Magazine | May 28, 2018, Issue

Advice for Incels

(Ben Queenborough/Getty Images)
Join a church

The Moroccan-French comedian Gad Elmaleh tells a funny story (of course he does; that’s his job) about going to a nightclub in Los Angeles, hoping to meet a girl. He feels too old for the scene, awkward, out of place. He sees one of those beautiful Los Angeles women and offers to buy her a drink: “I’m good,” she says, turning brusquely away. He is sometimes perplexed by the subtleties of English: “When a woman says ‘I’m good,’ that’s . . . not good.” A few minutes later, a couple of Frenchmen walk into the club. Elmaleh is not well known in the United States, but he is quite famous in France. The Frenchmen want to talk, and they ask for pictures and autographs. He’s a big deal to them. The blonde takes notice. “Who are you?” she demands. She offers to buy him a drink. “I’m good,” he replies.

A related (true) story: An attractive young woman is out for a drink with some girlfriends on a Saturday night after dinner. They strike up a conversation with a group of young men seated near them, one of whom takes an interest in the woman. He seems to her pleasingly old-fashioned, and at the end of the conversation he says very straightforwardly that he’d like to take her out for a date and asks for her phone number. “I’d love to do something tomorrow,” he says, “but I have an event at my church.” The word that stood out in that sentence, with an electric charge, was: church. She liked to go out with her friends and was not averse to a glass of wine or two, but the bar-hookup scene was not for her, and the idea of dating an old-fashioned churchgoing man was to her very appealing.

This is maybe not the most direct way to introduce the subject of public massacres.

We live in an age of highly publicized mass murder. The world overall has grown less violent, with both homicide and war casualties in decline worldwide, but murder-as-protest, or murder-as-temper-tantrum, is something relatively new and particular to our age of instantaneous mass communication. It’s the new suicide. “Goodbye, cruel world . . . and I’m taking some of you bastards with me.” It is murder in the pursuit of 15 minutes of Warholian fame. We in the media often are advised not to report the names of the perpetrators of these crimes — overwhelmingly young men — but even though the names are in fact widely reported, they fade quickly enough. The next time you’re around a couple of normal people (meaning people who are not media obsessives), try asking them to name the Columbine killers or the shooter in Aurora. You’ll be surprised by how few people remember the names. They’re old news.

The recent massacre in Toronto, in which a man drove a truck, Islamic State–style, into a crowd, saw the death of ten people and the injury of an additional 13. It also introduced the wider world to the term “incels” — “involuntary celibates” — sexually frustrated young men who apparently intend to try to transform themselves from figures of fun into figures of terror. They wouldn’t be the first: Jamie Farr’s “Sheik Abdul ben Falafel” was pretty funny in 1981, when the sheik was hoping to conquer the Cannonball Run in the name of Islam with only Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise standing in his way. It got a lot less funny for Americans around 2001. It was already a lot less funny and had been for some time in Israel, India, Egypt . . .

In the 1960s and 1970s, there were some social disruptions touching marriage and family life. It was, they told us, a “sexual revolution.” The thing about revolutions is: Somebody loses. The so-called incels are some of the losers in that revolution, though not the only ones or, socially speaking, the most significant ones. (Those would be the abandoned single mothers.) But their situation is worth considering.

With the name “incel,” they speak more truth than they know. Despite the common misunderstanding of the word, “celibate” does not refer to someone who abstains from sex. “Celibate” refers to someone who forgoes marriage — the part about not having sex is implied, at least in the Christian world, give or take an Alexander VI or two. “Chaste,” at the same time, doesn’t quite mean what people think it does: It refers principally to the abstention from extramarital sex, which in the case of the celibate means abstention from sex categorically. But chastity is part of marriage, too, describing a reverent attitude toward sex. In the Christian view (which is to say, in the view of Western civilization until ten minutes ago), the procreative act is the means by which men and women in union with one another participate in God’s creative work. “Chastity” means a lot more than mere abstinence. Chastity isn’t some kind of genital veganism.  

There has been some pretty elevated stuff written on that subject, and if you want to take that particular high road, then Professor Robert George of Princeton is your guy. But consider the low road, too. There’s another conclusion, maybe a little bit cynical, that could be drawn from this: If you are a sexually frustrated young man, the smart play would be to join a church.

Seriously. Join a church.

That advice won’t do much good for the guys toggling between anime porn and Reddit all night while concocting elaborate revenge fantasies. It probably is not the case that those guys are maladjusted fruitcakes because they can’t get a girl; more likely, they can’t get a girl because they’re maladjusted fruitcakes. But you more or less normal, nonpsychotic, workaday types having trouble meeting a girl: Join a church. Today. Or Sunday. If you don’t know which one to go to, pick whichever one your parents or grandparents went to, unless they were hippies or atheists, in which case go Catholic.

There are girls who want to go home with a guy they met at a bar, but, as many of you no doubt have discovered, you are not that guy. And if you were going to be that guy, you’d be him by now. The sexual revolution, like any revolution, has its cruelties. As Ross Douthat put it in the New York Times, “Like other forms of neoliberal deregulation the sexual revolution created new winners and losers, new hierarchies to replace the old ones, privileging the beautiful and rich and socially adept in new ways and relegating others to new forms of loneliness and frustration.” So maybe just cross the club off your list. On the other hand, there are girls who want to date — and marry — a guy they met in church. You know where you find those girls?


Most congregations — and practically every church committee that doesn’t have the word “men” in its title — are lopsidedly female. Maybe what gets those ladies out of bed on a Sunday morning is fire in the soul. But it’s a safe bet that some of them are there, at least in part, for the same reason you are: They are alone, and they do not want to be. And they don’t want to say “We hooked up after knocking down six Mango Madness Margaritas apiece at happy hour at Bennigan’s” when their parents and friends ask where they met. “We met at church” is a better opening chapter.

All you have to do to clear that first hurdle is show up. You’re a man, you go to church, ergo you are a churchgoing man. Maybe you go for self-interested reasons. Most churches are good with that: Lots of people come to church not because they fell off their ass on the road to Damascus but because they are lonely or because they are unhappy with some aspect of their lives. That’s okay. In Jesus’s time, a lot of people came mostly for the show and the bread and the fishes. Just park your ass on a pew and we’ll see about your immortal soul.

In the meantime, consider that there are women in the room who might not only be interested in dating you but who might be persuaded to make a public pledge — right there in the church — to have sex with you for the rest of your life, and enter into a legal arrangement fortifying that commitment. Marriage and fatherhood have been socially devalued. But that doesn’t mean you have to go along with it. And it probably wouldn’t kill you to listen to a sermon or two.

Join a church.

Gad Elmaleh became instantly intriguing in that Los Angeles club because he is famous. It’s hard to become famous. Churches will take anybody. The nice, old-fashioned, churchgoing guy in the story mentioned above? A creep, as it turns out: married and under a felony indictment. But, as Billy Graham said: If you find a perfect church, for God’s sake don’t join it. Join one of the other kind.

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