On the single day when Louisville becomes the fun capital of North America, Doug many years would baffle his roommates and their Derby-entranced out-of-town guests by passing on a trip to Churchill Downs.
“They couldn’t figure out why on God’s Earth I’d stay at home and work on my desktop, when they had driven across half the continent to be at the race,” Doug said. “I can only imagine what they said about me on the way to the track.”
Doug, (a pseudonym he requested for this story to protect his privacy), has lived in Louisville more than two decades, building a small business mini-empire working mostly in-home, completing promotional projects as a self-employed contractor.
If staring at his computer screen won out on Derby Day, one can imagine how sparse his social life was during an ordinary week.
“In the pre-modem days, I’d stay in my clients’ production centers until the 3 a.m. computer system shut downs,” Doug recalled. “Then when they needed volunteers for weekend field work, my hand was up right away. That was fine with the full-timers, who wanted to be with their families. And fine for me, ‘cause, I could get the glamour assignments.”
Those included interviews with Fred Rogers, John Mellencamp and Dan Quayle, in the area for various causes, including enlivening Doug’s resume.
His career also has included creating and distributing informational products of his own in stores and coffeehouses, and designing web sites going back to the mid-1990s, one of which has been written about in The Atlantic magazine.
“I can sit down with the famous and not get fazed,” Doug said during a recent interview in his Crescent Hill-area apartment. “But I realized late last year – and it hit me all at once one night while I was researching on the internet – that I can’t sit down with somebody not famous, not great, not seated across the table from me ‘cause it is a professional assignment, but just plain because I’d like to get to know them.”
Suddenly it became apparent to Doug, a single white male in his early 50s, that relatives weren’t being pesky or invasive over the years by frequently making him come up with an honorable answer to, “Don’t you ever date?”
A brave smile would accompany an innocent sounding, “Guess I’m a workaholic,” then a deft change of subject.
“I was awfully good at that,” Doug said. “Too good. And I cried for a week last November when I realized that I was covering up – that I’m no ‘workaholic.’ That’s an admirable term, like what got Bill Gates where he is and makes the world go round. The internet showed me many other words for what I was: love shy, functionally asexual, and here’s the one that stuck me in the heart -- ‘Incel.’ God, how I’ve learned to hate that word.
Incel is short for “involuntary celibacy” – yes, the term seems contradictory. Doug thought it ridiculous at first. “How could not doing something be involuntary? I mean, what is that, people being kidnapped and forced to work as priests?” he asked
It’s a term growing legs in media – ranging from sympathetic online support groups to lighthearted treatment on singles sites.
Still, a check of a handful of Louisville-area therapists on both sides of the river showed very little familiarity with the term.
Seven Counties Services spokeswoman Penny Weller said the regional mental health organization has no program devoted to involuntary celibacy or the more common term “love shyness,” adding that she is not aware of any other agency or private group in the Louisville area that has any outpatient or clinical program set up for the condition.
So what could the seemingly double-negative “involuntary celibacy” possibly mean?
Incels are as powerfully driven as normal people to find the right person for a significant other. The condition is not asexuality, which means having no sexual desire or attraction, though it could be called a sort of functional asexuality.
From Incelsite.org :
Incels are often sexually inexperienced people, sometimes completely inexperienced, and often face irrational levels of fear in potentially sexual and romantic situations. Also, incels can often feel very uncomfortable in social situations generally, so quite often, being an incel can be a side effect of having poor social skills.
Doug described a life that, mentally, is sexually normal. He fantasizes, gazes, develops crushes, idolizes and places singles ads just as passionately and eagerly as a healthy person does. But he is mystified about why he – a tall, in-shape, reasonably attractive man known to co-workers as quick with the one-liners -- cannot find a partner.
He’s initiated a few dates over the last 25 years, only to find himself weighted down by what he called “emotional fatigue” at the thought of pursuing follow-up outings.
“I still feel attracted, but there’s a stronger urge going on. It tells me, no, dating someone means tension, fear about saying the wrong thing. And not knowing how she really feels about me – that can be absolute hell. A voice is telling me, ‘Go back to where you are safe. You’re a great worker, but a lousy socializer.’"
He recalls that “voice” going back to junior high school, where lunchtime encounters with pretty and popular girls fizzled. “I was excited, but at the same time, well, threatened by them showing interest. Don’t ask me to explain it.”
One analogy Doug quickly came up with, however, shed light eloquently on his problem.
Just as buying the first house – while often the happiest day in a person’s life – involves giving up comfortable reliance on landlords for a life of insurance, taxes and roof repairs, finding a steady, or even a first date, means losing some simplicity while taking on daunting social tasks, Doug explained.
Doug said the flurry of websites he perused last fall offered some practical tips (talk to women at work, join a church), but nothing more than the common advice he has heard from friends for 30 years.
Sites also included some stark warnings, however, which left Doug demoralized. A Wikipedia entry stated that an incel’s “chances for sexual intercourse and ‘full… sexual relations’ (including intimacy, cuddling, kissing, and connection) are perpetually rare-to-nil."
The online encyclopedia further stunned Doug, a never-married man who had had no sexual contact of any sort for more than 20 years, by declaring: “If an incel person continues to have zero or near-zero sexual activity indefinitely, an anger-fueled feeling of entitlement to sex can result directly from that extended lack, usually having the ironic effect of driving away the very people who might otherwise fulfill that need for sex.”
After x-ing out of a file containing that passage he has stored on his computer, Doug noted: “But at least I save a lot on child support payments.”
Another touch of gallows humor came when he positioned his hand as though holding a phone to describe planning his weekends: “Hello, Standiford Field, I’m an incel and I wonder, do you have to be a passenger, or can anyone be searched by the TSA?”
So why can’t such cleverness dazzle a date, instead of just wash out a wound?
Montana-based psychologist Brian Gilmartin, whose groundbreaking research resulted in the term “love shy,” has written that the condition generally results from a series of unfortunate childhood experiences.
(Professionals and web sites differ on whether “love shy” and “incel” are largely interchangeable terms or separate phenomena).
Gilmartin wrote that the common culprits can include being bullied to feeling or actually being rejected by parents. These can lead to a life of avoiding social contacts for fear of being ridiculed or disliked, he said.
“Bingo,” Doug said when learning of that Gilmartin finding. He then explained that his early years were characterized by neglect by an absent, work-obsessed father whose emotional distance from his only male child was bridged seldom and usually by callous comments before his parents divorced when Doug was a pre-kindergartener and which continued during infrequent meetings thereafter.
“When I was in junior high school, he actually told me, in front of about 10 relatives, that: ‘You were the ugliest baby I had ever seen,’ “ Doug said. “This was his idea of lighthearted humor. Thank God my mom divorced him. Mom was the best, but by age six or so, the damage he did to me was done.”
Doug speaks glowingly of his mother as a nurturer, scholar and principled person with a fine sense of humor, but said the fact that she never dated or talked, even innocently, of any sexual passions may have unintentionally completed an equation that still controls him.
“My dad had constant affairs and told me in a letter when I was in my late 20s that it is in our genes as males to do so, so, essentially, don’t sweat it. Contrast this to Mom being so good -- and being totally celibate my whole conscious life, despite her being quite attractive -- and you can see why I have a problem. Deep down inside there, sex equals bad, even though I don’t verbalize that. I’m not a prude and I talk about sex as an issue, like with sex education and birth control, which I feel very strongly in favor of.”
Along with the ”sex is bad” mantra, Doug talked at length while learning back on his couch and wearing a pensive look about another schism: he automatically characterizes others’ feelings about him as adoration, or abandonment, with no healthy middle ground.
“If a woman -- or for that matter a man or group of friends I meet at a get-together or on break at work -- isn’t gushing over me and lighting up to everything I say, I assume I’m being flat out rejected, and I go back into my shell. I think that’s why I developed such a quick wit and a daring, raucous style.”
Doug’s descriptions of his youth verify the notion that incel is a symptom of wider impairment, not itself a disorder. He recalls sparse and uneven social relations growing up, saying he would often strain a friendship by relying solely on one companion. He sometimes had no friends, feasting on factual knowledge to offset the social famine. “My 26 best friends were volumes A to Z of our Encyclopedia Britannica.”
Indiana University Southeast psychology professor Bernardo Carducci, PhD, director of the IUS Shyness Research Institute , said poor childhood social skills are often a precursor to adult love shyness.
“You develop sexual relations through friendships. And you develop friendships through social support networks,” said Carducci, the author of a college-level textbook and popular press self-help books on shyness.
Affecting people negatively through poor hygiene and generally weak social skills that convey a lack of confidence can severely hamper romantic aspirations, Carducci added. “Any feature that makes others feel negatively toward you is going to contribute to you having a decrease in likelihood of having a relationship.”
Carducci said incels may also chronically be plagued by “excessive expectations,” explaining, “These guys are setting their sights on women… who are not likely to be their partners.”
Women, too, can experience involuntarily celibacy. Although documented numbers of either gender are elusive, the blog love-shy.com says, “Love shyness is a condition that is estimated to affect 1.5 percent of males. When including females, this gives a rough estimate of Love-shyness affecting 60 million people worldwide. In the United States alone, it is estimated to affect roughly 5-6 million people…. Why is Love-shyness so unheard of? Well, simply put, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and Love-shys tend to not squeak.”
As do many sources, the blog warns against making incel or love shyness your identity, asserting that internalizing it can make the problem permanent.
Doug agreed that “it’s a set of habits and expectations that cause you to isolate yourself. It’s not really a condition. Habits, you can change.”
Despite how the word torments him, learning of “incel” was a blessing, Doug said, because it made him realize he isn’t alone.
“I understand now that there is a reason for all this. That sure beats thinking, ‘Good God, how can a person not pursue sexual relationships -- ever? That’s like not breathing.’ It was too horrible to comprehend, so when it would occur to me, I’d change my thoughts to something else, usually work, ASAP. It’s nice now knowing I’m not just the weirdest person on the planet.”
Norman Fields is a Louisville writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.