Safeguarding: Be vigilant for signs of incel culture

Written by: Hannah Glossop | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

So-called ‘incel’ culture and extremism hit the headlines in the UK last year. What do schools need to know and what can they do about it as part of safeguarding work? Hannah Glossop offers some advice


“Incel” culture hit mainstream consciousness last summer with the tragic Plymouth shootings.

An incel – shorthand for involuntary celibate – is a member of an online subculture of people who define themselves as unable to get a romanticor sexual partner despite desiring one.

Incel discussion forums are often characterised by resentment and hatred, misogyny, self-pity, self-loathing, a sense of entitlement to sex, racism, and the endorsement of violence against women and sexually active people.

Like many internet wormholes these forums are riven with conspiracy theories and a complete absence of nuanced and informed debate.

Students being students, they may be intrigued by the subculture and search for information to satisfy their curiosity. For most their interest will be fleeting, but for those who have difficulty forming healthy social attachments and relationships and who have challenging personal lives it could present a real risk. For some of these students, incel culture might provide them with access to a community and a worldview that resonates and offers seemingly straightforward answers to their personal predicaments.

Since the Plymouth murders in August 2021 there have been fears that the culture is spreading in the UK, mainly from the US and Canada where incel networks are well established and have been connected to mass shooting events.

We need to guard against overstating the extent of the risk at this stage, but it is well worth designated safeguarding leads making themselves aware of the culture and being vigilant for warning signs of interest in the culture among students.

So, be aware of the incel movement, do further research, seek external advice and support and make your colleagues aware of the movement and warning signs to watch out for.

Watching for incel slang doesn’t necessarily mean you have an incel movement member in your school. Incel slang is finding its way into mainstream language, boosted by social media. Students may begin to use this language unthinkingly because it is in the background.

There are some simple steps you can take now to raise your school’s awareness of the incel phenomenon and the risks it may pose to students.


Do your research

Ensure you are confident in what incel means and how young people are being drawn into this. Several local authorities have produced well written briefers with a detailed explanation of the culture. There’s a dearth of information available on government websites but search and you will uncover some useful resources. The London Borough of Ealing, for example, has created a seven-minute briefing on incels (2021) while the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats has published a well-informed primer (CREST, 2021).


Make staff aware

Ensure relevant staff are aware of the movement and what indicators to look out for among students. This includes particularly derogatory comments about women and girls. The incel movement has some recognisable watchwords – shorthand terms to stereotype the people they see as responsible for their situation.

The Ealing guide contains a list of the main terms and reference points, such as the names “Chad” and “Stacy” as a shorthand for attractive, sexually successful people. Other terms to watch out for are “femoid” or “foid” – another derogatory term for women – and AWALT, an acronym for “all women are like that”, a demeaning term used to generalise women.

Other things to be alert for are students who are socially isolated and the general signs of radicalisation, for example hiding screens, talking to strangers online, and showing violent tendencies.


Use technology

Check that your filtering and monitoring systems pick up any relevant online searches about incels or concerning community groups. How is your safeguarding team informed about these searches and what is the process for dealing with them? If staff have concerns, they should follow their school’s safeguarding policy, referring these concerns to their safeguarding team as they would with any other matter.


Use it as a learning point

Consider how the topic could be covered in your curriculum. Should it be covered in an RSHE or a citizenship lesson? How will meaningful engagement be encouraged? Where can students go for support if they have concerns about themselves or a friend?

We are still learning about the incel phenomenon, but this could be an opportunity to reiterate the underpinning knowledge and behaviours that can help pupils to navigate the online world safely, for example developing their critical faculties so that they do not take information they find on the internet at face value.


Further information & resources


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