On March 6, Caleb Bell was sentenced to prison for two counts of attempted murder after driving his vehicle into a bus stop to hit two schoolgirls in Auckland on January 25 last year.
Bell told police he wanted to kill himself and others because he had never “had a girlfriend”. The case has prompted discussion about violence by men who appear sexually frustrated.
Bell has been described as potentially influenced by “incel” ideologies. We do not know the full story of Bell’s motivation, and I do not wish to label the attack as an incel attack without more information. However, it is worth understanding the context of this attack and how it relates to similar attacks overseas, including high-profile cases like the Pennsylvania gym mass shooting in 2009, and the Isla Vista mass shooting in 2014.
The term “incel” has been adopted by men who identify as “involuntary celibate” and refers to a movement that largely exists online, but has influenced mass murderous attacks offline.
Incel is an extremist ideology and a movement. Similar to white supremacy and other extremist ideologies, it is grounded in a dehumanising dichotomy of “us” and “them”. Here, “us” are the aggrieved men who feel that society has robbed them of the social status that other men accrue by having attractive sexual partners. Women especially, but also other men who are not incel, are “them”.
Incel is described by the Southern Poverty Law Centre as a male supremacist movement. Incel men believe that women are subhumans whose purpose is to serve men.
Researchers find that in the largely online subculture, incel men present themselves as being unjustly placed at the bottom of a sexual hierarchy. Incel ideology blames feminism for dispossessing incel men of their right to have sex with women.
It is a mistake to explain incel by pointing to issues like the inability to secure romantic relationships. George Sodini, who targeted a Pittsburgh gym in 2009, was aggrieved for not being able to date women in their 20s even after seeking the help of pickup artists. Sodini was 48 at the time of the attack. Elliot Rodger, who committed the Isla Vista, California, massacre in 2014, had a manifesto that pointed to a vendetta against blonde women who rejected him. Rodger believed he was owed sex by these women.
The fact that suicide is often part of the attack does not diminish the motivation: revenge against women whose ability to choose their partners challenges the manhood of the perpetrator.
Yet, there is a common misconception that incel-motivated violence is rooted in sexual frustration and shame. This serious misunderstanding has produced “expert opinion” that advocates for “the redistribution of sex”, itself a euphemistic call for sexual violence against women. Such calls effectively blame women for incel experiences of frustration and shame.
Just as we would feel sorry for a hungry man stealing a loaf of bread, the theory goes, we ought to feel sorry for the man who lashes out against women over unmet sexual needs. Aside from the misogyny that identifies women with objects bereft of autonomy, there is the egregious misunderstanding of what incel is about.
Feeling entitled to sex is very different from feeling lonely or ashamed of being single.
Incel men believe that women’s unwillingness to have sex with them makes women undeserving of the right to choose their sexual partners. The rage is not about sex, it is about wanting to subordinate women. Herein lies the connection to idealised masculinity.
Scholars suggest that incel attacks are reactions to the inability to achieve ideal masculinity – in this way, they share similarities with terrorist attacks. But where I disagree with my colleagues is in how we understand the nature of the aggrievement. They argue that the perpetrators’ inability to achieve what has been culturally promised to men – for example, romantic conquest – produces stress that can turn violent.
The argument misses the ubiquity of violence against women.
Stories of athletes and other celebrated figures engaging in physical and sexual violence reveal that not only outcasts are violent toward women. Furthermore, statistics reveal that violence against women in New Zealand is common.
The motivation that ties these forms of violence together is the control of women.
Further, the ubiquity of violence against women suggests that society has tolerance for it. We see this clearly in the social expectations that women must manage the risk of violence by changing their behaviour or face the blame for inviting sexual and physical violence.
As such, the connection between gender and incel-motivated violence is deeper than the inability to achieve ideal masculinity.
Little is known about Bell’s incel connections. It is possible that he has no connection. But even then, that does not negate the connection between the violence he committed and larger patterns of men’s entitlement to women.
The attack on the schoolgirls falls on a continuum of male supremacist crimes against women that also include domestic and sexual violence.
The duty to counter such violence falls in many hands. Certainly, counter-extremism and legal justice measures are useful, but they are not sufficient.
Socially, we must reckon with men’s expectations of possessing women; for the sake of women but for the sake of men too.
- Sara Salman is a senior lecturer in Criminology at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington.