I've been reading a lot lately about incels. If you're unfamiliar with the term, it is a person (usually a man) who is "Involuntarily Celibate". This term has at its core a lot of toxic ideas, including and misogyny and entitlement.
The incel movement is harmful and dangerous, but it taps into a real issue which is the feeling of displacement and disillusionment many young men are experiencing. Radicalization of any sort starts with this feeling and goes from there. The reaction I'm seeing from many of my friends is to write these men off.
As Christian Picciolini, a prominent anti-hate activist points out in his TED talk and book, the source of radicalization is feeling that you have no place, then finding a home that embraces you, one which blames an outside group for your initial feelings of displacement. The solution isn't to distance ourselves from these people who hate but to embrace them and show them other ways of being in the world. In the case of Incels, it means showing them that it's not women or feminism that's the enemy, that entitlement culture harms everyone and there are alternatives that will raise all boats (including their own).
To that end, I'm going to tell my story about another male social movement, PUA- how it helped me get through a difficult time, and how it could have gone very wrong.
Before there were Incels, in the early 2000s, there was PUA, or Pick-Up Artistry. There's been a lot written about the PUA and how it's fractionated and seeded other movements, including the Red Pill and Incel, but at the time, it centered largely around two figures, a New York Times writer named Neil Strauss who went by "Style" and a Canadian man named Erik von Markovik, who went by "Mystery".
I was twenty-six, and had a string of really bad dates. I'd go out, meet a woman for coffee, tea or lunch, and there would be no interest or spark. After the eleventh or twelfth round of this, I felt something was wrong, and it wasn't just bad luck.
After Googling around, I found an article written by Strauss about what he called "Kino Escalation". His premise was simple, but profound; I was going on dates thinking about myself, my date, and some possible future we might have together. As such, I didn't want to make the wrong move, or say the wrong thing. I was nervous and stilted. Strauss suggested that I take a different approach- that of a game.
The goal of this game, he postulated, was physical and emotional intimacy. Like any game, it had rules and procedures. The rules were that in order to get to my goal, I had to first go through intermediate stages. I wasn't allowed to skip stages or try to jump ahead.
At each stage, I'd identify how I was doing by looking for "Indicators of Interests" or IoIs, and if I identified three IoIs, I could proceed to the next stage. If that was unsuccessful (ie my date didn't reciprocate), or I received an Indicator of Disinterest (IoD), I needed to go back two stages and try again. At no time was I to take the situation personally, as a reflection of myself or my personality- instead, I should consider it just like a game- if I did well, I'd have a chance of success, and if I did poorly, I'd have an opportunity to try again- either with the same date, or with someone else in the future.
This changed my entire experience of dating and made it fun. Instead of spending time in my head worrying about what my date thought of me, I had something concrete to look for, and instead of fretting over my next move, I had a clear path to follow. And now, with all of that complicated stuff out of the way, I was free to actually enjoy going on dates and meeting with these new, interesting women!
As I read more of Strauss's writing, he referenced a friend of his named Mystery. Mystery's message was a bit different- more severe and intense. He claimed that geeks were good guys, but that we'd learned the lesson of society all wrong, and that if we learned the right way to approach women, we'd be successful- in whatever way we wanted to measure success (be it quantity of women we dated, or in finding love).
Mystery is most well known for his concept of "negging", which has been widely misunderstood and abused. The idea as he explained it was that men had to show women that we were comfortable and not intimidated by them. In many of his talks, he demonstrated using body language to show that you weren't afraid, by keeping your arms or legs apart, by relaxing or leaning back in your chair. Making a joke about someone else is something that you'd only do it you weren't afraid of them, so he encouraged it, both as a way of building connection, but also as a way of demonstrating that you (unlike other men) weren't afraid. He also warned strongly about only making jokes about appearance with women who were so incredibly attractive and self-confident than they would not be offended. Otherwise, he suggested, stay away.
Trying their approaches worked. On one date, a woman who I didn't feel especially interested in, was begging to sit on my lap and kiss me within fifteen minutes of our date.
In fact, it worked too well. After that experience of having a woman wiggle her way on my lap in just fifteen minutes, I thought of the Sorcerer's Apprentice. This was black magic that I didn't understand and thus shouldn't use. I put PUA away.
Years later, after another lonely spell, I went back to PUA. Mystery talked about ways of demonstrating you were an "alpha" to your date, including to be casually physically intimate. It worked, and and I found my first BDSM-interested partner. It had worked for me. Sadly, though, PUA also had gained a lot of unhealthy baggage. The men inside it were moving from being curious geeks trying to get a date, to aggressive, angry men who believed that the techniques they were doing were almost a way of getting revenge by taking what they felt was rightfully theirs, by which I mean women's physical and emotional affection. I was seeing that the techniques I was using worked in spite of the larger PUA movement, not because of them.
At age twenty-six, dating had left me feeling dejected. Fueled by hurt and motivated to change, I sublimated my feelings into changing my behavior to trying a different approach to dating. PUA isn't a healthy way of dating (a topic I'll cover in a future post), but it offered me an alternative to having bad dates and being lonely. Without it, I can imagine a very different outcome- one in which I was told that it wasn't me who was at fault for my bad dating experiences, but society at large, and that it was society that I should be angry at for being "involuntarily celibate". Instead of looking inward and trying to change the behaviors that were making me have had dates, I could have looked outward and found a scapegoat.
Reading the Incel forums, I see young men who find themselves unsuccessful in dating. Maybe they, like me, have a neurological impairment which makes social interactions challenging. Or maybe, like me, they have shame and anger about their feelings of domination and sadism that they have internalized and without a framework for understanding their desires, project those feelings out towards the world. Maybe they've consumed too much media with the narrative that the good guy gets the girl in the end and think "when will that happen to me?"
Whatever the root cause, I read the writings of these young men and think, "There but for the grace of God go I."
The young men who feel hurt and dejected by society may be willing to make to make the leap we want them to make if offered the opportunity, but if we are too quick to label and dismiss them, we are complicit in their radicalization.
Instead, where possible, we should be offering them another way, the way of consent culture, of learning to respect boundaries while expressing desires, of acceptance, care, and love.
If we want to stop young men from being radicalized, we need to offer them another path.
After publishing this, I've recieved some feedback from women that are concerned that my post is suuggesting that it's the responsibility of women to date these men, and or to educate them in how to behave. Let me state clearly that it is not the responsibility of women to date anyone they don't want, or to be forced into a position of educating anyone. What I am saying is that Seeing this same concern brought up by multiple women, it may be that because women are so often burdened with responsibility, and so some women are seeing this as more of the same, as me saying "And here's yet another place you need to do more work", but that's not what I'm saying.
I'm calling on everyone to do this, and everyone to do it in a different way. That means if you see someone who could be doing something better, tell them. Maybe it's a friend, maybe it's a family member (brother, cousin, nephew). I'm using a lot of male pronouns here because the problem is predominantly cis-male, but I'd say this is everyone's problem to correct, or it's just going to get worse.