Chances are if you’ve heard the term “incel” in the news, it’s in the wake of April’s Toronto van attack, which left 10 dead and 16 injured after a man drove a van through a busy sidewalk in the Canadian city. Shortly after the incident, a Facebook post from the driver in question went viral for referencing the terms “involuntary celibate” and “the Incel Rebellion,” along with praising the Isla Vista massacre’s perpetrator, Elliot Rodger. But what is an incel, exactly? And what do they believe?

The incel community is composed of socially alienating men mourning their inability to have sexual relationships with women. Incels’ beliefs seem to encourage anti-feminist values that imply women’s time, bodies, and sexual desires should be primarily centered around men. It’s easy to see how that can lead to violence against women on both a small and large scale. But what is “involuntary celibacy” anyway, and what do incels really believe?

What is an incel?

On the popular incel messaging board, the site’s admin says “incel” is short for “involuntary celibate,” or a person who “can’t have sex despite wanting to.” Incels believe that they are inherently disadvantaged from having a romantic or sexual partner because they are unattractive, insecure, not masculine enough, or too mentally ill, among other reasons. Most incels are straight, cisgender men.

One former incel named Doug told the Daily Dot that he fell into inceldom during the mid-2000s after growing up isolated from others during his younger years. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, he found himself cut off from his friends after dating a narcissistic abuser. This was when incel beliefs began to appeal to him.

“I read a bunch of online forums—mostly 4chan—blogs, websites, and etc.,” Doug told the Daily Dot. “I agreed with them that ‘masculinity’ was the power. The football jocks that treated girls as disposable had an ability that I didn’t, and that ability made them successful. Successful with women, successful with friends, successful in life.”

To some extent, society values certain physical or personal characteristics over others. This can negatively affect disabled, socially awkward, or gender nonconforming men. However, incels believe that their insecurities, personality issues, or physical features are permanent obstacles that prevent them from ever having an intimate relationship with women. And fundamentally, incels argue they cannot escape their plight.

“As I understood it, we were all young men looking for companions, love, friendship, and sex,” Doug said. “We were celibate because we weren’t having sex, and it was involuntary because we really wanted sex, but the structure of society itself was preventing us from getting it.”

What is involuntary celibacy?

Incels believe in a concept called “involuntary celibacy,” or a socially imposed inability to have intimate sexual and romantic relationships with other people. For them, involuntary celibacy happens when a person cannot receive “validation, love, or acceptance” due to their flaws, perceived or otherwise. This feeds a persecution complex that leaves incels feeling bitter and alienated from women.

But involuntary celibacy is a state of mind, not a social reality. As therapist Sam Louie points out for Psychology Today, plenty of men experience sexual and romantic frustration when it comes to dating women. Instead, Louie encourages men to accept their feelings, come to terms with their romantic and sexual struggles, and recognize their own agency in facing romantic and sexual rejection.

“Self-hatred not only fuels self-hatred but in certain profiles can lead to hating others so much that you want to see people hurt and/or killed,” Louie wrote for Psychology Today. “This is why I believe the incel problem isn’t necessarily an external romantic issue as much as a self-image issue. In short, it’s not society rejecting incels but incels rejecting themselves.”

Why are incels dangerous?

Involuntary celibacy suggests that incels cannot have romantic and sexual intimacy with other people because they are fundamentally “unloveable.” But instead of questioning their values, incels feel entitled to women’s time and bodies. This is because incels see dating as a “game.” And it’s one that they beleive that they’re losing due to both society’s normative beauty standards and the perception that women have condescendingly high standards.

In a thread on titled “Why don’t men just enslave women?”, one user suggested that it would be easier for straight men to have sex if they forced women into sexual servitude.

“We have a choice between spending endless amounts of time and energy courting [women] and just straight up enslaving them,” an user wrote. “Enslaving them would free up men’s time to focus on more constructive goals like curing diseases, developing technology, [etc.]. It would be effortless too. Women are too weak and incompetent to put up a fight.”

As a former incel, Doug told the Daily Dot that entitlement “was always there,” even during the mid-2000s. But he thinks that incels’ beliefs have changed over the years to target women. According to Doug, the community used to bemoan “jocks” for having sex “because the game is rigged.”

“Our grievance was that we were told if we followed these rules we’d get the reward,” Doug said. “We were following the rules, so where was our reward? The focus now seems to have shifted to the players, specifically the women, because only the women are withholding the reward.”

Incels don’t understand relationships

Since incels treat relationships almost as a game, the objective is to successfully build a relationship with a woman. In this construction, some people are winners and others are losers. In incel terminology, “Chads” are the ultimate alpha men, able to have sex with practically any woman they want. “Stacies” are conventionally attractive, extroverted women who constantly pair up with Chads. In many ways, both are convenient fantasies that fuel a dangerous narrative.

For example, take one thread about Elliot Rodger, who wrote a lengthy incel-adjacent manifesto before killing six and injuring 14 in Santa Barbara. One poster argued that white women are “the absolute hardest to get” and that women “will not approach you unless they are ugly.” His projections about women speak volumes about how incels view themselves.

“Women are cruel, and towards men manipulative, insensitive, explotative [sic] and, above all, unfair,” that user said. “People are cliqueish, boring, fake and stupid. If you don’t fit into their retarded social scheme, you are an outcast left to rot.”

Incel beliefs are inherently violent

Former incel Doug argues that inceldom inherently encourages violence because incels’ beliefs antagonize women and frame themselves as oppressed victims. Doug said he wasn’t surprised after he heard about the Toronto van attack.

“When incels were linked to the latest mass murder, my first thoughts were ‘yep, that makes total sense, it was probably only a matter of time,’” Doug told the Daily Dot. “I started poking around to see what was what, and I saw a lot of familiar things. The same ideas of what society [is], the same ideas of whose fault it is.”

Minassian’s violent behavior may not be an outlier in incel communities, either. One post on incel subreddit r/Braincels provides a list of “legal ways to get revenge on roasties,” or sexually active women. The poster’s “tactics” range from manipulating women into sending nude photos to “[relishing] in the fact that [women] have to remain courteous” during sexual harassment.

In a more extreme case, a poster on claimed he was “very angry” at his mother and “punched her in the face without even thinking about it.”

Will this violent community continue to thrive?

It’s hard to say for certain if more violence will come from the incel community. But inceldom encourages straight men to alienate themselves from society and creates a black-and-white worldview. Incels blame women for men’s problems and encourage each other to treat sexually active people like their enemies. It’s the type of hostile, misogynistic viewpoints that tie together the most violent of men.

“As I’ve said, we were angry, and we were entitled, specifically to women,” Doug said. “Our anger was righteous. We were justified. And that’s when people stop caring about what they do to other people.”