Column: What we need to learn about boys from the violent rise of the ‘incel rebellion’


In its original meaning, “incel” was one of those portmanteau words, “involuntary” and “celibate,” and it just meant those socially uncertain and lonely people who were traveling solo through life, and wished they weren’t. Now it has been packed with gunpowder.

Elliot Rodger turned the fury of his miserable virginity on the UC Santa Barbara student community of Isla Vista, murdering six people and killing himself in 2014. He wrote to other incels, “Start envisioning a world where WOMEN FEAR YOU.” Last autumn, the online site Reddit banned an incel discussion group for promoting violence. And in April, a Toronto man who allegedly ran down pedestrians in a van and killed 10 of them had declared online, “The Incel Rebellion has begun!”

Why this, why now? Warren Farrell was a high-profile pioneer of feminist men who later studied modern men’s problems in his influential book, “The Myth of Male Power.” With John Gray, he’s written “The Boy Crisis: Why Our Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It.” And he has some thoughts about why some incels turn out the way they do.

Warning: An audio moment from future President Donald Trump near the end of this podcast contains vulgar language.

The term “incel” was created more than 20 years ago by a Canadian woman. What has it come to mean now?

Well, it certainly means involuntarily celibate and it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Most people think of it as a group of entitled white males who feel like they don't have access to women in the same way that they wished that they always had in the past. So there is a lot of resentment about women and about their own loss of privilege in the community.

That’s, I think, the common interpretation of that, [that] beneath every incel is another 100 or 1,000 men who are furious at women for not being able to be sexually available to them.

And I would say every part of that analysis is inaccurate, and is part of what creates the problems that creates incels to begin with.

A certain percentage of people in the population really being angry at women, and the idea of attacking women both either verbally or physically, there’s no place for that. Saying what you feel about your relationships with women — that has a place in the society, just as it does in reverse. But to not understand somebody is to create the problem that you're complaining about.

That phrase “incel rebellion” — is it new, or is it just a new name for a long-standing human condition?

It is a new name and it does speak to a set of challenges that boys are having today. Throughout all of history, boys had purpose. Their purpose was to be disposable: to be disposable in war, to be disposable as workers in coal mines and construction sites and so on.

And the boys were willing to be disposable as long as they were called heroes, as long as they were called successful, as long as they were called warriors. We used those social bribes to get our sons to be willing to risk their lives so that we would survive and they would risk death.

With boys, we have not expanded options for our sons in the way that we have for our daughters.

And so that gave our sons a sense of purpose. Today we don't need as many boys in war, we don't need as many males to be sole breadwinners because women are sharing that burden to a greater degree.

But fathers have disappeared at exactly the point where boys have developed a “purpose void,” and so that purpose void needs to be filled up, by good fathering or good Boy Scouts or good faith-based communities and good ways of guiding our boys to be constructive, productive adult males.

The feminist movement has done a very good job of expanding women's options. They can be full-time workers, they can be full-time mothers, they can do some combination of both. And we can reward it. We reward our girls no matter which way they turn.

But with boys, we have not expanded options for our sons in the way that we have for our daughters. So hurrah for the women's movement for doing that for women, but we need to do the same type of expansion of opportunities for our sons.

Part of this group of men who may identify themselves as incels thinks things have changed, that in the past men had — to use your word — access to women. Was that true? And if it was, what changed that?

First, it wasn't true. Men never felt that they had access to women.

If you've raised a son and if he was interested in a girl at school and said, “Oh, I really think that Christina or whoever is just so beautiful; I wish she would go out with me.” And then you say to your son, “Oh, sweetie, maybe she's interested in going out with you. Why don’t you call her up?” “Oh, no, she’d only go out with a football player, she'd only go out with that guy who's a tall student body president, who's good at everything, at basketball and so on. I don't think she'd have any interest in me. She’d just laugh at me, and maybe they'll talk about me behind their backs, and I become a laughingstock.”

And it's oftentimes the parents’ role to encourage the boy to feel good enough about himself to at least ask her. That's what boys go through, is the fear that they are not desired, or desirable enough, by the girl that they want.

Now there's a certain percentage of boys who are tall, who are naturally good-looking, who are so athletic, and they get on the football team. Those boys do have a sense of entitlement. But those are not the boys who are incels.

Those are the boys who get the girls. The boys who were rejected by the girls, they don't look at history and say: Once upon a time we had access to women. Today we don't. That is the last thing that they're thinking.

So why has it become this rallying cry? The Toronto man who allegedly ran down people wrote about incels. Is it because of social media that there’s has become a critical mass of men who feel this way?

Men do feel there is a lot going on with boys today that is different. Boys are being told that they have white male privilege if they're white, or they have male privilege if they're not white. Certainly whites have privilege, and certainly there’s class privilege.

But the things that we have considered to be privileged in the world, people who are running governments, or who are running corporations — those were not seen as male privilege. Those were seen as male obligations.

Those are the things that you did to earn your way, to be worthy of a woman's respect and a woman wanting to marry you.

So males are feeling like they're being told that they have privilege, therefore it's women's time to speak up and boys’ time to shut up.

And now it piles on another traditional masculine mandate, which is: Don’t express your feelings, don't complain, don't say what's going on with you. We're reinforcing the things that are the worst of traditional and toxic masculinity, and then labeling boys with toxic masculinity.

These young men don’t feel entitled to sex. They're reaching out and they're not being responded to — they're being rejected.

But they're also usually not the ones that are successful in the world. They’re usually boys that grow up without fathers. They don't have good postponed gratification. They don't have good discipline. They haven't had boundary enforcement as they grow up. They don't know how to achieve their dreams. And they feel like losers, and girls and women see them as losers.

But they still have the same drive, but the drives get sublimated in porn, and they feel like the more they get into porn, the more they feel alienated from the very girls and women that they want, and the more the women feel objectified by them. So it's a vicious cycle.

In movies and on TV shows, we see the schlubby guy getting the hot girl. Has that kind of thing changed expectations?

Those movies are really good because they're comedies. But in real life it doesn't happen that way. In “The Boy Crisis,” I analyzed a number of movies and current images in culture and it's not the losers who get the hot women.

Are there more of these men now than there were before, men who have not achieved success in society, in their eyes or by society's eyes?

Yes. There you have a real issue. I found that in all 60 developed nations that boys were falling significantly far behind girls, and in every area academically, in terms of psychological health, mental health, physical health.

Two things are happening. There is much greater permission for divorce, and much greater permission for women to have children without being married. And in those two groups — women having children without being married, and divorced families — there is a very big split between those children who have significant father involvement and those that don't have significant father involvement — where the children don't have significant father involvement.

Both girls and boys do much worse, but particularly the boys do. They don't tend to achieve well in school or in sports or in pretty much anything.

Those boys are the ones that we need to watch out about. Those account for 26 out of the 27 mass shooters that have killed eight or more since 1949. Those account for almost all your school shooters and almost all your mass shooters. Dylann Roof, Elliot Rodger, Adam Lanza — even the 6-year-old [school shooter] Dedrick Owens had a background of fatherlessness.

There is where the problem resides. And until we deal with bringing dads back into boys’ lives, we're going to be having all these alternative explanations of blaming the boys who are in fact the victims of that, of not having good role models as they're growing up.

Tell me what your thoughts were when you heard about the Toronto attacker and him drawing a line to the incel movement?

When I've investigated the situations, whether it's Elliot Rodger at the University of California Santa Barbara, who had a similar type of, you know, attitude toward women — almost all of those boys are from dislocated families where they have not learned how to achieve. They have been told they're wonderful. They're overprotected and they feel like they're entitled to things that they're not entitled to.

It’s “entitled to” in a much broader and sadder way than just male to female. The boy learns that he attended class — good, so he should get a trophy. And the father usually tends to say that you don't get a trophy until you do well in class, until you’ve accomplished. Until you succeed, you're not entitled to anything. Fathers bring to the family table a feeling of lack of entitlement. You've got to earn your way there.

You will remember a song from the 1960s by Janis Ian called “At Seventeen,” and the first line is, “I learned the truth at 17 / that love was meant for beauty queens.” This happens on the women’s side of the equation too.

100% accurate. That's one of my favorite songs, by the way. Every single time I hear that song, I cry. And it is exactly correct.

I was on the board of directors of the National Organization for Women in New York City for many years, and I managed beauty contests all over the country. I said to my audience that every woman is in a beauty contest every day of her life.

So I would put men in that beauty contest and have the women in the audience judge them based on their body, and it really had a very powerful impact on the guys. They always thought that women who were beautiful were privileged, but they never thought of how the world looked from the perspective of the insecurities that women have about their beauty.

I would then ask all the women in the audience to go up to compete for the guys that had won the beauty contest, and to risk the rejection of asking them out, and they found it was much, much harder than they expected it to be.

And so both sexes have an enormous fear of their own powerlessness.

But what we've done over the last 50 years is, we've taken a magnifying glass to the female experience of powerlessness and the female experience of male power, and that's been good. But nobody’s taken a magnifying glass to the male experience of powerlessness and the male experience of female power. And that's been terrible and missing.

So we've had all these distorted entitlement types of things.

Those are things that only lead to boys being more and more misunderstood, and angrier and angrier. And those feed the problem that we all want to eliminate.

You worked with the Obama White House about the Council on Women and Girls. There was also then a Council on Boys and Men. Has there been any follow-up in the Trump White House about this issue?

I am meeting with two of the people from the assistant secretaries of Education [office] — one in charge of elementary and secondary education and one in charge of civil rights — just before Father's Day to talk about these issues, about what we can do to create some constructive change in the schools to prevent these things from happening.

The way that people have seen President Trump behave toward women, the way he speaks about women. How has that influenced attitudes that are afoot today?

A combination of a positive and negative way. A positive way in the sense that he's so repulsive, the worst aspects of masculinity are out there before us for us to take a look at all its vomit-like form.

On the other hand, it has probably encouraged a lot of people to feel that the anger that they have inside of them and the way it's expressed has been validated. So he's probably reinforced some of that permission for the anger.

We have here a man who is arrogant, and everything that your parents would teach any boy who's 8 years old or greater to be different from, and more thoughtful and loving and careful and considerate and more humble.

All these things that we want from our sons, these are things that are not demonstrated by President Trump. We have rewarded them by making him the most powerful person in the world. That’s a very sad combination.

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