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The “incel” moral crisis

Don’t meme violent criminals into existence

Artillery Row

The incels are on the rise. That’s what you might think if you saw the latest government stats on their counter-terrorist Prevent programme. In just one year the number of incels referred to Prevent has risen from 3 to 77. Labour MP Luke Pollard has warned that “we don’t have a strategy for incels in the UK” and that “the more I look into it the darker the world of incels is”. A study at the University of Exeter claimed that degrading or violent references to women had risen eightfold in eight years, whilst the Centre for Countering Digital Hate claimed the biggest incel forum mentions rape every 29 minutes, largely positively. An anonymous counter-terrorism official said incels represent an “emerging threat”. But do they really?

Like most modern social movements, incels emerged out of the internet

Incel stands for involuntary celibate, meaning a man who would like to have sex but cannot find a willing woman, due either to his lack of attractiveness or the dynamics of the sexual marketplace. Like most modern social movements, they emerged out of the internet, where lonely men could discuss why they were failing to get laid. 

They’re belong to a range of similar male movements, encompassing a range of groups from Lookism (which thinks everything is about physical attractiveness, encouraging devotees to get plastic surgery to help them find a date) to Men Going Their Own Way or MGTOW (who have given up entirely on women and now seek to pursue their own interests).

The most famous incel was the British-American murderer Elliot Rodger, who at 22 decided to take revenge on the world for his failure to kiss a girl by going on a rampage in Isla Vista, California. He killed seven and wounded more, before killing himself. In his 141 page manifesto, he chronicled his rage and frustration with the world over his sexual shortcomings. 

He became the face of the burgeoning incel movement, feted as “The Supreme Gentleman”. Fans made edits from the many YouTube videos he’d posted, bemoaning his issues in the California sunshine. That dark online community suddenly became a terrorist movement in 2018 when Alex Minassian killed 10 people in Toronto by running them over with his truck. He claimed he was inspired by incel ideas and that this was the “Beta Uprising”, where the Beta sexual losers would take revenge on the Alpha sexual winners. 

This then is the potential threat shown in the Prevent statistics. The April 2021 to March 2022 statistics reveal that there were 6,406 referrals to Prevent in that time, however. The 77 incels only make up only about 1 per cent of the total. Most referrals came from the education sector (36 per cent), where teachers have a public sector duty to refer those they think are a risk. 

Unsurprisingly almost all of the referrals were men (89 per cent) and most were young, with 30 per cent being between 15 and 20. Almost as many were aged under 15, making up 29 per cent of referrals. Only 23 per cent of all referrals were discussed by a panel for Channel, the next stage after a Prevent referral, which tries to support those at risk of radicalisation. In total only 804 referrals, or 13 per cent of the total, were then adopted as Channel cases. That means that the vast majority of Prevent referrals weren’t considered to be radicalised.

For the second year running there were more referrals for Extreme Right-Wing radicalisation (20 per cent) than for Islamism (16 per cent), although in terms of deadliness Islamist terrorism remains the greatest threat. After these came those threatening school massacres (2 per cent) and incels (1 per cent). Curiously though, incels made up 3 per cent of those who were then adopted as Channel cases and were the most likely group to be adopted, with 23 of 34 incel-related Prevent referrals (68 per cent) ending up in Channel.

No actual incel has committed a terror attack in Britain

That might suggest that incels are especially strongly radicalised, or that they are very clear cases due to the more transparent online nature of that ideology, or that there is a moral overreaction going on.

What can be said is that incel terrorism in Britain is vanishingly rare. Jake Davidson, who in 2021 killed five people in Plymouth, has often been described as an incel. At the time counter-terrorism police said that the shootings weren’t incel related, however. Although he did look at incel material online, the primary driver seems to have been his poor mental health. 

Another case is that of Cardiff-based Luca Benincasa, who led the Feurkrieg Division group online. He recruited young men to his online-only group in pursuit of a race war. Aside from his neo-Nazi views, he also downloaded child porn and wrote Satanic messages. Although he described himself as an incel, he could equally be described as Far-Right or a Satanist.

Indeed, his range of interests will be familiar to many who browsed Tumblr back in the day. It wasn’t uncommon to come across image accounts, usually run by teenagers, who combined a fascination with violence, authoritarianism (usually Nazi but sometimes Soviet and often both) and sex (generally either virginal or sado-masochistic in nature). That’s not to say that he didn’t pose a genuine threat, just that the internet often makes for an incoherent ideology.

No actual incel has committed a terror attack in Britain, and it’s debatable as to whether they should even be considered terroristic, as they have no real political goal. If anything they resemble school shooters or the Russian nihilists of the 19th century, for whom the killing is either an end in itself or a way to gain notoriety.

For that reason, the media should be very careful about hyping up incel terrorism. The risk is that the greater the moral panic, over something almost non-existent, the more attractive it may become to unbalanced individuals, who see in it a way to gain fame or to take revenge on the world at the expense of innocent lives. 

When it comes to terrorism, it is much better to focus on those with clear links to violence. In just the last few days we’ve seen a British Far-Right YouTuber (whose videos called for the “extermination of subhumans”) inspiring an American racist killer; an Islamist student nurse allegedly caught with a pressure cooker bomb which he wanted to use to bomb an RAF base; and a serving British soldier charged with counter-terrorism offences. Those kinds of threats deserve real attention. It doesn’t mean there will never be an incel terrorist in Britain — only that we shouldn’t encourage it to become a reality.

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