A photo of former Incel James, sitting in front of his computerBBC Three

‘I used to be an incel’

In the darkest corners of the internet, a subculture associated with hating women and mass killings is growing. One man tells how he almost got sucked in

Warning: adult themes

James, 31

Last winter I was in a pit of despair. I was still a virgin at 31. I felt unlovable and hopeless. It wasn’t just I’d never had sex with anyone, it was that I’d never held hands, kissed or hugged anyone either. So, in November last year, I decided to share my story on YouTube and expose myself completely. I had nothing to lose. Life barely seemed worth living so I just thought, why not? I had no idea that one video would change my life completely.

I had an inkling when I titled the clip ‘31 Year Old Forever Alone Virgin: How it Happens’ that it might help me get some views. I still wasn’t sure if I wanted anyone to see it but it was the truth about who I was then, who I still am now - in some ways.

I’d been posting videos for about a month or so and not had much reaction, so I was really surprised when that one went viral. Now, it’s had over a million views. Before, I’d been filming myself talking about my issues around porn and video game addiction, my insecurities about my looks, and how I felt like I would be alone forever - but I felt like I hadn’t been 100% honest about my situation.

Incel videoBBC Three
James now uses his video channel to talk openly about his mental health

The 31-year-old virgin video was my way of setting the record straight and explaining how a traumatic childhood, a bad attitude when I was younger and crippling social anxiety had led me here. I also went back over some of my major insecurities, such as feeling like if I was just two inches taller, 6ft rather than 5ft10, women would find me more attractive. Thankfully, I don’t care about these things so much now.

After I posted the video, I found there was a label for people like me, and that I wasn’t alone in my loneliness. I was what the online community of involuntary celibate (incels) - predominantly men who blame women for their failure to get laid - call a Kissless Handholdless, Hugless Virgin (KHHV).

I discovered this because, although the response to the video was largely positive and a lot of people said they could really relate to it, it also attracted the attention of incels around the world. Links to the video got posted in dark corners of the internet like 4Chan and 8Chan, forums where a lot of these women-hating guys vent their rage. Dozens of other incel forums have sprung up all over the internet in recent years, with some recording over 40,000 members.

Some of the incels commenting on my video said things like that I should hire a prostitute to lose my virginity. It got so intense that I responded saying I wasn’t interested in that, that I would never pay a woman to have sex with me, and what I wanted was a meaningful relationship.

Incel Aged 18Courtesy of James
James, aged 18

Before that, I didn’t fully understand what the term ‘incel’ meant. I’d seen it used in memes a bit, and in online chats where it seemed like a lighthearted insult. I’d never connected it with the brutal killings that Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old virgin whose deep hatred of women seemed driven by his sexual frustration, carried out in California in 2014. I’d read about those shootings around the time they happened and was shocked. Since then there have been at least three mass killings in North America linked to incel ideology.

It was only later that I realised that Rodger was being hailed as a ‘hero’ by some people online. I remember coming across his YouTube channel a few years later and being really surprised that his videos - where he raged against women for rejecting him and outlined plans for his killing spree - were still up. I admit that I watched them all. I was just curious to find out why everyone was talking about this odd-looking, angry guy - why some people were calling him a “saint” and the “supreme gentleman.” It just seemed ridiculous to me that someone could feel like he was entitled to be with women - he clearly got lost in the darkness. While I know what it’s like to feel lonely and isolated, my attitude has always been totally different.

For me, I’ve never felt like I deserved to be with a woman. Instead I’ve always felt like I wasn’t attractive enough, or tall enough, or muscly enough, or interesting enough to ever be worthy of female attention. It’s not like I’ve spent all this time since I was a teenager thinking I should be having sex. Instead, I was constantly thinking about all the things that were wrong with me. I never felt like I was good enough for a relationship.

Incel Song lyricsBBC Three
James reflects on some song lyrics he wrote at his 'darkest point'

When I was at my darkest point, I wrote a song about Elliot Rodgers with lines in it like “suck on my nuts, as I blow out your guts”. I know it’s no excuse but I wrote it partly to impress a girl I was talking to online, who was a bit obsessed with the incel community. It was meant as a joke, but I can see now that it’s not funny. What I thought was edgy entertainment, like a musical meme, is actually really offensive to a lot of people and could cause serious upset to the families of the victims. I was at such a low point, feeling like nobody cared, that I didn’t think about the pain it could bring people. I would never make something like that now.

I definitely had opportunities to lose my virginity when I was younger but I had paranoia and social anxiety that stopped me. Looking back, I can see that my troubled childhood played a part in my mental health issues. It was a bad combination of things. My parents got divorced when I was about seven. There was a lot of shouting going on and it felt like a threatening environment. My dad, especially, was in a bad place back then, he became quite an angry person. But he’s worked really hard to make things right and we have a good relationship now.

My worries over my looks really kicked in when I was about 13. My nose got broken during a snowball fight after rugby practice. It was February and the weather was freezing, and someone threw a block of ice at my face. It nearly knocked me out. I was just standing there nearly in tears. I wanted to be a tough guy so I never told anyone about it, not even my mum. It left a big mark on my face. That healed but it left a bump on my nose. I would play with in the mirror for hours, trying to fix it myself but I just made it worse. Then my skin got bad too, which didn’t help. The acne cleared up but it left bad scars. I just felt like I wanted to hide away from the world.

Incel Broken NoseCourtesy of James
James began worrying about his appearance after breaking his nose aged 13

Around that time, I started watching porn and also got addicted to video games. I would bunk off school and sit in my bedroom for hours trying to escape from reality. I’d push people away in real life but, at the time, I felt like it didn’t matter because I could just go home and jerk off. It made me feel dirty and uncomfortable in my own skin, and that just fed into my insecurity. I really regret that now and just hope that by telling my story I’m stopping other young people from making the same mistakes.

When I was in my mid 20s, I decided to try and bulk up through weightlifting. I was convinced that having more muscles would make me more attractive to women. And, at first, it did help me feel a bit more confident. I started training regularly and entered some competitions - I liked the feeling of camaraderie that came with that. But then I started taking steroids and that screwed me up more than ever. My hormones went haywire and I developed painful cystic acne on my back and chest - it looked horrible and used to bleed all over my bed sheets every night.

In the incel community, trying to enhance your appearance like this to attract female attention is called “looks maxxing” - some people take it to extremes and spend thousands of pounds on things like jaw surgery and other cosmetic procedures. The furthest I’ve ever gone is to make an appointment to have a nose job, but the surgeon wouldn’t go through with it because he was worried about my mental health.

Incel AcneBBC Three
After taking steroids, James has struggled with acne

Now, for the first time in my life, I’m in a relationship with an amazing woman called Sara. We connected through my video. She left a comment saying that she would date me and we started chatting. I was so happy when it turned out that she was also a KHHV, because I really wanted to share those ‘first time’ experiences with somebody who was on the same wavelength. I just felt like it would be more special that way.

Sara lives in Italy, so we got to know each over video chat, and it just felt right from the start. We met up in person for the first time in May. I flew out to Italy where she lives. I was a bit nervous but seeing her waiting for me at the airport was just the best feeling. She has her own insecurities and was really shy at first but we had a great time. We walked and talked for ages, and ate incredible gelato and pizza. I bought some wine too, even though I don’t normally drink very much. I just wanted to try everything with her.

I’d rented a small flat and persuaded her to stay there with me. My libido was really low because of the steroids I’d been taking, so we didn’t have sex but we held hands, kissed and hugged. My favourite memory from the trip is just cuddling with her in bed. It felt so amazing - I didn’t want it to end. She gives the best hugs, she really squeezes you and it just feels so good. I’d never been close to another person like that before and I just wanted it to last forever.

Incel girlfriendBBC Three
James chats to his new girlfriend who he met online

Saying goodbye to her at the end of the week was terrible. We were both emotional. I feel like she’s my soulmate and just hope we can have a future together. These days, I don’t define myself by any labels - there is no ideology that I need to conform to. I’m just a simple fool trying to learn from my past mistakes. When I hear from young men online who are getting pulled into the incel world, I just tell them to get out there, to meet people and get the help they need. Otherwise, they will just fester alone in their bedrooms, like I did, and get sucked into an echo chamber of hate.

When I put myself out there on YouTube, almost eight months ago, I never dreamed I’d meet my perfect partner. Now, I’ve been given a chance to break free from inceldom and, I feel like, finally, there is light in my life.

As told to: Serena Kutchinsky

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, information about help and support is available here.

Watch Inside the Secret World of Incels on BBC Three iPlayer from 14 July 2019