Land Acknowledgement: Pharos is researched, written, and published online at Vassar College, an institution situated in the homeland of the Munsee Lenape people, who lived here for thousands of years before the arrival of European colonists and continue to live today as the Stockbridge-Munsee community in Wisconsin, the Delaware Tribe and the Delaware Nation in Oklahoma, and the Munsee Delaware Nation in Ontario. Please read more.
This post was researched and written by Tao Beloney ’23, Pharos Staff
Content and Link Warning: This article discusses misogyny, sexual violence, and mass violence. It documents many claims that the Incel Wiki makes about women by linking to archived versions of pages there. Clicking on these links will not generate traffic for that site but will bring you, in some cases, to pages that proudly advocate bigoted ideas and violence against women.
Incels, or “involuntary celibates,” are an online subculture consisting almost entirely of men who consider themselves unable to find sexual or romantic partners. This subculture was launched into the national consciousness after the 2014 Isla Vista shootings. The shooter, Elliot Rodger, had been an active member of an early online incel community and left behind a lengthy manifesto that turned him into a martyr for the then-burgeoning movement. Since then, they have been responsible for dozens of deaths, including several mass shootings. Online, incel communities are characterized largely by bigotry and nihilism, with particular vitriol directed towards women, and incel communities have a high overlap with other hate groups as well as a complex ideology of their own. The Incel Wiki, created in 2018 after a fight with Wikipedia editors over the content of Wikipedia’s article on incels, serves as a repository and rehabilitation effort for this ideology. The Incel Wiki projects inceldom back into history by looking for historical figures to claim as “protocels” (Jesus Christ is a notable example, despite evidence that Mary Magdalene may have been his lover) and look to historical authors for precedents to their modern ideas. And, of course, a look at their “Timeless Quotes on Women” page reveals that they find justification and precedent for their ideology in antiquity just the same as many of the other hate groups that Pharos documents.
The Incel Wiki falls into a relatively recent pattern of incel attempts to mainstream themselves. The wiki authors disavow the early incel-related forums that radicalized figures like Rodger, as well as more well-known far-right forums often frequented by incels, like 4chan, 8chan, and certain spaces on Reddit. They reject the framing of incels that is common among white nationalists, that incels epitomize the “great replacement” afflicting white people, either as victims of degeneracy or a supposedly Jewish plot to promote pornography in order to stop white people from reproducing. For example, they are quick to point out that many incels self-identify as nonwhite, although their discussions of race fall along existing racist lines that stereotype Asians as effeminate and Black men as dangerously virile. They pull liberally from scientific disciplines both legitimate and otherwise, including genetics, sociology, anthropology, and evolutionary psychology, to create a “scientific” basis for their misogyny, and have invented an entire academic discipline of “incelology” to support their cause. And, of course, they completely deny that they or their ideology have been responsible for the violence that they have caused, claiming spuriously that “no mass murderers are known to have been primarily motivated to commit their crimes by online communities devoted to involuntary celibacy.” Their deployment of history serves this claim to legitimacy by asserting that incels are much older and their ideas more universal than they truly are.
Reflecting this effort at legitimation, and in order to distance themselves from the outspoken racists they travel with, the Incel Wiki’s “Timeless Quotes on Women” page includes quotes from sources across the world and time and goes out of its way to include quotes from women. Dates range from biblical times to antiquity to the modern day; the latest quote comes from the living critic and University of the Arts, Philadelphia professor Camille Paglia, who has argued that men are naturally inclined towards rape, a position that incels share with her because, in their view, this makes rape a legitimate method through which men can take the parts of women’s bodies they feel they are entitled to. Quotes from church fathers sit alongside the words of the Prophet Muhammed; Plato and Aristotle sit beside Confucius and Lao Tzu; the Bible is quoted along with the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, Bhuddist Jataka Tales, and the Acharanga Sutra.Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, despite this syncretism the list remains overwhelmingly white, European, and male. Considering the amount and relative obscurity of some of the Greco-Roman sources in the list, the wiki authors’ inclusion of traditionally non-Western and female sources must be read as a token effort to claim that incel ideology is cross-cultural, transhistorical, not specifically masculine, and therefore true.
Ovid supports incel ideology more than they seem to know
The “timeless quotes” are presented without context or commentary, but many have fairly straightforward connections to incel ideology. The sexism in Plato and especially Aristotle is explicit and has been documented by Pharos and others, and the incels take full advantage of this to legitimate their cause. They, like many others on the far-right, believe that women are naturally inferior to men, and find support in Aristotle’s claim that “as between the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.” (Politics 1254b) They follow other white supremacists that Pharos has documented in quoting Juvenal’s famously misogynist sixth satire, which supports their claim that mothers create a halo effect around their daughters which leads them to overestimate their self-worth and oppress men: “do you really expect the mother to teach her daughter honest ways—ways different from her own? Nay, the vile old woman finds a profit in bringing up her daughter to be vile.” (Satires VI, 242-245) They quote Cato the Elder, whose deployment against feminism Pharos has also documented, because of his disdain for gender equality. Finally, they reproduce five of Publilius Syrus‘s sententiae, intended to be small witty proverbs, including the pithy quotes “it is easy for women to shed tears without salt” and “you may despair of quiet; if you manage the affairs of women,” which are more straightforwardly misogynist. We, and they, do not need to look very far or terribly hard to find uncomplicated examples of misogyny in the ancient sources, and these examples should remind us that in many ways the ancient world is as the incels say: sexist, discriminatory, and generally bigoted. Incels may be a modern phenomenon, but the misogyny and toxic masculinity that underlies their ideology is not.
The wiki also includes two quotes from the Odyssey. The first is, “so true is it that there is nothing more dread or more shameless than a woman who puts into her heart such deeds” (Odyssey 11.425). It is immediately noteworthy because the Incel Wiki gives no indication as to what deeds the quote is referring to. A reading of the source text reveals this to come from a scene where Odysseus meets the shade of Agamenon, who denounces his wife Clytemnsestra for killing him. In context this is not a condemnation of all women, as the Incel Wiki’s suppression of the context might suggest, but a reference to a specific action by a specific person. This is unlikely to convince and incel, though, because of their belief that “all women are like that.” The second quote comes shortly after the first in the text of the Odyssey, though of course there is nothing in the Incel Wiki to indicate this. Later in the discussion, Agamemnon tells Odysseus, “and another thing will I tell thee, and do thou lay it to heart: in secret and not openly do thou bring thy ship to the shore of thy dear native land; for no longer is there faith in women” (Odyssey 11.450-455). Although in context we might read this as a reflection of Agamemnon’s understandable bitterness towards Clytemnestra, it is nonetheless a sweeping statement about the character of all women and is therefore far more apt than the first quote.
Pickup Artists might interpret ancient texts as evidence that men shouldn’t seek consent, but the incels go one step further, reading it as evidence that rape doesn’t exist
No discussion of ancient misogyny is complete without Ovid, and the incel wiki authors know this as well as any classicist. Donna Zuckerberg has extensively documented Ovid’s influence in the incel-adjacent “pickup artist” (PUA) community, both online and in her book Not All Dead White Men, but the Incel Wiki takes a slightly different approach to its misogyny. The wiki authors agree with the pickup artists that Zuckerberg documents that “the first known pick up artist was Ovid,” but they disavow PUAs on the grounds that they give false hope to incels, whose loneliness they understand to be a product of their (lack of) beauty, and thus genetically predetermined (real beauty being, in their view, contingent entirely on genetics; as will be discussed later, they understand the use of cosmetics to be a kind of deception). In fact, according the Incel Wiki itself, the early incel forums including the one that Rodger was radicalized on, PUAHate (taken offline after the Isla Vista shooting), emerged in response to the ineffectiveness of pickup artistry, which is thus widely derided on the wiki. The Incel Wiki authors represent themselves as an oppressed minority, so they reject any acknowledgement of their own agency, including the idea that their social ineptitude could be addressed in any way, whether with pickup artistry or more traditional therapy. When the wiki authors quote Ovid they don’t use him as a source of advice, they mine his writings for evidence of the duplicity of women and justifications for violence against them.
Of the many quotes from the Ars Amatoria included in the wiki, perhaps the most notable is his account of Achilles’ rape of Deidamia: “A virgin princess shared his room, but what escaped her, revealed itself at last as male: he raped her. So yes, it’s true that she was conquered by brute force, but that’s what she’d been wishing for, of course.” (Ars Amatoria 1.17) Ovid supports incel ideology more than they seem to know – a cursory glance at the preceding paragraphs would reveal a great deal of surprisingly modern-sounding incel-friendly rhetoric. Ovid uses the example of Achilles and Deidamia to support his advice to men to never accept “no” for an answer when soliciting sex, to fake tears, to “mingle kisses with tender words” if it comes to it. Women always want sex, he says, they are always only playing hard to get, and though “perhaps she will struggle at first, and will say, ‘You naughty man!’ still, in her struggling, she will wish to be overcome.” “Call it violence, if you like,” Ovid instructs, “such violence is pleasing to girls; they often wish, through compulsion, to grant what they are delighted to grant. Whatever fair one has been despoiled by the sudden violence of passion, she is delighted at it.” Amy Richlin has described how “women’s emotions are consistently unreal throughout this passage – ‘unwilling’ must describe a feigned emotion; ‘naughtiness’ must be feigned,” and A. Everett Beek has written about how this idea reinforces common myths about women and rape, including the myth that women actually enjoy it, that they must have been “asking for it” somehow. This is a central pillar of modern rape culture, one which the Incel Wiki authors subscribe to completely. A pickup artist might interpret this passage as advice that men shouldn’t seek consent, but the incels go one step further, reading it as evidence that rape doesn’t exist: in their understanding, women will appear vulnerable and act coy to attract men, and accusations of rape and sexual misconduct are tools that women use to oppress undesirable men who try to take their bait. It is this idea that allows white nationalists like the one included in Pharos’ survey of appropriations of Greek myth to claim that the enslaved women in Odysseus’ palace deserve to be punished for being raped by the suitors. The same entitlement that this attitude reinforces allows a person like Elliott Rodger to believe that women need to be punished for refusing him what he believes he is owed. It is easy to mock incels, and they are in fact quite pathetic, but their low stature masks a disturbing propensity for violence and an ideology that justifies it.
The list also includes a striking number of religious quotes: it has no less than twelve quotes from the Bible, six from each testament, as well as quotations from St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, Tertullian, and St. Thomas Aquinas. The misogyny of such an old and widely respected institution as the Catholic Church is helpful to incels’ claim to age and universality, even if they themselves have mixed feelings about the Church. Like the secular quotes many of these are rather straightforwardly misogynist. St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas both held the Aristotelian view of woman as inferior man, as scholar Rosemary Radford Reuther puts it, “second in creation, first in sin, subordinate by nature.” Chrysostom, whose antisemitism Pharos has documented, professes an outwardly milder but ultimately more insidious kind of “separate but equal” doctrine where women are masters of the house and men masters of everything outside it. Tertullian was made infamous in feminist circles by the inclusion in Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 book The Second Sex of the quote, “Woman! You are the devil’s gateway. You have convinced the one the devil did not dare to confront directly. It is your fault that God’s Son had to die. You should always dress in mourning and rags.” (The Second Sex 113, from De Cultu Feminarum) This quote also appears in the wiki in different translation. Although recent scholarship has reevaluated Tertullian’s misogyny, in particular by pointing out that he is similarly forceful in his condemnation of men’s sexual excesses, it is still undeniably present, as is the misogyny in many Church fathers.
Concerningly, efforts to mainstream incel ideology appear to be working
Unlike the other church fathers, and indeed unlike most of the quoted individuals and texts in the list, Tertullian gets his own entry in the wiki, where the authors claim him as one of their own as a “christocel” (Christian celibate) and a “volcel” (voluntary celibate). They find in his writings ancient precedent for some of their ideas about the nature of women, as they say, “he criticized women for their use of make-up” and “he can also be seen as attacking female vanity and hypergamy.” Hypergamy is the practice of “marrying up” above one’s social status, and incels believe that women use cosmetics, which they call “fakeup,” to make themselves appear more attractive than they “really” are. Because in the incel’s ideal world each person would pair off with an equally attractive partner (their “looksmatch”), hypergamy is an injustice to unattractive men, doubly insulting to them because it is done through deception. The term originates in anthropology, where it conventionally refers primarily to differences in financial status. To the extent that the phenomenon has been documented, is most easily explained as a result of the economic pressures produced by the global wage gap and not, as incels claim, as scientific proof of the selfishness and small-mindedness of women.
Returning to Tertullian, it is true that he was a harsh critic of “womanly ostentation.” About cosmetics, including jewelry, brightly-colored clothes, and “that black powder itself wherewith the eyelids and eyelashes are made prominent,” he writes that “the quality of these things may be declared… from the quality and condition of their teachers: in that sinners could never have either shown or supplied anything conducive to integrity, unlawful lovers anything conducive to chastity, renegade spirits anything conducive to the fear of God.” (De Cultu Feminarum) As an ascetic, Tertullian preaches against all sexual activity and would certainly not recognize the incel’s right to sex, nor would he understand women witholding it as an injustice (he would probably commend them for their modesty). But the wiki authors don’t claim him as an incel, rather they say he is a “volcel,” a “voluntary celibate” – he is not directly related to them but rather exists inside the so-called “incelosphere” (the wiki authors use the term to describe the constellation of related online communities, but we can take a slightly broader view of it). This serves their broader claim to universality. Many groups of people can be described in incel terms, even if they themselves do not fit the profile for a proper incel: everybody from Christian ascetics to asexuals are enlisted into inceldom. The wiki authors are not solely interested in Tertullian because he validates their misogyny — he is a prominent example of a figure that allows them to broaden the incelosphere. Thus they can claim that mass shooters are a tiny minority of incels, that misogynists on 8chan do not represent their entire community, and most importantly that the central tenets of their ideology, if not their specific formulation of it, have existed across time and cultures, that their ideology accurately describes the world, and that it is and always has been, in some form or another, popular.
Incels’ attempts to project themselves back into history should remind us that their misogyny is deeply rooted in the cultures and peoples that we may otherwise admire
Concerningly, these efforts appear to be working. Online, a generally progressive cadre of female “femcels” have emerged in reaction to, among other things, the increasingly unrealistic beauty standards found on social media and beyond. But beyond the tongue-in-cheek coopting of incel rhetoric, their actual ideology has seeped into mainstream culture in far more insidious ways. In 2018, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote an opinion piece arguing for the “redistribution of sex,” arguing that “like other forms of neoliberal deregulation the sexual revolution created new winners and losers, new hierarchies to replace the old ones, privileging the beautiful and rich and socially adept in new ways and relegating others to new forms of loneliness and frustration.” Douthat was lambasted in the Washington Post for treating incels like an oppressed minority, ignoring the violent misogyny endemic to the movement, and reproducing the incel idea that “sex is something to be bestowed by women and demanded by men.” Leaving the world of explicit incels for mainstream conservative politics, access to women’s bodies is increasingly framed as a political and even a civil rights issue. Trump staffers famously complained in 2018 that they couldn’t score even casual hookups in Washington, DC, and a political scientist whose work has been said to “defend white identity politics” has argued that progressive college students’ unwillingness to date conservatives is “anti-conservative bias” that amounts to “political discrimination” and “progressive authoritarianism.” Though the average Trump staffer on the surface probably has little in common with self-identified incels, they share a set of misogynist assumptions, as well as a worrying desire to control and a strong entitlement to women’s bodies; as Andi Zeisler notes, “‘Progressive authoritarianism’ is simply a new name for the same kinds of fearmongering rhetoric that already drives conservative positions on abortion access, birth control, childcare, gender identity, and more.” And, although incels and Ross Douthat may live worlds apart, they propose eerily similar solutions to their invented problem.
The wiki authors’ attempts to bring respectability to incels may look, to most people, to have been doomed from the start, but they have been somewhat successful in subtle ways. Misogyny is ascendent in American politics and life. Women in politics face more and more threats of violence, the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic saw a surge of violence against Asian women, and violence against women in general increased over the course of the pandemic as lockdowns forced people into their homes and men reasserted their traditional roles within it. Outside the home, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which was widely celebrated by incels and the alt-right alike, represents a renewed effort by the state to, as the incels so bluntly put it, “lower women’s status.” At time of writing, abortion has been banned in 13 states and is restricted in several more. Incels are a ridiculous group, but with the religious right ascendent and political misogyny the norm, incel pipe dreams may no longer be a complete fantasy. Princeton postdoctoral fellow Stephen Wolfe pulls directly from the incel vocabulary book in the Amazon description for his book The Case for Christian Nationalism — which even evangelical readers recognize as a repackaging of white nationalist ideas — when he lauds the defeat of a supposed “gynocratic Global American Empire” Ross Douthat himself admits that “a [sic] anti-abortion ethic is hard to separate from a conservative ethic around sex, monogamy and marriage,” and enforced monogamy has been floated by Jordan Peterson before. Incels are extreme in conservative politics, but they are far from irrelevant. Mainstream culture and politics are increasingly accepting incel premises, even if the general public remains wary of incel conclusions. Incels’ attempts to project themselves back into history should remind us that, while they may be a recent phenomenon, their misogyny is not and is in fact deeply rooted in the cultures and peoples that we may otherwise admire. And the successes of the current misogynist right should serve as a warning that even if incels themselves fail to break into mainstream politics, in many ways their ideas already have.