Writer Peter C. Baker’s recent work calls to mind the images of 20th century photographer Diane Arbus. Like Arbus, whose work demands attention even as it disturbs, he moves comfortably among the marginalized and maligned among us.
In “What Happens to Men Who Can’t Have Sex: Inside the Disturbing World of Involuntary Celibacy,” Baker acts as our guide to a subculture that’s difficult for many people to relate to: the world of “involuntary celibates,” filled with men – and they are almost all men – blaming their loneliness on women. (One of these “incels,” 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, killed six people in Isla Vista, Calif., in 2014.) Baker helps us see American society through their eyes — namely those of Michael, the now-reluctant administrator of a website where the “love-shy” come to share their stories and vent their frustrations.
Baker recently spoke with Storyboard about the Elle magazine piece from his home in DeKalb, Ill. The interview has been condensed and edited.
How did this story come about?
In 2014, I think, maybe early 2015, I wrote the Arthur Chu profile [about a Jeopardy champion and gamer] for Pacific Standard. He won a fair amount of money and some internet culture renown through Jeopardy, and he had decided to use his internet spotlight to reinvent himself as a writer/activist working to improve certain online discourses — he was kind of like a nerd reformer, wanting to raise awareness and make some change in nerd communities, founded on the idea of nerds being chronically excluded. This had a lot to do with Gamergate, which was starting to be well known beyond just the internet. Learning about his life, and this landscape he was trying to position himself in, involved spending a lot of time in online communities, looking at them from Arthur’s perspective. That’s how I found this [online incel subculture].
It would be very easy to make these men into caricatures, but you managed to paint a nuanced picture of this subculture, and show the range of experiences and attitudes within it. Was that a challenge?
This is something I worried about a lot. On one hand, I didn’t want to write a piece that was like, ‘Ha ha, look at these guys.’ But I also didn’t want to write a piece that was like, ‘This is what these guys say, and no one can say anything about it.’
You seem to be drawn to stories about people living at the margins of society in some way, people who don’t quite fit into the mainstream. First Chu, and now this piece about the involuntary celibates community. What is it about life at the margins that appeals to you as a writer.
Yeah. I think sort of like a shared ingredient between the two stories is, it’s not necessarily that the characters are on the margins, but they reveal something about the existence of the margins.
It’s not necessarily that the characters are on the margins, but they reveal something about the existence of the margins.
And they reveal not only something about the subculture they’re in, but about the society that gave rise to it?
“We” — people who are looking in on one of these subcultures from the outside, people who are reading these stories from the outside — it’s easy to say, “Wow, these guys have it wrong.” I think they do have it wrong, but we also live in a country where the vast majority of people have dated someone who exists exactly in the same place on the attractiveness meter, someone who’s from a similar family, with the same amount of money, etc. There are exceptions, maybe more here in the U.S., and maybe more than in the past, but even then it’s within this framework where looks are considered, money is considered. I wish the piece did more to implicate the broader culture.
My questions are in red and his responses are in blue. To read the story without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button below the byline, up and to the right.
By Peter Baker
I heard the woman calling Michael’s name before he did. First it was tentative, a question: “Michael? Michael?” When she knew for sure it was him, she got louder, trying to make herself heard above the crowd exiting the subway station: “Michael!” Interestingly, this story about men who can’t have sex begins with a woman. Why did you start with a woman? Interesting — I never really thought about this. After many false starts, this scene clicked for me as a beginning, not just because it raises the question of Michael’s “secret,” but also because it puts me on the scene in an intimate but (hopefully) unobtrusive way. I think it could have worked with a male acquaintance, too. Does it work better this way? Probably.
Michael tensed up, as if preparing for the possibility that he’d have to flee. The woman, thirtyish and friendly-looking, was underdressed for the cold October day and kept moving in place to keep herself warm. “It’s so good to run into you!” she said, wrapping him in a close hug. “And your dog!” She sat on a nearby step and beckoned over Michael’s skittish beagle, rubbing its face and cooing: What a nice dog, what a cute dog, what a friendly dog.
Michael’s eyes darted back and forth, from the woman, to the dog, to me. A member of the opposite sex was nerve-racking enough, and I figured that I was adding to his stress—that Michael feared I’d inadvertently reveal why I came to Boston to meet him. You include yourself in this opening scene. Could you talk about how you made that choice? My presence in the scene illuminates very efficiently something about the situation, the anxiety he felt. … I wanted this story to not just be a peek into a subculture, but a peek into a subculture that carries down and through into the larger culture. When you make “I” the lens, it’s kind of me, and it’s kind of a stand-in for the reader.
For several years, Michael has been the owner and administrator of love-shy.com, a Web forum where men—and a smattering of women—talk about their struggles with sex, love, and dating. “Support for the dating-challenged,” proclaims the front page. It’s a bit of an understatement. Many of the site’s users have gone years, decades, or even their entire lives without romance. Some identify themselves as suffering from “love-shyness,” a condition, though not recognized by any mental health authority, that is characterized by extreme anxiety over any romantic or sexual interaction. Other users call themselves “incels,” meaning “involuntary celibates,” or “ForeverAlone,” which requires no explanation. They use the site as an advice depot, confessional, and water cooler, complaining frequently about the impossibility of making themselves understood by “normies” or “noncels.” The site, and others like it, are also forums for some pretty disturbing, misogynistic vitriol. But you wait until later in story to reveal that, after we already feel empathy for Michael and perhaps are less likely to generalize about the men in this world. Was that deliberate, to put the darker voices of the incel world later in story? Yes and no. I really struggled with what, if anything, the reader’s baseline understanding of the manosphere was. If you come in and you already know about it, you already know the more reprehensible stuff, then you don’t need it upfront … so part of me was thinking of that reader. But I was also very aware that probably the overwhelming majority of people were not familiar with the mansophere. Many of my friends were not, my parents are not. That was one of a few overlapping reasons why I wanted very early on to mention a few quotes from manosphere sites. In another world, where the article was a book, or I just did more with less space, I could have talked more about the manosphere right there, but that’s like a momentum question. I can see the rationale for it going either way, but I think probably what tipped the scales was my concern to be as tough but fair as possible, so I wanted at the beginning to like front-load explaining reasons why people might find their way to these sites, other than just innate misogynistic bile.
Michael has sunk countless hours into the site. At times, it’s been his primary social outlet. But offline, he almost never mentions it—much less that he hasn’t dated anyone since he was 17, and has had sex just once in the decade-plus since. (One of Michael’s terms for participating in this story was that I not include his last name or exact age, only that he’s on the older end of the millennial spectrum.) You rely heavily on Michael in this story — an anonymous source. Did the question of sourcing come up at all in the reporting or editing process? In the course of putting together the story, I also talked to a whole host of other people I didn’t end up quoting, including users of love-shy.com and similar forums, a historian of celibacy and many more people. It’s very much a character study, and Michael is the main character, but we worked hard to make sure that didn’t mean we were just telling “his version.” The story relates Michael’s perspective — but also has a perspective of its own, one informed by all the other sources.
The woman, still petting the beagle, started teasing Michael. She’d seen him with his dog at a party a few weeks back. “Tell me the truth,” she said, leaning in conspiratorially. “How many women have you slept with because of this dog?”
“Ha, ha,” Michael said stiffly. How do you build trust with someone like Michael, who’s prone to anxiety? It was a challenge because a person who’s actively using one of these sites is a very private person. … Over the course of several months, Michael and I would talk on the phone, about all kinds of things, including both his interest in helping me do the story and his reservations about it. So we started out talking on the phone, long before we met in person. … Michael was clearly trying to figure out to what extent I could or did understand where a lot of guys [in his world] are coming from… You ultimately end up talking a lot about your own experience to get them to feel comfortable with you.
He’s trim, around 5’10”, with a pale, angular face and light-brown hair that is thinning but definitely still there. Almost everyone I told about this article asked me, almost instantly, whether he was ugly—as in ugly to an extent that it would explain his sexlessness. The question made me sad, and resistant to describing Michael at all, as if to do so were to put my stamp of approval on our whole hierarchy of beauty. But here’s the thing: While I wouldn’t call Michael handsome, he struck me as a fine, average-looking guy. In fact, if I had to guess, I’d say the aspect of his appearance that gives him the most trouble is his default expression of protective skepticism. But the more time we spent together, the more I saw him react with curiosity or amusement, his mouth smiling almost against his face’s will, his gray eyes lighting up, calling to mind the image of an affable high school teacher still excited by his material—the kind of high school teacher you wouldn’t be surprised to find had a cute spouse at home.
“Really, I want to know,” the woman continued. “How many women?”
People on love-shy.com frequently commiserate over moments like these: moments where the assumption is that everyone is having sex, no big deal.
“Really,” Michael said. “None.” We really feel Michael’s frustration here — you’re putting us in his shoes. Do you think you could have gained his trust and gotten the same story if you were a woman? I’m pretty sure it helped that I was a guy. A lot of the conversations with him was me demonstrating that I knew enough about this landscape, and knowing where Michael was positioned within it. … One of the reasons I wanted to write the story is to show that not everyone [in the incel world] was cheering Elliot Rodger on. It was important to me that Michael knew that I had a less simplistic view of that world than that.
On May 23, 2014, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California, murdering six people and injuring 14 others. Rodger described his rampage as vengeance against attractive women for denying him sex and affection. Previous mass shooters—from Marc Lépine in Montreal in 1989 to Pittsburgh’s George Sodini in 2009—had expressed similar sentiments. Just last fall, Chris Harper-Mercer, the 26-year-old who killed nine people at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, was posting online about being “involuntarily” celibate.
What set Rodger apart from other “virgin killers” (as headlines have dubbed them) was that he left an extensive digital footprint in an Internet world dedicated to men complaining about their solo state. He’d even argued for a revolution of male incels: “If we can’t solve our problems, we must DESTROY our problems. One day incels will realize their true strength and numbers, and will overthrow this oppressive feminist system. Start envisioning a world where WOMEN FEAR YOU.”
Michael has nothing but scorn for Rodger, not just because of his senseless, horrific crimes, but also because his behavior demonizes chronically celibate men. Guys who can’t get women aren’t just losers and weirdos anymore. Now they’re losers, weirdos, and potential monsters. This contributes to a climate where, as Michael sees it, it’s better to “just keep quiet, because otherwise you can be misinterpreted in all sorts of negative ways.”
For Michael, our conversations were minefields, with the potential for misspeaking—or being quoted out of context—lurking in the shadow of every question. He frequently went off the record or sidestepped answering me directly. He emphasized that he’d never liked the “incel” idea in the first place (“It’s just a dumb term”) and that he no longer even thinks of himself as love-shy. Labels mean association. Association is dangerous. Even his own website is no good anymore. Too much hate, too many “crazy ideas.”
So why, I ask, is he still running the place?
“I don’t know,” he says. “Partly habit.” We’re sitting in the living room of his one-bedroom apartment. It’s late, the sun has set, and we’re both exhausted. That Michael is so conflicted about the site makes him an even more compelling character. And though him, you can explore more than one perspective. Yeah, Michael doesn’t identify as incel, and no longer even identifies as love-shy. It creates an interesting tension in the story.
Michael is tired because, on and off for more than 24 hours, he’s been stitching together a story he rarely tells in full, even to those closest to him. In his immediate family, which includes his divorced parents, a sister, and a brother, his mom is the only one he talks to about his nearly nonexistent love life, and then only sparingly.
I’m tired because it’s hard to look directly at the fact that some people, for all kinds of reasons, end up desperately alone, feeling frozen out of the joys of love and sex—joys that our culture is forever celebrating. I’ve also been laboring to determine the exact relationship between the person in front of me and the website he runs. For several weeks, I’d checked in on love-shy.com almost daily, and much of what I read there was blithely misogynistic—nothing as extreme as what Rodger posted, but pretty dark. Michael claims to think so, too. So why is the site still there? You’re anticipating the reader’s questions, but was there also a part of you that wanted to signal to the reader, Hey, I don’t believe this stuff? Yeah, I’m sure.
“I don’t know,” Michael says again, then looks me in the eye. “Do you think I should shut it down?” So what did you reply? My transcript has me saying “I have no . . . I’m just curious.” Reporting, especially for character-driven pieces, involves such a curious, improvised mix of disclosure and deflection. I imagine it has a thing or two in common with being a therapist. Or a detective.
Michael first discovered love-shy.com in his final year at a small liberal arts college in western Massachusetts, where he studied film. Four years prior, he’d arrived anticipating, like so many, a fresh start with dating and sex. But nothing ever materialized—not a single kiss in four years. Looking back now, Michael blames his inability to read signs. His one high school girlfriend, with whom he’d lost his virginity, completely drove their relationship. “She started kissing me,” Michael recalls, obviously still a little proud. Afterward, he assumed that’s what a girl would do if she really liked him—make the first move.
Even when he got strong evidence that someone was into him—one night, a young woman he’d gone to the movies with came back to his room and climbed into bed with him—he couldn’t be absolutely sure, and so he demurred, despite his attraction to her. “Maybe I was wrong, I don’t know. Maybe she didn’t want me to kiss her,” he says, bemused by his younger self’s naïveté yet still discouraged by his failure to know. “I really have no idea.” He sighs.
Such episodes are part of growing up. You want somebody but don’t know whether they could ever in a million years want you back. You’re terrified to assume, to just ask, to risk being wrong. You wonder whether anyone will want you, ever. As the heroine of Kingsley Amis’s The Anti-Death League put it, breathlessly, in 1966: “Is it now?”
For most of us, the mating dance becomes less fraught, of course. Maybe the uncertainty even becomes part of the fun. The embarrassing and intimidating interactions join a constellation of pleasant, even thrilling ones, which make the former lose some of their raw intensity.
But try to imagine what it would be like if, for whatever reason, those more gratifying moments never arrived. Imagine that, while everyone else your age appears to have figured out love and dating and sex, you stayed more or less stuck in time as a psychosexual teenager. Imagine, say, being in a movie theater in 2005, listening to the audience erupt in laughter at the preview for The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Imagine what Top 40 radio sounds like. Imagine reading on the dating website Match.com that 42 percent of users (33 percent of the men, 51 of the women) indicated they would not date a virgin.
In a 2001 study published in The Journal of Sex Research, Georgia State sociologist Denise Donnelly (now retired) and colleagues identified the sense of being sexually “off time” as central to the experience of self-described involuntary celibates. “It makes me feel like everyone else is going through some mythical gates into ‘grown-up land’ while I sit out in the courtyard with the children,” one of her subjects said. These feelings, Donnelly noted, tended to be self-perpetuating. Thinking you’re behind everyone else can provoke unhappiness or bitterness and diminish self-confidence. Being depressed and insecure can make you a lousy date. And so on.
“I feel,” Michael tells me, sounding a similar note, “like something about not having an adult relationship has really stunted my, uh, just general development.”
When he found love-shy.com during college, it was because he’d been Googling for tips about relating to women. Back then, the site consisted of little more than a downloadable copy of a 701-page, out-of-print 1987 book called Shyness and Love. Its author, a fringe social psychologist named Brian Gilmartin, had spent years traveling the country, interviewing 300 unhappily virginal men between the ages of 19 and 50 and looking for causes and cures for the condition he dubbed “love-shyness.” Upon its release, the book—which features baffling detours into astrology, spirit crystals, and past-life trauma—sank with hardly a trace. But in the early 2000s, it found a devoted audience online. (According to Gilmartin, who spoke to me from his home in rural Montana, it has also won him invitations to speak on love-shyness in Japan, where as many as one in four unmarried men in their thirties is a virgin, a disruption in romantic patterns that has been linked to a decline in Japanese job security.)
Michael was puzzled by the more occult sections of Shyness and Love, plus Gilmartin’s deadpan proposals such as therapist-certified coed “nude Jacuzzi therapy.” But he skipped over these parts, hungry to see his experience recognized in academic-sounding prose.
When Gilmartin’s book was published in the late 1980s, autism and Asperger’s weren’t part of mainstream America’s vocabulary. Today, much of what he calls “love-shyness”—trouble reading signs, stubborn obsessions—sounds like Asperger’s (the official name of which is now autism spectrum disorder). In fact, in later years Gilmartin estimated that at least 40 percent of love-shy men, himself included, had Asperger’s. Gilmartin presents himself as an expert, but clearly he has credibility issues — and you’re careful to make note of that. Could you talk about your decision to include his work? It’s a wacky book, from a vanity press. But I felt it was important to bring in his research even though it was not academic peer-reviewed research.
Michael has considered the possibility. But for him, the autism spectrum is another label to avoid. “I identify far more with just depression and anxiety,” he says (which are both frequently intertwined with autism spectrum disorders). “People hear Asperger’s, and they think you’re an idiot.”
Or worse: In a widely circulated, controversial New Yorker article published last fall, writer Malcolm Gladwell speculated that, while autism spectrum disorder generally leaves people open to exploitation, some with autism spectrum disorders might be drawn to copycat acts of mass violence. Because the scripts for Columbine right up to Umpqua are endlessly discussed and dissected online, they’re well placed to serve as fodder for obsession—and may lead to what’s known as “counterfeit deviance.” The phrase, Gladwell wrote, has been used to describe ASD teenagers who “obsessively collect” child pornography not due to a “twisted sexual urge but simply because that’s the way their curiosity is configured.” Rightly or wrongly, “Asperger’s” doesn’t sound much better to Michael than “incel.”
Within a year of graduation, he moved from Boston to a midsize West Coast city (one he asked me not to name). When he arrived, he knew no one; he was looking for adventure and hoping to break the postcollege malaise he’d been feeling back home, working at Whole Foods. For a few months, he enjoyed the solitude. He explored the city, went on hikes, and took in the landscape, living off savings. Without a job or obligations, he had a hard time making new friends, much less meeting women. “I almost talked to nobody, the whole time,” he says. “That’s when I started posting on the website.”
In the time since he’d first visited love-shy.com, its discussion forum had become more active. People—again, mostly men—shared their meager romantic histories, reliving fizzled connections in excruciating detail. They argued over the “pickup artist” school of thought that had become popular in the ’90s. (After the Isla Vista shootings, a prominent PUA figure argued that no one would have died if Elliot Rodger had only learned proper “game.”) They aired and re-aired the tired theory that women, no matter how much they say they want “nice guys,” actually prefer assholes. They talked about resentment, suicide, sex surrogates, and prostitutes, and wrangled over the relative importance of personality, income, intelligence, looks.
Michael took to visiting daily. “The website was sort of my therapy,” he says, the one place he felt free to say certain things and know that people would listen. There was lots of male ranting, but the users seemed to understand the need to rant sometimes. In its way, Michael insists, the discussion forum was a “very accepting sort of community.” When the site’s owner disappeared and the threat of a shutdown loomed, Michael stepped up to take over.
Adult virginity and celibacy are infrequently studied, but the available data suggests that a near equal percentage of American men and women go through life sexless. In the 15–24 age bracket, it’s 27.2 percent of men and 28.6 percent of women, according to a survey conducted between 2006 and 2008 by the Centers for Disease Control. In the 25–44 bracket, the figures plunge but remain close together: 1.3 percent of women, 1.6 percent of men. Including some research seems key to putting Michael’s personal experience, and society’s views of “incels,” in perspective. But with such little data available, was it difficult to determine the quality of that information and how to responsibly use it? Yeah, I thought about what to do because the research that’s out there is very limited. There’s the CDC data, and beyond that, there’s just one academic paper written by a Georgia State researcher — I quoted from her paper and one of her subjects — and Gilmartin’s book.
While the numerical picture is very similar for the two sexes, male virgins may be particularly prone to sharp feelings of deficiency because sexual prowess and profligacy are defining features of manhood in our culture. A survey of college students conducted in the early 1990s, also published in The Journal of Sex Research, found that among those who’d never had sex, “men felt greater embarrassment and guilt than did women.”
And perhaps obviously, feelings of inadequacy more readily morph into violence for men. “Anyone can feel bullied by gender norms, by norms of sexual attractiveness, and it can lead to distorted thinking, to anger,” says Ken Corbett, PhD, a psychologist who has written extensively on American masculinity and whose next book, A Murder Over a Girl, is about a transgender teen murdered by her junior high classmate. “But far, far, far and away more men than women tend to handle their anger through violence. Women in general have very different ways of handling aggression. They beat up on themselves or partake in mean-girl behavior. It’s violence, but it’s much less physical.”
None of this is to suggest that women are happy to go without sex: In a 2010 analysis of a 2002 CDC survey, 92.4 percent of 15- to 44-year-old female virgins said they experienced sexual desire and did not consider themselves asexual—virtually the same percentage as their male counterparts.
Such information is discounted, if not utterly ridiculed, however, on love-shy.com and other sites within the so-called “manosphere”—a sprawling, fractious network united by users’ contempt for feminism and its impact on gender relations. On some sites, PUAs share tips on how to attract women by projecting the only thing they respond to: male dominance. On others, MRAs (men’s rights activists) discuss strategies—from legal and political campaigns to psychological and physical harassment—for counteracting the influence of feminism, while posters on the Philosophy of Rape forum proudly declare themselves fed up with the pesky notion of sexual consent.
The manosphere regards female incels as essentially impossible, the logic being that men want sex so much that all women (straight ones, at least) can have it whenever they want. “That’s right, ‘female incel’ is an oxymoron,” reads a totally standard post. (Many have argued that a similar prejudice has seeped into autism spectrum research, the result being that diagnoses like Asperger’s have been shaped so that they catch more neuro-atypical boys and men than women. “Girls don’t get autism,” one woman recalled being told by doctors in The Guardian. “Act normal and read female magazines.”)
As for love-shy.com, perhaps it was less anti-woman in its early days, as Michael contends, but today it’s a cocktail of misery and defeatism—all mixed with a strong shot of misogyny:
“The bulk of my anger is over the fact that virtually all women are dishonest to the point that even they themselves believe the lies they tell.”
“The reality, and I make no apologies for saying this, is that the modern woman is an impossible to please, shallow, superficial creature that is only attracted to shiny things, e.g. looks and money….”
“I think feminism is the most destructive force in history.”
On one of the site’s forums, there’s a notice thread at the top welcoming women: “If you’ve come to LS.com because you think you are LS or incel yourself, tell us your story in good faith, and don’t expect any special treatment by virtue of being female (no ‘pussy pass’), and don’t be surprised if we tell you what we think, not what you want to hear. Lastly, don’t be surprised by the extreme replies you may receive.”
While Michael says the vitriol and indignation are misguided at best—”By becoming resentful, you’re not going to endear yourself to many women. I may have some of the same feelings, but I deal with them”—he doesn’t think love-shy.com should necessarily make itself more open to women. Women may have sex and dating travails, he says, pointing to how their “value, or perceived value, comes down to how attractive they are.” But their situation is so different from men’s that it would be “hard to have male and female people in the same place, getting along. Just too different.”
Okay. But how does he feel, I want to know, about keeping the lights on at a site that has become a hub for exactly the type of woman-hating he claims to disown? Here you’re challenging him, essentially calling him out on what appears to be a contradiction. When you pushed him, were you concerned at all that he would disappear? That was something that concerned me more earlier, when we talked on the phone. I really wanted to do the story, and I wanted to do it as a character story and [at that point] I didn’t have a character. But at a certain point — once I was with him in Boston — I wasn’t that worried. I did have the sense that despite his reservations, he wanted to tell the story, and he wanted to see and hear me respond.
We circle back to this question multiple times, not just this night in his apartment, but also over the phone and by e-mail in the weeks to follow. I get the impression that Michael is thinking out loud—jumping between explanations in a search for the most palatable way to justify the site’s ongoing existence. “It’s partly habit,” he says at first. There are people on the site he’s been talking to for years. The forums may be “mostly a cesspit,” but they’re still “way less dangerous” than the most extreme pockets of the manosphere, he says. There are still moderate posters, who function as a “buffer against it going completely to hell.”
During Michael’s second year on the West Coast, he started communicating privately with a woman from Toronto who’d wandered in looking for advice about a man she thought might be love-shy. Soon she and Michael were exchanging messages and e-mails, then talking on the phone. Before long, they began calling each other boyfriend and girlfriend and agreed to meet in Toronto. He was ecstatic. “I thought for sure it would work,” he tells me. But the spark they’d felt typing and talking across time zones seemed to vanish in person. “We did have sex,” Michael says, shrugging. But he had the demoralizing sense that it happened in large part “because she felt bad that she made me travel all that way.”
Michael was devastated—and jolted into reexamining his life, including love-shy.com. A lot of the users, he suspected, were using terms like incel and love-shy as an “excuse to not try to put in the work,” to just “bitch and complain.” Sure, it took more work for some people than others; sure, some had more options, faced fewer challenges. It wasn’t fair, but was that a reason not to try?
He moved back to Boston, where he got a job delivering groceries for an online supermarket. He bought a camera to shoot footage around the city, finally pursuing his interest in film. He rescued the beagle he still has today, and he began forcing himself to socialize. At first, each engagement—whether a party with a college friend or a hiking excursion organized by Meetup.com—filled him with dread as it approached, sapping his energy for weeks. “I might do, like, one thing a month,” he says, “and that would take up all my reserves.” But over time, it got less arduous. He also found a therapist he liked and was grateful for the chance to confide in a person in front of him rather than a far-flung swarm “dicking around on a stupid website,” as he puts it.
Today, he rarely posts about anything but sports on love-shy.com. I ask him how he felt when he heard about Isla Vista; Elliot Rodger hadn’t been using Michael’s site, but he’d been traveling in the same ecosystem. “I didn’t have a significant reaction,” Michael says. “It’s inevitable. This online community of so-called incels is big enough and it’s got enough depressed people, desperate people, that eventually one of these shootings was gonna come from one of these websites. It’s just the law of averages.”
Moments later, however, he seems fully aware that the anti-woman rhetoric on his site isn’t just unproductive for the men who spew it. Explaining why he spends less time on love-shy.com these days, he says that many of the regulars have moved on, replaced by a generation whose posts don’t interest him. “I skim them. But a lot of the time really all I’m doing is just making sure nobody’s threatening to do anything violent.”
How often does that happen?
“Um, frequently enough that I feel I have to keep tabs on the site…. It’s hard to give a number. Three or four times a year?”
I ask for examples. “I can’t think of anything too specific at this point,” he says. Before he was running the show, he recalls, there was a man who’d talked about murdering his girlfriend, then killing himself; a user called the police in the man’s home country, and he spent a night in jail.
“Vague threats…. We don’t get people talking about going on shooting rampages or anything—that has maybe happened once in 10 years.”
And when the news of Isla Vista broke, Michael knew it wasn’t nothing. He was in his car, listening to the radio; immediately he pulled over and contacted another of the site’s administrators. Keep an eye out for problematic comments, he instructed him. Stuff like: “This guy’s a hero.”
After several years in Boston, Michael still hasn’t dated anyone or followed up on any of the crushes he’s had: “I still kind of assume that, for whatever reason, she’s gonna say no.”
A woman from the hiking group asked him out, but he didn’t feel any chemistry: “I just couldn’t get interested. Which was, you know, frustrating.”
Because he feels psychologically younger than his age, he says he’d like to date younger women whose contact with the opposite sex more closely matches his own. “I wanna feel like we’re doing it in the beginning, or somewhat close to that.”
But why, I wonder aloud, would a woman necessarily need to be younger than him to have a similar level of experience?
“I’d be too suspicious,” he replies. “How come no guy wanted to date you?”
I can’t quite believe what I’m hearing. This is Manosphere 101: the exact type of myopic, double-standard nonsense that I’d thought—or allowed myself to believe, in pursuit of a tidy redemption narrative—that Michael was working past, or had put behind him.
With guys, he goes on, he understands longtime celibacy. They’re the ones who have to do the asking, put themselves out there. But women? “If you’re attractive enough for me to want to date you, there’s gotta be a reason someone never showed any interest in you. Or maybe someone did show interest and you didn’t reciprocate. And then I would question what your values were.”
But what about the girl from the hiking group? He hadn’t reciprocated.
“Yeah,” he says. “I’m just saying, like—I don’t know. It would be just a.… You gotta have some way to—you gotta have some set of standards.” Here you show him making some of the same judgments he accuses women of making. You’re calling him out, but it’s clear that the two of you have a relationship — he’s comfortable saying these things to you. Was it difficult to balance your role as a journalist with your experience of the situation as just a human being, reacting in the moment to something you disagree with? What he said surprised me and almost caught me flat-footed in the moment, because from the start I had invested in the idea of not doing a story about someone saying, “Death to women, all women are sluts, feminism is a power grab.” That idea that I was writing about a middle-ground voice in this community came very close to blinding me to the fact that Michael might have something to say that readers of Elle or whoever would find less than sympathetic.
Back in my hotel that night, I flip through my downloaded copy of Shyness and Love, repeatedly finding Michael, or people very much like him, in its pages. “Most love-shy men,” Gilmartin writes, “would like to somehow magically bypass what many of them perceive as the cruel indignity of dating, and just somehow wake up one morning married to the esthetically lovely, beautiful girl of their dreams.” Gilmartin floats some nutty fixes for this problem—how about genetic engineering so we’re all born gorgeous?—but his main solution is simple, which is not the same thing as easy. Love-shy men, he writes, “need to be helped to stop excessive daydreaming and to commence living!”