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Trust Issues

The Deadly Incel Movement’s Absurd Pop Culture Roots

From a cheesy VH1 reality show to mass killing

Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

FFor years, one of the first Google hits on my name was an article titled “Stalking Sady Doyle.” It was written in 2011 by the “men’s rights” advocate Paul Elam.

The post was a response to an article I’d written about sexist internet harassment. Elam — who had set up a fake “sex offender registry,” called, to destroy the Google results of women who attended feminist protests — was, unsurprisingly, not persuaded by my points. When he began threatening me, his vision turned apocalyptic.

We stood poised at “the beginning of a boil over,” Elam promised, a “tipping point” that would wipe feminists off the map, sometimes violently. Women like me were going to experience “much more organized, high impact consequences…courtesy of the men’s movement.”

Simply put, we are coming for you. For all of you,” he wrote, in bold type. “And by the time we are done, you will wax nostalgic over the days when all you had to deal with was someone expressing the desire to fuck you up your shopworn ass.”

In 2011, the thought of terrorism organized by a group of sexist men online was laughable. So I did the professional thing: I ignored Elam’s post. I laughed it off. I moved on.

On April 23, Alek Minassian drove his car into a Toronto crowd, killing 10 people, eight of them female. “The Incel Rebellion has already begun,” Minassian had posted on Facebook. By that time, the Southern Poverty Law Center was describing Elam as a the leader of a male supremacist “hate group.” The “manosphere” to which he and Minassian belonged — an internet rat-king of blogs and message boards and lifestyle gurus, linked and defined by militant anti-feminism — had become a key sector of America’s fascist movement. Minassian wasn’t the first “incel” killer to make headlines; he explicitly modeled himself on Elliott Rodger, who had killed six people and nonfatally shot or run over 14 more in May 2014. Before both was George Sodini, who in 2009 killed three people and injured nine more.

Like Elam, Rodger saw himself as the harbinger of a coming storm. “One day incels will realise their true strength and numbers and will overthrow this oppressive feminist system,” Rodger had written on (since renamed SlutHate). “Start envisioning a world where WOMEN FEAR YOU.”

FFrom the outside, the manosphere can seem intensely factional, full of confusing acronyms and affiliations. Its founding fathers, the MRAs (men’s rights advocates), rose to prominence in the 1990s; they focused on divorce law, arguing that women were unfairly privileged by family courts, or on women’s perceived economic advantages, which they remedied by suing women’s networking groups and bars that charged women less on Ladies’ Night. After the MRAs came the PUAs (pickup artists), whose focus is on proving their masculinity by maximizing the number of women they sleep with. At the deep end of the pool are MGTOWs (men going their own way), who claim to hate women so much that they willfully abstain from interacting with them. Finally, there are the “incels,” so-called involuntary celibates, who believe they’ve been deprived of sex with sufficiently attractive women, and who sometimes advocate for legalized sex slavery and armed rebellion as a response.

These subcultures are united by the philosophy of the “red pill,” named after a scene in The Matrix, a movie that, it bears noting, was directed by two women. This theory posits a vast, malevolent feminist conspiracy aimed at suppressing the male gender that most men are too brainwashed to perceive. Once a man has his “red pill” moment and realizes that egalitarian gender norms have been specifically created to ruin his life, joining the manosphere becomes his only reasonable response.

All the movements within the manosphere are dangerous to a greater or lesser extent. Elam, for example, is an MRA. The PUA movement spawned an internet bogeyman named Roosh V, who has advocated legalizing rape. However, most of the experts I spoke to agreed that incels are the movement’s radical fringe; they’re unusually angry, even within a subculture defined by male rage.

“Their misogyny is more extreme, their outright anger at women is more extreme, though the MGTOWs are a close second in those departments,” says David Futrelle, a journalist who’s been tracking the manosphere since the late 2000s. “Incel ideology also encourages a sort of nihilistic hopelessness, convincing [men] that they are too weird and too uniquely ugly (or short, or whatever) to ever appeal to women, and that there’s no hope that they can change themselves or that women will change to accept them. So you get a whole community of angry, self-hating men, mostly young men, who despise women and don’t really care if they live or die.’”

The #MeToo movement has made it a bit trendier to give women an empathetic hearing, but gains like these are easily erased.

In November 2017, Reddit banned r/incels on the grounds that it violated the platform’s policy against content that “encourages, glorifies, incites or calls for violence or physical harm against an individual or group of people.” Shortly prior to the ban, a user had posted a question in r/legaladvice about how a rapist might go about avoiding consequences: “I’m female and I’m going out drinking with my gfs tonight…Let’s say I get drugged down by some random guy I’ve never met, raped while I’m unconscious and left alone in the woods or something,” they wrote. “How would I even start searching for someone like this?” Reddit users checked the user’s post history and found that he was a participant on r/incels. There, gynocidal fantasies ran rampant: “I never fantasised [sic] about killing women until seeing these pages,” a poster wrote on one representative thread; “same,” another replied. They were responding to a meme drawn from Disney’s Mulan.

By the time r/incels was shut down, it had at least 40,000 members. To understand how it got this bad, you have to understand how the manosphere first erupted into the mainstream: Not as a scandal, but as a joke.

VVH1’s The Pickup Artist aired for only two seasons, in 2007 and 2008. Yet it may turn out to be one of the defining pop culture products of the decade, both for what it contained — Ed Hardy! Reality competitions! Guyliner! — and for what it conveniently left out. The show featured a house full of “lovable losers,” described on screen with captions like “Scott, 26: Awkward and uneasy,” who were forced to admit on camera that they were virgins before submitting themselves to the sexual tutelage of the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest pickup artist,” Mystery.

Mystery, born Erik von Markovik, was the lead character in Neil Strauss’ bestselling 2005 PUA guide, The Game. Even then, something was askew; Mystery is first presented to the reader in the throes of a breakdown, with Strauss warning a woman not to enter the room because “he’ll probably kill you.” (“Not that she didn’t entirely deserve it, of course,” Strauss adds.) But Strauss portrayed Mystery as formidable and cool, a sexual apex predator. Mystery “could out-game them all,” he wrote; he was “the most worshipped pickup artist in the community, a powerhouse.” This mystique was somewhat undercut when the audience got a look at Mystery himself.

Mystery posed for the show’s credits in a fake-fur top hat. He donned bedazzled cowboy gear to eliminate contestants. In the show’s interstitial segments, Mystery dispensed life advice wearing what I can only describe as a bondage-based Hellraiser turtleneck, a leopard-print blazer with scalloped lapels, a leather shower cap, and goggles. His image became one of the most indelible sight gags of the era, a synecdoche for the vast underworld of male sexual failure.

Erik “Mystery” von Markovik. Photo by Ray Tamarra/Getty Images

Mystery’s dorkiness turned him into a punchline, but our laughter gave him greater cachet than Strauss’ reverence ever could. It made him seem harmless: just one more D&D nerd (Mystery was also a magician) who wore ski goggles in the middle of Arizona, a flamboyant but unthreatening force for self-improvement.

Late-’00s papers and magazines were filled with bemused PUA coverage by male reporters. “Sure, seductionism makes me glad I don’t have a daughter running around out there,” concludes one 2007 Boston Magazine write-up. “But, ultimately, [these] lessons aren’t any nuttier than those of more culturally accepted ‘gurus.’” The New York Times not only published Strauss’ early writings on the PUA culture; it also sent one of its reporters to a club with a pickup student.

The fad even made its mark on sitcom history: How I Met Your Mother included, as part of its core ensemble, a pickup artist named Barney Stinson, played by Neil Patrick Harris. Like Mystery, Barney ran a blog, invented convoluted dating lingo, and performed magic tricks. Several of the character’s tics and catchphrases — referring to male friends as “wingmen,” shoving them in front of random women with a “haaaaaave you met [X]?” — came directly from the pages of The Game.

The PUA lifestyle had been normalized, seen not as anti-feminist extremism, but as a slightly more baroque version of standard frat-boy obnoxiousness. This was a mistake that would cost lives.

InIn 2010, sexuality blogger and journalist N’jaila Rhee says she sold a pitch about a “PUA bootcamp” run by J.T. Tran, a leader in the community known as “the Asian Playboy.” It was the heart of the PUA boom, and Rhee’s editor wanted something light, fluffy, and funny. When she returned with a draft that reflected the actual rhetoric she’d heard, she says, her piece was killed.

“I told [the editor] they were talking about stalking women and sharing violent fantasies about harming women and men that they saw as more sexually successful than them,” Rhee told me. The outlet (which Rhee prefers not to name) was inflexible in its demands: “The editor wanted a light, funny piece painting it as goofy internet subculture. But this was not people that like [to] wear fur suits or swap breastmilk. They were advocating rape.”

Among the many sexual tactics detailed in The Game, the most troubling are those intended to overcome what Mystery calls the “anti-slut defense” (ASD) — defined, by Strauss, as “the maneuvers some women make to avoid taking responsibility for initiating or agreeing to sex.” Specifically, these are instructions for how to pressure a woman into having sex with you after she’s said no.

Disarming the ASD can entail sexual touching, emotional manipulation, or even violence: Of one PUA, Strauss writes, “I’d watch as a woman came over to his house for the first time and he’d throw her against the wall by her neck, then release her just before he kissed her, shooting her adrenaline level through the roof with equal parts fear and arousal.”

In one passage, a man describes how he overcomes female resistance: After offering a massage, he said, “I start to massage her through her pants, but then tell her to remove them because they’re getting in the way. If you act as if you are the authority, she will not question you.” From there, the man moved on to grabbing and rubbing the women’s vaginas without permission, after which, “I usually just unbutton my pants, put on a condom, and start fucking her without kissing or actual foreplay.”

If we’ve failed to take incels’ violence seriously, that is in part because we’ve failed to recognize this broader connection between misogyny and mass killing.

In 2018, of course, offering a fake “massage” as a pretext for sexual assault is a tactic attributed to Harvey Weinstein. It’s not exactly a leap from The Game to Roosh’s more infamous claim that some of his “conquests” hadn’t consented to sex — or, for that matter, to the man asking Reddit users for rape tips. “Pickup artists” were not just internet nerds who wore funny hats; they were dangerous. It’s just that saying so got you tarred as a hysteric.

Tracy Clark-Flory was one of the few women assigned to profile Mystery in a 2007 piece for Salon. She first read The Game after her then-boyfriend confessed he’d used its techniques on her. The relationship, understandably, did not last. But afterward, “I’d find that a date had read it, or a guy would come up to me at a bar and obviously deploy one of the techniques,” Clark-Flory told me. “It was depressing to see how much traction these sexist ideas seemed to have among men.”

But when she raised the question with the man himself — “When you start looking at women as ‘targets,’ as a power to be overthrown, do you lose any intellectual respect for them?” — Mystery blew her off with a rhetorical wave of his much-beringed hand: “That doesn’t fit into my reality,” he replied.

The group that caught Rhee’s eye back in 2010, she told me, was “men that were angry that they paid for PUA classes and still didn’t get [the] sex they felt they were owed.” This splinter group of failed pickup artists congregated on what Rhee called “PUA hate sites.” The most famous of these would probably be PUAhate, the favored forum of Elliott Rodger.

It’s a long, strange trip from VH1 and How I Met Your Mother to 10 dead people in Toronto, but there it is: The incel movement grew directly out of the PUA fad, a storm cloud of disillusioned students who were ready to try more violent means of accessing female bodies. Unlikely as it may seem, those “lovable losers” arrayed in front of Mystery would turn out to be some of the faces of American terrorism.

InIn 2011, Allen Robert Reyes — a pickup artist who’d been featured in The Game under the nom de skeeze “Gunwitch” — nonfatally shot a woman in the face. In the comments section of a now-defunct website, the victim’s sister claimed that he shot her for rejecting his advances. (In a recent email from Reyes, he denied having made advances.) A post about the incident garnered more than 300 comments on the blog Feministe. The shooting went virtually unreported by the mainstream press.

In 2009, after George Sodini killed three people at an L.A. Fitness outside Pittsburgh, footage emerged of him attending a PUA seminar by R. Don Steele. Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon, Jill Filipovic at Feministe, Marc at Feministing, Anna North at Jezebel, and Amanda Hess at The Sexist all wrote about the role of PUA culture in fostering male sexual entitlement and violence.

Even as the mainstream ignored the violence of the manosphere, feminists seemingly couldn’t stop discussing it. And though it would be nice to claim that this was due to some prescient, bird’s-eye perspective, the reality was simpler. There was just no way to ignore the threat, given that we were their primary targets.

From the beginning, the red-pill crowd understood that online harassment could be a potent tool for controlling conversations: “Progress for men will not be gained by debate, reason or typical channels of grievance available to segments of the population that the world actually gives a damn about,” Paul Elam wrote in one 2011 blog post. “The progress we need will only be realized by inflicting enough pain on the agents of hate, in public view, that it literally shocks society out of its current coma.”

Feminist bloggers, as visible and accessible “agents of hate,” presented easy targets. They comprised many of the entries on Elam’s fake “registry” and were the subjects of his crowdsourced doxxing (posting someone’s address, phone number, or other personal information online to make them more vulnerable to offline violence). When Jessica Valenti had her information placed on the registry in 2011, she was inundated with so many threats that she had to change her cell number, contact the FBI, and briefly go into hiding. Roosh organized a “Fat Shaming Week” to coordinate mass harassment of fat women on Twitter and cultivated a long-term fixation on Lindy West. Being fat and visible was a known liability; as far back as 2009, Melissa McEwan wrote that she was regularly the subject of Photoshop contests, “with ‘dick into my mouth’ and ‘my face on Jabba the Hutt’s body’ being popular motifs.”

You didn’t have to be well-known to get this kind of attention, and the punishment was rarely in proportion to the crime. In 2013, when a woman who went by the name Chanty Binx was filmed shouting at some MRAs in Toronto, the manosphere doxed her, threatened her until she could no longer participate in feminist protests, and harassed her for five straight years.

Jaclyn Friedman, founder and strategic advisor for the nonprofit advocacy group Women, Action & the Media (WAM!), fell afoul of another harassment campaign when she participated in the #FBrape campaign to get Facebook to remove content that advocated sexual assault.

“They had bunches of people on their message boards going through WAM!’s tax filings, all my online writings, anything they could get their hands on. Their idea at the time was to prove that we were funded by the federal government, which would have in their eyes made our campaign ‘government censorship,’” Friedman says. She knew to lock down her digital presence beforehand, but only because the last women to work on a similar campaign had gotten so many credible threats that they could not continue.

“I’ve been the target of these guys at several points,” Friedman says, “and it really is terrorism. It can take over your whole life. You’re not just grappling with what they’re actively doing to you, but also what you know they’ve done to others. You feel like you have to be ready for anything, which is impossible, so it’s just this constant feeling like: What vulnerability have I forgotten? Can I go to sleep, or will I wake up to find I’ve been doxxed and that a stalker or a SWAT team is trying to get in?”

It was a strange and lonely thing to realize that some of the most profound threats to your existence came from a group the mainstream wrote off as a joke. But it was also maddening; like screaming for help, in a crowded room, while everyone around you stood perfectly still. Or like shouting out the same warning, over and over, as the rest of the world skidded ever more recklessly toward the precipice.

TThe idea of a harassment campaign crossed over into the mainstream when the term “incels” did, in 2014. It was only a few months after Rodger’s spree that women on Twitter started experiencing mobs of enraged men demanding “ethics in gaming journalism,” the rallying cry of Gamergate.

The campaign initially stuck to standard anti-feminist grievances. The worst threats centered on feminist-identified media figures like Anita Sarkeesian, who had been intensely harassed for years. Gamergate caught the media’s attention by targeting the advertisers of outlets, like Gawker Media’s Kotaku, it deemed unfriendly. The subsequent scrutiny familiarized the public with threats like doxxing or SWATing (calling an armed SWAT team to invade the target’s house by using a fake bomb threat) that feminists had long experienced.

Gamergate also signaled an ideological shift in the manosphere, personified through its then-rising star Milo Yiannopolous. Though he initially presented his grievances in the language red-pillers were familiar with — one of Yiannopolous’ more famous posts was entitled “Feminism Is Cancer” — he maintained ongoing coordination with neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, ushering his readers from misogyny into alignment with far-right militancy. Watching how Yiannopolous built a platform for genocidal ideologies under the veil of campy “outrageousness,” distracting critics with an ever more ridiculous series of outfits and haircuts — it was clear that he’d learned the right lessons from Mystery.

The alliance between masculinists and white supremacists was a natural one, suggests Charlottesville-based activist Emily Gorcenski. She’s recently been using her social media accounts to draw attention to leaked Discord chats between members of the alt-right, where, she says, individuals use incel lingo about “Chads” and “Stacys.” Gorcenski says both groups have a tendency to transmute their own anxieties into a “a complex scaffold of a belief system.”

Photo by Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty

“They start from [white supremacy], and then they have to answer questions,” Gorcenski says, “like, are Jewish people white? Or what if someone is 2 percent white? It’s all junk statistics and junk science, but they have this whole framework built up. Incels have that about women.”

The ideological link between the misogynist rage of Gamergate and today’s alt-right isn’t subtle. Plenty of contemporary alt-right figures, like Mike Cernovich and Yiannopolous, initially made their names within Gamergate. Video game developer Zoe Quinn, the movement’s first and primary target, had been talking about the fascism within the movement since the beginning. As early as October 2014, Quinn Tweeted that she was “fightin more nazis than some issues of captain america these days for fuck’s sake.” In 2017, as Trump was about to be inaugurated on the back of substantial alt-right support, Quinn wrote that “[it] just dawned on me that I had a breakup go so badly he got mad and helped usher in a new era of American fascism over it.”

But the manosphere’s turn to fascism was not necessarily a case of embracing a new ideology so much as it was unearthing the subtext that had been there all along.

“There is, and always has been, a racialized dimension to all of this,” says digital sociologist Katherine Cross, whose work on Gamergate made her the target of a campaign to cancel her 2015 SXSW panel on harassment. “Anti-feminism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, it all hangs together. Scratch one and find the other.”

Cross points to one of the most famous passages of Elliott Rodger’s manifesto: “How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me?” he wrote. “I am beautiful, and I am half white myself. I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves. I deserve it more.”

II wondered if any of this would have played out differently in 2018; whether any of those male journalists or network executives were ashamed of their involvement in mainstreaming the manosphere, or if they felt responsible for the rise of Rodger and Minassian. Strauss, at least, has renounced the PUAs and written a memoir about surviving “sex addiction.” I reached out to several men who had covered these communities in the late ’00s — including Strauss, and even Mystery himself — but none were willing to talk. One let me send him a few questions; when I mentioned the incels, he abruptly told me he would “not be able to participate.”

Nor is the world more inclined to listen to women. When I spoke to writer Alana Massey, who was targeted by Roissy, an influential PUA blogger, following a 2015 article she published about Tinder, the conversation turned — as it often does, among women in my line of work — to which harassers we had in common. She told me that she’d been asked in late 2017 to comment on the recurring harassment allegations surrounding the nominally “leftist” podcast Chapo Trap House.

The podcast’s hosts, to say nothing of their rabid online fanbase, perceived themselves as enemies of the far-right manosphere. Nevertheless, their tactics — and targets — were often disturbingly similar. I’d been a regular punching bag for Chapo throughout 2016 and early 2017, culminating in a graphic death threat being sent to me by a man who was seemingly on friendly terms with Chapo host Felix Biederman. Massey caught Chapo’s attention in November 2016, when she referred to it as a “C+ podcast” in a subtweet. She forwarded me the email she’d sent to the reporter about the resulting deluge; the links and screencaps include men describing Massey as a “geriatric bipolar stripper” and posting her photo and calling it a “meth before and after pic.” Yet, when the reporter ran her quotes back by her, she believed that he planned to blow off the allegations.

“He didn’t quote a single thing that I was sent,” Massey said, “and he had like three sentences about ‘these irksome something-or-others.’ I was like, no, just take it out.”

In 2011, the thought of terrorism organized by a group of sexist men online was laughable.

In the weeks after the Minassian attack, the media published yet another wave of explainers about “incels,” economists mused about “redistributing sex,” and Times columnist Ross Douthat suggested that dateless men might be availed the use of sex workers or robots. (That he considered the two interchangeable is its own issue.) Like the PUAs, the incels were taken at face value, with their formerly unthinkable ideas — “redistributed sex,” despite the euphemism, is a call for legalized sex slavery — absorbed and broadcast uncritically by the mainstream. Between the first draft of this article and the second, a boy in Santa Fe, Texas, went on a shooting spree, after a girl he’d been harassing for months refused to date him and publicly told him to leave her alone.

Once again, women were stuck yelling warnings to a crowd that neither heard nor cared. The cycle that has dominated coverage of the manosphere for 10 years — horror and forgetfulness, mass outrage and instant erasure — continues to this day.

AA combined 20 people have died in the Sodini, Rodger, and Minassian attacks. None of it was hard to see coming. The radical misogynist ideology behind the incel attacks was not remotely obscure. “Is it unpredictable that someone who buys into this kind of thinking — about how women owe men sex, about how women are worthless except for their ability to provide sex, about how force and cruelty can get you sex because women are ‘depraved’…actually just killed people?” I wrote in a 2009 blog post responding to the Sodini shooting. “No. No, it’s not.”

This is to say nothing of the role that toxic masculinity plays in mass violence generally — the history of domestic violence that is common among mass shooters, or the countless shootings that begin as crimes of domestic violence. If we’ve failed to take incels’ violence seriously, that is in part because we’ve failed to recognize this broader connection between misogyny and mass killing.

In Rebecca Solnit’s 2014 essay “Cassandra Among the Creeps,” she points out that the mythic Greek prophet Cassandra — who was always right and never believed — met her fate for reasons that would be applauded on any incel board. “[The] disbelief with which her prophecies were met was the result of a curse placed on her by Apollo when she refused to have sex with the god,” Solnit writes. “The idea that loss of credibility is tied to asserting rights over your own body was there all along.”

Reporting this story, multiple women told me they’d told some man the truth, about violence they’d suffered or violence they’d heard men planning, only to be dismissed because they didn’t fit into the story those men had decided to tell. Harassment is downgraded to merely irksome; a story about a brewing terrorist movement is killed because it’s not a fluffy piece about nerds trying to get laid. Misogyny, to quote Mystery, “doesn’t fit into” this reality.

Men own the narrative. Unless that changes, nothing will change. The #MeToo movement has made it a bit trendier to give women an empathetic hearing, but gains like these are easily erased. Even still, women often have to come out in massive numbers to bring down even one predator. If a man has to be accused of more than 50 sexual assaults before we see him as a threat, we are still operating under Cassandra rules.

In addition to the footage of the PUA seminar, LA Fitness shooter George Sodini left behind a YouTube channel and a blog, in which he obsessively fixated on his failure to find a girlfriend. Instead of distancing themselves from Sodini after the 2009 shooting, the manosphere embraced him as the beginning of something new. “Celibacy is walking death and anything is justified in avoiding that miserable fate,” Roissy wrote, in evident commiseration. He predicted that “we are going to see a growing eunuchracy of involuntarily celibate betas and the marginalized men in their ranks decide that exiting in a blaze of hot lead beats living in loveless obscurity.”

I’d like to say it was a pathetic fantasy. But, well, here we are.

Update: This piece has been updated to include a statement from Reyes about the shooting incident. He denies having hit on the victim.

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Columns published far and wide across the Internet.

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