SergeantIncel, founder of incels.co, joins Document to discuss the nuances of the internet's most despised subculture
On a July morning in 1974, Christine Chubbuck, a 29-year-old reporter, shoved a bag of homemade puppets beneath her news desk in Sarasota, Florida. Hidden among their limp, felt bodies was a .38 caliber pistol. The camera rolled and she shoved overgrown strands of dark hair away from her face, turning to the script she had written only minutes before the show’s live broadcast. “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color,” she forced a smile, her tone sarcastic, “you are going to see another first: attempted suicide.” Hundreds of people watched as she pulled the trigger and collapsed face-down onto the desk. Their screens went black.
Some hours later, her mother told local reporters that her daughter was “terribly, terribly depressed.” She was a spinster, the grieving vilomah explained, with no close friends or, and this part was emphasized, romantic attachments. Nearing 30, Chubbuck was still a virgin, living in the basement of her mother’s home. Only now, she paid its mortgage from the same room she’d sulked in as a preteen. She was smart and undoubtedly ambitious, but her mental health had rapidly deteriorated, which her family, loose acquaintances, and work colleagues all ascribed to a lack of intimate relationships.
Though she never self-identified as such, Chubbuck is one of the few women whose celibacy is deemed involuntary enough to wear the label “incel” (the popular shorthand for “involuntarily celibate”). IncelWiki’s “femcel” page, which, along with the vocal majority of incels, largely denies the notion that women can be incels, states that “it is generally accepted that involuntarily celibate women don’t exist.” Those who, like Chubbuck, experienced inceldom prior to the age of incelospheres (primarily online forums for incels, centered around venting and connecting, that began to generate during the ’90s) are referred to as “protocels” among the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Vincent van Gogh, Henry Flynt, Mary Ann Bevan, and Ludwig van Beethoven. The incel community is largely counterproductive to the problem it was created to solve. In its exclusionary practices it’s become an echo chamber for hatred of the self and the world. Instead of inspiring hope or comfort it reiterates a sense of despair, increasing the probability of extreme thoughts and behaviors. Those in the community who do not yet fit its mainstream reputation—as an insular network of violent misogynists—become more likely to fit it over time.
The incel community is largely counterproductive to the problem it was created to solve. In its exclusionary practices it’s become an echo chamber for hatred of the self and the world.
The online incelosphere actually originated with a woman. In the ’90s, Canadian university student “Alana” struggled to find a date and so, as many since have done, she turned to the internet. Her Involuntary Celibacy Project acted as a resource for people who, like herself, struggled with sex and romantic relationships. With bountiful web-based support and validation (and the subsequent realization of her bisexuality), her own life bettered to the point that she relinquished control of the site to a stranger. From there the community built into a boys club, which seemingly has grown to be proportionally more hateful with violent acts of individuals who become publicly associated with the group. Since then, incels have hopped around the internet, from Reddit to 4chan to sites of their own creation, where the conversation about involuntary celibacy has transformed into a male-dominated community made up of tens of thousands of people across the globe. They’re typically banned as a result of hateful and violent content that can be found en masse on many, but not all, of their threads.
Incels.co is now the largest incel forum online with over 20,000 registered users and counting. Alexander Ash, or “SergeantIncel,” often abbreviated to “Serge” by friends, created the site in 2017 following Reddit’s ban of the r/incel page for hosting “violent content.” At the time this piece is being written, incels.co is being hosted on incels.is for reasons undisclosed to this writer. “You got me at a strange moment…” Ash pauses on our call via an app that allows end-to-end encryption for calls. “That’s temporary.” The forum has an assumedly detailed post explaining why it’s hosted on an Icelandic server for the time being, but that post is restricted to members. In the interest of mutual trust and fear of cyberbullying, this writer did not attempt to sneak her way to restricted posts by registering under the false pretense of being a sexless, relationshipless man.
A dominant subject of conversation on incel forums like incels.co is women and, often, why women are to blame for their woes. Women are mostly rejected from the community on the basis that men need sex, and women use sex. “From a biological perspective, the man has to fight for a partner while the woman gets to be choosy and pick from available partners,” Ash says. He turns to a statistic often employed by incels to explain that women can have sex whenever they please: there are far more male users on Tinder than female. Statistica found that as of March 2021, 75.8% of Tinder users in the United States identified as male and 24.2% identified as female. Because of this disparity, women are “banned on sight” from joining the platform.
Censorship, for incel communities, is a minefield. They’ve historically been banned and blocked from mainstream social platforms on the internet, forcing them further underground. On a site like Ash’s, fully operated by people within the community, there are many perceived gray areas around censoring users, unless you are gay or a woman, of course. “The forum tries to be as permissive as possible without breaching the legal system; we do not allow anything illegal,” Ash says. “But the line can be a bit blurry.”
Not all the content on the site is abominable. There is, for example, a thread that weighs the benefits of adopting a cat or a dog. But wholesome posts of this nature tend to take a sharp turn in the comments. In this particular discussion, some users offered sage advice about the wonders of the company of cats in eluding loneliness, while others screamed “dogpill” in capital lettering, alluding to the idea that women would prefer to have sex with a dog over a human man.
“The forum tries to be as permissive as possible without breaching the legal system; we do not allow anything illegal,” Ash says. “But the line can be a bit blurry.”
To an outsider and I imagine, to some insiders, it can be difficult to navigate what is intended as humor and what sometimes-obscene things users legitimately believe. The adopted sensibility of many users is decidedly edgy—edgy in a way that goes beyond that of even Pewdiepie’s more controversial content. Racial slurs are thrown around casually, without restraint, and women are referred to as feminoids, sluts, and whores. Posts not unusual to the site read, “Women legally having their rights taken away is the only way to fix this society,” and, “Women get raped as a result of virgin-shaming.”
The incel community earned a particularly disturbing reputation and mainstream attention after the murderous rampages of Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian. In 2014, Rodger, a university student in Isla Vista, California, killed six and injured fourteen in an effort to start a “War on Women” for “the crime of depraving [sic] me of sex” before killing himself. He left behind a 107,000-word manifesto and a series of videos that quickly populated in the media, where they were received with disgust, and on incel forums, where they were both condemned and supported.
The “beautiful blondes” of his manifesto were exemplary of “Stacys,” or white, sexually desirable women who sleep with “Chads,” or white, attractive, popular men over incels. Four years later, Minassian posted a Facebook status that said “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!” before killing ten people and injuring sixteen in a violent vehicle-ramming attack in Toronto. The Supreme Gentleman, along with “Saint Elliot,” is a nickname not uncommonly used to refer to Rodger.
Minassian later claimed he had lied about identifying as incel, after announcing the overthrow of Chads and Stacys. This language is often used in the form of memes, but is used to generalize people outside of the community in many forms. Chads, Stacys, Beckys (less desirable, more attainable females), and Tyrones (the Black equivalent of Chads) are “normies” and “cucks” (an abbreviation of cuckold to indicate subservient, weak men) who conform to mainstream society. “Tommy” is the Italian Chad equivalent, “Chadlite” is a lower tier Chad, and “Brad” an even lower one. “Melvin” is an incel, and “Tanner” lies in the middle of the spectrum between Chad and Melvin but becomes a Melvin in the presence of a Chad. IncelWiki explains, “Tanner will volunteer his parents’ house for a high school party. In this scenario, Tanner hasn’t actually brought anything to the table himself, especially not with his social skills (because [Tanners] are poor—unlike Melvins, which don’t exist at all). Tanner is attempting to buy social clout, likely thinking he can get laid with this method. He might, but he will not retain a truly valuable lady, an elusive Stacy, if he is even lucky enough to snag one for that fateful night.” In the more extremist corners of inceldom, violent attacks have been supported even when entirely untied to the incel community, such as the Las Vegas shootings, which some incels praised for killing “normies.”
After Rodger and Minassian, the community became synonymous in the media with misogyny, hate speech, and violence. A survey conducted by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) polled users on incels.co with the promise of a raffle for cash in August of 2020. It’s the largest survey of incels that’s been conducted to date, with a sample of 272, ten times the size of any other known sample. The self-reported age range was 0 to 69, though the researchers believe the true age of participants was 18 to 52 and that the participant who entered his age as 69 did so due to its sexually suggestive nature. Over 90% of those surveyed agree with statements that women are self-centered, never satisfied, manipulative, and selfish. Though incels often protest to being associated with the more extremist viewpoints of people within their community, 18-23.2 percent of responders agreed that they admired Rodger, Minassian, and Chris Harper Mercer, 20.6% that they would commit rape if they could get away with it, and 38.2% that they sometimes entertain thoughts of violence towards others. While far from the majority, the number of surveyed that admitted to agreeing with these extremist positions is concerning. It was found that responders who aligned themselves with these extremist positions mostly agreed that the forum itself made them more extremist.
Ash firmly states that no acts of violence have spawned from his forum since its conception. But it’s not just radical acts of violence that are scary, it’s the support of them—whether that be from a majority of users or just a few. The media is often blamed for cherry-picking isolated instances of violence, but it doesn’t take long to find this sort of content on the forum. And if self-identifying incels are going to generalize normies, or non-incels, why shouldn’t we do the same to them?
I ask that question both seriously and sardonically—I genuinely feel that not all people who identify as incels are evil people in support of hate and violence, but there have been no attacks classified as terrorism against incels by non-incels, and the same cannot be said for the opposite. Among the multiple acts of physical violence by people who claim to be a part of the incel community is a culture of cyberbullying. A woman I contacted to be interviewed for this piece, who had publicly shared her struggles with relationships almost a decade ago (notably, not mentioning incels), gave me a hard no. She claims to receive weekly harassment from incels via email, shaming her for trying to co-opt problems of theirs that she could not possibly understand. Talking to me, she feared, would only open up her inbox to further bullying.
The media is often blamed for cherry-picking isolated instances of violence, but it doesn’t take long to find this sort of content on the forum. And if self-identifying incels are going to generalize normies, or non-incels, why shouldn’t we do the same to them?
Ash affirms that user applications to his forum continue to grow. This growth persists despite, or perhaps because of, general perception of the community as a breeding ground for violent extremists. The drive to join the community, he says, is rooted in loneliness. “Most people [in the community] will tell you that the problem is not necessarily based around sex, even though sex is a human necessity for many people. The primary problem is affection and love.” Which, it seems, can quickly turn into hate and resentment.
That hate is not entirely directed outward. Posts about the evils of women and society are matched equally, if not surpassed in frequency, by posts dominated by self-loathing. This points to a problem within the incel community that is usually clouded by the violence, support of violence, or encouragement of violence inflicted upon others: self-harm.
“Most people don’t know that, when it comes to violence, the real violence occurs to oneself. I am talking just beyond just the mental torture of isolation,” Ash insists. “Farwell” and “goodbye” posts appear on incels.co at disturbing rates. Incels who have given up hope on life entirely and post what are ostensibly their final words on the site receive some protest. But more often, they receive surprisingly gentle, but not discouraging, goodbyes in return.
“I know for a fact that many people obviously come to the forum because they feel like they can’t talk about [their inceldom] anywhere else,” Ash says. The site provides them with a sense of belonging that overpowers any hesitation. Eager to drive away loneliness, they join to feel less alone. Seeking a place to vent, they ban people who can’t understand, like women, creating a “safe space” to spew racism, anti-religious sentiments, and misogyny, but also posts about depression and suicidality. The price for finding a sense of belonging on incel forums, it seems, is anger and hopelessness.
Incels.co users have found that the forum has helped them understand the “blackpill” and, with that, fostered a sense of permanence to their situation. The blackpill, according to IncelWiki, “is a philosophy that female sexual desire is very inflexible and hence men’s dating problems require systemic rather than personal solutions, if a solution exists at all.” The blackpill does not offer solutions, Ash explains, and so, the incel is left to his own devices. (Most incels subscribe to the blackpill.) The “bluepill” describes the unquestionable acceptance of what the mainstream media, similar conventional sources, and associated platitudes (i.e. chadsplaining) have to say about the dating scene. The “redpill” is the rejection of the bluepill. The “whitepill,” coined by Ash, is “based on the maximization of happiness of an individual, by acceptance of his situation.” It is notably more optimistic than the other pills.
Ash refers to the blackpill as a “bunch of truths, because they’re backed up by science, articles, statistics, and such.” (In our conversation, Ash often cited statistics and science and, at times, would express hesitancy to make a comment if he could not back it up with data. Many pages on IncelWiki and posts on Ash’s forum express similar sentiments towards facts and data, which often seem cherry-picked to suit their beliefs about normies and women in the same way normies and the media cherry-pick comments and posts from incels to confirm their beliefs about incels.)
Unlike many other groups thought to develop extremist characteristics and inspire hatred, incels do not want the world to be more like them. They don’t usually see themselves as heroes or saviors, and they aren’t desperate to recruit others. In fact, it doesn’t take much time on the forum to discover that a substantial population of incels disdain themselves just as much as, if not more than, their critics.
Simply put, the ICSVE concluded from its survey that incels are not happy to be a part of the community, and largely agreed it made them feel worse, not better, but did not feel inclined to leave. There aren’t other spaces for incels where they feel humanized, where their struggles are validated, and where they are given tools for dealing with their pain in a constructive way.
Censorship has clearly proved not to be effective in its own right. Though people cannot discover certain violent or otherwise problematic content on Reddit or more mass-used sites, the reins of censorship are now almost wholly in the hands of incels themselves. On forums like Ash’s, the rules are looser, allowing for more extreme viewpoints to appear faster and at more frequent rates.
Jesse Morton, an Al-Qaeda recruiter turned consultant for organizations working against violent extremism, conducted the ICSVE survey with the intent of understanding and constructing alternative solutions to combat polarization, hate, and extremism. His “online ecosystem,” Light Upon Light, is dedicated to this mission.
Though people cannot discover certain violent or otherwise problematic content on Reddit or more mass-used sites, the reins of censorship are now almost wholly in the hands of incels themselves.
“The internet creates reciprocal dehumanization, where you start to see the other people on the other side as not even human beings,” Morton explains to me from a New York City train via an hour-long video call that consistently crapped out. “The human condition is one of traumatic circumstance. We have to learn how to adjust to a stressful, anxiety-provoking environment. We are, by our very human condition, in states of anxiety, fight, flight, and freeze throughout the day. The culture exploits that.”
Before hanging up, Morton makes sure to leave me with a prompt for some introspection: “You have to ask yourself, am I talking to Jesse Morton because I want to expand my thinking? Or am I talking to Jesse Morton because I want more Instagram followers?” While I have not yet figured out how talking to him could earn me more followers, he made his point clear: American society teaches us to measure happiness in terms of social standing. And people, myself included, should, according to Morton, consider with more care why they do what they do.
Inceldom has become inherently insular. Its reputation further breeds necessity of the anonymity it’s grounded in. In an almost masochistic way, its users affirm to each other that their lives cannot improve, that society has disadvantaged them beyond a point of return. And with this growing anger and disgust toward the outside world, the outside world loses tolerance and sympathy for their woes.
“The real answer is understanding,” Ash says. “If you have a society that is not fully aware of the intricacies and complexities of something, they’ll probably react to it in the wrong way. With incels, most people think that we have just a bad person, they’re violent, or are hateful. And, surely, some people are like that, because there are so many instances [of violence and hate] in the world. But those [people] are not the monolith.”
The feeling of loneliness is intrinsically terrible. Many incels.co users self-report mental and physical disabilities that they believe have contributed to their inceldom. Today, we face a mental health epidemic in which treatment is difficult to acquire and proper medication can be impossibly expensive. Many countries aren’t built to provide proper support to those with mental and physical disabilities, which can often lead to isolation and enormous debt by no wrong-doing or choice of the individuals who suffer as a result of this. Though involuntary celibacy isn’t the problem itching at most, turning to online communities to find support where it’s lacking in the physical world is not at all unusual.
“We have to build a trauma-conscious society,” Morton insists. “We need to build out opportunities for the frustrated to express themselves and offer the same meaning, significance, camaraderie, ideology, and understanding that extremists offer their recruits.”