Can a woman be an incel? There is more at stake in the question than one might think. There are two immediate answers.
The answer of polite society is this: Of course women can be incel, there are countless women out there who are celibate in spite of their best efforts, and their experiences are no less valid than those of the more well-known male incels. Indeed, it is possible that because of the patriarchal society we live in, that femcels are even more alienated than the male incels, since they are denied a community in which to raise their undesirability up as a positive trait. Moreover, we uphold a fluid distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation and—although we would not consider “incel” to be a sexual orientation so much as a life condition or outlook—it would seem that defining inceldom to be exclusively male would necessarily be grounded in an archaic and problematic notion of gender as essentially identical with biological sex. So, this logic goes, whatever it means to be an incel, we should make sure that women can be included.
The answer of the incel subculture is this: Of course there are no femcels, those who claim to be femcels are essentially liars, since there will always be some man out there willing to fuck her, it is just a matter of her standards. Because of the “passive” role of the woman in courting, she actually possesses sex herself, her decision is the key to sex, and thus it is categorically impossible for her to be an “involuntary” celibate. According to the Incel Wiki: “It is generally accepted that involuntarily celibate women don’t exist with the exception of women that have medical issues like vaginismus, terminal illness, horrendous lesions all over her body or if she lives is in a sexless relationship caused by the man, or in a country with arranged marriages… Of course women can be sexless, but this is largely self-inflicted because men have a higher sex drive meaning there will always be men around willing to sexually satisfy any woman.”
The correct answer cuts through both immediate explanations, and requires a clarification of what it means to be “incel” in the first place. I argue that the essential characteristic of the incel, if one can be found in common against a backdrop of infinite exceptions, is in how the subject relates to an unattainable object of desire.
It would seem that the elusive object, the thing that the incels desire, is sex: the sexual Act, “getting it in,” the dirty, immediate reality of fucking. Popular wisdom holds that the incels “just need to get laid.” What makes an incel is not having sex, and if you have sex you can’t be an incel. Once one passes the trial of the sexual Act they become a man, and that is why the incels see themselves as something less than men.
The incel subculture cannot tolerate the idea of the femcel because, for the incel, sex (in the sense of fucking) is the impossible, sublime Thing, whose grotesque fullness is the cause of all their problems, whose residue can be seen everywhere they go, but always remains inaccessible, behind closed doors. The incel has no sex but sees it everywhere, all surfaces in the incel’s world ooze with its leftovers, as if the horrific act covers all objects with an uncanny layer of oily film. The incel has no choice. He is paralyzed by its abundance.
The sex that the incel imagines is impossible. It is pornography, which is why it is no surprise that pornography offers their only glimpse “behind the closed doors” to the inaccessible thing. It is the violent super-reality of the penetrative act itself, torn out of continuity with normal life. Thus, in porn, we rarely see the awkward moments, the mistakes, the bloopers, not to mention all the “erotic” signifiers of courting or seduction, these are completely outside the camera’s frame, the “poetry” of romance that occurs outside the penetrative act but is nonetheless an essential part of “sex” itself. In porn, we never really can understand why it is that the woman is supposed to actually desire the man she is fucking.
Femcel texts, by which I mean posts on forums or subreddits written by a “femcel” lamenting her life situation, tend to differ from incel narratives in a few key ways. The most fundamental, aside from the fact that the authors are (ostensibly) women, is the distinct emphasis away from the penetrative act as the site of an impossible, pathological object of desire. The femcel is more concerned with “recognition,” more concerned with how she is (un)desired, and what she wants is not something necessarily contained within the frame of the pornographic video. The femcel thinks more about the “Staceys” (the female “Chads,” the most desirable women) and the attention and affirmation that the Staceys get. When they think about boys they think about the ideal boyfriends, who is characterized not only by sexual potency but by a capability to truly “love” her.
For sure, the male incels also think about most of these things. They do not only talk about sex. Being an incel is not just about sex, but about recognition. This is true, but only the femcel actually understands this intuitively; the incel always returns to a pornographic/phallocentric relation to their desire. The femcels might have sex, but the sex they report is unfulfilling, they are fucked and abandoned. The penetrative sexual act is thus not some sublime triumph but a disappointing reminder of what they lack, a violent emptiness that leaves them worse off than they were before.
This is why the “femcels” (the female incels) are so intolerable for the “real” supposedly-male incels of incels.co and r/braincels. The femcels reveal the incoherence of the formal incel and the asymmetry inherent in sexual difference. For the male incels, the femcels are “faking it”—any woman no matter how ugly can get laid because there are always men with lower standards, it’s the femcel’s choice that she is celibate because she refuses to have sex with any male incel suitors, and so on. The male incel imagines the desired Thing as encapsulated in the sexual Act, in the biological penis, in the crude collision of genitals, whereas for the femcel the Thing is dispersed across and beyond the body, leaving the phallus behind. For the femcel, alienation occurs in the all-too-real experience of being used for cheap sex and dumped immediately after. For the male incel, that scenario is a distant, titillating fantasy.
In other words, the femcels are the symbolic phallus, as they signify what the male incels lack. First, in the sense femcels have access to the sexual Act, and second, in the sense even that is lacking. For this reason it could be said that the femcels, rather than the male incels, are the “true” incels, much like how those who most experience “penis envy” are in fact those with a penis.
So the pornographic discourse of the male incels is itself cope—cope with the fact that whatever it is that they want, which is unbearable to them, cannot be contained in the biological penis. Nor is it contained in other body parts. Cope is a science, the pop-phrenology of hunky Chads, in which the incels fixate on the measurements and ratios of the physical features of beautiful men in a doomed search for the ideal male form, the form of the mythic man who is never refused sex.
What this is all to say is that the incels are all too human: a community based around a shared lack of something. That lack is itself lacking. The incels have tried to master that lack in countless ways. The ways that they have tried to master that lack unfold in the form of texts on the internet. And in these texts they always say more than they mean to say.
The texts are the surplus of the incels’ compulsive enjoyment of their condition. Words on words on words, so many words, they seek to fill the void in the incels desire, but also shield the incels from the unbearable thing.
Postscript on Names and Exceptions to the “Universal Incel”
What the incels desire cannot be contained only in the collision of genitals, as if the genitals were completely detached from their respective bodies and elevated to sacred objects. There are, after all, “escortcels,” incels that have sex with prostitutes. And there are others indistinguishable from incels who do manage to trick unsuspecting women into sex from time to time, the “ascended incels,” who never truly lose their incel-ness. This is all to say, to truly define incels we must detach it from the arbitrary, material contingency of whether fucking occurs.
Every incel is an exception to the incel as a principle, the universal incel. The incels generally divide into two sub-groups: incels that are characterized by mental shortcomings and incels that are characterized by physical shortcomings. Both tend to think that they themselves are the “true” incels who have it the worse off, the former because they have such difficulty communicating with women despite perhaps “not looking that bad” and the latter because women are so supposedly shallow that they cannot see past their bodies to appreciate the “nice guys” they really are. The Incels Wiki lists many forms of incels (but not all, which is impossible), both empirically-observed and theoretical, which I will reproduce here: gymcel, mentalcel, autistcel, elbowcel, emcel, acnecel, americel, arabcel, baldcel, blackcel, bincel, christocel, currycel, cybercel, denialcel, escortcel, ethnicel, eyecel, femcel, haircel, lesbocel, NEETcel, muslimcel, nearcel, noncel, nosecel, nymphocel, oldcel, peniscel, permacel, persocel, poorcel, protocel, quasicel, framecel, queercel, rainbowcel, ricecel, semicel, skinnycel, smallcel, standardcel, stoicel, stuttercel, transcel, truecel, turkcel, uglycel, whitecel, workcel, wristcel, yellowcel.
Any word with “-cel” suffix means that the word becomes the characteristic that alienates the incel subject from the Thing—“the cause of the celibacy”—which can be done (and basically is) to any word in language. A philosopher could say that all could be considered instances of the absolute languagecel. (The Chad is said to be outside language, able to sidestep the whole issue of the relationship of the signifier with the signified, attracting the Stacey with his inarticulate grunts of pure immediate thought; whereas for the Incel—as for his treacherous twin brother, the Cuck—“language is to the wife as desire is to the husband”… always saying something else…)
It is tempting to conclude from this that “there is no fixed incel essence, only an infinite multitude of incels in their particularities.” But the “universal incel” should not be seen as the container of this multiplicity of identities, but rather as the site of contradiction within the idea of the incel itself, which the countless identities are failed attempts to grasp and overcome.
Some incels fuck, and some incels have more agency over their sexless condition than others. The term is a logical antagonism, an abstraction that is always left behind in the lived existence of these people in the world. Involuntary / Celibate. The incel is not necessarily “involuntary” nor “celibate” but the superposition of those notions—notions that are both lacks, the lack of choice and the lack of sex. So the incel isn’t necessarily celibate—but is non-non-celibate with respect to their choice in the matter, which isn’t necessarily involuntary, but rather non-non-involuntary.
What this dizzying word game means to indicate is that there is a void at the core of the incels’ formal essence that carries over into their lived reality as a double alienation.