Randy started identifying as an involuntary celibate after he turned 22. Unlike voluntary celibates like priests, self-identified “incels” want intimate relationships but believe, for a wide variety of reasons, that they will never have them. Randy identified two reasons for his past, present, and future loneliness: He is unattractive and unable to meet or exceed women’s unrealistic expectations. Having internalized these ideas and given up looking for partners, he began looking for like-minded people. That’s how he found the incel community, which he joined despite understanding that men without families and without the hope of starting them are a dangerous group.
“I call myself ‘incel’ because there is really nobody outside this group who understands what we go through and it is nice to have a place to vent to others, even if it is online.” Randy, now 29, explains. “I honestly didn’t choose to become an incel.”
Venting can lead to something more. The r/incels subreddit was banned in November 2017 after it became a vehicle for white nationalist radicalization following the clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia. Incels in the community had previously celebrated mass shooters by posting their manifestos along with sympathetic commentary. Randy, who does not self-identify as a racist and is uncomfortable with violence, sees interacting with unsavory types as the cost of human connection. He says the incel community isn’t criminal. It just contains a disproportionate number of criminally minded men.
“There are a loud few who ruin it for the rest of us,” Rand says. “They draw the wrong type of attention.”
Sociologically and historically speaking, this makes sense. Societies with communities of men who have limited prospects of finding partners or having families have higher crime rates, higher rates of extremism, and spend more time at war. And research shows that this is not about sex — not entirely. Men who can’t start families tend to compete with each other for status, respect, and resources as a sort of consolation prize. With fewer connections and far less to lose, they are primed to take extreme risks. Though it would be dangerously sensational to suggest that men who can’t have children become criminals, data does suggest that marriage and fatherhood inoculate men against their worst impulses.
If marriage and parental responsibility feel confining to men, that’s because they are. And that may be for the best. To live in the land of loveless men is, as Randy readily admits, to accept certain behaviors and attitudes one might otherwise avoid.
According to evolutionary biologist Rob Brooks, the fringe aspects of incel culture are not unique among men excluded from the mating pool. Comparable attitudes and behaviors are fairly common across polygamous cultures in which men have multiple wives. These societies almost inevitably face more issues with crime, violence, poverty, gender inequality, and child abuse than monogamous cultures. Government bans on polygamous marriage are often understood in religious terms, but largely exist because non-monogamous marriage is socially destabilizing.
“Polygamy guarantees that some boys will never grow up and have a family,” Brooks says. “They strive frantically against one another for status and respect, trying to outshine one another and to build allegiances, often by fighting. They also can turn to crime, gambling and substance abuse.”
Cultural anthropologist Joseph Henrich and colleagues published a detailed review of studies on polygamy in 2012 and found that it invariably increased intra-sexual competition among men, resulting in greater levels of crime, violence, and poverty. When polygamy was outlawed in 1880 in Japan, in China in 1953, and Nepal in 1963, the motivations were clear. Institutionalized monogamy, which shifts male attention away from competition and towards paternal investment, is simply safer for society.
Sudan, where roughly half of all marriages are polygamous, has seen three separate civil wars since 1955. Polygamous areas of Indonesia and Haiti remain unstable. There’s so much data indicating that polygamy aids in radical Islamist recruitment efforts that the U.S. Department of Defense is currently funding additional research. White nationalists use Reddit to recruit disaffected young men by utilizing similar rhetoric about access to sexual and family opportunities.
Comparable consequences have occurred as a result of unbalanced ratios, Brooks says. China’s only recently phased out one-child policy, which resulted in the abortions or deaths shortly after birth of an estimated 30 to 60 million daughters, yielded an excess of single men. For every 1 percent increase in the male to female ratio, violent and property crimes increased by nearly four percent. This accounted for a one-sixth of the massive rise in Chinese crime between 1988 and 2004. Similar outcomes have been observed in India, where prenatal testing has resulted in an increasing number of the abortions and deaths of approximately 63 million girls. India now has about 37 million fewer women than men. Violent crime went up nearly 19 percent between 2007 and 2011. During the same period, the country saw a 74 percent rise in the kidnapping of women.
It’s easy to misinterpret this data and conclude that sex alone prevents crime, but it’s deeper than that. What matters more than sex or money, in terms of evolutionary competition, is the success of a person’s genes through their offspring.
“That is the only currency that matters,” Brooks says. “Men who have a mate and even a family can ensure their fitness by caring for that family and investing in their future.” Brooks adds that this is, in part, why men’s testosterone levels drop when they become fathers. The aggression testosterone fuels is no longer useful when men are spending their time supporting their partners and caring for the children. Testosterone, which is essential for reproduction, is not solely responsible for violent behavior, but scientists suspect that it does intensify men’s desire to dominate other males.
From a criminology perspective, there are many explanations for why men commit three times as many violent crimes as women. But most theories are based on the underlying assumption that some level juvenile crime and delinquent behavior is typical for boys and young men due to a combination of biological, developmental, and sociological reasons. Boys have more testosterone than girls and the part of the brain that manages impulse control (the prefrontal cortex) is slower to develop, but they’re also raised differently. While daughters are typically kept close to home and have strong family ties, sons are usually at the periphery, hanging out with peers. This is the science behind “boys will be boys,” and also the science of “boys will be at a remove from society.” What brings them back? As boys become men they form stronger bonds to society through marriage, parenthood, and employment. Marriage is the most significant variable of these investments because it has such a strong impact on male behavior.
“Men get married and it changes their lifestyle, they change their routine activities, they separate from those bad peer influences,” explains Jaclyn Cwick, Professor of Criminology at Grand Valley State University. “While that may be why most dads seem to be operating a friend deficit, the research shows and experts agree that this seems to curb crime on a broader level. “They stop hanging out with their buddies and that’s one way it reduces criminal environment.”
As any father would tell you, nothing reduces the amount of time spent with buddies quite like a kid. This is not always great for men on an individual level. Disconnection from non-familial and non-romantic relationships hurts individuals mentally, and many men also struggle with depression when their testosterone plunges after having a baby. As lonely and isolating as that may feel in the short term, it appears to be serving a greater social good in the long term. This is the sacrifice men make — albeit often unintentionally — to stabilize society.
Men who believe they’ve been denied access to these stabilizing relationships often develop crippling social anxiety issues that withdraw them further from society. According to Jonathan Berent, a licensed clinical social worker who has been treating involuntary celibacy for decades, one of the biggest current struggles for men who feel unable to mate is using technology productively. Three of Berent’s former patients are now getting married; all of them alleviated their initial anxiety using dating apps. At the same time, other patients suffer from video game and porn addictions. They loiter in toxic echo chambers. Their loneliness is facilitated by the internet and so is the emergence of a dark worldview.
Nihilism is a part of core incel ideology and Randy refers to his indoctrination as being “black-pilled.” While the red pill is a reference reappropriated from The Matrix by mostly men’s rights activists who use it to describe a return to traditional, masculine values, the black pill just means giving up.
“Finding a partner is an active process and people who are celibate are choosing to not be a part of that,” Berent says. When these men stop looking for help for their anxieties about that, they tend to seek out each other — only to confirm their bleak beliefs about themselves and their options.
“I guess I had always felt deep down that I’m unlovable, but that was the time when I realized it consciously,” Matthew, a former incel now in a relationship explains. “I knew that the I was sexless because even at my best I was really just that unattractive.”
Given that this is a fairly common perspective in the community, it should come as no surprise that many incels were raised in abusive situations and struggle with self-confidence. If creating a family is the most effective crime deterrent, the second most effective may be coming from a supportive family. But not everyone does. Again, access to family is not equal, and that inequality — maybe even more than sexual or economic inequality — drives rage and triggers criminal behavior.
Content bachelors know that the absence of a spouse or kids does not necessarily compel men to commit criminal acts. It’s not that simple, but groups of men who believe they’ve been denied the option of building a family are violent. Why? Because of biological imperatives, sure, but also because of pride and hormones, a potent cocktail if ever there was one. Ultimately, men without criminals struggle to prioritize themselves enough to stay safe. Men benefit from having something to lose and societies benefit enormously when men are invested in the future of those they love.