The Incel Problem
“All I ever wanted was to love women, and in turn to be loved by them back. Their behavior towards me has only earned my hatred, and rightfully so! I am the true victim in all this. I am the good guy.”
These words concluded 22-year-old Elliot Rodger’s 137-page manifesto. Rodger published the document one day before killing six people and himself at a sorority of the University of California Santa Barbara. In the manifesto, Rodger wrote about his inability to enter a romantic relationship and his resulting rage towards all women. He then laid out his plan for revenge: mass murder. The 2014 attack was the first to be linked to the “involuntary celibacy” or incel subculture.
Designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, incels expressly advocate for the subjugation of women. The incel ideology is rooted in the belief that genetic factors predetermine the attractiveness of men to women, leaving some permanently isolated and ostracized for reasons entirely beyond their control. Blossoming in online spaces like Reddit and 4Chan, incel communities often focus on themes such as the supposed cruelty of women and woman’s exploitative, evil nature. Like in the case of Elliot Rodger, this enraged victimhood mindset can easily develop into violence.
Since the UCSB slayings and subsequent overwhelming praise of Rodger from the incel community, countless acts of violence have been attributed to the cause. In 2015, Christopher Harper-Mencel killed nine people and himself at Umpqua Community College. Harper-Mencel was active in incel forums and even remarked in writings posted before the attack that “Elliot [Rodger] is a god.” Self-described incel Tres Genco confessed to planning a mass shooting and wrote about his desire to “slaughter” women. Most recently, with no apparent connection to the victims, some have speculated that the accused murderer of four Idaho college students, Bryan Kohberger, was motivated by an inability to attract women. This theory is further evidenced by Kohberger’s repeated, unanswered Instagram messages to one of the victims.
Most concerningly, the incel movement is not limited to the fringe few lurking in the dark corners of the internet. Rather, influencers like Andrew Tate, known to promote male supremacy and violence against women, have burst into the mainstream. Even after his arrest for human trafficking, Tate’s Twitter follower count continued to rise, reaching more than 4 million. Further, in a 2018 New York Times article, conservative columnist Ross Douthat promoted “sex redistribution” and a “right to sex,” openly sympathizing with incels. Public figures like Douthat invite incels out of the shadows.
No Single Solution
Incel ideas, and the violence that follows, have penetrated the mainstream. Many wonder, both logistically and legally, what can be done to prevent more incel-motivated death and destruction.
Legal avenues for addressing the threat presented by incels are limited. Policing speech in the United States is unlikely to be successful. Even hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has consistently shot down attempts to categorize hate speech as falling under exceptions to First Amendment protections. In 2011, the Court held that speech by the Westboro Baptist Church–including signs at military funerals reading “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”–could not legally be restricted.
Even identifying sources of incel danger is nearly impossible due to the decentralized, online model of the movement. There are no formal leaders in the incel movement. Even if an organizer could be targeted, any policing of social media forums only invites deeper, untrackable concealment in the dark web.
With near-nonexistent legal avenues remaining, many propose more proactive measures for stopping incel violence. Increased national mental health support could lessen violence in the community in the long term. Many incels report suffering from mental illness as well as autism spectrum disorder. Further, a 2015 survey reported that only 41% of Americans in need of mental health services actually received them. Researchers have documented a strong correlation between suicidal and homicidal ideation. Thus, untreated mental illness could be a treacherous feature of the incel psyche. Increasing the availability of mental health resources in the United States could help address incel violence before it ever rises to dangerousness.
However, importantly, mental illness is not an excuse for violence. While increased mental health resources may help with addressing incel violence, it is not a cure for the root problem: misogyny and male entitlement. Mental health services do not treat ideologies as ideologies themselves are not mental illnesses. UCSB shooter Elliot Rodger received mental health support and left with his incel ideologies intact, as he wrote in his manifesto: “I don’t know why my parents wasted money on therapy, as it will never help me in my struggle against such a cruel and unjust world.”
The United States must invest resources for early intervention on misogyny. Adults and adolescents alike should learn how anti-woman ideologies and prejudice develop into violence. Further, national leaders must recognize the legitimate threat to national security posed by incel groups. Funding research into male supremacism is a desperately-needed step towards ending gender violence in the United States.
Marie is an NYU alumnus and current 2L at Cornell Law School. She has experience working in psychiatric mental health and incarceral settings and is interested in the criminal justice system. She loves the Buffalo Bills, her dog Khaleesi, and Chipotle.
Suggested citation: Marie Nercessian, The Epidemic of Incel Violence, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter (Jan. 25, 2023), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/the-epidemic-of-incel-violence.