Ask Dr. NerdLove: Am I Dating an Incel?


Hey Doc,

To make a long story short, after a decade-long relationship that lasted from my early twenties to early thirties, I’m now dating again. I’m a straight woman in a major urban area. I’ve been relying primarily on dating apps, which has had some ups and downs. I recently met a really nice guy and we’ve gone on a couple dates. He’s been very respectful, attentive, and has never pressured me in any way. He’s actually a breath of fresh air in comparison to some of the other guys I’ve met from the apps.

Except (there’s always an except, right?) that on occasion he has espoused incel-type beliefs and terminology, including the 80-20 thing (that the top eighty percent women are drawn to the top twenty percent of guys), made a joke about how that’s why women always pick the assholes, and talked about Chads when I was sharing some of my funny dating app-related disasters. (It came up organically in the conversation.) I’m frankly confused. He’s an intelligent, good-looking guy, a good conversationalist, and overall a fun date. He doesn’t come across as being misogynistic at all, but I’m worried that if I continue going down this route and become invested, I may discover too late that’s he holds really toxic beliefs about women. I’m not sure if he’s sort of part of the less extreme wing of that community, a full-blown incel, or just a nice guy who’s been kicked around a little and taken comfort in some of the incels’ self-comforting fantasies without realizing how toxic they come across as being to other people. Whenever the subject comes up, he’s very straightforward about it as though relaying a normal fact about life, and doesn’t act ashamed or embarrassed at all. He’s older than me and hasn’t mentioned much about his dating history.

At this point in my life, I know better than to do battle with someone’s beliefs, and it’s not like he’s a long-standing friend or family member so I would be justified in making that type of intervention. The easiest thing to do would be to walk away, but I like him. I also know that I’m gun-shy due to some of my own past baggage, mostly related to how my long-term ex treated me, so I’m not sure if I’m looking for an excuse not to commit and avoid being hurt again. Since you’re a guy, I thought you might have a better take on this than me. What do you think?

Does That Make Me Stacy?

There’s a variation of the philosophical aphorism Occam’s Razor called Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” The idea of this philosophy is that what sometimes can seem like malicious, even cruel behavior is often the result of someone sitting on the spectrum ranging from blissful ignorance to being a complete fucking idiot. According to this philosophy, people who might seem motivated by cruelty — and thus may be a lost cause — may, in reality just be ignorant and/or dumb, which is correctable. It doesn’t change the harm that they’ve done, but it does change what the appropriate and most effective response would be.

In this case, I’m going to propose a variation on this principle: don’t assume membership in a well-known group by use of their language when it could be equally explained by being Extremely Online.

One of the odder outcomes of the near universality of the Internet has been the rise and acceptance of memes — not image macros with weird or banal quotes on them but memetic ideas and beliefs, whose spread and integration mimic the behavior of viruses. Concepts, beliefs and phrases that used to be a sort of in-group marker spread to the general populace via social media and become part of the accepted vernacular, sometimes seemingly overnight. You can see this as phrases and iconography that used to be exclusive to African-American culture, drag queen culture, even forums like 4chan and Reddit make their way into general use by… pretty much everyone. They latch on and just become part of the everyday discourse of daily life, even though it seems like literally nobody was saying it the day before.

GamerGate? Pizzagate? Qanon? These are examples of memetic ideas that started out exclusively on 4chan and Reddit before reaching a critical mass in the mainstream.

But using those words or phrases doesn’t necessarily equate with actually being a member of that group; in many cases folks who talk about spilling the tea, for example, have no idea where the phrase came from. They just know what it means and they like using it. Most people don’t know that the phrase “shipping” — used to mean wanting to see two characters in a story, movie or tv series enter into a romantic relationship — came from X-Files fandom back in the 90’s; it’s just in common enough use that you see it all over the place. It’s rarely intentional; more often than not, somebody used in-group jargon in a non-in-group space and the phrase or concept functionally slipped it’s leash and escaped into the wild.

It’s entirely possible that this is the case with your friend. If he’s someone who spends a decent amount of time online, especially on Twitter or sites like Reddit or Tumblr, the odds are good that he’s encountered some of the phrases and concepts you’ve described completely independent of their communities of origin. The 80/20 rule, for example, is a mutation of an economic principle known as the Pareto Principle: the idea that 80% of your effects is the result of 20% of your causes. While this was coined to describe land ownership in 19th century Italy and economic disparity in general, it has since been applied to damn near everything under the sun. Applying it to dating — the idea that 20% of men get 80% of the women — incredibly popular in various permutations of the Men’s Rights community, including Pick-Up Artist and Red Pill communities or the Men Going Their Own Way groups. These communities tend to be incredibly vocal — even evangelical in some cases — so it’s certainly possible for your friend to have seen this via casual web browsing. The same is true about the whole Chad/Incel comparison; after Elliot Roger and Alec Minassian’s murder sprees, more people have become increasingly aware of not just the incel community, but their bizarre logic and belief system. Images get shared on Twitter and Instagram for others to point and gawk at, sites like We Hunted the Mammoth document their behavior online, newspapers and magazines dedicate column inches to the phenomena, subreddits spring up to talk about it all, and the jargon eventually penetrates into the mainstream.

So it’s not impossible that he’s come across all of this without having actually been part of those communities. Even bringing it up in casual conversation could be more about who he hangs out with and what they talk about than it is an indicator of his beliefs. I spend a lot of time in sex educator and fandom circles, and I have to remind myself regularly that not everybody is going to know what the hell I’m talking about when it comes to things like “compersion” or various fandom slang terms I picked up from TVTropes.

(This gets especially fun when people I know talk about doing CBT. I always have to ask WHICH CBT they’re referring to…)

That doesn’t mean that he’s not a member of those groups either… but it doesn’t have to be a binary “he’s an incel/not an incel” choice.

As a general rule of thumb, I advocate a policy of “deeds, not words” when it comes to trying to determine someone’s character. The way someone behaves is a much clearer indication of who they are as a person than what they say or the language they use. Someone might, for example, be supportive of LGBTQ people but use slurs to refer to them… often because it’s just what everyone around them says, or because they don’t realize that those are slurs. Similarly, someone might say all the right things to indicate that they’re pro-feminism and pro-social-justice, but their behavior makes it clear that they’re trying to use being a “feminist” as a way of getting into somebody’s pants.

This is why the axiom of “never date someone who’s rude to the waitstaff” is a valuable one; it’s a better indicator of who they are as a person than any pretty words or speeches.

In this case, your date’s said some things that, understandably, set off your Spidey-sense. On the other hand, the way he behaves indicates he’s a fairly stand-up guy. And while God knows there are plenty of Crouching Nice Guy/Hidden Douchebags out there who hide the shitty side of their personalities until people are more invested in them, I’d err on the side of giving him the benefit of the doubt.

That does not, however, mean that you shouldn’t listen to your instincts. It might not be a bad idea to take a “trust, but verify” stance and see what can find out about him outside of your dates. Googling his name, seeing what he’s like on any public-facing social media profiles… all of that’s pretty SOP in dating in this day and age. You can learn more about somebody through their Instagram and Twitter feed than through an hour’s conversation after all.

I think there’re worse things you can do than give him a chance. If you do go on another date with him, you could always ask him about some of those things and see if you can draw him out. Does he really believe the whole 80/20 thing, what does he mean by “Chads”, and so on. How he responds may give you a better idea of where he stands than just going over the transcript of your previous conversations like it’s the Zapruder film.

But at the end of the day, what ultimately matters is whether you feel comfortable with him or not, regardless of what you do or don’t find. If you just don’t feel comfortable, even after a conversation or two, or doing a deep dive into his online presence? Then really, there’s nothing wrong with saying “Hey, this isn’t working for me, peace out Cub Scout”.

Good luck. And write back to let us know how it’s all going.

Dear Dr. NerdLove,

I’m a 40-year-old man. About four years ago, I dated a (mostly) wonderful woman. We were very compatible, had a great time together, and I thought we had a great bond.

The problem is, she got it in her head that I was likely to cheat on her and nothing I did seemed to convince her otherwise. The relationship was long distance. Not too far, only an hour drive. We would text all day when we could, had a Facetime call most evenings, and I spent most weekends with her.

She caught me in a white lie about something once. I don’t actually recall what it was but it was minor and she would bring it up every so often as “proof that I could not be trusted.”

She also would go through my Instagram likes and if I liked any photos of other women, I would hear about it. She even became convinced that an acquaintance of mine was after me. There was always some attempt to lure me into a “Gotcha!” or catch me in a lie. It was very oppressive.

As I mentioned, we broke up. I was tired of living under a microscope and being branded a cheater and untrustworthy. I don’t miss her. I do wish her well. She’d been cheated on before so I understand where she’s coming from but I do not appreciate the way she kept trying to make me guilty.

I’ve gone on a handful of half-hearted dates since but I’m burnt out. It hurts that she called my character into question like that and it’s made me not want to deal with another person’s expectations.

How do I let go of that?

– Guilty Until Proven More Guilty

I’m so sorry this happened to you, GUPMG. You were in a shitty, toxic relationship and you didn’t deserve what your girlfriend was doing to you. Everything that your girlfriend was doing — from the accusations, to the interrogation, to trying to constantly catch you lying to her — is classic abusive behavior. All of the things she was doing were to keep you under her control at all times. By constantly accusing you of cheating and searching for “evidence” of your being unfaithful or less than truthful, she was attempting to keep you off balance and constantly paying attention to her. As long as you’re always afraid that she’s going to get upset at you, you’re much more likely to do whatever it takes to keep her happy… or at least to not “make” her get upset.

But here’s the important part: THIS WAS NOT YOUR FAULT. Everything that she was doing was shitty, unreasonable and, more importantly, unacceptable and you shouldn’t make excuses for her. The fact that she’d been cheated on does not excuse what she did to you. If she has trust issues or a difficult time accepting that someone loves her and is being faithful to her, that is her problem to solve. It is not — and I want to emphasize this again, NOT — your responsibility to fix for her, nor was it your responsibility or duty to manage her emotional state. She was abusing you, gaslighting you and destroying your soul in the process and IT WAS NOT YOUR FAULT.

Once more, with feeling: THIS WAS NOT YOUR FAULT. You did nothing wrong, you were not responsible for the way that she treated you and you did not deserve one second of the shit you were subjected to. You were being abused and while I get that you miss her, you are WELL rid of her.

Right now, you don’t need to be going on dates. What you need to do is recognize that your ex was harming you and that you need to heal from that. So take some time away from dating. You need to give yourself time to recover. I strongly suggest that you talk to a counselor or find a support group for people in emotionally abusive relationships. Talking to someone can go a long way towards helping you process what happened, recover from it and put it behind you. Remember: THIS WAS NOT YOUR FAULT. Your ex was an abuser, but she’s gone now. You’re free, you’re safe, and you will feel better.

What happened to you was cruel and unfair. But you will get better. You made it through this, and that’s a testimony to your strength, your heart and your will. Things suck now, but they will get better.

You’ll be ok. I promise.

All will be well.

This post was previously published on doctornerdlove.com and is republished here with permission from the author.

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