What is an ‘incel?’ A look at the anti-women movement behind multiple terror attacks

A terrorist attack a month ago in Toronto, in which 10 people were struck down by a man in a rental van, has brought the term “incel” -- short for “involuntarily celibate” -- to the global stage, but what is an incel and how did the misogynistic, sometimes violent movement begin?

Canadian authorities allege that Alek Minassian, 25, of Richmond Hill, drove a Ryder rental van up onto a Toronto sidewalk April 23 and plowed into a group of pedestrians. According to additional charges filed against Minassian earlier this month, a total of 10 people died and another 16 were injured. 

Most of the dead were women. 

What is an incel?

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The term “incel” began with a Toronto woman in 1993. The woman, identified only as Alana, told Elle in March 2016 that as a sexually inexperienced college student at Carleton University in Ottawa, she was trying to create a “movement that was open to anybody and everybody.” 

She created a website, Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project, as a way for single people who were lonely to come together. Eventually, she turned the site over to someone she did not know and abandoned the project.

The movement was ultimately co-opted by what The Washington Post described as an “online misogynistic subculture of men who blame women for their sexual frustration.”

Alana learned that in February 2015, when she read about Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old self-described “incel” who stabbed and shot to death six people and injured 14 others May 23, 2014, near the University of California’s Santa Barbara campus before taking his own life. 

In a video he shot in his BMW shortly before shooting himself, Rodger complained about his social life, saying that he was still a virgin and had “never even kissed a girl.”

A 141-page manifesto Rodger sent to about two dozen friends and acquaintances before he killed himself further detailed his deep hatred of women, whose rejection he blamed for his predicament, the BBC reported. In the document, he called himself an “ideal magnificent gentleman” and said he could not understand why women did not want him. 

Men who subscribe to the incel movement have taken Rodger as a sort of folk hero. Alexandre Bissonnette, who killed six people and wounded 19 more at a Quebec City mosque on Jan. 29, 2017, searched the web for information about Rodger less than 24 hours before opening fire, The Globe and Mail reported

Toronto police officials also confirmed that Minassian posted a message on Facebook in which he praised Rodger just minutes before he is accused of driving his rented van into the crowd of pedestrians in Toronto. 

“As has been reported in the media, the accused is believed to have posted a cryptic public message on Facebook minutes before he began driving the rented van southbound on Yonge Street and onto the crowded sidewalks,” Toronto police Detective Sgt. Graham Gibson said shortly after the tragedy. “He drove, deliberately striking pedestrians on the sidewalk and roadway with his vehicle.”

Minassian, a failed Canadian military recruit who called himself “Private (Recruit) Minassian Infantry 00010” in the Facebook post, wrote that he wished to speak to “Sgt. 4chan.” The website 4chan, which has been linked to a variety of internet subcultures, is believed to be where Minassian became radicalized, New York magazine reported

He also stated in the post that ‘the Incel Rebellion has already begun.”

“We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys!” the post stated, according to the BBC. “All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”

According to the Institute for Family Studies, incels refer to attractive, sexually available women as “Stacys.” The small number of alpha males they believe dominate the dating field, they call “Chads.”

David Futrelle, a writer and blogger who explores misogyny on the internet, described incels as seeing “Chads” as stereotypically attractive man, or Ken dolls, and “Stacys” as the Barbies to those Kens. 

“This all may seem a bit ridiculous, but it's no exaggeration,” Futrelle told Glamour magazine in April. “This is how they think. I'm convinced that they literally visualize Chads as characters in ‘80s teen flicks.”

Futrelle said a lot of the incels he’s run across are young and that he believes their belief system stems from adolescent insecurities and anger over being rejected by girls in their youth. 

“Instead of growing out of this, they turn it into a lifestyle,” Futrelle said. 

Facebook removed Minassian’s account within minutes of the attack, The Globe and Mail reported

Minassian, who was arrested near the scene of the mass homicide seven minutes after the initial 911 call was placed, has been charged with 10 counts of murder and 16 counts of attempted murder. 

The Institute for Family Studies reported that incels tend to believe that women have become more sexually promiscuous, but only date “Chads,” which leaves them, the incels, out. 

The rate of men who are unmarried and have reported not having sex in the past year has increased over the past several years -- but it is not because the self-titled incels are being shunned, the institute reported. Instead, it is driven by the declining marriage rate, which for men between ages 22 and 35 is at its lowest rate since at least 1880, the year for which data first became available. 

Elliot Rodger, left, and Marc Lépine are pictured. Rodger, 22, shot and stabbed six people to death and wounded 13 others May 23, 2014, in an attack near the University of California's Santa Barbara campus. Lépine, 25, killed 14 female students and injured 13 others at École Polytechnique, an engineering school in Montreal, on Dec. 6, 1989. Both men, who shot and killed themselves afterward, targeted women. (AP Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Incel movement’s basis in history

The acts of violence allegedly perpetrated by Minassian and Rodger are not the first linked to the misogynistic ideals behind the incel movement. In 1989, 14 female students were shot to death and another 13 injured at École Polytechnique, an engineering school in Montreal. 

The killer, Marc Lépine, blamed feminism for the ills of his life, including his rejection from the school where he found his victims, The Guardian reported. Lépine, who armed himself with a rifle and a knife, previously told a shop owner he was hunting “small game,” the newspaper said. 

Like Rodger, Lépine turned his gun on himself when he was through. 

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Melissa J. Gismondi wrote for the Post that the incel movement is fairly new, but is based in the ancient history of patriarchal societies that have long given men free reign over women’s bodies. Gismondi, a historian in North American history, explained that women, for the majority of American history, were bound in more than name to their husbands. 

Crimes against a woman, including rape, were seen as crimes against the husband. If a slave-owner raped a slave and got her pregnant, that child also became his property. 

It was 1979 before marital rape became a crime in the United States, the Post reported. It was not until 1993 that it became a crime in all 50 states.

President Donald Trump’s embattled personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, tried as recently as 2015 to deflect old rape accusations against Trump by saying husbands could not rape their wives. Cohen’s remarks were in response to the then-presidential candidate’s sexual misconduct controversy, during which there was a resurfacing of allegations made by Ivana Trump in the 1990s, in which she said that Trump raped her while they were married.  

Cohen later apologized. 

The belief that men are owed sex from women helped form the basis of today’s incel movement, experts say. 

A Reddit incel subgroup that boasted 40,000 members was shut down in November after several posts promoted rape and other violence against women, USA Today reported. Keegan Kankes, a senior intelligence analyst with hate group watchdog the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the newspaper in April that misogyny is often a precursor to other, more radical extremism.

“There is a willingness in these communities to say horrible things -- women should be raped, women should be killed,” Hankes said. “In these communities, the rhetoric is among the worst that I see online.”

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