When I was in high school, I felt completely undateable. Everyone around me seemed to be pairing off, falling in love, and racking up sexual milestones while I was still, as the song says, “sweet 16 and never been kissed.” And I felt awful about it. I fumed with anger over the unfairness of it all, writing shitty poetry deriding other girls for being the recipients of the attention and affection I felt sure I deserved.
So when I read 22-year-old Elliot Rodger’s extensive manifesto about his own dating woes 15 years after I’d graduated high school, I felt a flicker of recognition. I, too, knew what it was like to feel an extreme sense of loneliness and self-loathing curdle into rage, to feel like you were being unjustly denied access to the romance, sex, and companionship you so obviously were entitled to.
Yet it’s unlikely that Rodger would have ever seen me as a kindred spirit. For Rodger, whose treatise went viral after he went on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California, in the spring of 2014, women like me couldn’t possibly understand his pain. To the contrary, we were the source of it. “The ultimate evil behind sexuality is the human female,” Rodger’s manifesto declares towards the end. “They are the main instigators of sex. They control which men get it and which men don’t”—and, in Rodger’s view, never have to deal with the pain of denial themselves.
In the years since Rodger wreaked havoc on Isla Vista, he’s become something of a cult figure to a group of men who identify as “involuntarily celibate,” or “incels” on message boards across the internet. He’s even inspired copycat terrorists like Alek Minassian, who posted on Facebook about being part of an “incel rebellion” shortly before using a van to kill 10 people in Toronto in April.
Most incels do not engage in or even endorse violence. In the wake of the Toronto attack, boards like Incels.me released statements condemning Minassian’s actions and advising outsiders that “being incel has no relation whatsoever with violence, aggression, misogyny, or any other negative connotation.”
Yet even as they distance themselves from the lethal actions of men like Minassian, many of these men still embrace other toxic elements of Rodger’s worldview—in particular, the ugly misogyny that positions women as the root of a kind of sexual deprivation they insist we will never be able to experience ourselves. “It’s vastly easier for a female to get validation and sex than a male in today’s society,” an introductory post on Incels.me explains. “Unless a female belongs to the bottom percentile in terms of appearance, it’s going to be very hard for them not to be able to find many suitors for any kind of romantic/sexual activity.”
Women who try to challenge that line of thinking by pointing to their own dating woes are written off as delusional: “Stupid cunt thinks that not being able to get a 10/10 male model makes her incel,” declares one Reddit commenter in response to a woman who’d recently posted asking if the community welcomed “female incels.” These women are told that they could never truly understand the social isolation of an ugly, unloved man.
This core belief that loneliness and sexual dissatisfaction are a uniquely male proposition helps to justify the vitriol and occasional violence that men in this community unleash in the direction of women. And yet it’s a belief that’s entirely baseless.
Women are deeply embedded in incel history, although the original concept is now unrecognizable. It was a woman named Alana (coincidentally from Toronto, too) who originally coined the term “involuntary celibacy,” hoping to create an inclusive, welcoming space where people of all different genders and orientations could find support and commiserate over their dating woes. “I was trying to create a movement that was open to anybody and everybody,” she told a reporter at Elle. The now defunct site, Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project, was home to stories from a wide variety of lonely people, with no brand of loneliness deemed more authentic than any other.
Some online spaces still follow that model, providing emotional support for lonely people of all identities. Even within these spaces, the differences between men’s posts and women’s posts can be stark. A former moderator for a co-ed incel board explained that “the tensions between cis men and everyone else on the site were...usually high.” On Reddit’s ForeverAlone board, one of the most popular mixed-gender incel spaces, men routinely couch their frustrations in complaints about being friend-zoned, or women having impossibly high standards. Meanwhile, women continue to internalize their rejections: “I bet if I was prettier, he’d go with me,” a 26-year-old woman writes after describing a recent rejection.
“There are many, many, many women who are not finding the sex that they want,” says Therese Shechter, director of the documentary How to Lose Your Virginity and creator of The V-Card Diaries. In her research on virginity, Shechter has heard hundreds of stories about the sex that people are and aren’t having, including from a number of older virgins who struggle with the same feelings of loneliness, insecurity, and desperation that define members of the incel community.
And from what Shechter has seen in her research, there’s no indication that men who feel cut off from sex and companionship are having significantly different experiences from their female counterparts. “Women and men, for the most part, say the same things,” Shechter tells me. “They both express the same deep sadness.”
When I put out a call for stories from women who’d felt undateable, more than 200 women responded to me. Some were “late bloomers” who’d either lost their virginity at what felt like an advanced age, or were still virgins well past their late twenties. Others had had a few isolated sexual experiences that punctuated a largely dateless existence, or felt themselves slipping into unfuckability as they entered middle age.
Black women wrote of the pain of trying to find love in a racist society that routinely degraded and demeaned them. “In my teens I felt worthless as a woman because I didn’t perform femininity and womanhood in a way that was widely appealing to men,” one wrote to me, noting that, in a culture that stereotypes them as both overly masculine and hypersexual, black women often feel incapable of adhering to the demure, delicate white femininity that was more highly coveted. Other women of color described feeling “fuckable and fetishized” yet unworthy of love—a significant barrier to intimacy in a society that still looks down on women for having sex outside of a relationship.
Race wasn’t the only way women felt suffocated by limited beauty norms. Trans women discussed feeling unable to live up to cisgender beauty standards. Disabled women struggled with the automatic assumption that they were asexual or incapable of intimacy. A 44-year-old woman with cerebral palsy summed up her sense of desexualization: While people she encounters tend to be “very into hearing all about ‘kids being cruel’...they never want to hear that I’d like to get laid or even meet The One.” Fat women saw their bodies held up as a justification for turning their sexual desire into a cruel joke.
And in sharp contrast to the incel axiom that even the ugliest women can attract male attention, plenty of women wrote that just being “average-looking” never felt like enough to attract the attention of men who’d grown up ogling digitally perfected female celebrities. “I’d spend an hour dolling myself up to go to a bar and get ignored,” said Ashley, a 26-year-old from the Midwest who struggled with feelings of unfuckability all throughout high school and college.
Another woman wrote that “there were years when I begged friends to come up with someone, anyone, to set me up on a date with and they literally could not think of anyone suitable,” busting the myth that all women need to do to find love and affection is just “put ourselves out there.”
Most of these stories had common threads: Women who feel cut off from access to sex, romance, and companionship often assume that they’re broken, that the odds are stacked against them, and they’re destined to be unlucky in love for the rest of their lives. “I spent a lot of time wondering what was wrong with me, why wasn’t I good enough, why wasn’t I fun enough,” Ashley said. “It’s isolating. It’s ugly. It’s a total mindfuck. And even as I was doing all these things to change myself and improve, I still hated myself and had this nagging feeling that my effort was pretty much hopeless.” These women feel the same sense of isolation that emanates throughout the incel ecosystem.
Yet despite the universal experience of loneliness and sexual failure, there appears to be one fairly significant difference between men and women: “I’ve never gotten anything from a woman blaming men for [their loneliness],” Shechter says. “But men, yes.” Of course, not all men blame their sexual woes on women’s failure to appreciate their value, nor on a female fixation on bad boy alpha males rather than more deserving “nice guys.” But, Shechter reiterates, “women have never said that.”
It’s not hard to understand why men might think women have it easier in the sex and romance department. That belief is embedded into much of our pop culture, propped up by our insistence on erasing the experiences of women who don’t conform to our narrow expectation of womanhood.
In movies, female characters are frequently defined by their status as love interests fending off one or more male suitors. There are few stories that center the struggles of awkward, undateable women, rather than just treating them as a background prop or the butt of a joke. The romantically challenged female protagonists who do exist are often treated as makeovers waiting to happen. (1995’s Welcome to the Dollhouse remains one of the rare films to honestly capture what it’s like to be an unpopular, socially isolated teen girl; it still holds a place in my heart.)
Of course, the women who populate our onscreen love stories tend to come from a narrow demographic. And if you fall outside our culture’s narrow expectation of beauty, “you don’t get hit on,” says sex educator Haylin Belay. This is complicated further, she says, by the fact that “if you hit on other people, you open yourself up to looking desperate”—an unfair standard that Belay is intimately familiar with, having experienced some brutal rejections that sent her into a spiral of self-loathing.
Yet rather than seeing women who struggle to find love and companionship as kindred spirits, many men prefer to deride these women as beneath them. Male incels who complain of not being able to attract women “are specifically talking about a certain type of girl,” Belay says. “That’s not the same as saying that women have all the power and men have absolutely zero.” Unless, of course, you’re reducing “women” and “men” to incredibly narrow groups of people, remapping these categories to suit your despondent worldview.
To the extent that angry straight men dominate these spaces, it’s less because they’re more lonely, but rather because they’re more willing to shout women down, denigrating other people’s worldviews. The toxic masculinity that erases women’s voices is the same toxic masculinity that treats violence as an acceptable solution to one individual’s unhappiness. Amplifying the romantic loneliness stories of women, non-binary people, and queer men is an important first step toward undoing this poisonous mindset.
In the wake of the Isla Vista shooting, Alana wrote about her dismay over the term “incel” being hijacked in a friends-only blog post. “Like a scientist who invented something that ended up being a weapon of war, I can’t uninvent this word, nor restrict it to the nicer people who need it,” she wrote. But it’s possibleto reframe its meaning as a culture, defusing “involuntary celibacy” of its toxic associations and rebranding it as the near-universal human condition it truly is.