The Economics of Sex

Sexual freedom and economic theory. What does it mean for men and women?

On Sex and Terrorism

What do sex and power have to do with terrorism?

What may sex and power have to do with terrorism?
Sexual repression and sexual abuse of children may increase the liklihood that a culture will spawn terrorism.
The recently-released movie Hysteria tackles a scientific, historically true, and racy subject: how sexual repression in Victorian England led to the invention of the vibrator. The movie looks fun, and the reasons for inventing the vibrator are funny. At the same time, parallels between Victorian England and contemporary terror-spawning Islamic countries merit serious attention.

Terrorism is a large-scale form of domestic violence.  Terrorists attack citizens much like domestic violence offenders attack their spouse or children.  What can Victorian hysterics teach us about Islamic suicide bombers and other terrorist killers? And about Islamic leaders who organize these attacks and the cultures that support them?

From a therapist's perspective, the Victorian era illustrates what happens when natural sexual appetites are squelched. The more suppression, the more obsession.

As the movie highlights, sexual release was deemed especially unimportant for women. Victorian women had few legal or property rights, were treated more like fancily-dressed dolls than as full human beings, and were expected, like Victorian children, to be seen but not heard. If you think you need to learn how to communicate with your spouse, imagine the blocks to healthy marriage relationships in this age of male dominance.

Encouraged by the marriage help books of the time, many Victorians believed the conventional wisdom that sex for women was of questionable appropriateness.  Repression of sexual feelings, and an assumption that sex was a hidden necessitity rather than a vibrant and enjoyable aspect of life,  resulted in a society with relatively high rates of sexual molestation of children.  

This speculation is based on the multiple cases reported by the father of modern psychological understandings, Sigmund Freud. Freud treated "hysteria" patients with his new "talking cure." To his surprise, virtually all the women he treated recalled disturbing childhood memories of sexual molestation.

Psychologists now understand that early negative sexual experiences can foster emotional brittleness and sexual inhibitions in adulthood. Especially if they have been unable to discuss the experience with supportive adults, children who have been molested retain lifelong scars.

Sexual molestation in girlhood tends to create a sense of powerlessness and fragility, plus either aversion to sex or hyper-focus on sex as a means of emotional connection as the girls become young adults. Molestation of boy children by contrast creates lifelong anger, sense of humiliation, urge for revenge against those with power, and a need to prove that they can be dominant...which brings us to the contemporary issue of Islamic terrorism.

Much of the Islamic world, as in Victorian England, gives low status and rights to women, tolerates high rates of childhood sexual abuse of both girls and boys, and suppresses sexual enjoyment. These conditions provide fertile breeding ground for terrorism.

SUBMISSION OF THE "WEAKER" SEX Traditional Islamic Sharia law expects women to take a submissive role. Husbands are allowed to beat a wife who does not do what he asks. While, like many Victorian couples, many Muslim spouses in fact treat each other respectfully, too many have been taught that domination is the preferred means to domestic tranquility. The goal of jihad, which was the motivation for the 9/11 terrorists, is for Islam to dominate around the globe. Domination is learned at home.

SEXUAL ABUSE When I was lecturing several years ago in Beirut, a psychologist colleague shared with me her growing concerns about the frequency of molestation of children, and especially of boys, in Arab society. When she first began private practice as a therapist, she lamented, virtually every male in her caseload eventually turned out to be dealing with emotionally crippling experiences of sexual abuse by older males.

As one writer reports in an article entitled Pedophilia Plagues Middle East:

"The sexual abuse of young boys by Afghan military and police personnel is so commonly known that Canadian and other foreign soldiers have coined a phrase for it; they call it "Man-Love Thursdays," although at least one soldier has noted that the rape of kids also took place on other days.'

'Man-love Thursdays' are not confined to the Afghan military or just Afghanistan.

The sexual abuse of children is a common and, in many middle-eastern and eastern countries, officially sanctioned. In the Western world we refer to the 'activity' as a crime - pedophilia - and have, certainly in the U.S., implemented draconian consequences for anyone who participates in it. Not so in the Middle East."

SEXUAL FRUSTRATION Dr. Tawfik Hamid writes in his books The Roots of Jihad and Inside Jihad about his medical school years in Egypt when he was an active member of a terrorist organization. Within the group Tawfik especially admired one of the smartest and most articulate older medical students, Ayman al-Zawahiri, former associate of Bin Laden and, since Bin Laden's death, the number one man in Al Qaeda.

Dr. Hamid, now a terrorism policy consultant in Washington and an Islamic scholar who seeks more peaceful interpretations of Islamic texts, explains how he and his friends were convinced to join the terrorist movement. Extreme sexual frustration makes young Islamic men easy prey. They are expected to have zero sexual release until marriage, and marriage in these economic times can be delayed until as late as a man's 40's. Recruiters lure potential suicide bombers with assurances that blowing themselves up will give them perpetual access in the afterlife to 72 beautiful virgins.

As Dr. Hamid writes about his adolescent years in Egypt:

"Our sexual desires were dramatically stimulated from reading Islamic books. The following Hadith and Quranic verses illustrate how these books increased our sexual curiosity:

(78:33) Young women with pubertal breasts are waiting for you in paradise.

(55:72) Ladies with beautiful, big, and lustrous eyes are waiting for you inside the tents (in paradise).

The over-stimulated sexual desires of young Muslims ... the hopelessness in soon having a marital relationship, and dreams of beautiful women waiting in paradise engender frustration, anxiety and anger. These factors encourage young Muslims to join radical Islamic groups where they then become steeped in terrorist Islamic beliefs such as committing suicidal attacks on infidels to go immediately to paradise as martyrs so they can enjoy the beautiful ladies there, especially the 72 virgins." (pages 54-56, The Roots of Jihad)

In sum, emotionally, economically and politically empowered individuals with robust sexual lives provide a foundation on which healthy political systems can grow. The foundations of terrorism in domination and abuse, and particularly sexual abuse of children, must be addressed for the world to become a better place for all of us: terrorists and victims, Middle Easterners and Westerners, women and men.


Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two.  A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is an interactive website that teaches the skills for marriage success,

The Economics of Sex