First came Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old who shot and stabbed six of his fellow students to death in a premeditated attack at the University of California in 2014. In a chilling final YouTube video, he explained his motive: furious that he was still a virgin, he wanted to punish women (an entire gender, no one in particular) for not being attracted to him and prove that he was "the true alpha male".
Rodger was a self-described 'incel' – short for 'involuntary celibate' – and his deadly attack brought attention to a hitherto under-explored global community of sexually frustrated men, irate at women who they believe deny them sex and relationships (although the term was originally coined more than two decades ago by a woman, who has since denounced its adoption by men). At least three mass killings in North America, which have mainly targeted women, have since been inspired by Rodger, including Alek Minassian, a 25-year-old with no criminal history, who murdered eight women and two men in April 2018 in north Toronto, citing Rodger as his inspiration. "The Incel Rebellion has already begun!... All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!" he posted on Facebook before his violent van rampage.
Despite existing largely online and often posting on public forums (some of which have up to 40,000 members), incels are a closed community who prefer to hide their true identities. Take a recent article on The Cut about the trend for extreme plastic surgery among incels vying to become conventionally attractive 'Chads', in which those interviewed insisted on anonymity and said things like: "I need a new social circle, a new identity, a new life. I’ve been thinking of leaving my country."
If these females aren’t treating these guys with respect, they’re gonna kill them... That's just life.
'Catfishman', an anonymous incel
Somehow, the team behind a new BBC Three documentary, Inside The Secret World Of Incels, managed to convince three self-described incels to share their stories on camera – and the results are disturbing.
"Maybe if Elliott Rodger wasn’t bullied by females, none of that would have happened," says the first incel we meet, who goes by 'Catfishman' and admires Rodger because of his similar struggles on the dating scene. Catfishman, whose face remains covered throughout by a mask, describes himself as "a legend in the community" for the way he deceives women by posing as male models online and posting videos of the hostile IRL encounters. "If these females aren’t treating these guys with respect, they’re gonna kill them... That’s just life."
Humiliating women in this way, often after receiving sexually explicit photos and videos from them, Catfishman says, is 'retribution' for the more than 100 rejections he's received from women: "It makes me feel good." He experiences other forms of gratification too – admitting to masturbating to the women's sexual pictures and videos, and describing the praise he receives from fellow incels for his confrontation videos as "way better than sex".
We also meet Matt from New York City, who was drawn to the incel community after unsuccessful attempts at dating. Matt describes his community online, on forums like Incelistan (a self-proclaimed "non-violent, gender inclusive incel forum"), as a "source of comfort". "It’s beneficial to me in the sense that knowing that having dating problems" is "completely normal", he admits.
But Matt also talks us through the darker corners of the incel internet, where sanctioned rape and state-sponsored girlfriends are often discussed and memes and photoshopped images featuring Rodger are shared widely. From there, he believes, it’s a "very slippery slope towards acts of violence".
Dr Kaitlyn Regehr, an expert in digital culture from the University of Kent, who has been researching misogyny online for the past five years and Rodger’s actions for a year, says incels are a manifestation of the zeitgeist. "We live right now in the age of the hate crime", she explains, adding that Rodger's crime "flipped the switch" to turn the actions of a community that had previously operated mostly online to "a community that has the potential to carry out real acts of violence".
The police should be looking at this in the same way they look at religious extremism online.
Dr Kaitlyn Regehr, University of Kent
Unlike much existing coverage of the incel movement, Inside The Secret World Of Incels explains why so many men feel bitter and hateful enough towards women that they're willing to kill innocent people and even themselves (as in the case of Rodger) for their 'cause'. Many men feel alienated and isolated by mainstream society, Dr Regehr explains, while others are living difficulties like mental health issues ('mentalcels' are a subset of incels), autism or traumatic upbringings, all of which enhance their "risk of being sucked into the darker side, the more violent side" of the community.
"It’s really easy to look at the incel community and say those guys are totally obsessed with sex, those guys feel entitled to sex, but it’s not as simple as that. It’s not just that they feel isolated by women, they feel isolated by society in general," Dr Regehr says. "For some, the online forums are a haven to joke, vent and find support in a world where they are struggling to find an identity and where gender relations are changing dramatically," she says.
Take the section of the incel internet that's fixated on 'looksmaxing' – like the forum Looksmax.me, which is dedicated "to the art of improving your appearance to achieve your greatest aesthetic potential". We meet James, a "kissless, hugless, handholdless virgin" (or KHHV in incel parlance) from County Down, Northern Ireland, who says he’s an incel because his insecurities, anxiety, mental health problems and troubled upbringing stood in the way of his ability to form relationships with women.
It becomes more difficult to feel sympathy towards James, though, when he recites the song he wrote about Rodger during his "darkest point" a few years ago: "Elliot Rodger Meme Incel Trap Version 2", which is still available on Soundcloud. Smiling, he reads the lyrics: "Riding through the city like Elliot Rodger/ Can’t stop me now/ Bitch, you ain’t no bullet dodger..." He laughs: "Suck on my nuts as I blow out your guts."
Dr Regehr is worried that it's "very likely" we will see another attack in the name of involuntary celibacy soon. She cites a dearth of discussion around the mental health impact of digital culture as a key contributing factor. "The police should be looking at this in the same way they look at religious extremism online."
BBC Three’s Inside The Secret World Of Incels is available on BBC iPlayer from Sunday 14th July.