Misogynistic language is extremely prevalent on discussion boards for involuntarily celibates (so-called ‘incels’), according to new research that analyzed more than 3.5 million comments that were published over a 42-month period. The study indicates that incels’ misogyny is intertwined with racism, as they denigrate women of color in explicitly racist ways. The findings have been published in the journal New Media & Society.
The researchers were interested in examining the extent to which incels participate in misogynistic discourse. Incels are an online community of men who define themselves by their inability to establish heterosexual relationships and have been associated with online harassment, stalking, and mass murders. The researchers aimed to leverage both qualitative and computational approaches to analyze a large dataset of incel discussions and explore incel misogyny in relation to theories of intersectionality, gender, and sexism.
“I initially became interested in incels after the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election,” explained study author Michael A. Halpin, an assistant professor of sociology at Dalhousie University.
“Like many people, I was pretty surprised by the outcome of that election and I decided to investigate some online alt-right spaces. After I began looking into these communities, I came across the incel community. When I began to study the incel community, I noticed right away that they had extreme hatred towards women. I think we’ve all seen misogyny before – both offline and online – but misogyny in the incel community was beyond anything I had seen before.”
“We also noticed that incels targeted themselves, seeing themselves as failed men, seeing their bodies as ugly, and seeing themselves as being doomed to be ‘forever alone.’ The way they talk about themselves made most of us on the research team sympathetic to a degree, because it is quite depressing.”
“We thought perhaps only part of the community was misogynistic, or that misogyny on the website was produced by a vocal minority. So we decided to investigate the extent of incel misogyny by creating a glossary of misogynistic terms and seeing how often misogynistic slurs appeared both in threads and users’ post histories.”
The methodology used in the study involved collecting and analyzing posts from the incels.is discussion board, a popular English-language incel website. The researchers collected all public posts from November 8, 2017, to April 16, 2021, resulting in a dataset of 3,686,110 posts.
Computational methods were employed to extract the data and develop a glossary of misogynistic terms. The researchers categorized the misogynistic terms based on types of misogyny, such as misogyny targeting racial minorities (e.g. “noodlewhore”), demeaning terms for white women (e.g. “Becky”), benevolent sexism indicators (e.g., “girl”), incel-specific misogynistic terms (e.g. “foid.”), and generic terms (e.g. “bitch”).
The researchers found that the majority of both threads (82%) and users’ post histories (81%) on incels.is contained at least one misogynistic term. This suggests that misogyny is pervasive within the incel community rather than limited to a few individuals. They also observed that there was no statistically significant overall association between a user’s post frequency and their use of misogynistic terms, indicating that most users already endorsed misogyny before joining incels.is.
Furthermore, the researchers argued that incels degrade all women but women of color are doubly denigrated by incels. Incels also predominantly engaged in hostile sexism, which involves aggressive misogyny and dehumanization of women, rather than benevolent sexism, which endorses complementary gender roles.
“There are few things that the average person should know,” Halpin told PsyPost. “First, misogyny is very, very common in the incel community and it is not just produced by a vocal minority. In our dataset, incels used misogynistic terms nearly one million times. Second, our data suggests that people who participate on this incel website arrive misogynistic, rather than becoming misogynistic within the incel community. What this means is that men might be becoming misogynistic in other, perhaps more mainstream, communities and then joining the incel community.”
“Third, we find that incels hate all groups of women and there is no group of women that they elevate or compliment,” Halpin said. “Lastly, while incels hate all women, they specifically dehumanize women of color and see them in both racist and sexist terms. They reduce them to their genitalia or seeing them as “whores” that are sexually available to many men.”
The findings provide evidence that incels view women in a hierarchical manner, where certain women are valued more than others, particularly white women who are seen as property of dominant white men. Furthermore, incels’ participation in benevolent sexism is rare and reserved for white women, while their hostile sexism targets all women.
“We found a few things surprising,” Halpin said. “First, perhaps naively, we did not think that misogyny would be as common as it is. We suspected that misogyny might be the product of a vocal minority, whereas other users were not there to hate women but instead talk about the difficulties with being an incel. This was not the case in our data.”
“In addition to the findings I mentioned above, we also found that 92% of users who had made between 11 and 25 posts had used at least one misogynistic slur, while 98.1% of users who had made between 26 and 50 posts have made at least one misogynistic slur. What this tells us is that the people who post on the website are also posting misogynistic content. They might be talking about how tough it is to be an incel, but most of them are also participating in misogyny while doing so.”
“Second, we were surprised by how incels participate in sexism,” Halpin told PsyPost. “A popular theory – ambivalent sexism theory – suggests that sexist heterosexual men will participate in both hostile and benevolent sexism. Hostile sexism is targeting and attacking women, while benevolent sexism is thinking women are childlike or need men’s protection and guidance.”
“In part, the idea is that sexist heterosexual men might do both hostile and benevolent sexism because they hate women, but also desire intimacy with them. We found that incels participation in hostile sexism dwarfs their participation in benevolent sexism, suggesting that incels crave intimacy with women but are also hate them and do not see themselves in a more paternalistic role”.
“Third, we thought that men who visit them website would become more misogynistic overtime,” Halpin explained. “We did not find this. Instead, we found that men arrive to this incel community already misogynistic. This suggests that men might become misogynistic in other communities and then join the incel community. Any efforts to curb online misogyny would likely have more effect if they took a holistic approach, rather than focusing on the extremely misogynistic communities, like incels.”
“Fourth, we were surprised that incels specifically target women of color. While white women are referred to with names like ‘Stacy’ and ‘Becky’ (which sound banal but are 100% slurs in the incel community), Asian women are called “noodlewhores” and Black women are called “Big Black Vaginas.” They seem to hate women of color because they see them as more sexually accessible than white women.”
“This is additionally surprising because about 50% of incels are men of color,” Halpin continued. “Both white men and men of color in the incel community use racist and sexist terms to refer to women of color, and they situate white women as more sexually desirable. Men of color also suggest women of color are ‘race traitors’ for pursuing white men.”
As with any study, the new research includes some caveats.
“While we have a big dataset, we only analyzed comments up until 2021, so the dynamics of misogyny might have changed since then,” Halpin noted. “Our analyses also prioritize some types of misogyny (e.g., racist misogyny), a different analysis would be able to focus on other forms of misogyny, such as body shaming – which is also very common in the incel community. Because we have such a big dataset, we also have both false positives and false negatives.”
“That is, incels might use a term like “whore” in a non-misogynistic way, such as saying “you shouldn’t call women whores.” To check for this, we viewed a random sample of 500 posts that included a misogynistic term. We found that all of them were misogynistic. So we have false positives in the data, but they are likely pretty rare. Likewise, incels might use non-sexist terms like “woman” in a misogynistic way.”
“To check for this, we viewed a random sample of 1,000 comments that use the term ‘woman.’ We found that 52% of these posts were misogynistic (e.g., ‘I hate women’),” Halpin explained. “So we certainly have false negatives in our data and our findings arguably understate the extent of incel misogyny. These types of issues could be investigated in future research, particularly qualitative studies that attend to how words are being used.”
Based on their findings, the researchers argue for targeted counter-responses to incel misogyny instead of focusing solely on deplatforming.
“Our paper also suggests some strategies for dealing with online misogyny,” Halpin told PsyPost. “In brief, we suggest that it is important to counter misogynistic misinformation, as incels routinely distort scientific studies to make misogynistic claims. We suggest one strategy for doing this might be to adapt tools like Google Fact Check to correct misogynistic claims and counter the tendency of incels, and similar communities, to cherry pick research findings to back up their ideology.”
“We suggest that deplatforming incel websites is not likely to be effective, as they are already prepared to migrate to different sites and they see censorship as ‘proof’ they are ‘right.’ What this means is that we will most likely have to pursue more labor intensive efforts to address online misogyny and any efforts should focus on multiple communities.”
The study, “Men who hate women: The misogyny of involuntarily celibate men“, was authored by Michael Halpin, Norann Richard, Kayla Preston, Meghan Gosse, and Finlay Maguire.