White Whine: The Past that Incels Long For Never Existed

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A scene from Pleasantville (Photo credit: New Line Cinema)

Four years ago in Santa Barbara, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people in an intentional shooting spree that became known as the Isla Vista Killings. Rodger left no uncertainty about the massacre; he had clearly stated his motivations in online posts that outlined his hatred of women (“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.”) and of the men he felt were more sexually successful than he was (“I came across this Asian guy who was talking to a white girl. The sight of that filled me with rage.”). At the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 and in George Sodini’s 2009 attack on an LA Fitness in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, both men left evidence—video in Sodini’s case—that they blamed women for what they did.

Since then, all three men have become beloved martyrs to an online community of mostly young white men known as involuntary celibates, or “incels.” Just over one month ago, one of them, Alek Minassian, drove a van into a Toronto crowd, killing 10 and injuring 16. In a note posted online shortly before the attack, Minassian name-checked Rodger in a rallying call to begin the so-called “incel rebellion.” Though feminists have for decades connected the dots between mass shootings and misogyny, mainstream media has only recently stopped insisting that these murders are aberrations committed by disturbed “lone wolves.” But Minassian’s violence has triggered a re-examination of the 2014 murders, as well as discussion about the online, fringe group in which both men participated.

Though the term—coined by a woman—was originally envisioned to be more inclusive, incels, as a quasi-organized group are heterosexual, mostly young, mostly white men united by the shared grievance of sexual rejection—or, more specifically, their inability to attract the women they’d like to have sex with. Incels divide the rest of the world into “Chads” (conventionally attractive men who are seen as sexually successful), “Stacys” (hyperfeminine, conventionally attractive women), and “Beckys” (“normal” women). Rather than working together to learn new ways of empathizing and connecting, online incel communities incite increasing rage among one another by fantasizing about the day that incels will overthrow the sex-having masses, enslaving women and subjugating the “Chads” who they see as their nemeses. But incels don’t want partnerships or relationships with women; they want to punish and hurt them.

The men who today romanticize a period of time in which women and people of color were kept “in their place” by legislation, by social mores, and by force have been raised by those who enjoyed the privileges of whiteness.

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Since the Toronto attack, a facile solution to their “issue” has emerged as a series of op-eds about the possibility of appeasing incels with sex robots, as well as the horrendous thought experiment “sexual redistribution”: Maybe if we treat women more like chattel, these guys will stop murdering them! These hypotheticals (almost all written by white men) elide the much larger issue underlying their celibacy, one that won’t be solved by government-funded sex robots or even, God forbid, assigned women sex partners. Unlike the goals of the class struggles from which incels derive much of their rhetoric, incels seek only personal enrichment. The ultimate goal of incel ideology is not just to procure captive partners to abuse, but to implement sweeping change, destroying societal structures and building in their place a new world order in which they have ultimate control.

A core tenet of incel ideology is the belief that women’s increasing independence in the 1960s and ’70s has left men behind, resulting in what they perceive as their unfair and unequal access to satisfactory women as potential partners. But is it truly the case that there was ever a time when men and women were equally matched?

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Court transcripts from Medieval England show both men and women arrested for having partaken in “love magic”—using herbs like periwinkle or henbane to increase personal attractiveness or to cause others to fall in love with them. These men might have been looking for sex instead of love, but their court testimony is proof that they were not part of a society in which all men were happily partnered. At the time, voluntary celibacy for men was extremely common; monasteries and the knighthood were full of celibate men. Voluntary celibacy did bring its own challenges, though, as a prominent medical belief of the time was that unreleased semen could cause men to become unbalanced. Monks were forbidden from any sexual activity, including masturbation, so a course of bloodletting was prescribed in order to “re-balance” their humours. Incels believe that having sex is a biological requirement on par with food and water; however, theirs is a different biological explanation than that proffered 500 years ago. Their so-called need is psychological rather than physiological.

Many of us in the Western world are lucky enough to know one day to the next whether or not we will have enough food for lunch tomorrow. Knowing that this basic need is being met, we are able to concern ourselves with other necessities higher up in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Up until about a century ago, for most people, other than those in the upper classes and their employees, the certainty of food and shelter was never a given. This meant that people focused on the necessities. Perhaps there isn’t a direct historical precedent for the incel movement because until recently, nobody had the luxury of time to dwell on these issues.

For most couples, marriage is currently understood as a fulfilment of emotional needs, rather than its former purpose of preserving wealth or lineage. As a business arrangement, it follows that parents or other figureheads would decide on bride and groom. The contemporary ability for people to select partners for themselves based on their own merits (like beauty or sexual desirability) creates a new social order; without the brokerage economy of past societies, the onus today is on singles themselves to improve and present themselves to other singles, who are also empowered to accept or reject overtures.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century brought with it a new kind of work schedule that allowed wealthier people more idle time than in prior centuries. Though changing ideas about work may have offered increased opportunities both for employment and financial success, men were no less affected by feelings of impotence and depression. In fact, it seems that long days working in factories were leaving men feeling less powerful than before, with the sudden emergence of a malady known as neurasthenia. The symptoms of neurasthenia were similar to those which today may lead to a diagnosis of depression or anxiety: fatigue, headaches, and even, at times, suicidal ideation. These afflicted men weren’t necessarily celibate, but the neurasthenia often manifested in listlessness and a lack of sexual interest or energy. The recommended treatment was not visiting sex workers, or more frequent sex, but rather electrotherapy—painful electrode shocks. Then as now, male energy was seen as directly related to sexual drive, and these despondent men turned to an electrical contraption that promised to increase sperm amounts and thereby their own virility.

The decline in arranged marriage in most Western cultures, along with increased access to birth control, rights, and opportunities for women, fundamentally changed romantic relationships. Until the 20th century, marriages were more often closer to business transactions than love matches, so it made sense for parents—the CEOs of the family—to arrange these to the benefit of their “company.” Women weren’t able to legally inherit or own property, so marriage was necessary in order to attain financial and personal security. Changing laws and increased opportunity for women to make their own money meant that marriage was no longer necessary for financial security. With the onus now on single people themselves to make connections and find a partner unlike so many marriages of the past, it can feel like the odds are stacked against them. But this is simply not the case in Western society, where women find themselves involuntarily single and/or celibate just as often as men.

1950s Americana, the mostly white suburban existence celebrated in nostalgic media like Mad Men and Pleasantville, represents the time period to which incels want to return. In this, they’re not alone: their ideology overlaps significantly with that of white supremacy. More specifically, both incels and white supremacists desire a reversion to their understanding of this time, one which conveniently ignores anyone whose experience of the time was inseparable from social and political injustice. Their version of this time in history ignores nascent counterculture movements and antiwar activism. It fails to acknowledge that the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements came about in direct reaction to the rampant racism and misogyny of the time. Generations of social suppression helped create a movement of marginalized people who made social change inevitable. Feeling the effects of that change, incels have adopted some of the same rhetoric. Like Minassian, the most extreme among them dream of a revolution in which they—perceived by themselves as the Marxist under class—would defeat those above them

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The men who today romanticize a period of time in which women and people of color were kept “in their place” by legislation, by social mores, and by force have been raised by those who enjoyed the privileges of whiteness. Incels are the sons and grandsons of these men who now dedicate themselves to the fantasy of restoring a time and place that where they felt no threat to their own self-assigned superiority. Anyone who’s watched Pleasantville to the very end learns that even seemingly picturesque nostalgia can contain multitudes.

The incel movement could only have grown to the extent it has in our modern environment, where rape culture and toxic masculinity combine with echo chambers that constantly reaffirm ahistorical notions of history as a utopian paradise for white men. Add to this the way that the Internet connects people in previously impossible ways, providing a bubble of like-minded people for extremists to retreat into until other points of view are entirely hidden. Patriarchy has existed in nearly every civilization throughout recorded history, but the incels’ brand of violent, punitive misogyny is particular to our own time because it centers on nostalgia for something that never fully existed.

According to their own writings, the crux of incel dogma is a simultaneous lust for and hatred of women. It’s a philosophy grounded in the rage of feeling left out and ignored, which is why their self-administered “solution” is not to improve themselves using the tools available to them, but to lash out as violently as possible. Their core belief is not rooted in the relatable human desire for sex and love and companionship; it is that society has turned against them and they have no choice but to rise up against their oppressors Stacy and Chad. Incels aren’t expressing the righteous indignation of an oppressed underclass, but reacting to a world in which patriarchy and white supremacy are losing power. The lives they take are, to them, sacrifices toward their allegedly noble goal.

The actions of Rodger and Minassian horrify most but serve as inspiration to others who see both as heroes. The incel movement continues to flourish in the same online communities that inspired both men, indoctrinating newcomers to their murderous worldview. But the danger of this group is not that they will achieve the societal collapse to which they aspire. It is that lives will continue to be affected, sometimes lost, as collateral damage to their rhetoric.

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by Ann Foster
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Ann Foster is a writer and historian living in Canada. She is always here for costume dramas, time travel, ghost mysteries, and magical girls. Find more of her writing here and follow her on Twitter here.