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Involuntary celibacy (colloquially incel) is chronic near-total absence in a person's sexuality of intimate relationships or sexual intercourse that is occurring for reasons other than voluntary celibacy, asexuality, antisexualism, or sexual abstinence. It is the psycho-social opposite of having a sex life. Incel people, despite being open to sexual intimacy and potential romance with another person and also making active, repeated efforts towards such an end, cannot cause any such end(s) to occur with any significant degree of regularity—or even at all.
Involuntary celibacy is distinct from other forms of celibacy in two major ways: First, it explicitly does not depend on choices of the celibate, and remains stable even if the person succeeds in improving his or her looks and social skills to try to attract sexual partners. Second, involuntarily celibate individuals lack intimate physical connection for very long spans of time—several years and even sometimes decades at a time—while also lacking opportunities for sexual advancement in the first place, thereby making betterment of their own sexuality through accumulation of "sexual experience" impossible.
Involuntary celibacy cannot generally be explained through external personal factors—most incels, based on inquests by researchers into the population, are not physically unattractive, and most resemble in an interpersonal sense their peers who are sexually active. Although a few of the involuntarily celibate population may have discernible personality disorders that preclude current and future sexual opportunities, the small amount of research done on this subject indicates that the incel population are on the whole socially normal, healthy individuals whose frustration is merely a product of their lack of sex, and not vice versa.
Incel experience differs from more typically inconsistent intimacy opportunities in that chances for sexual activity other than masturbation — physical intimacy, cuddling, kissing, and romantic connection — are perpetually rare or nonexistent. The situation is one where partnered sexual activity almost never happens "naturally", i.e. as a result of any courtship process or friend with benefits situation. Involuntarily celibate people may suffer from loneliness, frustration, and depression from the condition. In most Westernized, sex-positive societies, there is the additional social pressure for people in 20s or 30s age ranges to have experienced sexual interaction in some form. If the person neither has nor gains any such experience while all of his or her peers do, serious psychological consequences can result. The question of an involuntarily celibate person turning to escort services or to become the client of a prostitute as a means of 'breaking' the incel pattern has not been addressed by any recorded inquest in to the phenomenon, most likely due to the extreme unlikelihood of any researcher being sexologically able to discern who among such clients would otherwise be incel, and who would not.
While it may at first appear that incel is a purely individual and personal issue, there are those who point out that it does have effects on a given society at-large and constitutes a quality of life issue for a community and is also a public health concern. Involuntary celibates have higher mortality rates compared to the general population; one of the most notable examples was news reporter Christine Chubbuck's suicide on live television. Chubbuck's involuntary celibacy is considered to be the driving force behind both her depression and suicide. Incels who do not consider suicide may instead binge drink or turn to psychoactive drugs (especially hard drugs), whether as a substitute for sexual relations, or to anesthetize themselves sexually. Finally, while sexual abstinence diminishes the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STD) it may necessitate relinquishment of potential health benefits of sex. Somewhat relatedly, in any culture lacking liberal attitudes towards sexual expression and fulfillment, usually based upon religious principles (for example strict Sharia law societies, fundamentalist Christianity, hasidic Judaism and others), the effects of "enforced" lack of sex can have even worse general societal consequences. Numerous studies have indicated that excessive repression of the sexual instinct tends to increase the overall level of aggression, meaning when applied to whole populations, forbidding non-marital sex while also not being married and not having access to sexual contact in other forms, tends to lead to higher rates of crime and violence. There may also be a link between sexual repression and random aggression, low-level anger at,rudeness and insensitivity to others, and even criminal behavior and a greater likelihood of killing and torturing enemies. More chillingly, recent examinations of a very small number of males fitting the incel criteria have shown that those few may commit extreme actions such as going on shooting rampages, as well as becoming serial arsonists, terrorists and serial killers.
Limitations and disappointment, the indefinite postponement of sexual and romantic gratification, delay even of dating (much less marriage), and in particular the total lack of sexual experiences at key transition points during adolescence and young adulthood (things like one's kiss, "first base", petting, and one's "first time"), which are all the types of lacks that seem to be the psychological cornerstones of the involuntarily celibate condition, are often ennobled on situation comedies, in feature films, and in related media; for example, a sympathetic view of an incel male was made clear in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
But this does not tell the complete story of involuntary celibacy, which in everyday life can in fact be actively destructive to a person's emotional and interpersonal well-being, rather than just a periodic nuisance or inconvenience, as is usually the case with relatively short-term "dry spells." Behaviors associated with involuntary celibacy can include self-absorption and an unhealthy preoccupation with sexual activities, which is a backlog of sexual arousal that can have an adverse effect on social interactions. Meanwhile, internal consequences that can have external manifestations in an incel person tend to follow the standard sexual frustration pattern of being tense, irritable, belligerent and to have trouble sleeping; mood swings; perpetual agitation; stress; and anxiety.
There is some controversy, both academic and amongst involuntary celibates themselves, concerning the duration of the celibacy needed to qualify for the label of involuntary celibacy. Someone who is "single" and without sex for several relatively short stretches at a time is usually not looked upon as being involuntarily celibate. Researchers Donnelly and Burgess (see below) used a floor figure of six months of involuntary celibacy in their study design, but others apply the term only to those who have never been involved in a sexual and/or romantic relationship even once, while other opinions extend the definition to include those who get sexual opportunities extremely rarely (such as once or twice within a five-year bloc, or once or twice within a decade).
There is very little sexological study regarding involuntary celibacy. Prior to a self-directed study on modern involuntary celibacy initiated in 1998 by researchers from Georgia State University, there were quite literally zero publicly-searchable research-based sources on the phenomenon. Even the 1998 study was only started once a member of an online discussion group for involuntary celibates inquired about current research on the subject. The study, Involuntary celibacy: A life course analysis, was published in 2001 in the Journal of Sex Research, produced by the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. A news article reporting on the study indicated that involuntary celibacy can lead to anger and depression. Involuntary celibacy: A life course analysis has also been included in an anthology of scholarly literature.
Very little research has been published on involuntary celibacy, and few statistics are available, although it is finding its way onto university syllabi. There has not been a more widespread study undertaken by sexologists or other sexuality scientists that could give rise to empirical data. Most of what is published scientifically and academically on the subject of celibacy focuses on voluntary and medical celibacy. Given this shortfall, incel does not appear to be taken seriously by scientific and academic communities.
The single chapter devoted to involuntary celibacy in historian Elizabeth Abbott's book The History of Celibacy bears little similarity to current use of the term. The examples cited include  those living amidst skewed sex ratios caused by the death of many men in a war or preferential abandonment or abortion of females (the latter is particularly severe in China and India); prisoners; those without access to the money needed to deal with a child; those denied the right to marry by social norms like widows in certain Hindu communities or younger sisters in societies that call for the oldest to be married first; women whose families lack money for the dowries required by their society; people who would lose their jobs if they were known to be sexually active like apprentices and journeymen in certain trades in Medieval Europe, or certain Western domestic servant or educator positions prior to the previous centuries; and, also, men castrated against their will.
Despite there being many theoretically plausible sources of involuntary celibacy, none can be demonstrably proven across any given sample of involuntary celibates, especially given the fact that many if not all of these possible reasons are controversial among vocal involuntary celibate themselves (see below).
Some critics such as Henry Makow and psychologist Gary R. Brooks believe that the sexual revolution has socially conditioned men into believing that they need both the approval from and companionship of beautiful women for validation. Meanwhile, some social conservatives such as Dr. Judith Reisman claim that pornography has increased internal anxiety amongst both sexes and has made men and women feel generic and possibly worthless, leading them to become heterophobes and inevitably incel.
What tends to be overlooked in these types of commentaries is that some of the most desired men and women are, inexplicably, also among the involuntarily celibate, which makes it unlikely that pressuring women to date and/or marry less desirable men or vice versa through a sense of "duty" or obligation, as was the case before the sexual revolution, would actually in itself put a stop to the incel phenomenon, whether for men in particular or either gender generally.
In the February 16, 2012 edition of the Avenue section of The Independent Florida Alligator, writer Ryan Galloway, who is not involuntarily celibate but whose direction in life points towards similar ends, titles his piece "The 25-year-old Virgin Speaks Out about Sex and Love", arguing that the accumulation of sexual experience — and the obtaining of sexual intercourse in particular — is "not a big deal". Galloway criticizes what he sees as the over-sexualization of present-day human history, "as fiery and hot as it is," and asks: "Who said I have to experiment in order to figure out how to do things? I found some STD stats that would suggest that I don't." Given that involuntarily celibate individuals by definition are compelled by circumstance, rather than choice, towards the state of not having a sex life, Galloway's proclamations may be viewed psychoanalytically as exhibiting some or another form of self-justifying behavior, but may be significant nevertheless.