We hear a lot about double standards between female and male sexual behaviour. Women who have a lot of sex are often slut-shamed, while men who have lots of sex are seen as ‘studs’ What is often ignored, however, is how true the exact inverse of this is. Men who cannot get sex are seen as losers and lampooned as members of the most derided group in society: incels.
Meanwhile, perpetually single women are celebrated in society and we lament the lack of good men out there.
However, it may well be true about the mismatch between what women want and what men are offering. This supply and demand problem is, of course, the difference in the way we perceive the two groups. Choosy women are not involuntary in their ‘celibacy’. It seems that women have tough choices; but incels don’t have any.
Who are the incels?
An incel, or involuntarily celibate, is defined as someone who has not had access to sex for a sustained period of longer than six months. Going by this definition and acknowledging the fact that the number of men not having sex within the last year has increased three-fold in the last decade, we must conclude that the majority of incels are peaceful and non-violent.
A significant minority of incels derive a sense of community spitting misogynistic vitriol online and rare individual incels have lashed out at society in horrific acts of violent rage. Media and cultural depictions tend to fixate on the latter two groups and uses them to represent all incels as misogynistic. It is important to note that while they might resent their lack of success in what they consider a somewhat superficial sexual selection system, the majority of incels do not hate women. The majority might not even define themselves as incels.
‘Be yourself’ and ‘just lift bro’
The first incel I ever encountered in real life spoke at the Messages for Men conference I attended in London in 2019. He overcame obvious crippling anxiety to speak and provide insight into his life. The most striking point for me was how he detailed a frustration at the tension between being told to simply, ‘be yourself’ and ‘just lift bro’ in order to improve himself by weightlifting.
‘Just lift bro’, I was told, is a common piece of ‘magic bullet’ style advice provided to incels, particularly from men within the wider ‘manosphere’. It seems cruelly insufficient when we consider the number of incels who report having physical and/or mental disabilities which might serve as significant barriers to weightlifting.
Honest commentators must acknowledge how hollow and unhelpful these platitudes truly are. Telling an incel to simply ‘be himself’ is to gaslight him into thinking there is no problem at all or to imply that his problem is that he is being inauthentic. To tell him to ‘just lift bro’ might be a little more helpful, in that a lot can potentially be helped through self-development, however, the blaséness and dismissiveness with which incels are told to ‘just lift’ is demeaning to the significance and complexity of the challenge they face.
The dating economy is increasingly moving online and a recent study of Tinder found that ‘the bottom 80% of men (in terms of attractiveness) are competing for the bottom 22% of women and the top 78% of women are competing for the top 20% of men.’
Crudely put, the modern dating economy closer resembles polygyny, with the most high-status men having a ‘monopoly’ on the majority of women. The majority of men are simply not being considered.
Why do we hate incels?
James Bloodworth’s insightful article describes the way in which men and women uniquely hold disdain for incels.
…we still judge people by how much sex they have, or not in this case. We still view men who don’t have sex as failures in some way…For men, calling someone an incel implies something positive – a certain sexual abundance – about one’s own existence. For women it has begun to function as a putdown that ruthlessly dismisses unworthy suitors while simultaneously expelling them from the community of the good as misogynistic and creepy.
It’s obvious why society hates the misogynistic online abuse and the violence but why do we hate the majority of incels…simply for giving up?
Incels have taken the decision to check out of a mating market in which they see the cost of courtship as being too high, both financially and emotionally. They are increasingly retreating to virtual worlds of pornography and online communities as shelter from what they see as a culture that rejects them. Sociologist Frank Furedi explores how:
…the status of moral inferiority conferred on men, encourages a defensive and anxious approach towards dealing with women. Feminism and the ascendancy of the #MeToo movement serve as constant reminders of the inferiority of male identity.
When so much of male identity is wrapped up in the idea of competency and agency, the incel admission of incompetence is jarring to us as a society and we find it repugnant.
What do we want incels to do? Keep trying and being rejected…or give up? It seems the answer is neither.
It’s not all about looks you know
Every time I discuss incels with any semblance of sympathy, I am met with a chorus of: ‘Boohoo, woe is me, poor men. They’re not entitled to sex or women you know!’.
This is of course true.
I am not and have never at any point suggested that women should be made lower their standards to reduce the plight of the incel.
However, the erosion of societally enforced monogamy coupled with the fact that women are rapidly outpacing men in education, yet still seeking highly educated partners, has significantly exacerbated matters on this front.
However, to have sympathy for incels does not equate to advocating women be ‘given to them’ as their entitlement.
It’s important that mainstream society gives incels a more appealing message than we have been giving. To dismiss them runs the risk of resigning them to the basements of online communities, to fester in resentment and disenfranchisement as potential ticking timebombs.
However, let’s look at some of the messages we send to incels.
Incels are often told that ‘it’s not all about looks’ and that some women go for personality. This is despite the fact that statistics show that men’s looks matter far more to the fairer sex and far more than they’d care to admit.
Feminist writer, Louise Perry, who is currently engaging in an extremely productive letter exchange exploration of the modern dating economy with aforementioned James Bloodworth, had this to say on the looks vs personality dichotomy,
The dating market is highly competitive, hierarchical, and often cruel. This fact is uncomfortable for anyone who values egalitarianism, so a more appealing – albeit dishonest – option is to instead blame Incels for their plight by suggesting that their unpleasant personalities must be the problem.
To make the argument that ‘it’s not all about looks’ is to make the assumption that if you don’t have good looks, you can simply compensate with a sparkling personality. I’m routinely provided with anecdotal evidence for such a phenomenon. However, what constitutes a sparkling personality can be very much dependent on what a man looks like and there is often a minimum level of attractiveness to be reached before personality and other traits are even considered.
Dr Francesca Minerva, a bioethicist at the University of Warwick, explores the fascinating ways in which an underexplored type of discrimination: ‘lookism’, which translates into discrimination in other facets of life. Lookism impacts on areas that we might not intuitively think dependent on physical attractiveness, such as professional success, perception of intelligence, and even morality.
Bloodworth explores more difficulties encountered by incels in regard to ‘it’s not all about looks’.
…in the world of online dating, which is how 40% of couples in the United States meet, looks, height and social status are usually pre-requisites for matching with someone at all. Offline, many Incels lack the basic social skills required to navigate relations with the opposite sex. According to an internal poll carried out on the website Incels.co, 26% of users of the forum said they had some form of autism. Flirting, which requires an innate understanding of nuanced sub-communications and unspoken sexual tension, does not come naturally to these men.
When I bring this up with friends, I receive a volley of potential qualities that incels could and should conjure up so that they may compete in the mating market. It seems that it is difficult for us to imagine a man who is objectively lacking in every aspect that might be important to a woman when considering a mate. We also neglect to acknowledge how many of these are immutable and difficult or impossible to do anything about.
Keep trying: There’s someone out there for everyone
The next piece of advice given to incels is to ‘keep trying’ and that ‘there’s someone out there for everyone’.
Why do we insist that men must persist in a world where 90% of romantic advances are expected to be made by men. Evolutionary speaking, it can be argued that women are born with inherent value, in that they are likely to one day have children, whereas men need to demonstrate value in order to be sexually selected for.
Why do we want them to continue to run this gauntlet? Why do we want them to continually pick themselves up and try again, only to endure humiliating rejection after rejection after each clumsy attempt?
In a world with antiquated views about who should pay on dates, how much money should a man have to spend fruitlessly on courtship before it’s OK to stop?
The notion that ‘there’s someone out there for everyone’ also seems oddly sexist towards women. If you just keep looking there’ll be a woman with low enough standards for you.
What do we as a society get out of this ritual that causes so much pain?
I feel that the pain of this ordeal is downplayed by society, despite studies showing that physical pain and social pain (rejection, exclusion, ostracism) activate the same regions of the brain. Modern-day progressives will happily tell you that ‘words are violence’ but will most likely scoff at this notion of pain. I feel this dismissiveness is due to how acutely aimed at men most sexual rejection is and an example of an empathy gap. The reason my girlfriend can scoff at this type of pain is that she genuinely can’t relate to it. She has literally never been rejected. In terms of romantic options, she lives in a blissfully ignorant state of abundance.
The veil of ignorance
We are all vulnerable romantically and socially. We all face rejection and hurt in romance and relationship. Scorning incels is a projection of our own insecurities and fears. If it wasn’t for random luck, we too could be alone. Those of you who are willing to reflect and consider the ways in which we discriminate and have attractiveness privilege, I strongly suggest listening to Jay Shapiro’s podcast on ‘Lookism’ with Dr Francesca Minerva. Shapiro takes the listener through the ‘veil of ignorance’ thought experiment in the context of attractiveness. The ‘veil of ignorance’ is a method of determining the morality of issues. It asks a decision-maker to make a choice about a social or moral issue and assumes that they have enough information to know the consequences of their possible decisions for everyone but would not know, or would not take into account, which person they are. The thought experiment illuminates how unfair yet philosophically difficult the conundrum of lookism is.
The veil of ignorance thought experiment can be applied to create empathy for those less attractive.
Step your dick up
In discussions about this topic with friends, one of the cruellest and most galling pieces of ‘advice’ that I have heard put to incels is that they should ‘step their dick up’ – to improve themselves to a standard at which women will consider them.
If we can move past the glaring double standard and the fact that an ‘unlucky in love’ woman would never be told to ‘step her pussy up’ to earn male attention, how much do we really think can be mitigated through self-improvement?
Certain aspects can be improved upon by acquiring skills; fashion sense can be improved upon. Manopshpere fashion blog and Twitter account @WellBuiltStyle is a pragmatic example of practical fashion advice that will help struggling men present themselves in a more favourable light.
Social skills to some extent can be learned, primarily by overcoming shyness to reveal a truly interesting personality. This does require a ‘putting yourself out there’ that can be gruelling for socially anxious young men and a ‘trial and error’ learning curve that will lead to all sorts of discomfort for women, who will have to endure many inept attempts at approaching them.
However, we must recognise the uncomfortable and ugly truth of how much of attraction is based on the immutable. One of the most common ‘deal-breakers’ for women is a man’s height, which no amount of Cuban heels can mitigate.
Research from the online dating website AYI.com found that, every inch increase in a man’s height directly correlated to his likelihood of being contacted by a woman. The study showed that 6ft men were 33% more likely to be contacted than a man of average height (5ft 7in), and 77% more likely to be contacted than a man under 5ft 4in. A different study about height and human mate choice found that, on average, the shortest man a woman would date is 5 feet 9 inches tall (2 inches taller than the average man) and the same study shows that 23% of men compared to only 4% of women would accept a dating relationship where the woman was taller (the average woman is 5ft 3in)
Develop yourself…but not like that
There happens to be a whole ‘industry’ devoted towards helping men develop themselves to be more successful with women. However, the ‘pick-up artist’ industry, which coaches men how to ‘game the system’, is sneered at as superficial and sinister. Pick-up artists are dismissed as teaching men how to ‘trick’ women into considering them. I find this criticism quite demeaning to women in that it suggests they are not discerning enough to know when they are being ‘tricked’. Most women are of course robust enough to see through many pick-up artist techniques. They are considered trite and cheesy in the modern dating arena.
However, one can imagine the exasperation of an incel who finds himself being held in scorn for his immutable incompetence and simultaneously being scolded for trying to ‘game the system’.
Is our distaste for the hollowness of pick up artist pageantry an expression of an internal recognition at how superficial our sexual selection process is? Are we hating the game by resenting the weakest players?
From an evolutionary perspective, it’s the female sexual selection that has kept this whole show on the road for our evolved history. Do we dare trifle with it?
I say yes.
Primarily because I am not a nihilist. I believe that much can be done to bridge the supply and demand chasm that exists between what women want and what men are offering.
We will need a more sophisticated and likely uncomfortable conversation than we are currently having. That conversation will need to grapple with uncomfortable issues like the tension between women’s success in the workplace and hypergamy. We will need to reframe the value of traditional masculinity, which has been culturally demeaned.
The conversation will need men moving beyond defining their self-worth through sexual success expressed as the denigration of ‘beta incels’.
It will take women moving past absconding and obvious slogans like ‘incels are not entitled to anything’ and perhaps even considering coaching hapless but well-meaning men on how to better succeed.
Inceldom needs reckoning with and I think we can do a lot better than to continually use the most extreme caricatures to trivialise incels.
It’s in all our interests to give better advice to incels than to simply ‘be yourself’ or ‘step your dick up’.
An earlier version of this article was published on Medium.
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