Last winter, Erik sent a message to 20 of his least favorite porn stars, YouTube celebrities and “Insta-gays.”
“So are you like a real person or just another shallow empty fuckboy who works in an industry that props up unrealistic gay male beauty/sex standards and wouldn’t be caught dead with anyone below pornboy looks?”
Erik isn’t his real name. He’s 28 years old, he works for the government, he lives in the Midwest and that’s as specific as I’m going to get. “Speaking objectively,” he says when I ask him to describe himself, “I’m pear-shaped. I’ve got a tummy, man-titties and a big squishy butt. I also have a nice haircut, a clean face and a nice smile.”
I met Erik a few months ago, right around the time his flurry of porn-star trolling reached its zenith. He read my article about gay loneliness and messaged me to say that it resonated. “I feel like a failure as a gay guy,” he wrote, “because I’m 28 and I haven’t had much sexual experience even though I’ve been out since I was 18.”
The more I got to know Erik, the more familiar his story sounded. For years I’ve lurked on message boards for self-described “incels” — “involuntary celibates,” men who think they’ve been unjustly denied sex. What I heard from Erik were the same resentments, the same hurts, the same mixture of jealousy and desire I had scrolled through on Reddit.
With, of course, one crucial difference. The incels we’ve heard of — Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in Isla Vista in 2014, and Alek Minassian, who mowed down 10 people in Toronto last month — were both mass killers. Erik, even at the darkest points of his “incel-ar period,” as he calls it, says he never contemplated anything violent.
But his experience — how he gathered contempt for the people he wanted to sleep with and, eventually, got over it — says a lot about what’s really behind the incel phenomenon and why it seems to be getting worse.
“Involuntary celibacy” isn’t about sex, it’s about status.
Erik’s radicalization began five years ago, when his family fell behind on bills and he had to take a second job to help them catch up.
“I didn’t have the time or the money to go out and meet people because I was always working,” he says. He was 23 years old, living with his parents, doing day shifts at a big-box retail store and nights at a call center, dialing for political donations. “I felt isolated and alone and crippled. The resentment started with myself. I would think, ‘What did you do to deserve this?’ Then the self-loathing became loathing of everyone around me: ‘Why am I propping up this family?’”
He describes a widening circle of resentment. He had no time for dates and no car for hookups. His first (and only) sexual experience had been a one-night stand, some dude he met on Facebook while studying abroad. His attempts at flirting in bars ended badly. One guy, whom Erik describes as “diva-pretty,” once told him, “I wouldn’t even rape you.”
He had started to think of the men he was attracted to — “slim, pretty-faced guys who looked like they had a lot of money, who lived that West Hollywood lifestyle, who could eat whatever they wanted and never gain a single pound” — as the cause of his failures. They were shallow, superficial, hoarding status and sex and power and denying it to him.
“The ones I hated the most,” he says, “were the gorgeous, white, rich gay men on Instagram saying, ‘You’ve just got to love your body’ or ‘It’s not about what’s on the outside.’ I would be like, fuck you. You don’t know what it’s like to be rejected. You haven’t weighed more than 100 pounds in the last 30 years.”
I tell Erik that he doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would actually enjoy the “West Hollywood” lifestyle all that much. VIP rooms, bottle service, duckface selfies? “Weren’t you just telling me that your ideal gay bar was somewhere you could wear a tux and sing show tunes?” I ask.
“It was more about attaining status than finding love or even sex,” he says. “Even though I didn’t actually want the lifestyle they were broadcasting, I wanted to feel worthy of having it — as affirmed by others. I wanted to be the alpha male.”
What’s at the heart of Erik’s experience, and the incel phenomenon more generally, says Jennifer Bosson, a masculinity researcher at the University of South Florida, is the concept of “precarious masculinity.”
“Manhood is conceptualized as something that has to be earned,” she said. “And once you earn it, you have to defend it. It can be lost.”
Look at almost any culture, she adds, and you’ll find that men, as a group, have higher status than women. But within men there are huge disparities. Cars, clothes, jawlines: Some guys have them and some don’t. For the have-nots, it feels like they’re not reaping the benefits of being in the dominant group, like they’re being denied what’s owed to them.
“When women lack power we’re just like, ‘Oh I’m a woman,’” Bosson says. “When men lack power, they’re like, ‘Hey, this isn’t fair.’”
In other words, the incel phenomenon has nothing to do with sex — duh — and everything to do with entitlement.
Misery loves company. And then it gets radicalized.
My personal theory is that it was the online forums, the constantly updated cheering section of like-minded misanthropes, that turned people like Minassian into monsters.
Though he doesn’t know of any dedicated message boards for gay incels, Erik still managed to find places where he could voice his resentments and get them reflected back to him. His forum of choice, he says, was “the scariest place on the Internet: The YouTube comments section.” He found articles and videos that critiqued gay male beauty standards, then scrolled down until he found snark and resentments that echoed his own. “It’s like, hey, this person is dejected and unfucked as well. We have something in common, we can share our loathing of people we perceive to be the problem.”
He shows me screenshots of what this looked like. “Your issues with body image are not the same as those of objectively ugly people, like myself,” is how one of the comments on a YouTube video begins. Another, a Twitter thread, starts with a message to a model tweeting about his mental illness: “how nice of a conventionally hot/pretty boy to tell us regular folk with our plain looks, mediocre sex lives, & non-Adonis figures such Noble sentiments.”
Seeing these echoes of his own experience, he says, felt like relief, like he wasn’t alone anymore. The more he built fellowship with the guys from the comment threads, the more he started to see his life in us-versus-them terms. He started celebrating the misfortunes of his online enemies. “Someone posts about their breakup on social media and I’d be like, ‘Oh look, the pretty person feels sad. They have no chance of getting anyone else, boo hoo.’” Some of the people he met online actually seemed happy, cheering on the misfortune of the pretty people, he says. Teach that narcissistic little fucker that life doesn’t revolve around him.
“I was being just as judgmental and shallow as I thought the enemy was,” he reflects. “The irony never occurred to me.”
Curtis Puryear, a colleague of Bosson’s who specializes in online radicalization, tells me Erik followed a fairly typical pattern. Whether online or offline, being around like-minded people tends to result in having stronger views. Whether you’re a vegetarian or someone who thinks “Crash” shouldn’t have won an Oscar, being around a bunch of people with the same opinion usually makes you feel it more intensely.
The internet, Puryear says, allows you to find people and activate identities you never could if you had to rely on face-to-face interactions. If you live in a small town (like Erik does), it’s pretty hard to find enough fellow incels to form a community. On the internet, though, nearly any identity can become the basis for sharing empathy, information — and grievances.
“Feeling like you’re a member of a disadvantaged group brings some psychological benefits,” Puryear continues. “It’s a way to write off failures. You feel like the deck is stacked against you. If you’re an incel and you feel attacked, then that identity will become more important for you over time.”
Are gay incels really a thing?
One of the stories about Elliot Rodger I can’t get out of my head dates back to the summer before his shooting rampage. Rodger saw a group of women playing kickball in a park. According to Ralph W. Larkin’s “Learning to Be a Rampage Shooter,” Rodger immediately left, bought a Super Soaker, filled it with orange juice and came back. He ran onto the field and hosed down the players. He had no goal other than ruining their fun. “They deserved to die horrible, painful deaths,” he wrote later about the women, “just for the crime of enjoying a better life than me.”
I ask Erik whether he ever lashed out like this, even in small ways. He says he didn’t. He tells me that when his co-workers used to complain about gaining weight, he would ask them if they wanted to trade bodies with him.
“It was my way of saying, ‘Shut up, I don’t want to hear any complaining from conventionally attractive people,’” he says. Pretty dickish, he admits, but a far cry from even the warning signs of the violence that people like Rodger have carried out.
I ask Bosson about this, whether something about gayness keeps gay men from lashing out the way straight men do. She points out, first, that only a small percentage of men are gay — maybe there’s fewer gay mass shooters because there’s fewer of us overall.
And it’s not like gayness grants immunity from masculinity norms. “We see the same valorizing of ‘straight-acting’ and stigmatization of femininity in gay men that we see in straight men,” Bosson says, confirming what you already know if you’ve spent more than five minutes on Grindr.
And masculinity is inextricably linked to violence. Bosson’s lab runs studies where they threaten men’s status by making them braid a mannequin’s hair or telling them they got “a typical female score” on a knowledge test. Afterward, the men hit a punching bag harder and blasted their fellow research subjects (well, a simulation of them) with higher levels of punitive white noise than men whose masculinity hadn’t been challenged.
“If you threaten men’s sense of their gender status and make them feel for a moment that they’re not a real man, they lash out,” she says. For men who feel like their sense of masculinity is under constant threat — like being unemployed or, ahem, not getting laid — it may take smaller and smaller threats to provoke their anger.
“From incel to excel.”
It took a response from his targets for Erik’s five-year “incel-ar period” to become something else. While most of the porn stars and Insta-gays blocked him after he sent them the “fuckboy” message, some replied.
“I am poor as fuck,” one of them wrote. “About to lose my cheap apartment. I have til the end of the month to move out. Looks are not everything.”
Erik shows me screenshots. “Sorry,” he replied. “It’s just … it must be nice to be gay and hot and have some of the best sex on the planet.”
“I have not had sex since October of last year. It was not hot or fun,” the porn star wrote. And, to Erik’s apology, “If you continue acting that way, you will have nothing. Like I have nothing.”
He got other responses, too. After he copy-pasted his message to a porn producer and got blocked, Erik contacted him on Snapchat to apologize. The producer explained that lots of porn was fake (gasp) and that the actors making it were people, too. Another “enemy” who got Erik’s message posted it on Twitter and said that his life might look perfect on the outside, but he was struggling with drug addiction and had been abandoned by his family.
Eric felt traumatized, overwhelmed with guilt over what he had done. That’s when the fog started to lift. “It didn’t make me feel better automatically. But I started to think that if these guys were conventionally attractive and have what I’m supposed to have and they’re still miserable, then maybe I don’t need to worry.”
“So the happy ending is that everyone is miserable?” I ask.
“No,” he says, “but it’s like I spent years collecting stamps, building up this whining and resentment. When I could have just accepted that I wasn’t in grad school and working these mediocre jobs.”
He’s dating someone now, a retail clerk he met on OKCupid right after he decided to trade Twitter DMs for an OKCupid profile. (“Sneak that into your article somehow,” he says, “from incel to excel.”) They’ve been together two months now, but he’s having trouble shedding his old habits. “I’d like to think I’ve improved and am content now that I found someone who not only I like but who actually thinks I’m beautiful,” he says, “but the envy and resentment are still there.” Envy, he says, because other people still look so attractive. Resentment because he thinks he never will.
Although he’s different than Rodgers and Minassian, Erik’s anger, too, came from a mismatch between expectations and reality: “If this was pre-1980s, maybe I’d feel more different from a straight incel,” he says. “But with the mainstreaming of gay people, the expectations have become more mainstream too. You’re expected to be financially stable, to look a certain way, to have the right partner and the right hookups. When you can’t live up to that image, then the inferiority complex comes.”
Erik is the first gay incel I’ve ever met. That doesn’t mean he’ll be the last.