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Understanding How Constrictive Gender Norms Contribute to Extremist Ideology

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Meghan Scarlott
October 27, 2023

Elliot Rodger was 22 years old in May of 2014 when he shared a 141-page autobiographical document about his mental health, loathing of women and frustration about his virginity. After sharing this document, Rodger would go on to kill six people in Isla Vista, California. In a video posted prior to the attack, Rodger described his rampage as a “Day of Retribution” against society for “denying” him sex and love. A niche internet community known as involuntarily celibate, or incel, celebrated the attack and related to Rodger’s misogynistic motivations.

In an era of internet bullying and physical harm, understanding who incels are, and why the violence carried out by Elliot Rodger speaks to them, is imperative. According to Dr. Anne Speckhard, incels are defined as men who are excluded from sexual/romantic relations with women. Self-identified incels connect via online forums, such as Reddit and 4chan, and the community is associated with the anti-feminist movement. The gendered discourse on incel forums reinforces hierarchies in which men are dominant and women are subordinate. Many of the beliefs held by incels and the discourse on the forums normalize violence and prime users for radicalization.

How Toxic Masculinity Fuels Extremism

There is a strong connection between expressions of misogyny and violence. Toxic masculinity—shorthand to characterize negative and misogynistic behaviors of men—is often referenced in cases of gender-based violence, and sexual violence. Misogyny and toxic masculinity are associated with violent extremism, with misogynistic acts being a component of the ideology, political identity and political economy of most extremist groups. Melissa Johnston and Jacqui True found that individuals who support violence against women were found to be three times more likely to support violent extremism. Masculinity and perceptions of gender roles play a crucial role in the endorsement of violence ideation and violent extremism. While there are a number of factors that contribute to the carrying out of violence, it is clear that negative or constrictive conceptions of masculinity play a powerful role.

Incels as a Security Threat

The role of masculinity in violent extremism is particularly important to consider in the context of misogynistic extremism and violence carried out by incels. In addition to the attack by Elliot Rodger’s, there are a number of other attacks in which the perpetrator cited inceldom as the primary driver: Scott Paul Beierle’s attack on a yoga studio in Tallahassee in 2018 was motivated by misogynistic extremism, and he was active on incel forums; and the 2018 Toronto van attack by Alek Minassian was directly inspired by Rodger and incel ideology.

Understanding incels as a security threat requires examining the trends of discussions on incel platforms. The violent and misogynistic content that dominates incel forums solidifies anti-feminist beliefs and normalizes violent ideology, with incel men being found to have a slightly higher incidence of violent ideation compared to non-incel men in a study by Dr. Speckhard and colleagues. Violence is seen by many in the incel community as a means of revenge or to spread incel ideology. The normalization and casual discussion of violence can prime individuals for further radicalization, particularly in relation to far-right extremism. Membership and association with multiple online or offline communities that celebrate violent means of change can put individuals at further risk of acting on these ideas.

Policy Recommendations for Intervention

There is a need for legislation to address violence carried out by incels, ensuring that hate crime legislation covers online violence as well as offline physical violence. While there have been cases of offline physical violence, most incels are depressed and do not carry out physical acts of violence. Poor mental health paired with rhetoric that normalizes violence can, however, put some individuals at risk to carry out violence.

Incel violence is motivated by misogyny and often specifically targets women. Policy addressing online and physical incel violence is rooted in hate speech and hate crime statutes; however, incorporating mental health intervention policy may help to thwart incel violence. Incel violence is motivated by a bias against women on the basis of their gender, which often constitutes a hate crime. There are cases of incel violence being charged as a hate crime, including a self-identified incel from Ohio charged with an attempted hate crime for planning to target women in a mass shooting. 

In addition to legislation and definitions addressing incel violence, more proactive approaches are available. To prevent violence from occurring, proactive interventions should be established to address risk factors seen in many incels. Individuals within the incel community are generally resistant to interventions or treatment, and thus policy should specify which agencies or personnel will be involved, particularly for voluntary programs. Intervention policies should consider an individualized approach, with special attention on psychological interventions. Addressing mental health symptoms and community needs of individuals can lessen their risk of acting out violently against women and society, or engaging with incel forums as a means of finding community. This is one piece of a larger puzzle when it comes to interventions, and consideration of larger societal and institutional issues that make the incel community appealing to some men will be vital.

Author: Meghan Scarlott is a recent graduate of John Jay College’s Forensic Psychology Master’s program, during which she completed a thesis on involuntary celibates focused on their views on violence and masculinity. She is currently a graduate fellow with the Initiative for Gender Equity in the Public Sector (IGEPS) at John Jay College.

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