Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

Sex Against War

We'd all be safer if guys like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab got laid occasionally.

In Britain's Independent, Howard Jacobson makes a very good point about how a little fun could defuse a lot of the terrorist threat.

Terrorist groups, he writes, look for "partially educated, preferably pampered, but certainly crestfallen young men for whom the usual safety valves of dissoluteness have for some reason failed to open." He goes on,

We should remember this when we rail against the morals of the young. Next time we are honked at by a stretch-limoload of vomiting adolescents we should give a little prayer of thanks. As long as they're out on the town pissed they're not in their rooms drawing up plans to blow up aeroplanes. Ditto sex. Here's hoping they're getting as much of that as they can handle, too. It's not a 100 per cent proof, but, in the main, intercourse is a great solvent of ideology. Whatever you think of the pure in mind, beware, reader, the pure in body.

Sounds like he's joking, but there's plenty of evidence to support his point. Any criminologist will confirm that the great bulk of crime in America is committed by unmarried young men. The best way to turn a criminal away from crime is for him to get hitched to a woman and become a father (though there's surely a strong cause/effect conflation in that one).

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The underwear bomber appears to have been just another lonely, horny, frustrated young man feeling bitter and disconnected -- the perfect victim for an ideology that promises to make him a hero with all the admiring female attention he could want. If young men are designed by evolution to be obsessed with sex, like dogs in heat, you've got to wonder what kinds of destructive energies are created and compounded by ideologies telling them these feelings are shameful -- feelings common to both Islamic and Christian fundamentalism.

If our distorted relationship with human sexuality is the source of much of this frustration, confusion, and ignorance, societies with less conflicted views should confirm the causal connection. Developmental neuropsychologist James Prescott found that bodily pleasure and violence seem to have an either/or relationship—the presence of one inhibits development of the other. In 1975, Prescott published a paper in which he argued that “certain sensory experiences during the formative periods of development will create a neuropsychological predisposition for either violence-seeking or pleasure-seeking behaviors later in life.” On the level of individual development, this finding seems obvious: adults who abuse children were almost always victims of childhood abuse themselves, and every junkyard owner knows that if you want a mean dog, beat the puppy.

Prescott applied this logic on a cross-cultural level. He performed a meta-analysis of previously gathered data on the amount of physical affection shown to infants (years of breastfeeding, percentage of time in direct physical contact with mother, being fondled and played with by other adults) and overall tolerance for adolescent sexual behavior. After comparing these data with levels of violence within and between societies, Prescott concluded that in all but one of the cultures for which these data were available (forty-eight of forty-nine), “deprivation of body pleasure throughout life—but particularly during the formative periods of infancy, childhood, and adolescence—is very closely related to the amount of warfare and interpersonal violence.” Cultures that don’t interfere in the physical bonding between mother and child or prohibit the expression of adolescent sexuality show far lower levels of violence—both between individuals and between societies.

A world full of angry, frustrated, isolated young men with nothing and no one to live for is a very dangerous place.

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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