More Gen Z-ers are identifying as female involuntary celibates online. Why? Alexandra Jones on the extreme face of the modern anti-sex movement

20-year-old Anna* spent her teenage years feeling “uncomfortable, self-conscious – just horrible every time I looked in a mirror”.

She has dark hair and eyes, framed by thick dark lashes – even through a grainy Zoom connection, she seems strikingly pretty. “I was bullied a lot at school,” she says. “It’s not enough to look average any more.” As she got older and left school, her confidence continued to be affected.

“I found it difficult to make friends and just accepted that I was unlovable and unattractive. I would mainly just spend my spare time online.” Often she found herself trawling plastic surgery sites looking for “ways to improve myself – and that’s when I found the femcel subreddit.”

‘Femcel’ stands for female involuntary celibate – women who feel excluded from romantic relationships, often because of how they look. Though the original thread that Anna stumbled across, where the first femcels shared stories and developed a community was shut down by Reddit last year (more on this later), femceldom has found new life and new followers on TikTok, where the #femcel now has 125m views.

As with many ideologies which mushroom out of the damp crevices of the internet, the rules which govern the movement continue to grow and morph as it expands to new platforms and as new people join – but far from a fringe group, TikTok’s femcels are the extreme face of a growing celibacy movement which has Gen-Z gripped.

“I think youth subculture trends are usually a reaction against the mainstream,” says Louise Perry, author of the upcoming book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. “Our public life is hyper-sexualized and has been for some time now so it makes sense that some people have begun turning to celibacy to make a political statement – it’s a deliberate reaction against the status quo.”

According to Perry, the ubiquity of free-to-access porn and the rise of tech-enabled hook-up culture have created a toxic environment for today’s young women (particularly those who date men). In the book she examines the popular narrative around the sexual revolution, as a movement that was “all very freeing to women – I’d argue that in actuality the main beneficiaries of sexual liberalization have been a minority of men.”

Perry also works with the group We Can’t Consent To This, who campaign against the use of so-called “rough sex” defences by men who’ve killed women. According to research by the group, a third of women under the age of 40 have experienced unwanted acts of violence during consensual sex. “I think with celibacy in general – the fact that young women might be drawn to the idea of marking themselves as apart from the norm, makes sense.

The original subreddit – r/trufemcels – borrowed its thinking from the incel movement. Made up of communities of angry, misogynistic men, much incel ideology centres around the idea that only men who fit a certain physical ideal are deemed worthy by society. It’s a line of thinking that was picked up by the first femcels – one which initially drew Anna to the movement.

Reading Reddit posts by other commenters – also self-identifying ‘femcels’ – about the pain of being considered unattractive, as well as the loneliness and sense of alienation they’d endured because of it made her feel “like I’d found a group of people I could identify with.” Plus, she points out, “we do live in a world where you get treated differently depending on how you look. It felt good to be able to acknowledge that and also to vent about how unfair it is.”

On TikTok, the videos – often soundtracked by Lana Del Rey, Radiohead or The Smiths – feature young women exploring what it means to live in a world that feels hostile to them. “It started as a joke,” says 19-year-old Georgina*, who regularly posts on the femcel hashtag on TikTok, “but now I think people are saying they’re femcel because heterosexuality – as we experience it within this patriarchal system – is broken.”

Georgina says she has never had sex and has “no plans to start having it.” Part of what drove her towards femceldom is that, aged 15 she was sexually assaulted by a much older man. “I feel like saying no to sex is an empowered choice. I refuse to participate in this system – and who could blame me?”

Similarly, three years since she first came across the femcels Anna has still never had a partner, or even kissed another person. “It used to really bother me,” she says. “I tried going on a dating app a few years ago, but the only matches I did get were men who wanted to have casual sex. When I didn’t respond they’d become rude or abusive. If I looked different [at a size 16-18, with multiple piercings, Anna says she feels she doesn’t fit the ‘conventional’ mould that men in her London suburb look for] I suppose I’d have a better chance, in terms of dating. But I do wonder, what’s the point? Looking at all the violence against women, looking at how addicted men are to porn – why would I want them in my life anyway?”

The idea of celibacy as resistance is not new – but it harks back to an older tradition, from feminism’s second wave. In The Right To Sex, her 2021 bestselling book of essays, philosopher Amia Srinivasan looks at the anti-sex feminist movements of the 60s and 70s. For them, celibacy was empowering because – theoretically, at least – within a patriarchal system, any sex with men was experienced from a position of subordination.

Both Anna – who says she hasn’t read much feminist theory – and Georgina seem to have come to similar conclusions. As Anna says: “I haven’t found many positive ways to engage with men. And I think it’s because we live in a really unbalanced world. I feel like my two options are either conform to certain ideals – skinny, hot, girlish – and then people will respect me or not conform and accept that I’ll be treated badly. So I’m not conforming – and that’s fine. I’d rather just opt out.” In the 1970s, anti-sex feminism was pushed out in favour of sex-positivity – though both Srinivasan and Perry argue that the questions raised by anti-sex feminists (i.e. is sex a political act? Are our desires truly our own or are they shaped by power structures that’re forced on us by society? ) remain valid today.

Like Anna, Georgina says that on TikTok, there’s a certain aesthetic which people who call themselves ‘femcels’ are buying into. “Girls who like anime; kind of gothy looking and a bit nerdy. Those things aren’t considered ‘hot’ in a way you might see on Instagram.” But, she points out, there’s “also a lot of anger at a system that you feel has failed and excluded you.”

“I think what’s interesting to me,” says Perry, “is that for most of human history there were classes of people who were celibate for religious reasons — monks or nuns — and there was a level of social status conferred on them by that position. Today, it’s relatively uncommon for someone to take vows of celibacy. And generally, if you’re celibate, it’s viewed as something a bit pathetic, there’s no status attached to it really — unless, that is, you turn it into a political thing.”

Despite a veneer of camaraderie, the femcel community is also often a fractured and toxic space. “You see discussions around ‘literal’ vs ‘metaphorical’ femcels,” says Georgina. “And people throw around a lot of hate at one another.” She points me to the conversation happening under one TikTok video in which a 19-year-old femcel from Miami mouths along to Creep by Radiohead. The text over the video reads ‘when you’re a femcel in the ugly, actually involuntary celibate way’. The 1,400+ comments do indeed give a glimpse into how femcel ideology, with its hyper focus on looks and on romantic attainment, promotes self-loathing and in-fighting. “It’s probably because the ‘incel’ movement that it’s based on had such a toxic set of rules to start with,” says Anna. “It makes sense that anything which comes out of it also has that toxic element.”

In recent years, incel hate groups online have spilled over into real world violence. Last year, 22-year-old Jake Davison killed his mother and four others before taking his own life in the UK’s worst mass shooting in more than a decade. He left no note or video to explain his actions but in the days that followed, his digital footprint showed that he was an avid poster on incel groups.

Unlike incels, femcels are thought to be non-violent but last January Reddit shut down r/trufemcels regardless in a cull of threads which it said were violating its rule against promoting hate. Many Redditors have since pointed out that the femcel community on the site – which had grown to tens of thousands strong – had become a place where hate was endemic; homophobic, transphobic and often promoting alt right views, it had effectively been coopted by a similar misogyny to that seen within the incle movement. “I stopped going on the thread because some posters were openly racist,” says Anna. “Others promoted self-harm. It was very dark. On TikTok, it feels different. It’s more of an aesthetic than an ideology.”

Georgina says that femcel communities might not be as problematic as those of their male counterparts – but they can still be dark places. “Although I’d argue that it’s just a product of its environment. The world we live in has created femcels.”



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