Back in the 90s, Alana couldn’t get a date. Lonely and frustrated, the self-described late bloomer started an online support group for people like her, whom she termed “involuntary celibates”, or “incels”. Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project soon became a community for people of all genders and orientations who weren’t able to have sex or romantic relationships.
Her social life eventually improved and she ceded her site to someone else. She didn’t realise the group had evolved into a violently misogynistic movement until 2014, when she read about Elliot Rodger, who had killed six people in California and identified as an incel. A few years later, Alek Minassian, another incel, killed 10 people in Toronto in revenge for “not getting laid”.
Rodger and Minassian brought mainstream attention to incel culture; most people who follow the news have heard of incels. Far fewer people know that a woman coined the term. Even fewer realise there are thousands of women who identify as incels, or “femcels”. While male incel culture has been exhaustively analysed, femcels have largely been ignored. (There have been a handful of articles about the phenomenon, the latest of which appeared in Mel magazine.)
The fact that femcels have not been on violent rampages is the most obvious reason they are not discussed. However, gender stereotypes also come into play. As Mel notes: “Few people other than femcels themselves believe it’s even possible for women to be involuntarily celibate in the first place.” The idea that men “need” sex and women submit to it is deeply ingrained. A lot of incels seem to think femcels are just “entitled women who play the victim to get sympathy and attention from men but refuse to lower their standards”. As we all know, when men suffer, it is a tragedy of murderous proportions; when women suffer, it is a farce.
•Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist