I went undercover in the incel community to try to understand men like Jake Davison

Warning: Distressing content and offensive language

“I hope the women of Plymouth collectively take some responsibility for this.” This was the shocking response of one man online after the tragic events of Thursday evening, when Jake Davison, 22, massacred five victims in the city, before taking his own life.

To understand this callous response, you need to know about so-called incel ideology. Incels are a sprawling online community of men who describe themselves as “involuntary celibates”.

They blame women for their lack of relationship success and share a starkly misogynistic worldview that portrays women as dehumanised sex objects whose sole purpose is to give men satisfaction.

In online postings and videos, Davison, who appeared obsessed with being a virgin, repeatedly described his affinity with incel ideology. “I’m socially isolated, have no social circle and don’t know any girls,” he said in one video.

In another deeply misogynistic post he said sexual assault was justified because “women don’t need men no more”. He uploaded hate-filled rants about single mothers and “liked” videos about “looking for a whore” and “why women always lie”.

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Davison wrote that “incel virgins” were people “similar to me”, who had “nothing but themselves”. He described himself as a perpetual victim – “me against the world” – with life rigged against him.

He said he had been “consuming the blackpill overdose”, referring to a fatalistic sector of the incel community who describe themselves as “blackpilled” and believe there is no hope of life getting any better for them because their genetics rule out any woman ever being attracted to them.

Most incels start by, as they call it, “taking the red pill”, a metaphor borrowed from The Matrix science-fiction films, in which swallowing a coloured capsule allows the protagonist to see the world as it really is. They claim to have discovered that the whole world is a “feminist gynocracy” ruled by women, where men are helpless victims.

Some believe it is possible to improve their relationship prospects through strategies like “gymmaxxing” (working out), but those describing themselves as “blackpilled” have a nihilistic worldview and tend to see violence against women as a better solution than self-improvement.

Online incel forums are steeped in extremist misogyny, with members regularly suggesting women should be raped and murdered. They encourage each other to rise up in a “day of retribution” or “incel rebellion”, when they will punish society, and women in particular, for their suffering, by murdering as many “normies” (non-incels) as possible.

I know this because I spent two years undercover in incel forums to research these communities and the threat they pose, for my book Men Who Hate Women.

It started when I realised some of the boys I work with on gender inequality and sexual consent in UK schools were parroting extremist beliefs and fake statistics (didn’t you know 87 per cent of women lie about rape, one of them said). I soon realised that these teenagers had been radicalised online. But it wasn’t a kind of radicalisation anyone was talking about.

So I posed online as Alex, a disillusioned young white man who was tired of being called “privileged” when he felt deeply unsatisfied with life.

I had to pass tests to be allowed access to certain forums, explaining in detail what “kind” of incel I was – so I began the painstaking process of learning incel terminology and the bizarre pseudoscientific theories incels use to justify their worldview.

Women are referred to as “foids” (a derogatory abbreviation of “female humanoid”, used to emphasise that they are not seen as fully human).

I watched men earnestly debate whether women should be murdered or kept as “sex slaves” and argue over whether rape should be legalised. (It shouldn’t, one said, because that would take all the fun out of it.)

The men I met in these forums were almost exclusively white, usually well educated, and a lot of them (though not all) were young. Racism and sexism overlap in their ideology, with particular vitriol reserved for women who sleep with non-white men. The movement is transnational, but many of those I encountered referred to the UK specifically.

One day, they were discussing a massacre at a US school. There were rumours the shooter had been rejected by a female classmate. The forum members hoped that he had been able to rape her before she died. I switched off my computer and cried.

Views like this sound so extreme that incels are often written off as a small group of losers who should be pitied, not seen as a threat. But in the past 10 years, men who have been immersed in incel ideology have repeatedly committed real-life atrocities.

Elliot Rodger massacred six people and injured 14 in Santa Barbara in 2014. Alek Minassian killed 10 people and injured 16 in Toronto in 2018. In 2020, a 17-year old boy murdered a woman with a machete and injured another woman, also in Toronto.

And cases of violence motivated by extreme misogyny are by no means rare. Just last week, a man in Tokyo stabbed 10 people on a train, later saying he did it because he saw women looking happy and wanted to kill them. It has been just three weeks since US police arrested an Ohio man who was accused of plotting to “slaughter” young women out of “hatred, jealousy and revenge”.

Such ideas have spilled offline in the UK, too. Incel ideology has been linked to two recent cases of men jailed for terror-related offences, though this was not proven to be their primary motivation.

In 2015, 18-year old Ben Moynihan attempted to murder three women in separate stabbings, writing in a diary: “I was planning to murder mainly women as an act of revenge… I’m still a virgin at 17. All women needs [sic] to die and hopefully next time I can gauge [sic] their eyeballs out.”

So, it was deeply frustrating, given the clear indications of Davison’s involvement with incel ideology, to hear the almost immediate dismissals of any potential terrorism link in the Plymouth shootings. “The incident is not terror related,” tweeted local MP Johnny Mercer, less than three hours after the shooting had taken place. Police have repeatedly said the same.

It is difficult to imagine the same response if the perpetrator had had a similar history of online posting relating to religious extremism or hatred of a different demographic group. But when the hatred in question is directed at women, and the killer is a young, white man, society seems to turn a blind eye.

Incel-related massacres are almost never described as terror attacks; the perpetrators are usually described as lone wolves and only in one case globally have terror charges ever been brought.

As the awful news from Plymouth rolled in on Friday, I returned to the online communities I had infiltrated to see how incels were responding.

Like the man who suggested the women of Plymouth should take responsibility, many blamed women for the atrocity. One wrote: “Women need to take accountability for leaving so many men sexless. It can lead to frustration and mass shootings.”

One post expressed the hope that the victims “suffered as they drew their last breaths”. Another described the killer as a “hero”. Of the hundreds of posts I read, just two spoke out against the attack.

Of course, some men drawn into incel groups are vulnerable, have real problems, or haven’t found healthy spaces to explore issues like sex and relationships elsewhere. It’s no coincidence that the incel community has swelled as government cuts have led to a significant reduction in youth-focused services.

But this would be true of any extremist group. This is an ideology dedicated expressly to incitement of violence and hatred against women. We should treat it as we would any other extremist group advocating for offline violence.

“He was in the same boat as most of us here,” one incel wrote about Davison. Another gushed about a potential “huge mass murder attack”. A third wrote: “They can’t do anything to stop the onslaught that is coming.”

This attack was not the first and it won’t be the last. But with one woman murdered by a man every three days in the UK, we are so desensitised to violence against women that we struggle to recognise it as something out of the ordinary.

To tackle this threat, we need to take male violence seriously, and we should start by describing it as the extremism it is.

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