‘Incel Rebellion’? How maladjustment becomes a movement

Globe Staff Illustration/Adobe

On Monday, man killed 10 people, and hurt more than a dozen others, by driving a van down Toronto's crowded main thoroughfare. The suspect, it soon emerged, saw himself as part of "Incel Rebellion" — that is, an uprising by "involuntary celibates" who are resentful because women won't date them. Since everyone experiences romantic setbacks at some point, the suspect's inability to have sex made for a surprising political cause.

Yet in Internet forums such as Reddit and 4chan, all-too-common forms of psychological maladjustment — for instance, a hatred of women, a general lack of self-awareness, an incomprehension of how normal dating involves mutual attraction among two consenting people — can become defining qualities of ideological movements. When a once-diffuse group of people takes on a common name, they can develop their own distinct worldviews and vocabularies. Some incels lash out at shallow "Stacys" who favor handsome, athletic "Chads," and blame their own sexual failures on feminism and on genetic factors for which they hold themselves blameless. In November, Reddit banned an incel forum that had turned into a hotbed of misogynistic hate speech.


Before taking on a life of its own among a subset of angry young men, the term "involuntary celibate" was coined in the 1990s by woman in Ontario. "It feels like being the scientist who figured out nuclear fission," she recently told a leading Canadian news outlet, "and then discovers it's being used as a weapon for war."

It might sound flippant to attribute acts of terrorism to loathing of Chad and Stacy. Mass murderers are more likely to offer economic, religious, or political pretexts for their actions. But sociologists have long viewed sexual frustration as a potential motive for extremists, from the 9/11 hijackers to today's "white supremacists."

What researchers call the "failure to launch" — that is, the failure of some young men to find jobs, establish their own households, and, yes, settle into healthy romantic relationships — can be a destabilizing influence in society, and not just along a bustling Toronto street.