Online, it’s dif­fi­cult to sort out the shy, the frus­trated and the re­ally dan­ger­ous

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - CAITLIN DEWEY

We still know very lit­tle about the 26-year-old man who killed nine peo­ple and in­jured seven more in an Ore­gon com­mu­nity col­lege class­room last week. Even be­fore the fa­tal­i­ties had of­fi­cially been to­taled, there were whis­pers that Chris Harper-Mercer might have be­longed to a fringe group that is much-re­viled on the In­ter­net: men call­ing them­selves “in­cels,” for “in­vol­un­tary celi­bates.”

Harper-Mercer had de­scribed him­self as “in­vol­un­tar­ily” sin­gle in online fo­rums; the As­so­ci­ated Press has re­ported that his writ­ings in­cluded com­plaints about his lack of a girl­friend. In the hours be­fore the Oct. 1 shoot­ing, some­one posted a mys­te­ri­ous threat to a Pa­cific North­west col­lege in an “in­cel” fo­rum on the anony­mous mes­sage board 4chan.

Whether the poster wasHarperMercer— a ques­tion we don’t have the an­swer to yet— other self­i­den­ti­fied in­cels have taken it as a call to arms, threat­en­ing vi­o­lence at a half dozen other schools around the coun­try.

There’s no telling whether the threats are sin­cere or merely crass pranks. But it has cer­tainly drawn at­ten­tion to the In­ter­net cult of the “in­vol­un­tary celi­bate”: peo­ple — al­most al­ways straight men — who ei­ther have never had sex or haven’t found a will­ing part­ner for an ex­tended pe­riod.

On fo­rums such as 4chan’s /r9k/, Red­dit’s r/ForeverAlone, and the old-timer, in­cels gather to swap sto­ries and de­bate the causes of their sit­u­a­tions. Some have phys­i­cal hand­i­caps or psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­or­ders that have pre­vented them from meet­ing women; some just have bad luck; some are crip­plingly in­tro­verted — hence “love shy” — or anx­ious.

The vast ma­jor­ity of them are sick of get­ting dredged up with the Chris Harper-Mercers and El­liot Rodgers of the world.

“There are def­i­nitely as­pects of that at­ti­tude in the in­cel com­mu­nity, but it’s not at all the norm,” said the 21-year-old mod­er­a­tor of the Red­dit fo­rum ForeverAlone, which has more than 41,000 sub­scribers. (The Post has agreed to his re­quest to not use his name in this story.)

If that seems like a large num­ber, it’s only a small frac­tion of Amer­ica’s to­tal in­cels: The so­cial psy­chol­o­gist Brian Gil­martin es­ti­mated them at 4.7 mil­lion in 2012 — or roughly 1.5 per­cent of all adult men. The Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion re­ports that, within the past year, roughly 6 per­cent of men ages 25 to 44 have not had any sex­ual part­ners. Not all of those men iden­tify as “in­cels,” of course — but it’s still a pretty siz­able pop­u­la­tion.

Given that, it’s im­pos­si­ble to talk about the “av­er­age” in­cel. Media ac­counts typ­i­cally paint them as “fat, un­em­ployed, base­ment-dwelling neck­beards,” to quote another mem­ber of For­ever Alone, but what lit­tle re­search into the phe­nom­e­non ex­ists paints a much dif­fer­ent pic­ture.

In 2001, two re­searchers at Ge­or­gia State Univer­sity sur­veyed 82 self-iden­ti­fied in­cels they found through an online fo­rum. Some were, as the stereo­types sug­gest, adult vir­gins who suf­fered from autism or another men­tal or phys­i­cal ill­ness. Some were just sin­gles who couldn’t meet peo­ple be­cause of how of­ten they worked or where they lived. Oth­ers were mar­ried but not sex­u­ally ac­tive — ei­ther their part­ner was no longer in­ter­ested or some­thing pre­vented them from be­ing in­ti­mate. Fre­quently, they felt they had missed key sex­ual mile­stones in their ado­les­cence and couldn’t catch up from there.

The 21-year-old Red­dit mod­er­a­tor de­scribed him­self as “in­se­cure”: He’s funny and gre­gar­i­ous on the phone, but he says be­ing raised in an ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive Chris­tian house­hold has given him hang-ups that make it hard to pur­sue girls.

What­ever the in­cel’s ex­act sit­u­a­tion, the ones in the Ge­or­gia State sur­vey tended to feel the same way: frus­trated, de­pressed — an­gry, even. Those feel­ings echo the re­sults of a sur­vey on For­ever Alone, when mod­er­a­tors asked mem­bers to ex­plain what be­ing “FA” meant to them: “In­tense iso­la­tion,” one re­spon­dent wrote. “Chronic rejection.” “Hav­ing no one.”

Many of FA’s mem­bers, the group’s mod­er­a­tor thinks, suf­fer from se­vere de­pres­sion; he can re­call three fo­rum mem­bers who have at­tempted sui­cide. Both Gil­martin and the Ge­or­gia State re­searchers sug­gest that in­vol­un­tary celibacy is part of a self-sus­tain­ing pack­age of psy­cho­log­i­cal is­sues: de­pres­sion, neu­roti­cism, anx­i­ety, autis­tic dis­or­ders. Those prob­lems pre­vent in­cels from form­ing re­la­tion­ships — which in turn makes their de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety more ex­treme.

“If you hate your­self and be­lieve you’re un­wor­thy of any­one’s af­fec­tion . . . you won’t be wor­thy of any­one’s af­fec­tion be­cause no­body is at­tracted to self pity,” the Red­dit mod­er­a­tor said. “It’s a self-ful­fill­ing prophecy, but one that’s in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to break out of. The lone­li­ness is dev­as­tat­ing.”

The big ques­tion, for par­ents, teach­ers and in­ves­ti­ga­tors, is fig­ur­ing out who among this vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tion is merely tem­po­rar­ily lonely and who is po­ten­tially vi­o­lent and/or men­tally ill. The groups are dis­tinct, but be­cause they co­ex­ist in many online fo­rums, it can be dif­fi­cult to tell.

For­ever Alone uses an au­to­mated bot to delete any men­tions of El­liot Rodger, the 22-year-old who killed six peo­ple in Isla Vista, Calif., in 2014. Mod­er­a­tors are also on high­alert for misog­y­nis­tic, deroga­tory or threat­en­ing con­tent. Other com­mu­ni­ties aren’t quite so vig­i­lant: A net­work of in­cel blogs with names like “Rants of an In­cel” and “CoAl­pha Anti-Mod­ernist In­cel Blog­ger” de­mo­nize women for re­ject­ing their ad­vances and ad­vo­cate a re­turn to a pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety where women can’t vote or choose their own part­ners.

On 4chan’s /r9k/, some anony­mous users lauded HarperMercer as a hero who killed de­serv­ing “sluts” and “chads.” (“Chad” is a deroga­tory term for a con­ven­tion­ally at­trac­tive guy who has suc­cess with women.) They’ve joked that it’s the start of a na­tional “Beta Upris­ing” — a revo­lu­tion in which beta males who have been over­looked by women fi­nally get re­venge.

“It’s ob­vi­ous that there are more and more young men who just can’t take it any­more,” one poster wrote on Sluthate, the out­growth of an in­cel fo­rum that El­liot Rodger fre­quented. “The sad thing is: the mod­ern world is anti-male and lit­er­ally drives men crazy.”

As of­fen­sive as some of these sen­ti­ments may be — par­tic­u­larly in the wake of a deadly shoot­ing — there may be a small, dis­torted grain of truth in the in­cel-vic­tim­iza­tion the­ory. Most of the mod­er­a­tors in Red­dit’s For­ever Alone flatly re­fused to talk to me: The last thing they needed, they said, was yet another ar­ti­cle link­ing them to vi­o­lence or car­i­ca­tur­ing them as freaks.

They point out that so­ci­ety has noth­ing but de­ri­sion for straight men who strug­gle to get girls. That we stig­ma­tize both shy­ness and vir­gin­ity in adult men, even though both are, in many cases, com­pletely nat­u­ral.

In a 2006 pa­per on the “med­i­cal­iza­tion of shy­ness,” the so­ci­ol­o­gist Susie Scott frets that we’ve pathol­o­gized a trait that’s re­ally noth­ing more than a con­structed so­cial pref­er­ence, brand­ing awk­ward men as creeps or losers when they’re re­ally just . . . dif­fer­ent.

“We are dif­fer­ent,” the Red­dit mod­er­a­tor said, with a sigh, “and peo­ple don’t like dif­fer­ent.”

Maybe that dif­fer­ent­ness calls for com­pas­sion — not another moral panic.

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