Finding New, Healthier Paths for ‘Incels’

Involuntary celibacy can foment some dangerous attitudes. What can be done to prevent public attacks by so-called "incels"?


Humans are social creatures. We thrive on social connection and intimacy, both physical and emotional. Without these close relationships, things can start to go awry.

An extreme illustration of this basic human need are involuntary celibates, or ‘incels’. This self-identified community of predominantly young men struggle with a lack of sexual or romantic intimacy. Many blame women’s liberation and their own perceived unattractiveness for this personal and societal failure. For the most disaffected and isolated, growing anger and resentment can lead to acts of extreme violence.

Now, two political science students at the University of Alberta have produced a background report to help healthcare providers spot and redirect vulnerable individuals into healthier activities and networks.

What is an incel?

Involuntary celibates are often young, white men who believe that feminism and their own genetics have prevented them from attaining female intimacy. This feeling of victimization fuels a hatred of both women and ‘sexually successful’ men. As a result, they yearn for a time when women were obedient and sexually accessible.

In the worst cases, this anti-feminist and misogynistic rhetoric turns to violence.

The report cites “at least 13 public attacks” by incels in North America since 2009. These include four deadly attacks in Canada since 2015, including a high-profile 2018 incident where a 25-year-old drove a van into a busy Toronto street, killing 10 people and injuring a further 16.

Learning from the inside

The incel community is well established online, with members gathering in forums to share their experiences and find a sense of belonging. So it is here that Master’s student David Jones and recent political science graduate Zoe Hastings looked to understand more about the group.

The data, partly published by the platforms themselves and partly drawn from additional surveys, offer insight into the minds of these troubled individuals.

“A lot of times there’s a tendency to paint the whole community of incels as violent, or like some variant of white supremacists,” said Jones. “I think we have enough data to challenge those two assertions and approach it in a more nuanced way.”

There is certainly overlap in anti-feminist and misogynistic narratives between the two groups. However, a poll conducted by a large incel forum found that only 55% of its members identified as white (n=670). More prevalent than whiteness are serious mental health challenges.

According to Jones and Hastings, respondents reported “very high levels of negative mental health”. In fact, 74% described themselves as suffering from “long-lasting anxiety, stress or emotional distress” and 68% had “seriously considered suicide”. In addition, 72% described themselves as being on the autism spectrum.

While mental health challenges in this community are not necessarily a surprise, the results highlight a real need for support.

Addressing underlying mental health issues

“This is a very isolated group of individuals, especially outside of their online community,” said John McCoy, adjunct political science professor at the University of Alberta, and executive director of the Organization for the Prevention of Violence, who published the report.

“For them, building awareness of the availability of social services — in a way that is anonymous, accessible and as free from stigma as possible — is an important first step.”

The report doesn’t comment on the proportion of incels actively using mental health services, and research on clinical care is extremely limited. However, the authors do offer suggestions for practitioners seeking to understand underlying mental health issues by inviting conversation without rejecting or fortifying harmful belief systems.

For example, the authors urge practitioners to help their clients engage in “offline, healthy self-improvement activities”. This suggestion aligns with non-violent voices from inside the incel community that promote self-improvement and peer support. These activities are often referred to as ‘maxing’ and ‘taking the purplepill’.

It’s a small but valuable step for those blending timeworn misogyny and deep emotional trauma in dark corners of the internet. By understanding more about this toxic community, the report hopes to help care workers identify and support those involved.