When Elliot Rodger killed six people in a shooting spree in 2014, he became a hero to the online ‘incel’ community of men who seek revenge on women for rejecting them. While the term is heavily associated with men it was actually a woman who invented it – ‘Alana,’ who prefers to remain anonymous, founded an internet portal in 1997 which she named ‘The Involuntary Celibacy Project’. Aged 25 at the time, she was hoping to find more people like her: “the word incel was intended to describe anyone, regardless of gender, who was lonely,” as she said in an interview with the BBC in 2018.
With the Elliot Rodger murders communities of incels on the internet became more visible, showing the extent of online hate speech towards women and toward attractive men who could get sex. They were closed, masculine communities, toxic to any woman who might attempt to wade in. However, the concept of involuntary celibacy as coined by Alana was not masculine, but universal, and just as there are incels, there are femcels.
Incels deny the existence of femcels, since one of their founding arguments is that women can get sex whenever they want it, even if it is by lowering their standards.
But femcels do exist and they also move in different digital communities, as was pointed out in a recent article in The Atlantic. The origin of it all was TruFemcels, a subforum that was originally located within the Reddit forum. When it closed in 2020, it had more than 25,000 users who identified with the incels as they felt the same social rejection due to their physical appearance, but were not welcome in their spaces. Another of its spaces is Vindicta, a Reddit sub-forum dedicated exclusively to talking about aesthetic treatments, surgeries and physical improvements exclusively for women. And also the new TruFemcels, hosted within an online community called ThePinkPill where broad and diverse topics of interest to women are discussed.
According to the description provided by TruFemcels, “a femcel is an adult woman whose physical appearance is below average (<4/10) or suffers a significant impediment that prevents her from securing a romantic relationship – NOT sex.”
“Sex,” it continues, “is available to most (not all) women as long as it is done IN SERVICE of men.”
“This does not end loneliness and often serves as a pretext for abusive relationships. In a culture where lookism means many men feel comfortable mistreating women they [have sex with] but are not attracted to, many femcels rely on celibacy to protect them from the worst of casual sex culture.”
Located somewhere between Alana’s original idea and the subsequent misogynist movement, TruFemcels is a space for conversations such as ‘Why does beauty cost so much money?’ where a user complains about the unfairness of not being able to afford cosmetic surgery treatments to improve her face. Participants in the forum agree that impossible beauty standards in society prevent them from having the romantic or sexual relationships they long to have.
A second entry asks, ‘How often do you usually cry?’, and emphasizes another popular topic among femcels: loneliness. “Of all the horrible feelings that make up a femcel’s life for which there is never a remedy, longing – for a friendship, for a man, for anything – is one of the worst,” writes another user.
A pinned post on the TruFemcels forum homepage explains that “femcels are objectively ugly women.”
" ‘Ugly’ is often used as an insult towards women” says the post, “but here [we use it to refer to] an objective truth.”
“Femcel women will have extreme difficulty getting a serious boyfriend/girlfriend, and the vast majority will never get one because of their looks. If you’ve ever had a partner and men asked you out, you’re not a true femcel, you’re most likely a normie. The only time a guy asked me out was in high school, and he did it as a joke...he couldn’t even finish asking me because he was laughing so hard.”
As this user explains, all problems faced by femcels stem from their ugliness: these include loneliness, bullying, social rejection, discrimination in certain jobs because of their physique, or mental illnesses such as depression.
According to the femcels, the superficiality of men puts them at a disadvantage compared to beautiful and normal women, causing them problems on a sentimental, social and economic level. Just as the incels talk about having taken the red pill, in reference to the scene in the science fiction movie Matrix in which Neo chooses the pill of the same color to discover the real world and get out of the simulated reality in which he lives, the femcels make constant reference to the pink pill, which at times rides on feminist discourse (they talk about terms such as lookism, the form of oppression based on appearances, as well as toxic masculinity or male privilege) and at other times on misogynist discourse (they not only have animosity towards beautiful women but also towards ‘normal’ women (the ‘normies’ referred to above), and who are discriminated against within the forum itself for having the possibility of having sex, despite having the same feelings as the “real femcels”).
Health psychologist and expert in psychological wellbeing Elena Daprá tells EL PAÍS that “these women have very low self-esteem.”
“They confuse a very negative opinion about themselves (‘I am very ugly’) with a fact, and then turn this fact into the main cause of all their problems.”
Daprá adds that the forums provide reinforcement for that idea.
“These women are stuck in complaint and victimhood,” anticipating that bad things will happen to them if they go out into the world and having no desire to really change the situation.
“They suffer from cognitive inflexibility: this is clearly seen when what they define as ‘a normie’ appears and they reject it, instead of learning from it or trying to understand how they have gone from ‘incels’ to ‘normies’, which shows they are a closed group,” uninterested in trying to improve their conditions for themselves.
The psychologist suggests that US society contains some aspects that support the development of the femcel culture.
“US culture is less sociable,” she says. “In Spain, this phenomenon [femcels] would have completely different characteristics…. I don’t think it would have the same number of followers, to begin with, because in Spain we are more encouraging of interpersonal relationships, and the development of social skills.”
In contrast to the incel movement, which tends to use outward violence, Daprá believes that these women may be prone to violence against themselves because they do not accept themselves.
“True femcels,” the Atlantic article explains, “see two main options for themselves.”
“They either renounce love and society altogether to simply “lie down and rot,” or they begin a path to ascension through rigorous self-improvement and, at times, modifications to their own bodies.”
There is also, the article notes, a third group. Smaller and less vocal, these femcels are betting on a more radical change: finding joy and intimacy through other paths, focusing on areas of life other than romance or sex. It may be these spaces that are realizing what Alana initially aspired to achieve: places to find other people like themselves.