On April 23 of this year, our two co-authors were on opposite sides of the Atlantic reading the same news about a horrific incident in Toronto. 10 people were killed and another 16 injured by a man who chose to drive his van down a kilometer of sidewalk in the north end of the city.  Today marks the six-month anniversary of this senseless and tragic event.

Over the course of two posts, Alexandria and Allison will unpack some of the ideological parallels between incel groups, ideas put forward as gospel by complementarian authors, and toxic masculinity more broadly.

In part one, we will examine the notion of toxic masculinity and compare the ways that incel culture and complementarianism perpetuate themselves. In part two, we will turn our attention to the ideological and rhetorical parallels between these two groups.

A note: this post discusses violence against women.

Genteel toxicity is still toxic. It is perhaps all the more insidious because its mask of respectability hides its discursive damage. Like the white moderate bemoaned by Dr. King, the gentle toxicity of the complementarian worldview might pose as significant a hurdle to the well-being of our society as its more aggressive secular counterparts, like the incel movement. In some cases, these groups speak in one voice; in others, the complementarian expression of toxic masculinity is the incel movement’s gentler, less crude echo.

Christians who hold complementarian beliefs would certainly denounce the violent behavior of the Toronto van driver who was eventually arrested and charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder. Before committing his crime, he posted a message on his Facebook page indicating his actions were driven by misogyny. It also seems he targeted women as he set about his killing spree. As media reports about Men’s Rights Activists and “incels” made their rounds, this terrifying act brought viewpoints bred in some of the Internet’s darkest corners directly into the public eye. As we each took in some of the reporting on these movements, we saw many assumptions that were strikingly similar to what we have found in our separate research on complementarian theology. Regardless of complementarianism’s ostensible rejection of violence against women and extremist behavior, it embraces some of the key features of toxic masculinity that are also common to the misogyny that motivated the Toronto attacker. 

A term developed in the social sciences in the 1980s (and having undergone renovation since), toxic masculinity can generally be understood as a “constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence.”1 Toxic masculinity surfaces as a defense of (some) male individuals and hegemonic masculinity when an individual or group understands their identity or societal position to be under threat. Perceived threats can include the existence of gay people, the absence of sexual activity, independent women, social isolation, the legal system, and more. Within the constellation of toxic masculinity, the assumed boundaries of masculinity are aggressively policed. Challenges to male dominance are fought back against, both with words and with deeds.

There is a strong argument that toxic notions about masculinity are at play in acts violence (such as the Toronto van attack), when women are killed by their male partners, or in horrific mass shootings. These incidents spark a near-liturgical response in North American culture, as various officials and pundits often denounce such tragedy or terrorism but fail to address the root causes of widespread societal lament. “When people jump to blame mental illness instead of misogyny for this demonstrable pattern [of men committing acts of mass violence],” writes Aditi Natasha Kini, “they underestimate/undercut the violence of misogyny and undermine the safety of women. There is no diagnosis that all mass shooters share. Sexual entitlement is not in the DSM—but it’s chock full in unchecked online communities [where incels gather and share].”2

In an ironic foil to Betty Freidan’s “the problem that has no name,” toxic masculinity presents a scenario where we have a problem that has a name but one we seem afraid to speak. Coverage and analysis of the Toronto van attack seems to have broken some of the seal on the gendered elements of these events. Reporters have shown the links between participation in online misogynist groups and committing misogynist-motivated acts of violence. These groups create a narrative that suggests the mainstream way of seeing things is wrong and that a better way is possible when one views the world through the lenses they provide. These groups cast men and manhood as embattled and provide red pill solutions to their perceived problems.

Complementarian teachings also portray adherents as a minority group with all the right answers in a world that’s got it wrong. From the complementarian perspective, the world at large—seduced by feminism—has forgotten the separate and distinct roles divinely assigned to men and women. The system portrays male headship as both positive and necessary, prefers that mothers rear their children full-time and remain out of the paid workforce, and enjoys boundary policing between the genders. The main rhetorical strategy of this brand of evangelical sexism is undoubtedly a hyper-reliance on the biblical text to answer any and every question pertaining to even the most minute, innocuous aspects of our gendered lives: is it biblical for men to like to sing hymns that focus too much on love? What damage is done to a woman’s feminine beauty if she pursues a man romantically?

These are minor examples of the broader evangelical tendency to emphasize the “bible-centered” nature of the complementarian worldview as a whole. Their arguments have been most effective in more general “family values” discussions, since it’s hard to conceal how trivial it is to claim there’s a biblically-sanctioned worship lyric that godly men should enjoy singing. Still, these instances are indicative of the binary logic that governs male and female identity in complementarian circles, a logic that’s a mainstay of every community—incels included—that espouses some version of cultural sexism.

The pettiness of dividing music and dating preferences into male/female compartments is most likely not lost on the more prominent leaders of the complementarian movement. This inevitably compels them to focus most of their exegetical efforts on marriage and sexuality, and indeed these weightier topics are where conservative-leaning Christians are most eager to entertain sexist theology. Their ideas are given divine authority mainly through policing biblical interpretation, especially in their appeals to “perspicuity” or the plain meaning of a passage. This allows them to argue for the alleged autonomy of complementarian “truths” that, although conforming to historic Christian teaching, ultimately transcend church tradition in their view.

Of course, this is disingenuous—just as it is disingenuous for these neo-patriarchalists to claim that they derive support for their ideas solely from the bible and not from naturalistic fallacies. The key is to ground their belief system in some original order of nature that is, crucially, distinctly theological in character. In contemporary complementarian teaching, we are certainly seeing some flirtation with natural theology, even though those two words rarely (if ever) appear in the discourse of prominent conservative evangelical publications. Upholding God’s design for the created world is also the pretext of John Piper’s ministry Desiring Godthough biblical obedience is predictably foregrounded. For literalist-leaning biblicists, every theological argument begins and ends with some proof text or scriptural mandate. By contrast, the secular context in which incel groups operate leave them with no external divine authority to justify their views; they have only their personal grievance and sense of entitlement to motivate them.

In any case, it’s clear that complementarian gender teaching is much bigger than the bible: “Manhood and womanhood are the beautiful handiwork of a good and loving God,” proclaims Piper. “He designed our differences, and they are profound. They are not mere physiological prerequisites for sexual union. They go to the root of our personhood.”The entire premise of the “biblical manhood and womanhood” project is reclaiming a gendered relationship between men and women that is purportedly mandated by the bible but also coherent with God’s “handiwork,” i.e. the natural, created order. In reality, it perfectly conforms to the cultural vision of the relationship between men and women that has predominated in Western thinking for centuries. Similarly, incel ideology also makes its own (rather twisted and uninformed) appeals to natural law. Within these groups, a misunderstanding of human social evolution perpetuates the idea that society has undermined the ‘natural’ way of things. Like complementarians, members of the incel community have a conservative/regressive view of human history: they both believe that the better days were in the past.  



[1] Terry A. Kupers, “Toxic Masculinity as a Barrier to Mental Health Treatment in Prison,” Journal of Clinical Psychology 61, no. 6 (June 2005): 714

[2] Aditi Natasha Kini, “How Reddit Is Used to Indoctrinate Young Men Into Becoming Misogynists,” Vice, 15 November 2017 https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/gyj3yw/how-reddit-is-used-to-indoctrinate-young-men-into-becoming-misogynists

[3] “Created Male and Female by a Loving God.” Desiring God. https://www.desiringgod.org/topics/manhood-womanhood.

3 thoughts

  1. Speaking as a Catholic, I think there is something to the Catholic notion of complementarity, that there are significant differences between male and female and the sexes do in some sense “complement” each other. The problem is that this idea can be taken too far in all sorts of toxic and discriminatory directions which actually violate complementarity by not allowing women to assume their full role.

    1. Yes, there’s definitely some overlap and also some important differences between the Catholic teaching of sexual complementarity and (Protestant) evangelical complementarianism. This post addresses the later but I appreciate you pointing that out.

      I certainly don’t believe all sexual/gender complementarity theologies are equally restrictive or oppressive by default, but I do think once we commit to an ontological division of persons on the basis of their sex, we participate in arbitrarily reducing humans to one aspect of their personhood instead of considering them for the whole being that they are.

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. It seems you are making a rather stark judgment when you suppose that considering people’s sex results in “arbitrarily reducing humans to one aspect of their personhood”. Recognition of an individual’s sex does not force that conclusion. I wonder if you think that one’s sex is a miniscule, rather insignificant, portion of their personhood and, as such, should never be considered.

    I hope your concern about “arbitrarily reducing humans to one aspect of their personhood” is equally denounced in instances such as “all men are rapists” and Sen. Mazie Hirono’s statement to men: ‘Just shut up and step up’.

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