Even in the celibate cybersphere, there’s a gender gap.
By Chloë Gottlieb
Content warning: This essay contains graphic language and references to murder, body image, sex, sexual violence, misogyny, and assault.
The École Polytechnique massacre in 1989, Luby's shooting in 1991, The Isla Vista killing spree in 2014—as the incel community grows, the list of hate crimes associated with incel doctrine steadily rises. The term “incel” gained greater notoriety following the 2018 Toronto van attack, one of the first massacres to popularize inceldom. The word, now a banned hashtag on TikTok, conjoins the prefixes from “involuntary” and “celibate” and is claimed largely by straight white men who struggle to find sexual partners. The prototypical incel belongs to far-right political groups and Reddit pages espousing male supremacy. He listens to RadioHead, frequents Taco Bell, and idolizes the Joker. Incels, rebuffed by society and, as the name would imply, by the women they objectify, cope with their rejection by engaging with insular, hostile internet communities. Most crucially, incels blame women for their sexless lives, leading, in extreme cases, to unspeakably violent rampages and bouts of sexual violence. When sexual resentment turns bloody, the attacks are largely couched in gendered rhetoric or launched with gendered intentions. In our cultural imagery of inceldom, we thus envision an entirely masculine populace. But what about the women who are r/ForeverAlone? Cue the age of the “femcel.”
The Crass Ceiling
Before homicidal expressions of incel logic, there was Alana. In 1997, when the internet was as yet uncharted territory, Alana coined the term “incel.” She was 20 years old, single, and lonely. After years of isolation and sexual inexperience, Alana realized her attraction to women, and the burden of her celibacy dissipated. Remembering her loneliness in her early twenties, Alana turned to the internet to build a forum for others in similar situations. In Gimlet podcast Reply All’s “INVCEL” episode, Alana elaborates on internet friendships: “Meeting real people, even just on the internet, helps you understand, ‘Hey, this is a thing that's happening to me and maybe there's some hope, maybe I can get some support.’”
Over time, however, Alana’s original intentions were lost. Her goal—to connect lonely people via the internet—has become antithetical to incel culture’s current digital ethos. Raging bigotry floods Reddit pages. “Incel” is now nearly synonymous with “misogynist.” In a depressingly ironic twist, a phrase invented by a queer woman was swiftly co-opted by cishet men aiming to spread animosity, rage, and violence.
Today, Alana has renounced her affiliation with the movement, after wrestling with feeling culpable for deadly crimes committed in the name of inceldom. In Alek Minassian’s manifesto, which he composed before killing ten civilians in Toronto, he wrote, “The Incel Rebellion has already begun!” Incels’ rhetorical vitriol—ancillary to overt violence—runs rampant in online forums. Countless hate-filled posts normalize violent and misogynistic ideologies. Calls to action and unnerving warnings, such as Paul Elam’s threat to all women—“Simply put, we are coming for you. All of you. And by the time we are done you will wax nostalgic over the days when all you had to deal with was someone expressing a desire to fuck you up your shopworn ass”—litter the e-community. Femcel forums thus emerged as a response to female alienation on celibate sites.
“Femcel” refers to women who are involuntarily not having sex. (The portmanteau here is somewhat illogical; “female celibate” leaves out the vital modifier, “involuntary.”) Femcels, too, feel rejected by traditional beauty standards. Like their male doppelgängers, femcels identify as unfuckable outcasts. Some men use the word “femcel” as a pejorative online, but many women deeply identify with the term.
While male incels shun women who dare to assert themselves as agents of lust, femcels refuse to see themselves as objects of desire. Indeed, anyone unable to fit into Western ideals of beauty and market demands understandably feels ostracized and might turn to community for support. In a now-deleted thread, one Reddit user noted the presence of women of color and disabled women in the group, a significant element of femcel culture that distinguishes it from the male incel experience and ideology. The white heterosexual men who make up most incel communities constitute the generic and privileged blueprint of desirability in the United States, yet they view their sexual rejection as a form of oppression—one that, in their eyes, can ultimately only be rectified by extreme violence.
Femcels, on the other hand, are largely underrepresented in the media, in part because when women are rejected, they don’t respond with murder. Or assault. Or retributive action at all. Sex and relationships journalist Isabelle Kohn notes that this could be due to how “men rage outward [and] women rage inwards.” This is evident in the difference in tone and content in Incels.co, a forum for involuntary celibates, and Reddit posts: Men blame women for not sleeping with them, while women blame themselves. One male incel reviles a woman, writing, “[Men] only rape because bitches like you denied them their rights from the beginning … I’m glad you were raped, I’m glad [he] penetrated you … and I hope that image stays in your mind forever, you fucking cunt.” Painful to read as this rampant e-bile may be, it most grotesquely embodies the unadulterated rage that freely flows in the incel echo chamber. Inversely, a female user targets herself: “Each [bodily] feature is like a counting of all the ugliness contained in my own fucking disgusting person. … And it makes me hate myself so much, feel so fucking hopeless.”
Type “incel” and then “femcel” into clio.columbia.edu. The difference in results verifies Kohn’s claim: No academic scholarship has been published about female incels, while thousands of articles and studies flesh out their male complements. Femceldom is cast off as pickiness, despite serious undercurrents of racism and ableism in the types of rejection voiced on Femcel forums. Ultimately, penetrating insecurity tends to sabotage attempts to gain visibility in the online universe. Some femcel Redditors will even list their physical descriptions deemed undesirable by men, as if to justify, even empathize with, their own rejection. The revenge femcels fantasize about is a nose job, not a mass shooting.
The Femcelibate Mystique
In January 2021, the Reddit page Trufemcels was shut down for “violating Reddit’s rule against promoting hate.” The femcel canon and comprehensive site for the femcel faction detailing tens of thousands of women’s celibacy experiences was suddenly gone, along with the forum for community it had forged. Every thread detailing individual traumas and comment voicing compassion vanished. For many, this digital space served as a sole source of intimacy. Since then, new subreddits have popped up, but a community of that size takes time to build.
The incelosphere’s extensive lexicon makes it daunting to decipher their chat boards. Like any in-group, they cultivate their own dialect. To start: “Stacy” and “Chad” refer to conventionally attractive women and men—people at once revered and deeply resented. A “normie” is an average-looking person, whereas a “Becky” is fundamentally basic, but not unattractive. Typically, a Becky is sexually active and a 6. Maybe a 7. The involuntary celibate ecosystem relies on numerical ratings of hotness: Sex appeal is the be-all and end-all of the social hierarchy.
A femcel may “ascend,” wherein she levels out of femceldom by way of plastic surgery, makeovers, or other acts of alleged “self-improvement.” Derived from common 4chan lingo, the phrase “pink-pilling” holds at least four different definitions. “Pink-pilling” could refer to TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) ideology, girlboss feminism, homophobic propaganda, or indoctrination into femceldom. To femcels and incels, the sentence, “The PUAs stopped targeting MGTOWs after failing to help them mog some foids, so instead they’ll let the suifuel urge them to visit Gandy” makes sense, while being virtually incomprehensible to those outside of incel forums. Understanding this digital discourse is especially overwhelming since the recent disappearance of the largest internet resource on femceldom.
Though femcels are often popularly conflated with incels, they do anything but follow in the footsteps of their fraternal foil. To even label femcels as “female counterparts” to incels signals a reductive understanding of their community. Their hate speech is reflexive, and directed at their individual persons. On forums and in real life, they consistently rage inwards.
A.I.T.F. (Am I The Femcel?)
Outside of digital forums, however, the femcel identity is morphing. Young adults online have adopted the femcel label and embraced it in a new way. Comedian and recent college graduate Hope went viral on TikTok last month with a clip of her stand-up set. “When you’re a permanent virgin like me,” she announces, “your sexual orientation feels a lot like a Hogwarts House, in that it’s based on a huge hypothetical. Like, I guess, if Hogwarts existed, I would be a Hufflepuff. And I guess if anyone wanted to touch me, I would be bisexual.” Like other young people coping with their celibacy, Hope turned to humor. In a sense, this subverts the characteristic self-directed rage in femceldom. To joke about one’s celibate identity serves at once as active acknowledgement and dynamic output.
Through Tiktok, femcel pride is a movement, based in self-edification and gender theory, that is slowly gaining traction. Hope exemplifies a trend of young women turning their loneliness into comedic material. In fact, TikTok is one of few social media platforms with femcel content. Comments on videos of happy couples, named CoupleTok, range from users asking for content warnings to prayers begging for heaven-sent companionship. Another ostensibly celibate user, @lives_in_a_society, jokingly chronicles her “femcel fantasy” of taking birth control in public: “I watch everyone at that table realize that I fuck. And I fuck hard enough and often enough to be concerned with pregnancy. … With God as my witness and Progesterone as my talisman, I climb the ranks of the social hierarchy and become the coolest bitch on Earth.” By poking fun at herself and inviting people to laugh along, she recruits people to her side. Her levity allows the conversation around celibate women to flourish, so other young women can observe frank communication about sex and intimacy as both funny and serious.
In her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Adrienne Rich locates female heterosexual attraction outside of the body: The object of heterosexual women’s desire, she argues, is not men, but to simply be desired. Knowing this, it’s less surprising to learn the entire involuntary celibate movement was started by a gay woman. Alana grappled with feeling undesirable in a compulsive heterosexual lifestyle. Today, internet communities on social media provide queer spaces that Alana never dreamt of in her twenties. While providing community, users also circulate digestible materials on complex topics like desire. Maybe you’re not an incel, they offer—maybe you’re just questioning your sexuality.
Even before Covid-19, college students were experiencing a “sex recession.” The 2018 National College Health Assessment found that 66% of students engaged in sexual activities in the past year, a lower statistic compared to 72% in a 2000 assessment. In fact, many students have never had sex. We can observe this in our own community: Columbia Virgin Club’s Instagram account has over 400 followers and counting. They post satirical encouragement to the student body, urging abstinence. Once again, social media has become a place for the celibate to rejoice—sarcastically or not.
Lisa Wade argues in American Hookup that Marxist theory relates to college students’ sex lives, particularly in terms of the gender roles emergent from the Industrial era. In the book, she writes that “hookup culture, strongly masculinized, demands carelessness, rewards callousness, and punishes kindness.” Wade links masculinity and capitalist entitlement, reifying the incel credo that women owe men sex. It seems that, whether women are sexually active or not, the system inherently thwarts female intimacy.
Fraternity party hookups and sexiled purgatory are not the most pressing concerns of the current college student. Instead, they focus on paying rent on time or taking ProctorU exams or simply staying alive. But oxytocin withdrawals are real. Loneliness spreads with each day students are unable to hug, bone, or even argue with each other outside of Canvas discussion threads. The pandemic has become the great sexual equalizer, relegating almost everyone—Stacy, Becky, and femcel alike—to the status of involuntarily celibate. When a Tinder date could kill Grandma, celibacy becomes life-saving behavior. If it were not a symptom of widespread government failure, it would almost be funny. Thus, Covid has granted the public a temporary access pass to the lonely existence of the involuntary celibate. Looking forward to a vaccinated future, we fantasize about the release it will bring. Picturing it leaves everybody in the same ascension daydream that fuels femcels. We, too, long for the day we can leave our cyber cocoons and make contact.