A candlelight vigil for the victims of a mass killing near the University of California, Santa Barbara (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Incels are the new shock troops

Women are not there for the taking

In 1975’s Against Our Will, Susan Brownmiller describes rapists as “front-line masculine shock troops, terrorist guerrillas in the longest sustained battle the world has ever known”. By this, she does not mean that all men are rapists; she means they don’t have to be:

A world without rapists would be a world in which women moved freely without fear of men. That some men rape provides a sufficient threat to keep all women in a constant state of intimidation.

Other men may find rape abhorrent; they may, nonetheless, take for granted the spoils of female fear. They grow used to women being unable to move freely, speak freely, create spaces for themselves. Without knowing it, they may find “a constant state of intimidation” just the thing to prevent the women around them from getting above themselves. 

Almost half a century after Brownmiller was writing, a Guardian headline warns that “experts fear rising global ‘incel’ culture could provoke terrorism”. The incel — a kind of über-misogynist, largely confined to online “dark” communities, occasionally emerging to commit acts of extreme violence — has taken the place of the standard rapist as the figure that all women fear and all good men condemn. 

He is positioned as a toxic mutation of “normal” masculinity, a radicalised, brainwashed virgin caught in “a world of loneliness, isolation and extreme misogyny”. Reports such as “The State of UK Boys” suggest that the way to steer young men clear of this trap is to help them see the benefits of feminism. 

“Instead of feminism harming boys,” writes Laura Bates, “the report has found the opposite is true: challenging male violence and misogyny, encouraging different types of masculinity and seeing women as allies, all contribute to better mental health and educational attainment among boys.”

As a mother of three sons, I am obviously in favour of anything that releases them from the corrosive effects of male socialisation. Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling there is something missing from accounts of incel culture, toxic masculinity and young men led astray. 

They are not fighting sexism so much as running a good cop/bad cop protection racket

As with Brownmiller’s non-rapists, I am not convinced “normal” men — no matter how “anti-incel” their posturing — are ready for a world in which female submissiveness is not the norm. They may wish to change the things they say and do in order to achieve such submissiveness; they may well be tired of playing the hard man. Even so, several years of dealing with self-styled “feminist” men has persuaded me that very few are prepared to accept the central premise against which incels rage: that women could say “no” to you, potentially for the entirety of your life, for no other reason than that women are people in their own right. 

This, after all, is the end point of feminism. It is not a movement for the liberation of people in general. It does offer humanising possibilities for men, but that is not its key purpose. By telling boys such as my sons that there is no cost to them in recognising the full humanity of women — that unless they are failures, like the incels, they will never feel excluded — we reassure men that women’s emotional, sexual and reproductive services will always be there for the taking. It is not just incels who cannot accept anything less. Scratch the surface, and you may find a shockingly high number of men. 

Witness, for instance, the way in which left- and right-wing men compete to demonstrate which of them have women’s best interests at heart. So much time is spent pointing at those other men, over there, and declaring them “the patriarchy”. They are not fighting sexism so much as running a good cop/bad cop protection racket whereby each group benefits from the other’s misdemeanours. 

One group of men chips away at abortion rights, then another group tells us if we don’t support the sex trade or commercial surrogacy — “her body, her choice!” — we’ll only have ourselves to blame if we lose reproductive choice altogether. Meanwhile the anti-abortionists have no compunction in telling us that unless we go along with forced pregnancy, we can wave goodbye to women-only spaces, women’s sports and any acknowledgement that the female body exists at all. 

Neither group is really challenging the other; they are capitalising on each other’s extremism. There are times when it has the air of a backroom agreement. They provide each other with leverage in an endless back-and-forth cycle of exploitation. As Andrea Dworkin put it, “if you let them distract you by the public cockfight they‘re always having, you miss the fact that when it comes to producing the social product called pornography, they agree”.

In Men Who Hate Women, Bates argues that “at the root of manosphere communities and white supremacy is a shared belief that the core, sacred purpose of man is to have sex, to procreate and to dominate”. She fears that incel ideas “begin to worm their way through the different communities of the manosphere and pop out into real people’s lives”

I think this is viewing things the wrong way round. The belief that men have the right to use female bodies in any way they see fit, is not niche — it is the norm. Incel culture is just one manifestation of it. Right-wing traditionalism is another, but so, too, is the way in which “progressive” men position access to prostituted women and surrogate mothers as a human right.

If we are going to call this terrorism, let’s include all of it

Having more socially acceptable ways to express your entitlement to female bodies — because you will use the traditions of your community, or can find a way to pay for what you require — does not make you a feminist. As long as you believe access to these bodies is your right, you are merely an incel manqué. 

As a feminist who believes biological sex exists, I have encountered plenty of incel-style language, albeit from people who have been more skilled at framing their grievances against womankind. I am no longer shocked at women being told they should be raped to death, or locked away in breeding pens. Nor am I surprised at all the nice, normal men who, in debates on self ID in refuges and prisons, believe the validation of male feelings are worth a few more rapes. 

These men will say they hate incels, telling feminists they’re the ones we should be fighting (as though ending male violence is women’s work, with men themselves as the project managers). But the vast majority of male violence against women is not committed by incels. Most women who die at the hands of men do not die at the hands of fully paid-up members of the manosphere. If we are going to call this terrorism, let’s include all of it, and let’s include all of the rhetoric that feeds into it. 

Future men such as my sons can be encouraged to cry, play with dolls, reject all the superficial, uncool trappings of “toxic masculinity”. Nonetheless, all too often I see men who push for this change remain incapable of interacting with women as though we are their moral and intellectual equals. They’re happy to smash the patriarchy as far as it constrains them, but cannot comprehend why they still run up against the brick wall that is independent female subjectivity. Why, they demand, can’t that be theirs to dismantle, too?

A world without incels — a world without rapists — would be one in which men would have to deal with the complete, impermeable, exclusionary personhood of women more and more. I think it would be a better world for everyone, but it will never come into being if we continue to lie about the cost. In the meantime, those who benefit from women’s “constant state of intimidation” need to recognise their complicity in how it is achieved.

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