the assumption was that many glaring things must be terribly wrong with us if we could not attract sex partners.
How did Alana’s forum differ from incel forums today?
I don’t read too many incel forums today, so I can only go by other people’s portrayals of them, and because these descriptions are highly negative, usually involving choice snippets they have taken out of their original context, I would be hesitant to comment much.
However, most people say that incel forums don’t emphasise self-improvement enough, and I can honestly say that in ours, you were ‘hit over the head’ with it from the beginning. People who accepted themselves as they are were considered ‘negative’ or ‘whining’, while people who continued to change things and punish themselves were considered more ‘positive’.
I would also say that we never allowed the violent, sexist or disturbing rants I have seen others pick out from modern incel forums. We seldom saw anything like them. However, we did see some explosive expressions of grief, and in the context of that person’s situation, we knew we were looking at the ‘anger’ or ‘denial’ stages of their process. We couldn’t always allow all of these posts to stay up.
For this reason, I know that some of the things I have been shown from modern forums are only walking in on one part of one person’s story, and while they shouldn’t be allowed to influence others, they don’t necessarily mean literal intent to harm anybody. In addition, they seem to have been posted by people with lower cognitive function than most people on our forum, so allowing for that also puts a different spin on it for me.
And what did you enjoy most about being an admin?
I enjoyed knowing that the group held me in enough esteem to respect me. Sadly, I think it was because they considered me ‘successful’ or partially successful, and although that’s a digression from this topic, I can explain why I think that was inaccurate. I also enjoyed trying to make up fun threads or find a way to make the members laugh, and I tried to do something for every member’s birthday.
Why did they view you as successful and why didn’t you agree with that take?
I was not one of the virgin incels, as I also sustained two long-term relationships. However, at the time I had joined the forum, I had been celibate for four years, without so much as a smile from anyone new. Also, only one of my two relationships was sexual, and even then, my partner did not desire me. She cheated on me throughout most of the relationship. In retrospect, I now know she just wanted a place to live, which I provided — but genuine desire for me was absent.
In my second relationship, my partner would not have sex with me at all, and my partner said a lot of things that indicated a lack of true attraction, too.
There’s also the sheer amount of effort I have to expend to have any partner at all. Even then, my partner hadn’t gone to any of the same efforts. Most people are prepared to make a few adjustments to increase their appeal, but when I had bleached my hair blonde, starved away over a third of my natural body weight, camped out at the gym and tried desperately to be attracted to genders and types I’m not attracted to…and that was still the best I could do…my lack of sex appeal is obvious.
It’s apparent that I have the ability to co-operate, share and sustain long relationships. I’m just not sexually desirable.
Also, it sounds like you added a lot of fun and care to the forum. It’s especially sweet that you tried to do something for other forum members’ birthdays. What sorts of things did you do? What kinds of topics did people talk about?
Please remember that I did not know much about technology, and the internet in New Zealand was still pretty basic in those days! I first had a computer that was all my own in 2003, although I had access to shared computers and the internet for a few years before that. It was harder to include video, music, animation and all kinds of things we have now. I’d usually try to find a tribute photograph or a graphic that captured that member’s personality and start a forum thread so that everybody could share their own greetings, memories and jokes.
I wish I could say the forum thread always had fun topics. It often didn’t. It was often full of things people were doing – or trying to do—to get partners, so it could feel exhausting to read everybody’s theories about us and everyone’s exhortations that we should just be better. However, sometimes, we had threads where people shared their creative interests or posted in-jokes to each other.
What kinds of people were members of Alana’s forum?
All kinds, all ages! We had cis-men and women from 20-ish to 60-ish; we were always careful to tell young people that they shouldn’t assume they’re going to be incel but should still take heed of our stories. I don’t think we had anybody trans, but we did have someone who sometimes cross-dressed. I was not the only queer person; some were bi/bi-curious, and we had at least one gay man. We came from all over the world: the U.S, Sweden, the U.K, Africa, India, Canada, Australia. All different races and ethnicities were represented, too.
I’m not especially proud of the way our forum philosophy involved telling people they could not say their race was their reason for being incel. We now have statistical proof that ethnic minorities do find it harder to attract partners, and failing to take privilege into account would have traumatized these people even further.
We were single virgins, single non-virgins, or divorced/separated. Some of us were married or in relationships: this is known as being ‘marcel’. It’s important to note that for clinical purposes, a sexless marriage is one where sex takes place fewer than ten times a year. That’s why a couple of the incels on the forum also had kids! The forum had a range of abilities and educational/socioeconomic backgrounds, too. Several had ASD or ADHD, but this certainly wasn’t a majority. Some were physically disabled or mentally ill, but again, the majority had no serious diagnosis of either type. Nobody was especially well-to-do, I think because sex appeal affects employment, but also because most of us were without the opportunity to combine incomes. However, it was easy to see a range of educational backgrounds and industries represented.
It sounds like the community was fairly tight knit. Did you make a lot of friends there? Are you still friends with any of them today?
I made many friends at the time, but when I got ousted from the forum, I didn’t stay in touch with most of them. There was a small forum for the admins for a couple of years after that event, and I stayed in contact with some of them for a while. There is also another incel in my town. I don’t see him often, mainly because of transportation difficulties for us both, but I would count him as a friend.
Did any couples meet through the forum?
I only know of one, and that was fairly long-distance anyway. I think it’s important to realise that incels are involuntarily celibate because they don’t have any sex appeal. We don’t have a heightened ability to find undesirable people attractive, so if every single one of you didn’t want us, chances are that we wouldn’t want someone like that, either.
Some of the possible solutions to inceldom bandied about on forums today include enforced monogamy and socially acceptable polyandry. Did either of these proposed solutions ever come up on Alana’s forum? What are your thoughts on enforced monogamy?
These solutions didn’t come up much, although enforced monogamy did by accident, without even knowing what the term meant. I don’t know much about it myself, but it seems to me that one interpretation of it would be a type of arranged marriage – and that’s how we found outsiders talking about us. It was clear that they thought we should be forced to get together with other incels.
What are your thoughts on polyandry or poly relationships in general?
I could be poly if I needed to be, and I consider myself a relationship anarchist. I stopped being possessive of my loved ones a long time ago; there’s simply no point, as every time I fall in love, I must always watch them with somebody else. I have had to extend my definition of sex and sexual pleasure; to me, it now means anything I’m doing with someone I find sexually attractive. It’s frustrating, because it’s not perfect, and it’s not everything I would want in an ideal world – but as I said, even though I don’t go as far as you, I still go all the way.
The experiences of female incels are often dismissed in the incel community today. To be honest, the existence of female incels is something that really surprised and confused me.
I wonder why it occurs to you that way. Perhaps, as women, we have been conditioned to hide the fact that we are displeased with the amount or type of sex we are having. I suspect that’s some of it. I was once in a sexless relationship, and I lost count of the number of times people felt I shouldn’t have the right to care about that. My partner (and others) would say that I should be ‘above all that’. Well, maybe, but I wouldn’t have minded being underneath it, beside it or any other position you cared to name!
The truth is that many women are incel, especially over a certain age or over a certain weight – and women from these groups may feel especially pressured to keep quiet. They may feel they are unworthy or that they’ve been stereotyped as a ‘nice old lady’ or the ‘jolly fat friend’. They might not think about their situation that way or know the word for it; most wouldn’t. And these days, if they do hear the word, it’s not going to be one they’ll use. But if there are men who don’t attract others sexually, there must be women, too, and we all know women who aren’t having sex. We just don’t know how they feel about it, and since most are quiet, we probably assume they’re happy.
What sorts of things cause women to be incel?
I think the cause of incel is the same for men and for women. I believe we don’t have biological cues that allow us to be unambiguously read as our gender. We can even be aesthetically attractive; that’s not what this is about.
For example, most sexually acceptable men are taller than the average woman; they have broad shoulders, no defined waist and narrower hips. Many incel men differ on at least one of these characteristics, and I suspect there will be other subtle ratios and measurements we have not yet discovered.
For women, one key point is the waist-to-hip ratio, which has nothing to do with weight, necessarily. It has more to do with the size of the rib cage and the cartilage at the bottom of the rib cage, which hardens during menopause, or in the case of women with high testosterone, like me, much earlier – causing a thicker waist. Some people’s WHR is responsive to weight loss, but that’s not a given. For example, mine is about 1:1, no matter what I weigh. I’ve been a lot of different weights, and I either look like an overstuffed mattress somebody tried to tie in the middle or I look like a skinny coffin on legs. WHR is important in biology so that you ‘read’ as female when people observe you, but it has probably also become more important with online profiles, because many want to know a woman’s dress size, and a woman without a waist can weigh less than a woman with a waist, yet still wear a size or two larger.
It’s interesting, in retrospect, that some kids in my class would say things about the weird shape of my body or facial features– and though not in the same sentence, they would also say they couldn’t imagine how anybody could find me attractive. They would say I’d probably have to threaten somebody for sex. They figured out I was gay well before I did, too! At the time, it registered as bullying, so I shook it off, but much later in life, I remembered it again. Even in our teens, we all had the same instincts, and they turned out not to be so far wrong. (Of course, I never threatened or harmed anybody for sex, but they were right about the probability that I would not have much of it.) There’s not much thinking going on in this process; it’s natural. We are responding to cues so subtle that we wouldn’t know what they were unless we were trained to look for them.
Do you think you’d still be incel if you were heterosexual?
Yes, I do. For a few years, I was open to dating any gender, even though I was not truly attracted to every gender. I can say with certainty that both men and women had exactly the same type of reaction to me. I am the woman you improve yourself to avoid, so that you hopefully don’t have to settle for her. You might exploit this type of woman; you might abuse her. You might have a sexless relationship with her, and/or try to cheat on her whenever you can do better. But you don’t desire her.
How does being a lesbian complicate the experience of involuntary celibacy?
1. There are a lot of factors here. The most fundamental one is that I love women. I think a lot of women (gay or not) are afraid of me, so they imagine things that aren’t happening, and ‘imagine’ might be putting it nicely.
Women I talk to don’t immediately know I am gay, so I get to participate in their conversations about men they don’t find attractive or sexually adequate. I would be lying if I said I’d never heard them all spur each other on so they could make accusations about an ugly guy’s creepiness or bad behaviour, usually with no factual basis whatsoever. One female friend tried to tell me that she ‘felt raped’ because she discovered a man she was seeing had a bad scrotal hernia. I can appreciate her shock, but this guy would have been told he was making a mistake whether he disclosed it beforehand or not. Neither approach would have got him very far. Her exact words were “I decided I had to try anyway.” She decided. If you decided and you were not threatened or under duress, that’s not rape. She had every right to refuse, and every right to end things for any reason or no reason at all. Feeling raped isn’t being raped, besides. She just wasn’t prepared to (or perhaps socialized to) own her feelings, so in her mind, she had to make it his fault.
Similar kinds of accusations have happened to me. I’ve heard behind my back that I have flirted, made passes, asked people out, or said inappropriate things I never said. I have tried to see how I could have done those things, but I usually can’t. Sometimes, there’s a tiny grain of truth, but not enough to warrant the accusation. They’re not just afraid I might try to have sex with them; they’re even afraid I might so much as want to. I can only think it’s hysteria, because of their fear and disgust.
There’s still some homophobia around, but the rest would be caused by incongruity. In my experience, most people don’t immediately hate people they read as non-sexual, but they do feel extremely violated and uncomfortable if a seemingly non-sexual person exhibits potentially sexual behaviours. I unofficially call it the ‘moist test’.
(picture provided by Rachel)
This obviously isn’t a cis-woman, but they don’t look offensive or especially unattractive otherwise. They’re pretty ordinary, apart from being old and not completely appearing as a specific gender. Without the caption, we might sit next to somebody like this on a bus or walk by them in the street without too much concern. But we don’t like them saying, “That makes me moist.” We don’t like to think of somebody like this being aroused in any way. We probably feel violated by it, and if they were saying it directly to us, we might feel they were trying to prey on us.
2. Also, I don’t feel I am recognized as ‘truly gay’ because I haven’t had a partner to confirm that for many years, so I’m viewed with suspicion.
3. Being a lesbian additionally means I’m part of the wider queer community, and because of internalized homophobia, there’s a lot of pressure to have the perfect job, body, social status, etc. Someone who is unable to have a partner can’t be a ‘poster child’ for the community.
4. Because the community is trying to stamp out homophobia and stigma towards queerfolk in general, we are not allowed to mention what we statistically know to be true: that statistically, it is harder to find partners when there is a narrower pool of people to choose from. We are not even allowed to mention that many of us are victims of homophobic attacks, or that a higher percentage of us get falsely accused of sex crimes. We all know it’s true, but we have to keep it quiet, because it ruins the ‘poster child’ image and might frighten younger queer people. In my opinion, those aren’t good enough reasons, and everything a queer person might do or experience is queer.
5. There is a well-known phenomenon called ‘lesbian bed death’, and a lot of lesbians become marcels. This is partially invisible because ‘mar’ is short for ‘married’ and gay people have historically not been permitted to marry.
I theorise that where there’s lesbian bed death, there was often not enough legitimate attraction in the first place for the relationship to be sexual. Obviously, this isn’t always true, but in the case of long-term relationships, at least one partner will become marcel no matter what, and it is difficult to leave in such a tight-knit community. Shame would be an understandable experience. Some lesbians and feminists think it’s unimportant or bad to want sex; they seem to link it to the patriarchy more to themselves. In my experience, I was ashamed to leave my ex-partner for this reason alone, so I instead opted not to go with her when she went overseas.
6. Recently, the LGBTQ+ community has started to undergo a much-needed overhaul about being inclusive. However, incels are believed to have poor social skills and to automatically all be misogynistic, etc. I’ve never misgendered or dead-named anyone; nor have I ever used the wrong pronoun, but I found myself getting nagged about that more often than other people, to the point where I would decide not to go to events where I got ‘the lecture’ beforehand. If you can’t trust someone, why on earth would you want them at your event?
That’s it for Part One of my interview with Rachel.
Please feel free to leave questions in the comments! Rachel has graciously agreed to answer some reader questions about incels.
Stay tuned for Parts Two and Three! 🙂