When a woman named Alana coined the term “incel” in the late 90s, she couldn’t have predicted the outcome. What started as a harmless website to connect lonely, “involuntary celibate” men and women has morphed into an underground online movement associated with male violence and extreme misogyny.
In 2014, Elliot Rodger stabbed and shot dead six people in California, blaming the “girls” who had spurned him and condemned him to “an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires”. There have since been numerous attacks by people who identify with incel culture, including Jack Davison, who killed five people in Plymouth this summer, before turning the gun on himself. In the darkest corners of the internet, incel groups have become a breeding ground for toxic male entitlement, putting them on hate crime watchlists across the UK.
But it is not just incel men who struggle to find sexual connections in the modern world. Some young women are turning to online “femcel” spaces to discuss the challenges they face as involuntary celibates.
Theirs is a non-violent resistance. Rather than blaming the opposite sex for their unhappiness, as some of their male counterparts do, femcels tend to believe their own “ugliness” is the root cause of their loneliness. Posting anonymously on platforms they have designed for themselves, they argue that they are invisible due to their abnormal appearance, and that our beauty-centric, misogynistic culture prevents them from being accepted. There is anger and open grappling with self-esteem, but no extreme hatred and no sense of entitlement within the community.
Meanwhile, a far greater number of women would not describe themselves as femcels, but live unintentionally celibate lives. They share many of the femcels’ concerns.
Caitlin, 39, doesn’t call herself a femcel, but she hasn’t had sex for almost eight years and doesn’t think she will find another sexual partner. “I’m not conventionally attractive and I never get approached by men,” she says. “They don’t look at me. I’ve had therapy to try to address these issues, but dating feels like a barren wasteland. It’s worse as I get older, because I’ve missed that short window to marry and have a family.”
I feel that a man who didn’t find me attractive straight away would never learn to become attracted to me
She never tells people that she is celibate, because it makes her feel “abnormal” and inadequate. “I feel a lot of anger and hurt that my life has ended up this way. I struggle to cope with the fact I may never find a partner. Society makes it harder because, after a certain age, people tend to pair off and form their own insular units and life gets lonely for single people.”
Although Caitlin is not morally opposed to casual sex, it is not an experience that feels right for her. She has had two short-term relationships, which ended in heartbreak. There is a popular notion among incel communities – and even in wider society – that women are privileged because they can get sex at any time. Not only is that untrue, as many women will testify, but also, as Caitlin points out, not all sex is enjoyable. “Generally, men who aren’t in a relationship with you don’t make it a pleasurable experience,” she says. “The risk of rejection afterwards is high, which makes the sex even less enjoyable. As a woman, you want to be desired, not treated like a piece of meat.”
Caitlin is aware that men also struggle with self-esteem issues linked to appearance, but believes the pressure is greater for women. “I’m not especially drawn to someone’s looks or height. I prefer to get to know someone and develop an attraction. But I feel that a man who didn’t find me attractive straight away would never learn to become attracted to me. I see lots of beautiful women dating men who aren’t good-looking, but rarely the other way around. Men have more ways to attract a partner than looks.”
Appearance-based discrimination, termed “lookism” by femcel communities, is not the only reason that some women struggle to find a sexual partner. The risk of male violence has always been a concern, but the semi-anonymous nature of app-based dating has increased these fears for many women.
Jane, 49, has been single for eight years and celibate for five. Although she would love to have a sex life, she is not prepared to compromise her principles by seeking a casual relationship with someone she has just met online. “I don’t want to invite someone I don’t know into my home, as you never know the risks.” She was once followed home by a man after their date. “I saw his car behind me and he said he was curious about where I lived. It made me extremely uncomfortable.”
In addition to safety concerns, Jane says apps make it hard to find the type of connection she is looking for. While this is also true for men, she believes they tend to be more comfortable with the “fast-food”, casual-sex nature of online dating. Dishonesty is a common theme; she says it is impossible to build trust with a man who lies online. “Pictures will be 10 years old, or not an accurate representation of the person,” she says. “I look for men who take care of themselves physically, who are emotionally available, open and honest. You can’t see that on a profile.”
Since giving up on apps, Jane has stayed active through a walking group and has tried many other activities in the past few years. “I meet a lot of great women, but I never meet single men at classes or events. It’s hard to meet men who share your interests.”
This is also Mary’s experience. She is 53 and has been celibate for five years. “A lot of us feel that we’re not expressing ourselves sensually. It’s important to use the word ‘sensual’, not ‘sexual’. For women like me, it’s not about the act of sex. It’s about having the intimacy of emotions, as well as physical experiences.”
Like Jane, Mary has little interest in casual flings, but misses physical intimacy. She has even considered using escorts. It is a far cry from the close relationship she desires, but she would feel more comfortable with the idea of a no-strings sexual encounter if she knew exactly what it entailed. “I’m not really sure that safe, secure sex-worker services exist, but in a way it would be preferable to one-night stands. At least it would be a safe, secure transaction for which you and the man involved knew exactly what you were signing up, with no risk of violence, STIs or emotional hurt and confusion.”
Mary also refuses to use dating apps, due to the number of married men seeking affairs and the difficulties she has in building connections. “The #MeToo movement was extremely important, but, at the same time, it created polarisation in society,” she says. She believes that, as men attempt to “relearn” the best ways to approach women so that they feel safe and comfortable, it can discourage some from making a connection at all. “It’s like nobody knows how to date any more and the fast-paced culture of apps means nobody has the patience to get to know someone.” She says the men she encounters are almost always looking for someone younger than themselves.
According to Silva Neves, a sex and relationship psychotherapist with the UK Council of Psychotherapy, it is not uncommon for women to struggle to find a partner they find physically attractive, especially as they get older. “Society places a higher importance on women’s beauty,” he says. “We absorb and internalise this misogyny on every level and even women are more likely to criticise another woman’s body than a man’s. You often see women putting more effort into their appearance as they age because they have been taught it’s important in a way that men haven’t. But a lot of women complain that they struggle to be attracted to men, because they have let themselves go.”
While many men still prioritise beauty, Neves says women’s other successes, such as education, wealth or a good career, may be deemed threatening. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Richard Vedder, an economist and senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a libertarian US thinktank, said that men make up only 40% of the university student population in the US. Women are outperforming their male peers academically and delaying having families in pursuit of financial independence and a career. While this might be considered a positive step forward for society, it has left some men feeling adrift.
The stereotype of the male hunter-gatherer remains quite prevalent and at times I think they feel they don’t have a role
Elaine, 37, who has been celibate for five years, feels her successful career has played a role in her dating difficulties. “Men don’t like the fact I don’t cook or clean, even though I pay for someone to do both jobs,” she says. “The stereotype of male hunter-gatherer remains quite prevalent and at times I think they feel they don’t have a role.” Like other women, she is seeking an intellectual equal and is not interested in finding someone who will take care of her. “If you don’t fit in a Barbie box and do all the domestic duties, it can be quite upsetting for some men.”
Yvonne, 28, recognises the same traditional values in men her age. Despite numerous attempts at dating on and offline, she has never had a relationship and doesn’t engage in casual sex. “I don’t necessarily need to be with a man who has a degree, but I want to meet someone who is intellectually curious, with the same values,” she says. “I think men can be intimidated by education and career success. In online dating especially, it always seems to come down to appearance only. I even know people who get professional pictures done as they know looks will be the first thing men see. As a Black woman, this can be especially hard, as even Black men seem to prioritise light-skinned women.”
Although she experiences loneliness, Yvonne is determined to stay positive. She has an active social life, enjoys a wide range of activities and subscribes to Nicola Slawson’s Single Supplement, a weekly newsletter that celebrates the joys of single life and supports people through the more challenging aspects. She also reads the work of the US author Shani Silver, who writes candidly about single life. “There are lots of women who are joining communities of other single women and sharing their experiences,” she says. “It’s certainly a much healthier approach than some of the toxic, woman-hating platforms that some men inhabit.”
Femcels and women who struggle to find relationships are sometimes accused of misandry, especially by male incels. Yvonne counters that any resentment women feel is more likely to be turned inwards. “The biggest difference between men and women seems to be that men feel entitled to sex and relationships, so it’s the fault of women when they can’t get it,” says Yvonne. “Women seem to internalise the issues and be more likely to blame themselves.”
Neves argues that while misogyny and misandry are both unacceptable, they have very different roots. “Misogyny is an ideology which dictates that women should be seen as objects, without the same rights as men. Misandry is mostly a reaction to misogyny and informed by evidence. We shouldn’t put all men in the same bag, but at the same time it’s hard to criticise women who have had negative experiences.”
Like Yvonne, he believes that women are more likely to devalue themselves, rather than others. It is one of the reasons he would like to move away from the term “femcel”: “When women label themselves as defective, it becomes part of who they are and how men define them, rather than something that can be overcome.” Although he doesn’t underestimate the trauma that some women experience due to bullying or poor self-esteem, he is hopeful that there will be healthier ways for women to fight back in future.
On Instagram, for example, which is known for perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards, a growing number of women are resisting these norms. Campaigners such as Lizzie Velasquez, who was bullied due to a congenital condition, and Katie Piper, who survived an acid attack, are building online communities for people who don’t fit beauty stereotypes, while others are raising positive awareness about skin conditions and different body types. “I appreciate it can be incredibly difficult, but I would encourage women to surround themselves with these accounts,” he says. “You can have surgery or change your looks, but ultimately it shouldn’t be linked to your value as a person.”
It is something that Caitlin is exploring. “I’m trying to become more positive about finding alternatives to a sexual relationship,” she says. As well as channelling energy into building her self-esteem, she is trying new activities and communicating with other women. “Of course, not all male incels are involved in extremist online forums, but those that do are feeding off their hatred of women, viewing us as possessions or something to conquer,” she says. “Involuntary celibate women seem to be handling their anger and hurt in a more evolved way, throwing themselves into work, life and healthy communities where single life is celebrated. I hope it can inspire me to feel more confident in my own situation.”