We’re All Incels On This Bus

Because we’re raised in man box culture, all men contain fragments of masculinity extremists’ world views

Photo by Rolf Dietrich Brecher

This article is paired with a second article titled: When Women Say “No, Thank You” to Our Offer of a Date.

Lately, I’ve been writing about incels. Incel stands for involuntary celibate. They declare openly that men who don’t get selected by women for sex are justified in responding with anger and violence. They wrongly argue that women’s choices in sex partners are completely determined by hypergamy — choosing partners based exclusively on bettering their financial or social position, which includes only dating men who are attractive to look at. Incels have committed multiple mass shootings. An incel drove a van onto a busy sidewalk in Toronto, killing ten and injuring sixteen others.

The more I research incels, the more I realize they are not so far removed from the rest of us. The incel worldview arises from the roots of the same tree, our larger culture of masculinity, where all our ideas about how to be a man originate. Incels may exist on that limb “over there” but the idea that the culture of masculinity that created us is also capable of creating them should be deeply troubling to any man reading this.

Incels declare their anger towards “Stacys,” the idealized and objectified women they want but can’t have because idealized men called “Chads” get all the best partners for themselves. They see hypergamy as “imprinted on our DNA” and playing out in modern society as women pass them over for men of “higher value.” In order to validate their world view, incels must steadfastly refuse to acknowledge men’s capacities for healing, connection, growth, empathy, rich emotional expression and, yes, romantic love. They must also view “higher value men” from the narrow and restrictive frame of dominance-based man box culture.

How Incels and other masculinity extremists construct language is quite telling. Incels talk about “higher value men” and women “controlling the sexual marketplace,” language choices, which place the miraculous diversity of sexual intimacy firmly in the realm of the transactional. This should come as no surprise, given that man box culture prioritizes roles over relationships and values power created over others vs. power created with others. The cold mechanics of transactions are the man box model for relating to women. “I’ll give you what you want if you’ll give me sex,” thus, bypassing the relational ways of being from which authentic and lasting intimacy, love and sex naturally emerge.

Man box love, ya’ll.

Masculinity Extremists
So-called Men Rights Activists, (MRA’s) Men Going Their Own Way, (MGTOWs) and incels represent the best-known incarnations of extremist masculinity. I coin this term, along with its inverse, masculinity extremists, in order to mark Incels’, MRAs’ and MGTOWs’ positionality on the outer edges of our larger masculinity continuum. They, like the rest of us, grew up in our bullying man box culture. Man box culture is the context in which boys and men are relationally traumatized, cut off from connection, leading some percentage to adopt masculinity extremists’ violent views of male victimhood.

There is a direct cause and effect between how man box culture polices and bullies boys and the resulting male victimhood that underpins violent extremist masculinity. The damage we do to our little sons can be summed up by these two critical factors: 1) We shame and bully boys out of authentic emotional expression and relational connection. 2) We do this by denigrating the feminine.

When we police young boys to suppress the expression of their full range of emotions and “man up,” we do so by saying, “What are you, a girl?” or “What are you, gay?” In this way, we wrongly gender universal human relational capacities for expression as feminine and then hammer away at boys with the message that female is less. By the time they reach adolescence, boys have heard messages denigrating their supposedly feminine need for expression and connection dozens of times a day. Eventually, they give up their close friendships in order not to be “a little kid, girly or gay” (Way, Deep Secrets, 2011.) This leads to a lifetime of anxiety, anger and isolation. And because the denigration of the feminine is central to how we police boys into isolation, many of us look right past decades of brutal bullying at the hands of other boys and men and instead blame women, especially feminist women, for our challenges. It’s a blind spot of startling proportions, wherein men avoid unpacking ongoing brutality and bullying by other men, but become enraged when women refuse to accept this bullying as well. There is a massive cognitive dissonance in this moment. Women’s rejection of dominance based masculinity, highlights men’s refusal to challenge it. We see our own histories of victimhood as perpetrated by other boys and men laid out before us, and unable to face that trauma and shame, we instead attack the messenger, feminism.

As long as our default culture of manhood is dominance based masculinity, every generation of boys will continue to struggle, expressing their masculinity in dangerous and unhealthy ways. Our little sons and grandsons are at risk for the same disaffected, lonely lives, resulting in the kind of anger and rage that makes them susceptible to extremism of all kinds.

Incels, MRAs and MGTOWs are the canaries in the coal mine of our larger dominance based culture of masculinity. The distorted rationalizions of Incel victimhood are darkly familiar to many of us. Masculinity extremists’ rage towards women is a by product of our larger collective unwillingness to unpack the isolating trauma inflicted on us by man box culture. Too easily, scapegoating voices whisper in the back of all our minds, “Women have all the advantages now. The world isn’t fair to men,” and so on. At some point in our lives most men, including myself, have scapegoated women in order not to have to unpack and deal with the trauma we have been subjected to by other boys and men. “Why won’t you have sex with me?” is a demand to sooth what we as men refuse to directly address, the broken isolated self of modern man box manhood.

The incel world view is steeped in the self loathing. The victimhood they justifiably feel, a result of the abuse dished out by the alpha male bullies of man box culture, gets transmuted into an attack on women, who have refused to agree to soothe their pain sexually. This is broken thinking; thinking that refuses to look inward to find our healing as men. It is thinking that reinforces isolation and disconnection. Anyone who encourages boys or men to think this way is doing them intense harm, leading them into a closed loop of more pain and despair. Incel and other masculinity extremist thinking is a death force, plain and simple.

To become an incel, boys and men must insure their relationships with others stay broken. It’s a dangerously unwavering commitment to their own victimhood, placing it above every other aspiration they might have, including, ironically enough, sex. I can say from my own experience with men’s work that it takes significant personal effort to finally give up such closely held victimhood. Because men and women alike carry trauma from growing up in our man box culture of domination, we are all at risk for getting stuck somewhere on the victimhood spectrum. I was stuck for decades.

For those who are seeking to break out of the isolating victimhood loops of man box culture, The Mankind Project was my solution and it can be yours as well. Reach out to them, or to any men’s work organization. Taking this step will change your life, bringing joy, friendships, connection and purpose.

Man Box Culture
Paul Kivel first conceptualized man box culture nearly forty years ago in his work with the Oakland Men’s Project. His “act like a man box” outlined the narrow and restrictive rules for being a man in American culture and elsewhere. Tony Porter of A CALL TO MEN later shortened Kivel’s language to simply “the man box,” the term we now associate with both men’s work.

The rules of man box culture teaches our sons, beginning in infancy, to never show our emotions, to always be a leader, to always be dominant, to make a lot of money, to a provider not a caregiver, to assert control over women, to never be gay, to talk about sports, nothing deep, and so on. These narrow and conformist rules for being a man are enforced through constant bullying and violence, eventually suppressing the powerful relational capacities we are all born with.

The rules of man box culture may vary across different regions and populations, but the exact rules themselves are secondary to man box culture’s primary purpose which is to instill in boys and men the dominance model of masculinity. Dominance masculinity is authoritarian, moving power and control ever upward on the pyramid of control it maintains. But reliance on domination in any personal or professional relationship, is inherently isolating, and it is the resulting epidemic levels of loneliness that are at the heart of men’s collective anxiety, depression, addiction, divorce, violence and suicide.

Men in man box culture end up like dogs chained up at the back of the yard alone and howling; highly social animals who are traumatized into isolation. In a masculine culture of connection, men and women’s true strengths would include not only toughness and leadership but also the ability to express emotionally, feel empathy, connect across difference and create the communities of authentic friendships which resource us in challenging times.

Instead, we block boys from doing the trial and error relational work over the course of years that they need to learn to form authentic, nuanced personal and professional relationships. Boys, cut off from connection, are left with little choice but to align themselves with dominance masculinity, quickly learning to police and punish other boys’ failure to conform.

The Silence of Men
The result is millions of men who, because they have been stripped of central relational capacities like empathy, can no longer recognize simple moral imperatives. Why else would millions of us remain silent as women call out for us step up and join them in the fight for equity and basic human rights? While we are clearly not all masculinity extremists, men’s collective inaction maintains the container in which these more virulent versions of dominance masculinity thrive and grow, driving catastrophic levels of predatory capitalism, environmental destruction, forever war, poverty, racism and all the other expressions of domination masculinity. Men’s collective silence on #MeToo and other women’s issues is a result of the headwinds of the anti-women conditioning man box culture subjects all boys to. The tragedy is, not only will we not stand up for others, we won’t even stand up for ourselves.

And once you teach boys and men that women are less, they are primed to believer that other groups are also less. Incels, MRAs, and MGTOWs have been shown to directly overlap with white nationalism and other weaponized notions of white male victimhood. Because we suppress men’s conversations or self reflection about our fears, loneliness or grief, a vacuum is created by which male victimhood conversations erupt at the extreme ends, steeped in anger and threats of violence. Coldly calculating individuals then use male rage to recruit disaffected young men into violent masculinity extremist causes, saying “Yes, you should be angry at women and here are some other groups you should be angry at, too…” sewing their racism, religious bigotry, hatred of LGBTQ people, hatred of immigrants and all the rest.

I don’t know how often Incels declare themselves to be persons of color. Were any to do so, it would be impossible to verify because Incels don’t show their faces online. Many of the incel voices urging violence on the internet are just as likely foreign actors in well funded troll farms seeking to sew political discord in the west. Or they are white supremacists using masculinity extremism as a gateway to recruit angry disaffected young men.

Incels lack close male friendships. We know this, because most men do. Niobe Way, in her book Deep Secrets, documents how our culture trains boys by late adolescence to abandon their close friendships, friends who these boys openly say they “love.” The boys Way interviews also say they “would go crazy” without their close friendships. But by the time they reach late adolescence, these same boys are convinced to abandon their close friendships in order to prove they are not “little boys, girly, or gay.” It is at this time, that boys’ rates of suicide become four times that of girls.

In reviewing this article, my thought partner Saliha Bava also pointed out how men have now come to be objectified in the media in the ways women have been for decades. Men are subjected daily to images of masculine perfection that we can never attain, adding to the litany of ways we can fail in man box culture, because this is exactly what man box culture does, it keeps men striving for a version of manhood that is unattainable.

Another part of Incel’s distress is the fact that they cannot flaunt their sexual relationships as a marker of status before other men; a desire conditioned into them by the ugly competitive models of man box masculinity which then shames and punishes them brutally for this “failing.” What Incels frame as women’s hard and fast rule of never accepting anything less than attractive male partners, are clearly projections of their own objectified view of women. “I want a super model, so women want a super model.” It would be comical were it not so utterly destructive.

The Right to Say No
To be an Incel, you must declare over and over how ugly a person you are, while refusing to entertain even the slightest notion of how to grow or change for the better. By sucking up all of the oxygen in the room, the incessant “me, me, me” of incel’s self loathing narrative seeks to obscure a single moral absolute, one that is central to our most basic notions of human autonomy and individual freedom.

No one owes anyone sex.

In a sane society, the right to say “no” to any request for physical or emotional intimacy is paramount. Men’s collective failure to respect this moral absolute in every single interpersonal exchange we initiate is what is fueling the white hot core of the #MeToo movement.

Meanwhile, women are becoming more powerful. They and the men who are their allies are creating a world where abusive men are being challenged. This is leading to a crisis in masculinity. Angry retrogressive voices are calling for open war against women, LGBTQ people, people of color, immigrants, religious minorities and others and the outcome of this battle is by no means guaranteed to go well. Things could just as easily go very badly for us all.

Masculine extremists are coldly weaponizing the trauma of boys and men brutalized by man box culture to drive their ugly political and social agendas. It is an assault on our larger democratic institutions clothed in the rage of sexual frustration and hate. And ultimately, it’s nothing new. Girls and women have been the victims of men’s sexual frustration and rage throughout the history of the world.

It’s well past time for millions of men to shake off our silence and actively support the battle for equality. We must stand and fight for the simple moral imperative that all people are created equal. That all human beings are deserving of autonomy, safely, respect and opportunity, equally. We must break out of man box culture and leave our centuries old domination masculinity behind, creating in its place, a masculinity of connection. We must use our power and our privilege to partner with women to heal our world.

Man box culture is killing us and those we love, and it’s not going to go away unless millions of men end our silence and take action.

Not only is this one on us, gentlemen. This one is us.

If you are man seeking to break out of man box culture, a man who is sick of feeling alone, reach out to The Mankind Project or another men’s organization. Men are waiting to help us each do our work and find the human connection we all deserve. You just have to make the choice to begin.

Post script:
PrettyGoodMonsters reminded me of these lyrics by Joe Jackson in his song. Tori Amos sings it here: Real Men.

Time to get scared — time to change plan
Don’t know how to treat a lady
Don’t know how to be a man
Time to admit — what you call defeat
’Cause there’s women running past you now
And you just drag your feet
Man makes a gun — man goes to war
Man can kill and man can drink
And man can take a whore
Kill all the blacks — kill all the reds
And if there’s war between the sexes
Then there’ll be no people left
And so it goes — go round again
But now and then we wonder who the real men are

Author REMAKING MANHOOD IN THE AGE OF TRUMP. Order here: https://www.amazon.com/default/e/B097QKGK2W Writer/speaker on masculinity