Everyday Sexism founder and author of Men Who Hate Women, Laura Bates, argues why the incel ideology should be classified as terrorism.
When is a terrorist not a terrorist? When he’s an incel. It sounds like a bad joke, but it is horribly real. There is a significant group of people who have been radicalised into extremism and hatred against a specific demographic group, who actively incite violence against that group, and who have repeatedly carried out real-life massacres against them. Yet we do not describe them as extremists. Their acts are not said to be related to terrorism. And their journey into hatred is not described as radicalisation.
There is still much we don’t know about the tragic recent mass shooting in Plymouth, the worst in the UK for a decade, which left six people, including the perpetrator, dead, and two seriously injured. But in spite of clear evidence that the shooter, Jake Davison, was deeply immersed in so-called ‘incel’ ideology, police, politicians and mainstream media have all repeatedly stated that there is no link to terrorism.
To make this statement so confidently requires entirely ruling out the idea that extreme hatred of women should be treated in the same way as hatred of other groups. It requires an acceptance of male supremacy as simply part of the normal order of things. It requires us to excuse the crimes of young white men as the random acts of ‘lone wolves’, ‘isolated incidents’, and ‘shocking aberrations’.
But these are not isolated incidents. They are not even rare. Less than a week before this attack, a man in Tokyo stabbed 10 people on a train because he saw women looking happy and wanted to kill them. Three months ago, US police arrested a man in Ohio after he carried out a reconnaissance mission at a university where he planned to massacre young female sorority members. Again and again, in the past 10 years, men who hate women have committed acts of mass murder. When I traced all the atrocities carried out by those explicitly linked to extremist misogynistic subcultures, the tally of those murdered or seriously injured was just over 100 in the last decade.
These acts fall clearly under multiple international definitions of terrorism. They are acts of serious violence, usually involving firearms, with the purpose of intimidating or spreading fear among a specific demographic (women) and they are intended to advance an ideological cause (male supremacy). But we struggle to recognise them as such. Even killers such as Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian, who clearly stated that their attacks were in the name of incel extremism and hatred of women, were not treated as terrorists by the criminal justice system or described as such in the media.
The problem arises from the convergence of two major blind spots. First, the popular imagination struggles to conceive of a white man as a terrorist. Controlling for target type, fatalities, and arrests, attacks by Muslim perpetrators receive, on average, 357% more coverage than attacks by non-Muslims. Articles about white men, even after they have committed atrocities, include soft-focus sepia photographs of them as children, comments from teachers about how “soft-spoken” they were, or headlines like “Christchurch terrorist’s grandmother says he was a ‘good boy’”. They tend to focus on mental health, and difficult childhood experiences: almost anything, it seems, to provide an understandable motive. Islamic extremist attackers, by contrast, are described as “Pure Evil”.
The second blind spot is our total desensitisation to violence against women. We live in a country where a woman is murdered by a man on average every three days. Where there are 100 calls to the police every hour about domestic violence and over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted every year. In a country where just 1.4% of rape cases reported to police result in a charge or summons, so it is not hysterical to state, factually, that rape has been almost completely decriminalised. Against that backdrop, it is little wonder that we struggle, incredulously, to see mass violence against women as extreme, or out of the ordinary.
The incident in Plymouth has been described as “domestic”, including by those explaining why it is not being considered terror related. But this suggests a total lack of understanding of terrorism. In over a third of public mass shootings in the US between 2011-2019, the perpetrator had a history of domestic violence or harassing or abusing women. In at least 53% of mass shootings between 2009-2020, the victims included an intimate partner or family member of the perpetrator. There is a very strong argument that all incidents of domestic violence, which terrorise women and advance the male supremacist ideology of patriarchal control, should themselves be categorised as a form of terrorism. You could only separate these things out if you were approaching the situation with no gendered analysis whatsoever. Which seems a very strange approach given that there is just one thing that almost all terrorists do have in common. They are men.
The refusal even to consider labelling events like these terrorism has a huge knock-on effect. It results, repeatedly, in mainstream media coverage that engages in good faith with the philosophy of extremists. ‘Explainers’ detail the incel ‘belief system’ as if it is a valid lifestyle choice instead of a movement dedicated to inciting the massacre of women. Opinion pieces ‘debate’ the rights and wrongs of the incel belief that all men are entitled to a ‘redistribution of sex’. Inadvertently or not, this both amplifies and normalises an extremist ideology. It is difficult to imagine a similar response after a mass murder carried out by somebody subscribing to Islamist extremism, for example.
Apart from the obvious fact that we should call this terrorism because it falls under the definition of terrorism, there are three urgent reasons for the government and criminal justice system to ensure incel attacks are accurately described in this way.
First, labelling these attacks as terrorism would send a desperately needed message that violence against women is taken seriously. That it should be considered as severe as other forms of abuse and punished accordingly. This might provide a deterrent to those currently drawn into these belief systems under the veil of ‘banter’ and ‘jokes’.
Second, it would enable resources to be applied to tackling the problem, from counter terror expertise to social media regulation, to the training and resourcing of teachers in schools to understand and recognise the threat from this particular form of radicalisation. At present, though I repeatedly hear incel ideology parroted by boys in my work on gender equality in schools across the country, it is rarely recognised as such by teachers or parents. And when I rang one high-level counter terror organisation to ask about incel extremism, the person on the other end of the phone paused and then asked me to spell incel.
Finally, defining male supremacy and misogynistic extremism as forms of terrorism or potential motives for terror attacks would enable us to recognise and research the enormous overlap between these ideologies and other forms of terror, such as white supremacy and neo-Nazism. While we think of these as separate ideologies, the reality is that they are inextricably intertwined, with racism a foundational element of incel ideology and white supremacist beliefs built on deeply misogynistic assumptions about women as dehumanised commodities. In many attacks, both belief systems are present.
None of this is new. Despite the description of incels as an “emerging threat”, these men have been freely advising each other about the best ways to abduct and rape women, or the most effective way to massacre them, for years. At present they are openly celebrating the Plymouth shooting, describing Davison as a hero and a gentleman and sharing their hopes for another mass attack.
‘How can this be happening?’ a number of people have asked me over the past two days. The first step to stopping it is to call it what it is. Terrorism.
Laura Bates’ book, Men Who Hate Women (Simon & Schuster UK) is available now.
Images: Getty/Chiara Beretta/EyeEm