You can trace a lot, and perhaps most, of what is happening in a culture through the words people choose to cloak their most terrifying and terrible instincts. And there are, right now, few self-chosen labels with worse connotations than “involuntarily celibate” or “incel”.
The online communities of people – mostly straight men, especially white ones – who answer to this description are irredeemably toxic, in thrall as they are to an ideology positing that women and children are rightly the physical property of men, to be used for their purposes. (US congressional candidate and incel forum founder Nathan Larson, for example, publicly promotes child molestation.)
This has contributed to multiple mass murders, such as the 2014 mass shooting by Elliot Rodger and this year’s vehicle massacre by Alek Minassian. Incels are known for supporting and carrying out violence of this kind and for organising campaigns of harassment and abuse directed at women.
There is nothing in the experience of being unable to form intimate relationships that has any connection to any of this. Those who identify as involuntarily celibate, in the sense that term has come to be used, are not simply people failing to find love, sex and companionship; they are misogynists who are by definition not trying to form healthy relationships.
By arrogating the very concept of involuntary celibacy, though, they have made it incredibly difficult to even discuss a very broad and very real problem: Just what should people who want sex and intimacy and don’t know how to find it do?
The first thing to do, if you are among those who worry that they will never find romantic or sexual satisfaction, may simply be to realise that you are not alone, whoever you are. The struggle for intimacy is experienced by people of all genders, orientations and ethnicities.
In fact, the first known online community devoted to involuntary celibacy – a term originally meant to neutrally describe the inability to find sexual or romantic partners – was a mailing list founded by a woman, and it was inclusive and hopeful. The founder, who goes only by Alana, recently told the community’s origin story on the podcast Reply All.
She also talked about the core problem with the community. In her words, “There was a lot of empathy, but nobody really had any answers.”
People looked up to Alana, but she didn’t have any training, and felt incapable of meeting their needs. So she left the community. So did many people, once they solved their own dating issues, without sticking around to help the others.
The remaining members tried to keep out more toxic members, but the ones they turned away created their own spaces, spreading misogyny and bitterness. Over the years, that new incel culture perverted the intention of the original forum.
After seeing that rotten culture incite so much violence and hate, Alana is now working on Love Not Anger, an inclusive, supportive community with volunteers and experts. The site is still under construction as Alana gathers those volunteers.
Until the community launches, here are steps to consider if you’re seeking love, sex and companionship and unsure you’ll ever find it.
Realise you aren’t unlovable or unscrewable
Dr Faith G. Harper, a therapist and certified sexologist, tells Lifehacker that she frequently sees clients (many of them women) who feel unlovable or hideous. “I’m talking about people who, if you met, you’d say, ‘You’re so funny and cute!'”
Dr Harper blames a lot of violence and toxic attitudes on a society that discourages men from showing any weakness or sensitivity. When sadness and vulnerability aren’t options, many lonely men turn to anger and aggression.
It’s important to learn how to feel disappointed and lonely without feeling entitled or aggressive. And part of that process involves seeing that you aren’t uniquely doomed.
I want to make something very clear: There are plenty of not-rich, conventionally unattractive, nerdy people out there who never sleep alone. It isn’t only the beautiful who are getting laid. Doing so isn’t about finding perfection – it’s about finding the people who will like you, and liking them back.
A few years ago, most if not all of my friends were single. On any given weeknight, I'd meet with one or five of them for a drink and we'd swap stories about bad dates, bad sex, and bad crushes who refused to give us the time of day.Read more
Find a therapist or affordable alternative
Alana, who started the original incel forum, was herself an incel. Eventually, she says, she was able to conquer her loneliness through counselling.
“If you’ve been lonely for a long time, it’s time to see a counsellor or therapist who can help you figure out why,” she writes in an email to Lifehacker. “Counselling helped me build the social skills and emotional awareness needed to date people respectfully and successfully.”
Therapy doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, especially if you open up your options. There are several free and cheap forms of therapy, including therapists at universities, community centres and churches; phone hotlines; and online counselling.
“Therapy has to be a match just like any other relationship,” says Dr Harper. Find a therapist whose worldview fits with yours. If your religion or your politics are extremely important to you, find someone who’s compatible with them. Also ask about their approach (which most therapists list on their sites or in online directories), such as behaviour therapy or psychoanalysis.
If your therapist isn’t working for you, you should switch, she says. “I have a lot of people come to me who think they failed at therapy, but really therapy failed them.”
According to Dr Harper, a typical therapist isn’t trained to specifically deal with people who simply can’t find intimate partnerships. “We don’t teach this in our masters programs, in our doctoral programs.” Meanwhile, she sees this issue coming up with more and more clients, especially among people on the autism spectrum and younger clients “raised in front of screens” who weren’t taught enough about how to make and maintain intimate connections.
If you can, look for a therapist who specialises in physical intimacy. Dr Harper, for example, is certified by the American College of Sexologists, which recognises credentials from a variety of training programs.
See a surrogate
Some therapists can help you work with a surrogate partner who helps you practise having a romantic relationship. Working with a surrogate is not typical, and it might feel weird, but hey – sex is already weird. A surrogate relationship can involve sex, but it also involves things such as conversation, non-sexual intimacy, and even a breakup – because as Dr Harper says, “You don’t stay with a surrogate partner forever.”
Surrogacy is a guided practice overseen by your therapist, who talks to both you and the surrogate during the relationship to help you examine your feelings and work on being a better potential partner.
“Clients grow to trust and care for the surrogate partners, with whom they share honesty, intimacy, and meaningful emotional work,” says an explanation from the US Professional Surrogates Association. (You can read a first-person account of working with a sexual surrogate at Salon.)
Build your friendships
An inability to find sex and companionship often comes with other kinds of loneliness or social isolation. The classic dating advice to “just get out and meet new people” can be an actual plan, if you start with group activities. Find local meetups, library groups, and other organisations centred on just hanging out and sharing an activity.
“We have a big group in San Antonio where people can just go to the movies together,” says Dr Harper.
Work on your friendships. In many ways, they’re lower-stakes versions of romantic relationships, and until you know how to navigate a friendship, you’ll have a hard time navigating other more intense intimacy. Non-romantic friendships are essential for happiness – even when your romantic relationship is fantastic. Most happy couples would be miserable if they spent all their time together and none with other people.
This friend-based approach to romance is extremely different from the pickup artist community, which laser-focuses on getting sex. They’re trying to force one specific route to intimacy, which in turn encourages participants to treat people as targets rather than human beings.
But in the rest of the world, most people meet each other through mutual friends, co-workers and other non-romantic situations. Think of your social life as a pyramid that you build from the ground up.
You can’t treat friendships as just a stepping stone to sex or a relationship. If you have a hard time separating friendship from sex, or if you’re used to seeing a whole class of people only as potential sex partners, then you’ll have to rethink things.
It isn’t that you can’t find love until you stop looking. It’s that you can’t find love if it’s the only thing you’re looking for. Luckily, once you make friends, you can talk to them about this very problem.
Meeting new people and making good friends gets harder as you get older. You get less adventurous, fall into comfortable routines with significant others, and you don't have school to force you to interact with different groups of people any more. But if you have at least one friend, you do have an easy option for finding some fresh faces to spend time with.Read more
You can, of course, try online dating, where the goals of sex and relationships can be fairly explicit. But (as many bitterly complain) Tinder isn’t Uber for sex. You still have to navigate a relationship with a human being who wants respect and companionship.
Dating with an app is just as “real” as dating in person, and you can ask your therapist to help you with it. Dr Harper advises her clients to be thoughtful and creative when talking through an app, and to not overload on it, which can lead to frustration.
“It’s important to remember that some apps, in the nature of their design, really are tough on self-esteem, particularly for men,” she says. “If your self-image is already shaky, that won’t help.”
She warns against lying on the app, which will backfire. “It also really helps to be on sites that are better suited to your interests. If you’re into kink, you’ll do better on FetLife than Match.”
In general, your internet connection isn’t your enemy. While Alana is still building Love Not Anger, the subreddit MensLib is already helping men face gender issues that affect them, recognising the challenges society has built for men in a way that doesn’t blame women. (Check their sidebar for links to more related subreddits.)
Even an online community unrelated to dating can be a good place to build friendships and ask advice. Join some smaller subreddits or Facebook groups based on something you’re really interested in, or join an interest-specific site such as DeviantArt, NaNoWriMo, FlyerTalk, Vinyl Collective or Previously.TV.
Dr Harper even suggests joining a relationship role-play forum, where people play out romantic fantasies, both for satisfaction and to develop relationship skills with lower stakes. As always, if you’re worried about going it alone, you can ask a therapist for guidance.
Get more non-sexual touch
While it’s natural to consider hiring a sex worker, Dr Harper suggests considering non-sexual forms of touch, like massage. You can search for a local massage provider on Yelp, Foursquare or Google Maps.
This is, of course, a non-sexual service (those that provide happy endings generally don’t appear on Yelp), and it’s highly inappropriate to make sexual overtures to your masseur/masseuse. (It does happen, and customers tend to get kicked out. This behaviour is sexual harassment and possibly assault, in no uncertain terms.) You might be surprised how much tension a trained massage provider can release without any sexual touch.
You could attend a cuddle party, a gathering for conversation and non-sexual touch, overseen by a facilitator. CuddleParty.com explains further and lists events in Australia, the US, Canada, the UK and Ireland.
As for getting off, there’s nothing wrong with “solo sex,” says Dr Harper; masturbation isn’t an inferior form of sex. Which is good because, as she often tells her clients, no one owes you sex. It’s something you do with someone, not to them.
But by building better friendships, finding healthier communities, or talking to a counsellor, you’re much more likely to find someone who’s pretty damn happy to do it with you.