Incel Terrorism and Sex Work

There were murmurs of celebration in some progressive circles regarding the classification of a recent attack in a Toronto massage parlor as an act of “incel terrorism.” The attack was carried out by a minor who identified as an involuntary celibate or incel and left one person dead. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) took the unusual step of classifying this act of violence as an act of terrorism under the Canadian Criminal Code.

Incels, as a recent report by the Organization for the Prevention of Violence notes, “are predominantly young men who believe that their physical appearance coupled with women’s liberation and feminism has impeded them from forming physical relationships with women. From this grievance, they have developed an ideology that encompasses anti-feminism, misogyny, nihilism, and self-abasement.”

This was not the first act of violence carried out by a self-proclaimed incel. Given the ideology they subscribe to, much of incel violence has been directed toward women in general and sex workers in particular. Since 2009, there have been at least 13 attacks linked to incels in North America. Since 2015, at least four attacks by incels have taken place in Canada. This was, however, the first time an incel attack was treated as an act of terrorism.

Canada’s application of the label “terrorism” has been arbitrary, like most applications of the term. Despite it being a legal designation, the term “terrorism” is a useful tool to apply to official enemies (mostly Muslims and left-wing movements). It is an infinitely malleable term with a definition that stretches in whichever direction you want it to go, but almost never in the direction of white supremacists.

On the surface, it seems like the designation of the massage parlor attack as an act of terrorism should be applauded, as it finally recognizes that terrorism is not limited to Muslims. In a NowToronto story, Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at Queen’s University and an associate Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, says “It seems like there is a kind of shift happening to say that terrorism is not just done by brown people.”

This is not much of a shift. Instead, it highlights the ever-expanding propensity of the national security state which can latch on to any crime in order to further bloat its budget and its reach. It was no wonder that shortly after the classification of the act as “terrorism,” there were reports that incels would be added to RCMP’s Terrorism and Violence Extremism Awareness Guide.

This guide itself was launched in 2015, following the model of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs in the US and Prevent in the UK. Its purpose was to help “first responders and parents identify ‘indicators or early warning signs’ of terrorist planning and violent radicalization.” As studies on CVE programs have concluded, there are no such indicators or early warning signs.

While much of these programs are implemented away from the public gaze, their impact can hardly be overstated: the state is outsourcing its surveillance to friends, family members, social service and health care providers, school teachers, and everyone else. The consequences are not difficult to imagine: the extension of national security functions to essential community institutions, an undermining of trust in social services and health care providers, an erosion of civil liberties, debilitating psychological effects, and a chilling of political organizing and activism.

While much of the United States is following the lead of Black Lives Matter protesters in demanding a defunding of the police, it is a particularly odd time to be supporting the bloating of the national security state in Canada.

Lastly, there is no evidence to suggest that the designation of incel violence as terrorism will actually help sex workers. If one was invested in actually helping sex workers, there is a clear, evidence-based way to do so: decrimanilize their services and ensure they have the same rights as every other worker.

As Elene Lam, the founder of Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network, says: “Why do people choose sex workers as targets? Why do serial killers target sex workers? Because they know that they are the most vulnerable people. Criminalization promotes discrimination against sex workers.”