It may seem quaint to recall the hand-wringing that accompanied the cancellation of the South by Southwest music and film festival back in March 2020. Yet one of the documentaries slated to premier there has nevertheless resonated in a post-Covid world. Focusing on five young men who channel their alienation into offensive internet humor, Alex Lee Moyer’s TFW No GF brought the “incel” phenomenon back into the media discourse, and with it, the accompanying controversy over its subjects.
For the benefit of those whose minds have not been permanently tainted by the internet, “incel” is short for “involuntarily celibate” and has in recent years become an adopted endonym for men who have turned their resentment at romantic failure into something of an internet subculture. Engagement with incel culture ranges from gleeful indulgence in violating politically correct speech taboos to a full-fledged ideological war against the attractive “Stacys” who refuse to date them, the “Chad” men who capture women’s attention instead, and all the “normies” populating a society that enables such injustices. It has also occasionally spawned actual terrorism, as with the shooting spree that left six people dead near a California college campus and the van attack that mowed down ten pedestrians in Toronto.
As commentators have struggled to make sense of this phenomenon over the last few years, two distinct types of responses have emerged. In a strange reversal of the reactions to the September 11 attacks, where the Left’s attempts to contextualize the historical and political factors were shouted down by the Right as sympathizing with terrorists and “blaming America first,” this time it was the Left which insisted that the only proper response was outrage and denunciation, while any other analysis risked excusing murderers and blaming their victims. The same dynamic has characterized the reaction to Moyer’s film. While the director defended her film as a “public works project” seeking to explore an alienated section of society on its own terms, it received extensive criticism for “failure to cast judgment on its subjects.” Just as George W. Bush was convinced that Salafist terrorists were simply “evildoers” who “hate us for our freedoms,” the only acceptable explanation of incels for much of the Left is that they are “toxic” men full of “toxic” thoughts.
Now to say that incels, who openly proclaim their resentment and hatred of women, are driven by “misogyny” or “male fragility” is not so much incorrect as it is an exercise in tautology. Yet the explanations offered by the Right have not been much more satisfying. Incels themselves have placed the blame squarely on the feminist movement, and figures like Ross Douthat and Jordan Peterson have agreed. As the story goes, by eroding traditional norms of monogamy and family life, social and technological developments such as feminism and the birth control pill intensified sexual competition by giving women more freedom to choose their partners without consequences. French novelist Michel Houellebecq, now widely considered something of an incel prophet, analogized the problem to market deregulation: “Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never.” Even liberal writers like Jia Tolentino echoed similar points, writing that “several distinct cultural changes have created a situation in which many men who hate women do not have the access to women’s bodies that they would have had in an earlier era.”
Thus, the consensus narrative seems to be that traditional patriarchy had for ages ensured men’s access to sex, until feminism came along and gave women a choice in the matter—the only disagreements being over whether this is a positive development and whether the men “left behind” are to be pitied and accommodated or mocked and restrained. A closer look at history, however, suggests that the real question is not why incels exist, but why there aren’t more of them.
The key to this problem lies in a shocking and underappreciated fact first highlighted by social psychologist Roy Baumeister and biologist Jason Wilder: the ancestors of the current human population are overwhelmingly female. This strikes many as counterintuitive. After all, it takes two to tango, and under normal circumstances the number of men and women born to each generation has generally remained equal. But there is a deeper underlying imbalance at play, rooted in the fact that, given the opportunity, a single man is capable of fathering many times more children than a single woman can birth in a lifetime. What should we make of this simple disparity? Various conservatives, traditionalists, and other opponents of feminism have taken it as proof that there are “biological imperatives” for traditional gender behaviors, often via some armchair evolutionary psychology that “programs” men to maximize the spread of their seed and women to seek stability and security for their offspring. But this is no more accurate than the liberal cliché that everything humans do is socially constructed (which begs the question of what motivates such construction). Human beings are neither blank slates nor slaves to biology—rather, biology acts as a set of constraints on the social models we develop. And what those constraints mean is that when it comes to long-term group survival, men are more easily replaceable than women. A society in which most women were killed or otherwise excluded from reproduction would struggle to maintain its population, as the remaining women would only be able to bear so many more children to compensate. Yet a society that lost most of its men could repopulate the next generation with just a handful of fathers. The rest are, reproductively speaking, expendable.
Just how expendable men are has varied with time. When the first Homo sapiens arrived in Europe forty-five thousand years ago as relatively egalitarian hunter-gatherers, about three women reproduced for every man. But with the advent of agriculture, this changed drastically. The need to secure territory and a complex division of labor created highly stratified societies in which a relatively small number of men could monopolize the land, resources, and power needed to support and maintain families. By about 6000 BC, the ratio of females reproducing versus males had risen to a staggering seventeen to one, and in the Middle Ages a single leader like Genghis Khan or Augustus the Strong could father hundreds of children. Indeed, polygamy has long been the norm in many societies around the world, and even where it has been banned by law, the tendency of high-status men to cycle through successive younger wives and mistresses has long meant that it continued in practice. Recent centuries have seen a more reasonable reproductive ratio of four to one, but no matter how you slice it, the fact remains that of all the men who have ever lived, the majority of them have left no trace in the human gene pool.
Of course, all these men who weren’t reproducing did not just disappear into the ether. They cleared forests and dug ditches, plowed fields and laid bricks, their bones mixed into the mortar of civilization’s monuments. The more fortunate were sequestered into the clergy or sent away to distant posts and expeditions. Ships and caravans full of convicts, orphans, and younger sons with no chance of inheritance regularly embarked in search of new lands and wealth—many never to return. And most importantly, nearly every generation in history sent its young men to kill each other by the thousands in order to defend its frontiers—or expand them. These high-risk, high-mortality ventures, when successful, served to increase a society’s power and resources, securing an advantage for its ruling class over their neighbors and rivals. But even those ending in failure served a no less important purpose precisely by providing an outlet for excess men. An overabundance of unattached young men, or “bare branches” as they’re known in China, has long been recognized as a threat to stability. As Chatham House notes, “men who are disenfranchised from the established social order because they lack the necessary skills, education, or socioeconomic standing to compete in the marriage market are more likely to engage in risky and criminal behaviour to obtain the resources denied to them.” And when such men begin to congregate in large groups, organized crime, religious sectarianism, and civil unrest are usually not far behind.
In 1984, Orwell astutely observed that the purpose of war is to destroy the surplus of goods and labor that a society is incapable of absorbing or distributing without disrupting its hierarchical structure. But this is only part of the picture—in a broader sense, war has functioned as a disposal mechanism for a society’s excess men. Conflicts ranging from Brazilian tribal wars to the medieval Crusades have been described as “safety-valve institutions” offering an externally directed release for male aggression. The same logic operates in occupations and civil conflicts when men of fighting age within a defeated or occupied territory are put to the sword or posthumously declared “enemy combatants”—their very existence carries the threat of unrest. Many times these “safety valves” have proven a little too effective. The War of the Triple Alliance claimed as much as 90 percent of Paraguay’s male population, and Albanian highland clans would regularly lose so many men to blood feuds that they developed a tradition allowing women to literally take their place.
Men’s rights advocates have often attempted to weaponize facts like these against feminism, on the basis that men “have it worse” than women. But male expendability and female subjugation are two sides of the same coin. The same logic that keeps women and their sexuality under jealous guard and treats them as a prize to be awarded is also what casts the majority of men into a Hobbesian struggle for that prize—ensuring continued reproduction of a social order governed by a predominantly male elite. Contrary to both traditionalist conservative myth and popular feminist narrative, for most of history patriarchy was not a privilege one benefited from simply by being born male, but a brutal racket in which millions of men destroyed each other and the world around them for the benefit of a fortunate few.
Progress or Return?
It thus seems all the more curious that today’s incels would suddenly elicit such shock and cultural soul-searching, and have their predicament treated as a bizarre and recent aberration in all corners of the media. In 2018, alarms began sounding about a “sex recession,” with men reporting having had no sex in the past year at nearly double the rate of their female peers. For incels, this was a vindication of their theory that female “hypergamy,” unleashed by feminism and the sexual revolution, had created a situation where women unconstrained by social mores flock to a minority of wealthy or attractive men while leaving the rest in the dust. Others were quick to blame dating apps for enabling women to be selective like never before. But both of these narratives contain some rather inconvenient gaps. For one thing, no matter how many successful Tinder matches “Chad” gets, it’s hard to imagine him competing with the likes of Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif, who fathered over a thousand children with over five hundred different women without the help of either dating apps or feminism. And for all that incels stew over lurid accounts of youthful promiscuity, the most common guarantor of sex for men throughout history has not been some more fairly regulated dating culture but the far less exciting reality of marriage.
The picture becomes clearer if we recognize that both the incels and the journalists who puzzle over them are defining their expectations by the standards of a very particular period—the second half of the twentieth century. When incels talk about the “traditional norms” supposedly eroded by feminism, they are actually referring to a brief historical window in which a number of political and economic currents converged to create an incredible wave of stability and shared prosperity in much of the developed world, giving millions of relatively unskilled and unremarkable men the means to sustain a nuclear household on a single income and reap the rewards of patriarchy. That this was in fact an unprecedented social arrangement, or that people in preceding decades had actually attended church less often, married later, and done so in lower numbers was quickly forgotten as the world of Leave It to Beaver established itself as the perpetual “good old days” in our collective imaginary. This was also, incidentally, the same period in which “dating” came to be seen as a quintessential stage of youth. And so powerful is the gravitational pull of this golden age that it still anchors the political imaginations of both Left and Right. As if to illustrate Brink Lindsey’s quip that liberals want to work in the 1950s while conservatives want to go home there, Donald Trump promises to “make America great again” at the same time that Bernie Sanders waxes nostalgic about marginal tax rates under Eisenhower.
But as an exasperated Marty retorts to his father-in-law in the first season of True Detective, “if things were so great, they never would’ve changed.” The postwar paradise, to the extent that it even existed, proved to be a blip on the historical radar, lasting no longer than a single generation—the same generation that still refuses to release its stranglehold on the future. Its broadly shared prosperity was driven by the rebuilding of a world ravaged by precisely the kind of cataclysmic destruction of life and labor that has generally been the primary means of reducing social conflict and inequality. Its generous concessions to workers had been made under a looming threat of global communism that no longer exists. And now, as globalization and neoliberalism sweep away the last vestiges of economic security, marriage—which has always been men’s most reliable pathway out of celibacy—is increasingly becoming an upper-class luxury. Houellebecq had it wrong; neoliberal economic deregulation isn’t analogous to sexual stratification—it’s the direct cause.
On its own, then, this rise in male sexlessness is nothing new. But it’s happening at precisely the same time that men everywhere are experiencing a “purpose void.” In America, men accounted for nearly 80 percent of jobs lost in the wake of the last recession, and even in stereotypically male fields such as tech, automation is shifting emphasis away from abstract number-crunching ability to the kinds of “soft skills” for which women are far better socialized. Men now also consistently make up less than half of university students, and while this has had the ironic effect of creating extremely favorable dating conditions for male graduates, it has only worsened the odds for those without a degree. The modern world may have been largely built on the backs of working-class men, but today it has ever less need of them. As Hannah Rosin writes in The End of Men, “The postindustrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength. The attributes that are most valuable today—social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus—are, at a minimum, not predominantly male. In fact, the opposite may be true.” With the factories and coal mines that chewed up past generations of working-class men giving way to call centers and cash registers, their female peers are, fairly or not, perceived as less threatening, more pleasant to customers, and more likely to show up sober and on time.
Moreover, in contrast to previous eras, today’s low-status men are not so easily disposed of. Although news headlines show a world torn apart by violent conflict, the truth is that war itself now has a much smaller impact on the social fabric. Two decades of war in the Middle East have claimed the lives of nearly six thousand American troops. But the Seven Years’ War alone saw nearly a million combatant casualties at a time when the world population was one-tenth its present size. Globally, armed conflict today accounts for only about 3 percent of annual deaths, and as traditional battlefields have given way to internal strife and irregular warfare, that body count has become largely civilian and thus less heavily male-skewed. Recently, an academic journal article titled “Drone Disorientations” received a healthy heaping of ridicule for its claim that drones are “genderqueer bodies” that “queer the experience of killing in war.” But buried beneath the self-parodying post-structuralist jargon is the more simple and obvious truth that technology has fundamentally transformed both the nature of war and the soldier’s role in it. The automation and professionalization of war have reduced its effectiveness as a meat grinder for processing vast quantities of surplus masculinity. So while feminism is not to blame for the exclusion of large numbers of men from family life, incels can blame modernity for the fact that, unlike their ancient counterparts, they remain alive to stew in their discontent.
The World’s Most Dysfunctional People
If the consequences were limited to an occasional unhinged manifesto and a few more entries in the depressingly frequent list of mass shootings, we could perhaps content ourselves with occasionally mocking incels while ignoring them the rest of the time. But they are only the tip of the iceberg. Given that incels tend to be drawn from white (or white-adjacent) portions of the suburban and exurban middle class, there is a tendency to dismiss their predicament as one of privilege and entitlement. Yet it is also possible to see them as a local variant of a global crisis of masculinity that unites their fates with those of less “privileged” men. In the United States, men make up over 90 percent of the prison population. In South Sudan, the combination of polygamy and bride prices has contributed directly to civil war. ISIS has recruited frustrated Muslim men with the promise of wives. In countries like East Germany, the disproportionate emigration of women better adapted to seek work in Western cities has left behind a population of angry men who form the primary base for Far Right movements. And in India, the same phenomenon, exacerbated by a gender imbalance stemming from sex-selective abortion, has exploded into a violent religious fanaticism. As the Economist writes, “The world’s most dysfunctional people are nearly all male.”
Understood in this way, the incel’s predicament is a bitterly ironic one. For in addition to the targets of their rage, incels victimize themselves by supporting the very same ideologies that lie at the root of their immiseration. They decry the materialism and shallowness of “gold-digging” women who only care about men’s wealth and social status while in the same breath opposing feminist equality and upholding the gender norms that enshrine men as providers. They extol marriage while opposing the sorts of economic redistributionist policies that would make it easier for men like them to attain and sustain it. They adopt white supremacist ideologies that demonize black and immigrant men instead of recognizing their common plight. And with their view of history hopelessly distorted by consumer media, they pine for “traditional” eras in which, in all statistical likelihood, they would find themselves serving as cannon fodder in some lord’s army, wasting away from scurvy at sea, or hauling stones under an overseer’s whip. But one need not have any sympathy for incels to recognize that simply admonishing them to “be better” and less entitled is an inadequate response to a confluence of technological and demographic change, and that the conditions that breed them create a more dangerous world for us all.