She meant to create a supportive online community for lonely people – but the mass killing in Toronto highlighted that “incel” now means something very different.
In the wake of the mass killing in Toronto on 23 April by a man who appeared to consider himself an “incel”, international attention has been focused on the term and the community associated with it. Short for “involuntarily celibate”, the word refers to a misogynistic online subculture of men united in anger at not being able to find willing sexual partners, who gather in internet forums on Reddit and 4chan.
However, the woman who invented the term more than 20 years ago has now spoken of her frustration and horror at it being adopted by violent and angry men.
In an interview with The Guardian, Alana – who asked that her surname was not published – said she originally coined the term in the Nineties, hoping to create a supportive online community for people who were unable to find the sexual and romantic intimacy they desired.
“I identified that there were a lot of people who were lonely and not really sure how to start dating,” she said. “They were kind of lacking those social skills and I had a lot of sympathy for that because I had been through the same situation.”
Alana started a website and mailing list called Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project, where she posted articles and ran a mailing list offering advice and support for lonely people. The name of the website was eventually shortened to “incel”.
She said she was aghast that the term had morphed into something so different to what she intended. “It’s not a happy feeling,” she said. “It feels like being the scientist who figured out nuclear fission and then discovers it’s being used as a weapon of war.”
One strand of present-day incel ideology is that women are shallow and vacuous creatures (“Stacys”) who are only attracted to unintelligent but conventionally handsome and muscular men (“Chads”). This is perceived as a profound injustice against less traditionally attractive men.
Elliot Rodger – the terrorist who killed six and wounded 14 in a stabbing and shooting spree in California in 2014 – is sometimes valorised among the incel community for the manifesto he wrote before going on the attack, in which he railed against women for not providing him with the sex he believed he was owed.
Alek Minassian, the man who allegedly ploughed a van into pedestrians in Toronto, apparently posted a message on Facebook prior to his attack in which he hailed Rodger as “the Supreme Gentleman”, a term Rodger applied to himself. Ten people were killed as a result of Minassian’s attack; he has been charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder, and 13 counts of attempted murder. Toronto police have said they are still investigating his motive.
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