Browning Describes Incel’s Misogyny

Daniel Gabriel Rosetti, “Lady Lilith”


Like many who have been following the horrific Toronto van attack and its aftermath, I am learning about “incels” for the first time. The more I learn, the more the killer sounds like the speaker in Robert Browning’s deeply creepy poem “Porphyria’s Lover.”

Alek Minassian proclaimed the arrival of “the incel rebellion” on Facebook directly before plowing his vehicle into Toronto pedestrians. Terrorism expert Simon Cottee explains that “incel,” short for “involuntarily celibate,” is “a badge of honor among a fringe online subculture of misogynists who say they hate women for depriving them of sex.”

Cottee says that the resemblance between the van attack and attacks by ISIS-inspired fundamentalists is not accidental because both incels and ISIS have a similar relationship to sex and to women.  Here’s Cottee’s description of incel psychology:

Among those who identify with the “incel” movement, there is a pathological fixation on sex and women, and there is a self-pitying perception that everyone else, except the community of “incels,” is having sex. Women are craved, but they are also reviled for what the incels believe is their selective promiscuity: They seem to be having sex with everyone but them. This is internalized as a grave personal insult. The function of the “incel” movement is to transform that personal grievance into an ideology that casts women as despicable sexual objects.

The core emotion that animates “incels” is sexual shame. It’s not just that these men are sexually frustrated; it’s that they are ashamed of their sexual failure. At the same time, they are resentful of the sexual success of others, which amplifies their own sense of inadequacy. This explains why they gravitate toward an online subculture that strives to rationalize their shame and redirect the blame for their failure onto women.

Cottee identifies a similar psychology at play amongst jihadists:

Like incels, jihadists similarly crave sex, but the circumstances surrounding its consummation are closely regulated by their religious norms, which prohibit sex outside of marriage and same-sex couplings. Among jihadists, even masturbation is frowned upon, although Osama bin Laden famously issued a masturbation fatwa, permitting it in times of urgent need.

These men simultaneously want women to have sex with them and hate them for being sexual beings. Cottee provides a couple of examples:

Sayyid Qutb, the grandfather of jihadist ideology, was disgusted by Americans’ sexual license during the 1950s, yet he was clearly viscerally excited by its spectacle. Mohammed Atta, the leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, instructed in his will that his body be prepared for burial by “good Muslims” and that no woman was to go near it, presumably because he found them dirty and spiritually contaminating. This aversion to women didn’t stop him from visiting a strip club just before the attack, but it did prevent him from shaking women’s hands. One extremist reportedly told the terrorism scholar Jessica Stern that he was “vaginally defeated.”

We see a similar dynamic amongst those Christian fundamentalist pastors and politicians who rail on behalf of “family values” and are then discovered to have had illicit affairs.

The speaker in “Porphria’s Lover” has a sexual assignation with Porphryia in a remote cabin. When she “glides” through the door, she appears to be an embodiment of his fantasy woman. In this way he differs from incels since, after all, he has a woman who wants to make love with him.

Seen another way, however, the progression is exactly what one sees in incels. At first, the woman is a fantasy, but when the fantasy changes into a real flesh and blood woman with sexual desires, the speaker shifts from adulation to disgust. Projecting his sense of sexual shame onto her, he notices her “soiled gloves” and her “damp hair”:

[S]he rose, and from her form 
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl, 
       And laid her soiled gloves by, untied 
Her hat and let the damp hair fall…

As the woman becomes amorous, the speaker is frozen in place. Nor can the woman get him to stir, no matter how hard she tries, leaving him feeingl all the more emasculated:

And, last, she sat down by my side 
       And called me. When no voice replied, 
She put my arm about her waist, 
       And made her smooth white shoulder bare, 
And all her yellow hair displaced, 
       And, stooping, made my cheek lie there, 
       And spread, o’er all, her yellow hair, 
Murmuring how she loved me…

It is after Porphyria leans her head against the speaker that he realizes his way out of his conflicted feelings. If she could just stay passive like this forever, he would no longer feel unmanned. Like the Toronto killer, he does what he feels is necessary:

That moment she was mine, mine, fair, 
       Perfectly pure and good: I found 
A thing to do, and all her hair 
       In one long yellow string I wound 
       Three times her little throat around, 
And strangled her.

The result is the perfect woman. Because death has obliterated her sexual desires, she once again resembles the woman of his dreams:

I warily oped her lids: again 
       Laughed the blue eyes without a stain. 
And I untightened next the tress 
       About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss: 
       I propped her head up as before, 
       Only, this time my shoulder bore 
Her head, which droops upon it still: 
       The smiling rosy little head, 
So glad it has its utmost will, 
       That all it scorned at once is fled, 
       And I, its love, am gained instead! 

Although we have never seen Porphyria scorn him, in the speaker’s head this has been the case. Such scorn is now at an end.

Supposedly virgins in paradise await ISIS members who sacrifice themselves for the cause. This of course is an impossible contradiction given that the women would no longer be virgins if they pleasured the men and would therefore be subject to the same disillusion voiced by Porphyria’s lover. The misogyny exhibited by terrorists, whether fundamentalist or incel, is terrifying in its circularity.

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