Examining studies cited by incels

The internet subculture of “involuntarily celibate” men, also known as “incels,” has existed for decades. It gained mainstream exposure, however, when a 25-year-old, self-identified incel named Alek Minassian drove a rented van into pedestrians in Toronto on April 23, killing 10 and injuring 16. Most of his victims were female. 

(This is a WikiTribune community-driven piece that developed from a call-out, which can be found here.)

Self-identified incels who promote violence and rape toward women are a minority within the incel group. However, their ideology can translate to violence, as was the case with Minassian.

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Another example was in 2014, when 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured 14 in Isla Vista, California. Prior to his attack, Rodger uploaded to YouTube a video titled “Elliot Rodger’s Retribution,” in which he explained that he wanted to punish women for rejecting him. Rodger, who ended his violent spree by killing himself with a gunshot to the head, has become a touchstone within the incel community.

Identifying ‘incel’

The term “incel” was coined (Elle) by a bisexual woman called Alana in 1993 to describe her lack of sexual experiences. Alana created a website to write about the topic, but eventually abandoned it.

Incel developed into an ideology made up mostly of men, later finding a home in a now-banned r/incels subreddit, where it quickly grew. In 2017, Reddit banned the subreddit – which had about 40,000 members – due to its open advocacy of violence toward women and rape.

Similar communities exist elsewhere, such as on 4Chan and Incels.me.

For the most part, incels remain in the internet space, making up a fraction of the so-called manosphere, a portmanteau of blogosphere and man. The term is a colloquial reference to the uncoordinated network of sites and forums that focus on issues relating to men.

News stories explaining incels have flooded the internet since the Toronto attack.

Studies cited by incels to support belief system

WikiTribune is inspecting some of the studies incels cite to back up their ideology. For the most part, the studies are legitimate, but are of course open to misinterpretation. Help WikiTribune report.

A more robust list of the studies incels cite can be found on this r/Braincels subreddit forum, the new subreddit used by incels.

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“The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness

In 2009, economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers co-wrote a meta-analysis of women’s happiness titled The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness. Self-identified incels, as well as alt-right figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos, often point to this study to assert “women have been getting less happy since the sexual revolution,” inferring the sexual revolution was a bad idea.

The methodology behind the study was thorough, but its authors presented a plurality of possible explanations for its conclusions. They explicitly stated their paper wasn’t an attempt to explain the change in subjective reporting of happiness levels.

“We do not purport to offer an answer to what is driving the decline in subjective well-being among women,” they wrote.

Because it’s subjective, happiness is a tricky thing to measure. One such example to the paradox of this study is that “contrary to the subjective well-being trends we document, female suicide rates have been falling, even as male suicide rates have remained roughly constant.”

The study doesn’t present meaningful generalizations about women’s happiness, especially given notable exceptions to the pattern such as the fact that black women have been getting happier since the 1970s, according the study.

For the incel group, the general takeaway from this piece is that “sexual freedom was a mistake,” because it did them a disservice of allowing women to choose not to have sex with them.

“Changes in the Distribution of Sex Partners in the United States: 2002 to 2011–2013”

Some incels claim women generally choose to have sex with “Chad,” incel jargon for sexually active alpha males. Chads are generally portrayed as the opposite to incels (or beta males), and are depicted as aesthetically attractive (Data Society). The female equivalent of a Chad is called a “Stacy.”

In 2017, a group of academics published a study called Changes in the Distribution of Sex Partners in the United States: 2002 to 2011–2013. The study drew on two instances from the U.S. National Survey of Family Growth, drawn a decade apart, to support what they say is a monopolization of sex by the most sexually active men. A recent post on an incel forum cited the study, saying it proves women are choosing to have sex only with “Chads.”

The study does show that the top 5 percent of the most sexually active men in 2011-2013 had 50 sexual partners of the opposite sex over their lifetime, as compared with 38 in 2002. This could be the result of multiple causes. It might mean that “alpha males” pair with more women now – compatible with the incel argument. It could be product of women being more willing to have relations with men in general, which one could think would be a “benefit” in the eyes of incels, but this would mean that other men also have more partners. Or it could be that the men in question began inflating their numbers of sexual partners more than before, and the survey is instead tracking the increase in cultural value of claiming to have had many partners. The study itself notes that men have been known for a long time to inflate the numbers of sexual partners they claim in a survey, while women have been known to under-report them.

There is also no reason to believe that these men are “hogging” the women insofar as the most sexually active men are not marrying, and in polygamous relationships with, 50 women each. A woman who has once had a relationship with one such “Chad” may well turn around and marry someone less sexually attractive, because she values stability, humour, or some other variable. The study also claims that between 2011 and 2013, those differences ceased to be statistically significant. The study does not support the incel ideology’s belief that whites are the “genetically superior” race, as expressed by Elliot Rodger, the so-called “saint” of the group.

“How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am beautiful, and I am half white myself. I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves. I deserve it more,” wrote Rodger in a manifesto before his 2014 killing spree.

Non-white incels claim that one of the reasons they find themselves unable to find sexual partners is because women are much more likely to want to have sex with white men. A post on an incel forum claims that “whites are the most attractive to women,” while another states that “black girls want white, Asians want white … brown [women] want white.”

The 2017 study, however, shows that white men actually have fewer partners than black men, and only slightly more than Hispanics. In 2011-13, the median number of sexual partners for all black men was nine, as compared to five for white men and four for Hispanics.

80/20 rule 

Many incels believe that Chads and Stacies dominate the market of sexually active people, in which 20 percent of these men or women have 80 percent of the sex. Incels also assume that women have become sexually promiscuous over time, in which 80 percent of women go for the top 20 percent of men.

However, a piece by Lyman Stone for the Institute for Family Studies (IFS), a right-wing think-tank, revealed that though male sexlessness is rising, it’s not for the reasons incels claim.

“The core incel story about what’s going on here—that a few Chads are hoarding a growing share of Stacies, depriving incels of mates—just doesn’t hold up. The top 20 percent of unmarried men are having about the same share of total sexual activity or sexual partnerings as has been the case for decades,” wrote Stone.

“Incels are right to see themselves as part of a novel and fairly extreme change in our society’s sexual behavior, with a growing share of sexless young men,” wrote Stone. “But the big change isn’t a growing share of alpha males hoarding all the sex, nor women suddenly becoming far more choosey amid rising promiscuity; rather, it’s just that marriage is being delayed, which means that rates of marriage-status-controlled celibacy that aren’t historically extremely  unusual result in very unusual rates of total population-wide sexlessness.”

Male sexlessness, Stone concluded, is mostly to do with how the economy has changed: people now spend more years in school, a phenomenon which is associated with later-age marriage; and more years living at home with parents due to rising costs of housing.

Sexual inequality/ redistribution of sex/ Sexual Marxism

These are intellectual arguments rather than specific studies, but all discuss the idea of increasing fairness in access to sex.

Many incels interpret this piece by economist Robin Hanson as sympathetic to their cause, which argued that inequality in access to sex is a problem somewhat similar to income inequality, and proposed a “redistribution of sex” (New York Times) to address the plight of incels. Hanson later clarified (Slate) that he did not advocate any kind of coercion, but rather using various means to nudge society towards arrangements that will create greater equality in sexual access.

Other incels have used Karl Marx’s socialist concepts to support a view of “sexual Marxism,” whereby the government would allocate sexual partners for every man and woman calculated on the basis of sexual worth such as looks and wealth.

According to Vox, this “elaborate sociopolitical” doctrine is a way of explaining “their sexual failures, one that centers on the idea that women are shallow, vicious, and only attracted to hyper-muscular men. They see this as a profound injustice against men like them, who suffer an inherent genetic disadvantage through no fault of their own.”

In the world of sexual Marxism, sex is seen as the greatest inequality. Incels are the proletariat, while Chads are the bourgeoisie.

One self-identified incel, who also called the ideology Marxist-Rodgerism, the latter after Elliot Rodger, has stated that sexual Marxism also means the “sexuality of women should be evenly spread among society.”

Sexual Marxism also assumes that sex, which is sold as a service in the form of prostitution, can be reduced to a commodity. Incels who call for sexual Marxism also argue that sex is a right, which can be interpreted as an advocation for rape.

“The Rush from Judgment”

Another oft-cited work is the 1997 essay The Rush from Judgment by psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple. Taken in isolation, this opinion piece functions as mainstream conservative commentary on modern social ills, with a slight bias in its coverage of the issues affecting Dalrymple’s female patients.

In only a single sentence do the world views of Dalrymple and the incel movement appear to align: “No doubt future social historians will find the contradiction between our concern about sexual abuse, on the one hand, and our connivance at and indifference to precocious sexual activity, on the other, as curious as we find the contrast between Victorian sexual prudery and the vast size of the Victorian demimonde.”

This connection isn’t further explored. However, for the incel audience – and that of the wider “manosphere” – a psychiatrist equating sexual freedom and sexual assault in a single sentence in the midst of a 3,000-word article becomes a persuasive argument, given that Dalrymple is seen as an authority figure.

“Why Don’t Smart Teens Have Sex? A Behavioral Genetic Approach”

This study was cited in a Reddit post – under the section labelled “IQ” – which compiled evidence “to paint a clearer picture of female nature and how society and the real world function.”

There is no explanation for the relevance of this study to an exploration of incels. One potential interpretation is that incels believe themselves to have high IQs and be good at school, and therefore to also be genetically predisposed to having sex later in life.

The study reports that 75 percent of all participants had sex by age 19. There were 67 out of 1,072 participants who had not had sex by the time they were 24-32 years old, and they “did not differ from non-virgins with regards to intelligence, academic achievement, race/ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.”

Another finding in this study is that there were only nine pairs of twins where both twins reported being virgins at the 24-32 age range, which is to say that 59 percent of the older virgins had a twin who was not a virgin.

This chart, showing high-IQ and high-academic achievement pairs of twins, their median age of first sex, and their standard deviations, is provided in the paper.

Table 1

Mean age at first sex for twins concordant and discordant for IQ and GPA.

  All Twins MZ Twins DZ Twins
IQ Comparison Group* N M SD N M SD N M SD
1. Low IQ / Twin Low IQ 325 16.76 2.82 185 16.71 2.56 140 16.82 3.14
2. Low IQ / Twin High IQ 105 17.54 2.79 46 17.50 2.84 59 17.58 2.78
3. High IQ / Twin Low IQ 102 17.17 2.47 44 17.18 2.20 58 17.16 2.67
4. High IQ / Twin High IQ 269 18.01 3.03 156 18.48 3.06 113 17.38 2.89
GPA Comparison Group **

1. Low GPA / Twin Low GPA 238 16.79 2.67 125 17.02 2.70 113 16.54 1.63
2. Low GPA / Twin High GPA 138 17.07 3.07 66 17.20 3.43 72 16.96 2.71
3. High GPA / Twin Low GPA 122 17.19 2.88 58 17.05 2.63 64 17.31 3.11
4. High GPA / Twin High GPA 303 17.94 2.89 182 18.04 2.71 121 17.79 3.15
*Low IQ” twins scored less than 100 on the AHPVT;
“High IQ” twins scored above 100.
**“Low GPA” twins reported average grades that were C’s or D’s,
whereas “High GPA” twins reported average grades that were A’s or B’s.

Of particular interest are comparison groups labelled “4”. In the IQ case, the median age was 18.01 and the standard deviation was 3.03. While in the academic achievement case, the median age was 17.94 and the standard deviation was 2.89. Using the 68–95–99.7 rule, it can be deduced that in the high IQ case, 68 percent  of the participants had sex by age 21, 95 percent by age 24, and 99.7 percent had sex by age 27. For high academic achievement, running the same numbers results in 99.7 percent of high IQ twins having sex by age 26. Given that the last “wave” followed up on people aged 24-32, there is no stated reason to think the 67 virgins would remain so indefinitely.

It is also the case that this study focused on 534 pairs of twins, 259 of whom were female. This suggests that even if academic achievement correlating with later age of first sex was linked to becoming an incel, it is not a “male” problem.

A study where 75 percent of participants had sex by age 19 and 6.25 percent of the people in question (a 6.25 percent that was not found to be different from the rest of the group in any statistically significant way across any of the measures used at that) did not have sex by age 32 does not support the idea that having high academic achievement condemns an individual to a sexless existence.

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        Relevance to argument? ‘It is also the case that the study refers to 1,072 participants, but 534 pairs of twins, where 534 * 2 = 1,068, not 1,0’72. So there are four participants that seem to have come out of nowhere in between the gathering of the data and the analysis of the results.

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