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How Do Sex and Power Abuses Lead to Terrorism and War?

What motivates Islamic jihadists to initiate violence, brutality and wars?

This post is in response to
What Domestic Batterers Can Teach Us About Terrorism

What may sex and power have to do with terrorism?
Sexual repression and abuse of children create a culture that spawns terrorism and war.

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 (Al Qaeda), as well as rocketing (Hamas) or invasion of neighboring countries (ISIS, Boko Haran) to initiate war, is a large-scale form of domestic violence. Terrorists attack citizens much like domestic violence offenders attack their spouse or children. What can Victorian ethics 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, and eventually, the more aggression.

Victorian women, like contemporary women in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other countries ruled by strict Islamic Sharia law, had few legal or property rights, were treated more like fancily-dressed dolls than as full human beings. If you think you need to learn how to communicate with your spouse, imagine the blocks to healthy marriage relationships in societies that encourage these extremes of male dominance and female powerlessness.

Alas, add repression of sexual feelings to a society where those with power are allowed to exploit it and you get a society with high rates of sexual molestation of children.

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

Psychologists now understand that early negative sexual experiences can foster shame and emotional fragility 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 can create a sense of powerlessness plus either aversion to sex or hyper-focus on sex as a means of emotional connection as the girls reach adolescence and young adulthood.

Molestation of boy children is equally bad or even worse in its longterm consequences. It can create lifelong anger, sense of shame and 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 and jihad, which is the goal of making Islam dominant over all other religions and peoples.


Much of the Islamic world today, as in Victorian England of yesteryear, gives low status and rights to women, tolerates high rates of childhood sexual abuse of both girls and boys, and suppresses sexual opportunity for young men and women until, at an increasingly late age (because of economic constraints) marriage.

These conditions provide fertile breeding ground for terrorism and eagerness to go to war. Why?

Joining Islamist groups like Hamas, ISIS, Nusra, Al Qaeda, Boko Haran and the like cover shame with pride. Young men can shed their inner feelings of humiliation at having been sexually abused by becoming fighters. Remember, traditional Islamic law forbids homsexually. Forget about "coming out" about gay experiences and impulses. Where extremist Islam rules the country, they hang homosexuals.

Terrorist movements also gain eager young recruits in response to a promise of 70 virgins if they should have the good fortune of dying as a martyr (Shahid) in fighting for jihad, ie., to give their particular Islamic group power over others, Islamic and otherwise.

Lastly, jihadist Islam says that you can please G-d, that is, that you are a hero, if you fight to dominate and destroy non-believers. Instead of feeling like a failure, you can be a good person and a hero by becoming a brutal killer.

Please do not take my word for this. It is thoroughly documented in book after book. My favorites are by a former Al Qaeda terrorist, Dr. Tawfik Hamid. See below for more from this brilliant and courageous Egyptian man, now living here in the US.


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. Domination thus is learned at home.


When I was lecturing several years ago in Beirut, a Lebanese psychologist shared with me her growing concerns about the high 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, in his youth, having been sexually abused 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."


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 Muslim men 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)

So, in addition to the teachings of jihad, that domination is good, what are some of the deeper psychological roots of the rampant violence and war in so many Islamic/Arab countries such as the fighting recently and/or currently in Libya, Syria, Gaza, Iraq? And why would it be so dangerous for Iran to succeed in its quest for nuclear bombs?

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 by contrast lie in domination and both physical and sexual abuse in families, and particularly sexual abuse of children., These deeper root causes, plus the [false] belief preached by jihadists that Islam requires Muslims to dominate over and even kill non-believers, must be addressed for the world to become a safe place for terrorists and their victims, for Middle Easterners and for Westerners, for men, for women and for our globe.

Remember: explosion of 60 nuclear bombs, and Iran is building many, many more, can bring on a global nuclear winter.


Susan Heitler, PhD, a graduate of Harvard and NYU and a Denver clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including most recently Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief from Depression, Anger, Anxiety and More. If more young men had access to these understandings, perhaps they would not be drawn to commission of acts of terror.