An increasing number of male teens and young adults who've experienced feelings of rejection wind up in what's been dubbed the “incelosphere,” a place where they can find mutual understanding in a world they think is against them. Two women Polish journalists spent two years on the online servers these “beta males” are flocking to in ever greater numbers.
In her book For The Love Of Men: From Toxic To A More Mindful Masculinity, Canadian feminist writer Liz Plank explained that the struggle of women can never be one without confronting the crisis of manhood.
Plank is part of the forward-thinking feminist researchers and authors who've dedicated a significant amount of their work to the problems of men and masculinity, always sure to arouse suspicion. In reality, from a young age, we are forced into one of two oppressive patterns – masculinity and femininity – which in turn shape our behavior and our choices.
Thanks to the feminist movement, women now enter roles once reserved for men more frequently and eagerly than ever before, and teach their daughters that they can be whoever they want to be.
What has not changed nearly as much is our perception of masculinity.
The dominant image is still that of the strong, resourceful, male who pushes forward, takes risks and copes with adversities on his own. But today, they also must be sensitive, attentive, and empathetic as well (just not too much). Parents are still afraid of raising “weak” sons.
These are the roots of the so-called “masculinity crisis”. Usually, this phenomenon is reduced to some version of "men cannot keep up with emancipated women”. In reality, however, we as a society are the ones who cannot keep up with the need of dismantling toxic patterns of masculinity and creating new, healthy ones.
Instead, we leave young, lost adolescent boys at the mercy of patriarchal gurus who are preaching online.
Without anyone to talk to about their fears and uncertainties, and unable to count on their loved ones for understanding, these boys join internet communities, where they are taught that the “order” of certain men being naturally superior to them is natural, that it has been shaped by evolution, and that it cannot be changed.
In other words, they’ve already lost, so it’s better to get used to it and admit to their failures.
In March 2021, I was an exemplary feminist. I had several years of activist and journalistic work on behalf of victims of sexual violence under my belt, and my book about rape in Poland had just been published. Every day, I spoke to women who experienced sexual violence. With every story I heard, my aversion to men only grew stronger.
Only a few months later, I found myself in a closed internet server with a few dozen incels, exchanging messages and sharing observations from my experiences on a daily basis. My being there divided the feminist community.
A Feminist In The “Incelosphere”
I received a lot of support, but I also read that I had “betrayed” the feminist movement, that I was a “guardian of the patriarchy”, that I was spending time with rapists, and that I wanted to force women to “bow down” to these men, or to sexually gratify misogynists.
The harmfulness of the “incel mentality” should not be underestimated.
Who are incels? In simple terms, they are men, typically young, living in what they call “involuntary celibacy”. They would like to have sex, but in their view they have no one to do it with. They blame women for their lack of luck in this area, believing that women do not view them as attractive enough. They also blame the society that they believe despises “beta males”, as they call themselves. Some of them blame their parents, who gave them “defective genes”. Oftentimes, they also blame themselves.
Online and in the news, incels are first and foremost associated with the misogyny on incel forums on the internet, and the terror attacks that several have been involved in, notably in the U.S., where self-described incels have opened fire on their peers and even strangers.
The harmfulness of the “incel mentality” should not be underestimated, especially since it regularly attacks specific people, usually women. Some people organize campaigns to expose girls on Tinder and create profiles of extremely attractive men, who they call “Chads”. When they match with women, they arrange dates and then randomly unmatch them, or tell the girls that they are ugly and should lower their standards when it comes to the appearance of a potential partner. I myself saw glorification of rapes and mass executions from the U.S. online, and was personally threatened two or three times.
The misogyny Of “losers”
Together with Aleksandra Herzyk, the co-author of the Polish book "Przegryw. Mężczyźni w pułapce gniewu i samotności" (Loser: Men In The Trap Of Shame And Loneliness), I spent an intense two years in the “incelosphere”. We began by setting up an account on Wykop, a portal where self-described incels and “losers” gather online. We did not intend to hide who we were, though it was obvious that, as feminists, we were unlikely to receive a warm welcome.
We wrote a post in which we assured those within the portal that we were sincerely interested in the difficulties faced by people posting with the #loser tag. Within a few hours, it managed to gain over 400 likes and about as many comments. One comment compared us to pedophiles luring children with candies or kittens. Some people called us names, like one comment that read "get the fuck out of the tag, p0lki”, while others were plainly sceptical. One commenter wrote, “this cannot work out”. The vast majority of commenters doubted our good intentions, believing that we wanted to build trust within the community in order to destroy it from the inside.
We were afraid of reading our private messages, which within the first day — over 70 on the first day itself. You can imagine our surprise that — apart from a few haters — the men actually wanted to speak with us. The majority's motivations boiled down to the fact that no one else was willing to listen to them, so feminists could do it for lack of anything else.
We spoke to some of them every day for several months, had conversations over the phone, and met many of them in person. The people who sat across from us were largely introverted, slouchy guys who avoided eye contact. Some were shaking with nerves, others stuttered. Even among those who did not have trouble socializing every day at work, or had some close friends, speaking one on one with women was an extreme feat. Some canceled the plans at the last minute, stating that it would be too much for them.
The people we met ranged widely in the extremity of their views, and in their levels of isolation. One of them, known online as Goblinus, is 25 years old. Not only has he never had a girlfriend, he said he has never had any close friends at all. He didn’t finish high school after suffering from depression and social anxiety, and didn’t leave his house for half a year, apart from trips to the store or to take out the trash. Because of this, he was assigned a social welfare assistant. When Goblinus did go out earlier in his life, he experienced panic attacks so bad that he'd lay on the ground, paralyzed and unable to catch his breath, and had to be rescued by an ambulance several times. In the years since, he has undergone therapy, takes medication, and has regularly ended up in a psychiatric hospital, which is where we met him for the first time.
He now lives in a studio apartment with three cats, whom he adopted so that, in his words, “someone would miss him”. He dreams about going on a date to a parrot shop or cat cafe. He always wanted to go bungee jumping but couldn't because he never had anyone to go with him. So Aleksandra and I did.
To be sure, not everyone on we met was simply lost and misguided. In our time investigating the server, we also met a user known as Piasqun, a 30-year-old who only referred to women as “sows” or “whores”. He described himself as “ugly trash without a high school diploma,” who admired Hilter and unabomber Ted Kaczynski, and exposed girls on Tinder in his free time.
When he turned 18, his father kicked him out saying that a grown man should be able to make it on his own. For a few weeks, he lived alone on the street, until his brother was able to find him work in France. He has since moved back in with his parents and works a low-paying job. Piasqun has never gotten close to a woman. His father likes to remind him that he is a nobody.
Other members of the server, where we spent six months, believe that Piasqun takes out his anger on strange women on the internet, because he is unable to stand up to the person who hurt him the most: his father. He himself justifies his misogynistic activity by the need to fight for justice for boys despised by "superficial" women.
With parents in mind
When I began sharing my observations about incels online, a woman I had supported after she had been assaulted came to me for help. She told me that her son, an introverted boy on the autism spectrum, identified as an incel. In the months that followed, I heard similar stories from others. It’s difficult to ignore the issue and declare that “it isn’t our business” when it touches us directly.
One of our sources aptly called the incelosphere a "pathological support group". For many young boys who suffer from loneliness, a sense of rejection, and inadequacy, it appears to be the only place where they can find understanding. Once they fall into the rabbit hole, they become saturated with misogyny and are on a straight path to radicalization. In many ways, these are not privileged men implementing a patriarchal model of masculinity. Their misogyny is the misogyny of losers.
Boys who cannot cry, shoot.
This does not mean that incels do not pose a threat. “Boys who cannot cry, shoot," Joe Ehrmann, a famous American coach, said in a TEDTalk. However, if they shoot at their own heads — no one is moved. In 2022, over 5,000 people took their own lives, 85% of them men, including very young ones. But it is the outbursts of misogyny that attract attention. Bell Hooks, the African-American feminist icon, noticed this 20 years ago, in her book The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity, And Love. "Emotionally abandoned by their parents and society in general, boys often experience anger that no one cares about until it leads to aggressive behavior”, she wrote.
A longer exploration of this two-year investigation is available in the authors’ book "Losers: Men In The Trap Of Shame and Loneliness."