As a lonely young man online, I felt the lure of incel culture in all but name

Years before anyone heard of incels, I was part of the internet's "manosphere"—and saw how vulnerable young men are being manipulated

May 09, 2018
Message boards discussing pick up artist techniques and how not to be a "chump" bred resentment.
Message boards discussing pick up artist techniques and how not to be a "chump" bred resentment.

I was clearing out some old boxes the other week when I came across a battered USB stick. Over a decade old, it contained digital remnants of my teenage years.

On the stick was the usual stuff you’d expect of most teenagers circa 2005: drafts of last-minute coursework, two Green Day albums, and a couple of pirated movies from the KaZaa file sharing network.

But there was another folder too—one I’d simply labelled as ‘Other’. In it was a collection of documents and e-books including pick up artist Neill Strauss’ half-memoir, half-instructional guide The Game, as well as documents with titles like “How to Dominate” and “How to be the Alpha male.”

These are books that still circulate in communities now considered to be part of the ‘manosphere’: a section of the internet largely dominated by heterosexual men, united by a resentment against contemporary feminism and its influence in society, which supporters see as oppressing men.

The ‘manosphere’—mostly situated on Reddit—includes groups like ‘Redpill,’ a subculture that aims to ‘awaken’ men to their supposed oppression. Others take this philosophy to a practical level, with groups encouraging men being to become voluntarily celibate, or to stop all forms of masturbation, believing that doing so makes them more energetic and manly.

Most recently, the term ‘incel’—‘involuntarily celibate,’ taken up by an online subculture of men who unify through their supposed inability to have sexual relationships—has circulated in the media, following an attack in Toronto by self-professed ‘incel’ Alex Minassian which left ten people dead.

"You don't want to be an AFC"

The ‘manosphere’ isn’t a new concept by any means—and I should know. Like most socially awkward teenagers, I spent most of my formative years in the mid-00s glued to the internet, and, like any teenager jealous of their classmates going on dates and parties, much of my time was spent venting about it online.

At that time there was no Facebook or Twitter on which to find communities of people who were into video games and sci-fi movies, and I found myself spending hours browsing obscure message boards on websites like 4chan (before it became known as a hub for neo-fascists) and TOTSE, a website which was home to the web’s most obscure subcultures—from hackers to Anarchist Cookbook enthusiasts.

There was also a sizeable community of users, many who had Ron Paul or Wikileaks avatars and identified as libertarians, occupying the ‘Sex and Relationships’ board offering advice to guys going on dates or wanting have sex. Back then, the questions being asked were mostly variants on the same thing: How can I get girls to like me?” Of course, the answers were often the same too: “Go to the gym and get muscles” was a common answer.

“You don’t want to be an AFC,” one user told me, as I spent yet another Friday night stuck at home. AFC is a common term used in the language of Pick Up Artist culture, meaning “Average Frustrated Chump”—what the manosphere terms a “beta” male, considered to be submissive to women. “You have to show these women that you don’t care, that you’ve got a high value and that you don’t actually need them. When you show that you can live a happy life and they are meaningless in that, you’ll see how attractive you become.” A regular meme on the message boards said something similar: “Forget females, acquire currency.”

A growing resentment

Obviously, the advice didn’t work. I didn’t get the dream prom date, and I closed out my school years standing around awkwardly in a dance hall. Having spent years on these forums, reading countless threads and downloading endless obscure books on ‘pick up’ and ‘seduction science’, I had found myself growing resentful of men who were more successful at dating than I was, and the women who dated them. I had followed the rules set out by these books; I’d tried the techniques; I’d listened to the advice the message board users had offered. There wasn’t a problem with me, I told myself. The problem was with them.

I was lucky. I left my small town in Kent to go to university, where I was able to spend significantly less time on the internet as I made friends, lived independently—and, more importantly, lived with women in university halls, who turned out to not all be in the business of oppressing men.

I was also lucky that my time inside the ‘manosphere’ took place when the internet didn’t yet have such an ability to permeate every aspect of our lives, and thus form a core component of our identity. When I decided to stop posting on these message boards, I stopped visiting the websites altogether.

Things have got worse

I was involved in the “manosphere” at a time when these kinds of subcultures were simply considered to be on the fringe, in the dark corners of the web, far away from people who’d tend to just use the internet to browse Ask Jeeves. They were considered by most to be harmless. But, as films like Cassie Jaye’s 2016 The Red Pill and Sara Gardepehe’s 2011 Shy Boys show—films that follow adult men who have been active in the manosphere for over a decade, and still consider themselves to be victims of feminism—it can be harder for others to see the errors and flaws of these groups.

While the manosphere may have moved to Facebook and other mainstream social media platforms—and received more direct criticism as a result—the culture of victimisation that such boards promoted, and often encouraged men to internalise, remain just as powerful. And, as they expand into mainstream conversation, it’s no surprise that they’re just as appealing to teenagers like me—a new generation of vulnerable, angry young men whose social lives revolve almost entirely online, but ones who might find it much harder to leave.