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PJ: From Gimlet, this is Reply All.
Before Alana tried to change the world, before she realized exactly how catastrophically trying to change the world could go, she was just a college kid in Ottawa. Back then, she could still use her last name in public. She was just a stats major .
ALANA: I had a little office cubicle where I could do my math assignments
until late at night. And so I was doing one night and working really hard on some difficult math problem.
And it was a lonely floor, you know, no one else was around but that was okay. I was used to that it's late at night in the math department. And then some stranger, a man I've never seen, walks up to the door of my office and knocks and he- he doesn't introduce himself with a name. He says, “I'm 27, and I've never been on a date.”
PJ: Woah. What did you do?
ALANA: (laughs) Well, because I didn't understand much about um, you know, stalking and and creepy behavior. I thought, Well that's unusual but he clearly needs to talk to somebody. So I kind of talked to him for a while. and it was uncomfortable and a little scary in ways I didn’t understand. But he was looking for support.
PJ: And so Alana listened to him. She listened, as he told her about his friend who had committed suicide, as he told her how sad and out of place he felt at school. The main thing seemed to just that he was lonely. That he was afraid he’d be alone forever.
They talked for a while that night. Eventually the guy left. But the conversation stuck in Alana’s mind for a long time. Because she and this guy, they actually had something in common. Of all the students, in all the math departments in Ottawa, he’d walked up to the one who had the exact same problem as him. Alana had never been on a date either.
ALANA: I was able to live without dating for a long time and I was willing to forgo it. Because, you know, I had some friends had some other interests. The idea of asking was just too scary.
I found my academic skills came faster and my social skills came later. So Getting rejected for anything was a reminder that I- maybe I asked in the wrong way, maybe I said something rude. When I was you know asking someone for a favor or asking them to hang out and do something on a- you know being friends, so asking someone on a date would be even more scary.
PJ: And would you would you talk to friends about it? Did it feel like something you could talk about?
ALANA: Not a lot actually because because of that like- that embarrassment problem. Like my friends would know that I wasn't dating, but I- I didn't want to discuss it much because then they would like be alerted to the fact that I wasn't dating and we'd have to discuss something that's embarrassing. It’s like this great silence.
PJ: There was another great silence, which is that Alana was queer, but not out. But there were actually more resources available for dealing with that secret.
She started researching her sexuality on the internet. She found queer dance parties to go to. And when she was 24, she met a woman and they started dating. She was out.
ALANA: You know, I learned that in lesbian dating everybody pulls out their wallet and both people split the bill that is that is normal in lesbian dating. But you know, where do you learn that? You just kind of do it once and figure it out maybe by making a rude mistake, expecting the other girl to pay because she's more butch. No, that's not that's not the way to do it.
PJ: So in other words she’d finally made a transition a lot of people make—from awkwardly not dating, to awkwardly dating.
When that transition first started happening in my high school, what I remember is that it felt like a rapture. Like a sex rapture. Like one day you had friends in far side t-shirts talking about Star Wars, and then the next day, they were just gone. They were in this other place that smelled like hair gel where you had to talk to girls on the phone all the time, and it was really hard to figure out how to get there. The one thing that was obvious, the one rule that everyone seemed to agree on was that once you crossed over you did not look back. You didn’t wanna be associated with the thing you were leaving.
Alana though, Alana did something really unusual. Which is that when she finally started dating somebody at 24, she immediately looked back. She decided that the decade where she had been alone, she wanted to do something about that. She wanted to help people that were stuck the way she had been.
ALANA: I came up with the idea to create the the support group online because I recognized that um, you know, there are other people who have this kind of situation and if if I can get out of it, if I can start dating after a long period of being single, then maybe other people can too.
ALANA: And the reason I knew about going through that process of reducing shame was that I'd come out of the closet and that's the exact process you go through. Uh, when you um discover that there are other queer people in the world, and maybe you're queer too, and then you talk to the other queer people and you get used to the idea that you have that identity, and then you are more able to tell other straight people about it. So that was a, you know, a really wonderful and empowering process for me in my early-20s.
So I think the group was the same idea. That meeting real people, even just on the internet, helps you understand, Hey, this is a thing that's happening to me and maybe there's some hope, maybe I can get some support.
PJ: She had a vision for the website. It going to be simple. Just a place with a bunch of resources where people could talk., Black text on a white background. But the first thing she needed, she realized, was to give all these people a name, because the names for people like her, they were awful.
ALANA: You know phrases like the lonely virgin in his mother's basement was kind of dominant in the culture and and was worthy of attack as well. So I wanted something neutral and kind of precise. I didn't want to use virginity in the name because it's quite possible for someone to have sex and then stop having sex again for a long time.
ALANA: Uh, so I I don't remember exactly- like coming up with names is a mysterious, creative process, but I do remember noticing that celibacy was a useful, you know accurate descriptor, but it was mostly a religious term that priests or nuns- priests and nuns are celibate. And in fact if I researched, you know, for books and articles on celibacy, they would all be about religious voluntary vows of celibacy. So putting “involuntary” in front of it solved that problem and then we were off to the races.
PJ: She called her site: Alana’s involuntary celibacy project. It felt right to her. And it felt right to the community that showed up. They embraced the term, they weren’t virgins, they weren’t losers, they were involuntarily celibate. It felt more respectful.
ALANA: And uh, so I did that and you know it it it became fairly well-known.
PJ: Who was showing up?
ALANA: Um, let's see, demographically, there was- there were a few women and a lot of men.
ALANA: You know, there was there was a guy who was always kind of depressed and sad, but he was talking to us. And there was a man who was in a marriage who but it sounds like the marriage was kind of loveless or sexless and he wanted to stay married and not get divorced for some reason.
PJ: There were teenagers, there were middle-aged people. There were gay people straight people. There was an astrophysicist. The poets wrote haikus --
The little black dress
shows more than I wanted, and
less than I desired.
The musician wrote songs — “Cup without a saucer.” They were this international group of very shy people meeting online to compare notes on the ways in which they felt trapped.
ALANA: Some of them were kind of stuck not going out. But I think there were others who were in that state of, Well I have this female friend and I have a crush on her, but I can't really figure out if she's interested or not. Uh, or, I don't think she's interested but I don't dare ask, you know, those sorts of situations.
Um, you know, the the the, How do I approach somebody? How do I ask them out? It's so scary.
PJ: And what would people say in response?
ALANA: I think there was a lot of empathy, but nobody really had any answers. One of the challenges of having a peer support group is that you got a bunch of people who don't really- like they all have the same problem and they don't have a solution.
ALANA: And nobody in the group has a solution.
PJ: What was your role in the project? Like how did people look to you? You know what I mean?
ALANA: Oh, yeah. That's a good point. Yes, so on this mailing list, um, because I had started it, the mailing list, and because I had already started dating, people kind of looked up to me.
PJ: How did that feel?
ALANA: You know I was in my mid 20s and not really comfortable with that role. And I didn’t have any mental health training either, so I was definiltey not suited to counselor or advisor to celibate folks.
PJ: For Alana, being put in that position, was just scary and awkward. What she had hoped was that if she brought everybody together they could compare notes and they could start to make progress together. But that never happened, it never felt like they made progress as a group. It felt like what she had was a bunch of individuals who wanted her to solve their problems. Like she was back in the library talking to that 27 year old guy, except for when he left, there was another one just like him.
ALANA: You know, it was kind of an endless litany of people needing support and people telling long stories about their difficult lives. Um, it's it's an important thing, but not a fun thing. So I was really disappointed that my project had become just a small mailing list and had not yet made a huge difference in the actual problem of people being lonely for love. So yet another project that I put effort into and it didn't go anywhere, um, I've had a lot of those in life.
PJ: She figured the group would be fine without her. Somebody else could take over. At this point, they’d mostly stopped calling themselves the involuntarily celibate. It’d been shortened. First they were Invcels, and then, because it sounded like imbeciles, shortened again, Incels.
In 1997, Alana walked away. Sure that no matter what else happened, she would never hear about Incels again. She could not have been more wrong.
PJ: When Alanna walked away from her 100 person mailing list, she fully expected that the movement that had started there would Peter out.
It didn’t. This was three weeks ago.
CNN: This is CNN, breaking news.
NEWS ANCHOR 1: Breaking story out of Toronto, where we now know that police have been questioning the driver behind the wheel of this white van, who basically mowed people down for as long as a mile.
NEWS ANCHOR 2: this morning we're learning more about the suspect including a cryptic Facebook message that was posted on his account right before the massacre.
REPORTER: 25 year old Alek Minassian called him an Incel, involuntarily celibate.
It's believed he carried out the attack to exact revenge on women for rejecting him. Incredibly, there are an estimated 40,000 other Incels out there, men who communicate...
PJ: From Alana’s original 100 incels, there were now 40,000. And one of them had just murdered 10 innocent people. I wanted to know what had happened, how it had gotten here.
I emailed a guy who had been on Alana's board and stuck around for decades after she left. He’d seen all the changes. He said that it didn't happen overnight. After Alana left, the community tried to police itself as if she were still there. When meant that if new members showed up who were blaming women, or espousing misogynist explanations for their incel status, the community would try and respond.
They developed what they called the 7 deadly sins of incel - apathy, excuses or justification, overanalysis, naivete, fear, rage, shame.
The idea was, you couldn’t blame other people. You had to work on yourself. And if people weren’t willing to do that, they were kicked out.
The problem was, as the internet grew, the toxic people went on to form their own communities. And then those communities would grow and splinter off. Now, they weren’t just incels, some of them decided they were volcel, voluntarily celibate, or gymcel, incels who were really into exercise. Posers were fakecels, authentic ones were truecels.
And at the same time these splinter groups were forming, the manosphere was flourishing -- men’s rights activists, red pillers-- all these men who promised answers, to incels, who said if you want a way out of your situation, follow me.
PUA: Are you interested in connecting deeply with other people, including women? Well if so, I've got a little event where we work on this stuff. It's called the infinite man summit, and there's one coming up soon!
PJ: Like there’s the pick-up artists, who would tell incels the answer to loneliness is to learn how to pick up chicks.
PUA GUY 2: This city is sex, my friends.
PJ: And what they’ll tell you is you know women are actually easy, all you need to know is how to manipulate them, and if you pay me, I can teach you.
PUA GUY 3: And in today's video I'm bringing you my number one life philosophy for success with women, success in dating, success...
PJ: If that doesn’t work for you, you can join a backlash group, like PUAhate. People who’ll tell you that women are just too shallow and vapid to go for you, that you’ve already lost a genetic lottery that happened when you were born, that world is just a bunch of blonde Stacys pursuing buff, alpha Chads, and beta guys like you don't have a chance.
JOHN: Good morning. This is John, host of MGTOW is Freedom.
These guys who believe you should avoid women anyway, because relationships with women will just weaken you.
JOHN: So I drew this up for everybody. All right?
PJ: Um, this MGTOW guy has a big whiteboard where he's explaining his theories. He's got "men" written on one side, "women" are written on the other side, and then underneath it says, “companions?”
JOHN: I got a question mark over here. Why? Are women companions?
PJ: Obviously the answer’s no.
JOHN: Well they like to use that phrase, "I want a companion forever..."T
PJ: By 2013 this is what the internet was offering an involuntarily celibate young man. ALana’s original group still existed, but it was nearly were impossible to find underneath all the noise.
At the end of the year, their site crashed. As they were trying to get it back online, something else happened. In May 2014, one of the toxic incels from the PUAHATE forums posted a video online.. .
ELLIOT RODGER: Hi, Elliot Rodger here. Well, this is my last video. It all has to come to this. Tomorrow is the day of retribution, the day I will have my revenge against humanity, against all of you.
For the last eight years of my life, since I hit puberty, I've been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires, all because girls have never been attracted to me. Girls gave their affection and sex and love to other men, never to me.
I'm 22 years old and still a virgin, never even kissed a girl. In those years I’ve had to rot in loneliness. I don't know why you girls aren't attracted to me but I will punish all of you for it. [laughs]
PJ: After uploading the video, Elliot Rodger murdered six people and then killed himself.
To the most violent fringe of the incels, Elliot Rodger was a hero, the leader of revolution. To people like the guy from Alana’s board, this was the end. He wrote
“After the 2014 killings, only the toxic incels could gain momentum.
In 2014, we began losing interest in our Temporary board and efforts in fixing IncelSupport were eventually abandoned. Both forums are gone now and everything positive and supportive from the Incel community from the last 15 years is gone too.
Despite still being incel, this was when I stopped associating myself with the incel community.”
Alana didn’t know about any of this. She found out one day at a book store, paging through a magazine, and she saw an article about a murdered from California named Elliot Rodger, The article mentioned that he identified with this new group everyone was talking about. Incel.
ALANA: I I immediately recognized, Oh my God. This is what happened to that thing I created, um, and you know, it was pretty disturbing. I felt that flash of guilt, you know the- that- the one makes your face flush red, as if I have done something you know deeply wrong.
PJ: It wasn’t that she felt responsible for Elliot Rodger. It was more like—twenty years ago, she’d seen this problem, and she’d tried to solve it, and she’d failed. And the feeling she’s been having lately, maybe it was a mistake to stop working on it.
ALANA: I feel responsible for basically creating a safer place maybe on the internet maybe elsewhere for um for people who are having difficulty with dating. And it's not just a safer place, it's the the research and the understanding of why this is happening.
PJ: And why is it your problem? How come you have to fix it?
ALANA: I don't think I'm going to be able to fix it.
ALANA: But I think yeah–
PJ: How come you- how come you have–
ALANA: Why do I- why do I care? Why do I- why am I still- why am I working on this again?
ALANA: Well because I have- I guess because not enough other people are. Because I recognized the problem and have spoken to many people who identified as involuntary celibate 20 years ago and and so I still care about about them in the abstract.
PJ: It feels like one of the things- one of the many things that is bad about all this is that because the people who are angry and violent take up so much space it feels like it's now hard for somebody like you to talk about the problem of loneliness because what I think some people hear is, Oh you're asking me to feel bad for a bunch of violent misogynists.
ALANA: Exactly. I have to be very careful with what they say because of that. So yes, I'm- if there's- as you say there's not enough space on the internet to create forums that are safe and friendly and nonviolent because they tend to get taken over apparently by the violent rhetoric. You know, no one has a right to sex but everybody deserves respect and everybody deserves love. So how can we help people find the love they want in a respectful way.
PJ: Alana says the big mistake she made, back when she started a movement in her 20s, was that she overlooked what she now calls the student government problem. You can’t build a movement of people whose whole reason for joining the movement is to leave it. It’s not just that the people who find love then go disappear. It’s that you don’t get to have what every other movement takes for granted — the old guard.
Instead, the people who stayed in Incel were the ones who got stuck — the people who felt the most bitter, the most abandoned. When young people showed up with questions, the people who should’ve been there to give them hope they’d moved on. Even, eventually, Alana.
In the last few weeks, she’s decided to come back. She has a new research project, called Love Not Anger. dedicated to answering the question she first started with — how might lonely people find love.
One thing she knows she still has to do — come up with a name to describe the people she’s trying to help. Incel isn’t her word anymore.
Reply All is hosted by me, PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman. Our show is produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Benin, Damiano Marchetti, Kaitlin Roberts, and Elizabeth Kulas. Our editor is Tim Howard, he is now in Berlin. Please tweet "guten Tag"s at him, uh, and while he is moving, Reply All superfan Alex Blumberg stepped in to help. Our intern is Devon Guinn. Special thanks to Aditi Natasha Kini. Matt Leiber is food that is the appropriate amount of spicy. We were mixed by Rick Kwan. Our theme music is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. You can find more episode of the show on Itunes, Spotify, or on CDs maybe. Thanks for listening, we will see you next week!