Incel is a portmanteau of involuntary celibate, referring to a person, usually a heterosexual man, who desires a sexual or romantic partner but is unable to find one. The term arose as a self-identifier and spawned a virtual subculture as those people reached out for support on the internet. But over the years that subculture and the term itself morphed into one associated with violent misogyny. Ironically, however, the movement was started and the term incel was coined by a bisexual woman.

In 1993 an undergraduate, bisexual, woman named Alana (she remains anonymous) at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario created the website Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project. The website is no longer online, although snapshots of the site can be accessed through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. That website launch is apparently the first use of the phrase involuntary celibate. And sometime between 17 January – 20 April 1999 she posted an article to her site titled “The Incel Movement: What we can learn from the gay rights movement” that contained the sentence:

Society does not understand who we are, or have a name for our problem (in fact, straight incels are often assumed to be gay).

This is apparently the earliest use of the portmanteau incel. (The ambiguity in the date is a result of when the Internet Archive took its snapshots of the site. Alana’s web pages did not contain dates of publication.) Alana and the early incarnations of her site are in no way associated with the violent and misogynist nature of the incel movement today.

The term and the subculture remained largely unnoticed by mainstream media for the next fifteen years, as mainstream references to it are few and usually jocular, poking fun at those who cannot find partners. An article titled “Involuntary Celibacy: A Life Course Analysis” appeared in the Journal of Sex Research in 2001. And the New York Times published two articles in 2006 using the phrase, but not indicating that a subculture existed around the phenomenon. One by James Gorman published on 24 January 2006 said:

I don’t know where that happens in the brain, but I’m betting the graduate students are just going through periods of involuntary celibacy and trying not to be obvious about their desperation.

And a humor piece by Jeff Johnson from 5 June 2006 said offered this suggestion for a new internet domain name:

.cat The domain of choice for the involuntarily celibate.

The Urban Dictionary added an entry for incel on 8 March 2007, indicating that despite the paucity of its appearances in mainstream publications, the term was alive and well in various corners of the internet. The Urban Dictionary’s definition, however, also did not indicate the existence of any kind of subculture around the concept:

involuntary celibate: someone who is celibate but doesn’t want to be
“He’s an incel. He tries to get dates every week but gets turned down all that time.”

The term came into the general public’s awareness with the shooting at Isla Vista, California on 23 May 2014, when a self-proclaimed incel named Elliot Rodger murdered six people and injured fourteen others before killing himself. The event caused the New York Times to use the portmanteau for the first time on 25 May:

He posted on sites where other young men shared their rages and frustrations at being virgins, and complained to classmates about the difficulty of meeting women. He referred to himself as an “INCEL,” short for “involuntary celibate.”

Since then, the term has entered mainstream discourse.


Donnelly, Denise, et al., “Involuntary Celibacy: A Life Course Analysis,” Journal of Sex Research, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2001, 159–69

James Gorman, “This Is Your Brain on Schadenfreude. Do You Feel Bad About Feeling Good?” New York Times, 24 January 2006, F3

Jeff Johnson, “Master of My Domain,” New York Times, 5 June 2006, A19

Peter Baker, “The Woman Who Accidentally Started the Incel Movement,” Elle, March 2016

Ian Lovett and Adam Nagourney, “Deadly Rampage in College Town After Video Rant,” New York Times, 25 May 2014

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