To say that we in the West live in a sex-craved society is putting things mildly. From TV shows where sexual humour is pervasive (for what it is worth, I think The Big Bang Theory would be a lot funnier without so many sex jokes and no, I am not a prude!) to advertising it appears that we are obsessed with sex. Maybe we are and maybe we aren’t, and maybe we always have been. I have no expertise in this area so I will just leave my observations at that.
Some have suggested that a particular sub group which is REALLY fanatical about sex is the world of jihadis – Islamist extremists. This is, of course, a phenomenon I have worked in and studied for almost two decades and if there is one thing that the public knows a little about – in part because it is tied to sex – it is the supposed jihadi fantasies about the ‘houris‘ – the virgins in Paradise that await them after they have died doing their ‘religious duty’ (fard ayn) as terrorists. Their mythology tells them that 72 of these celestial beauties are at their disposal and at times the ‘literature’ on these women is (perhaps unintentionally) hilarious. I read of one jihadi cleric who stated authoritatively that each second of sex with a houri lasts 1,000 years and that the virgins ‘re-virginise’ after each sexual act. You can’t make shit like this up!
The question remains, however: how important is this fantasy in the radicalisation to violence process or in the decision to engage in a suicide attack? The answer, based on what I have seen is: it depends.
A friend of mine, Dr. Simon Cottee (a criminologist at the University of Kent), has just penned a well written op-ed piece in the New York Times in which he states that some see “a connection between sexual frustration and the murderous rage of jihadist suicide bombers” (he starts his article with a reference to last week’s attack in Toronto by an alleged incel ?follower? and makes interesting comments about parallels with the jihadis). Dr. Cottee cites for example the horror that Sayyid Qutb, one of the most important jihadi ideologues, had about open American sexual expression and statements made by one of the 9/11 hijackers. He rightfully notes, however, that “jihadist violence is about far more than just sexual frustration.”
So, what role if any does sexual obsession, or sexual frustration, play? Based on my experience at CSIS I would have to say “not as much as you might think”. In all the cases I worked on – more than 400 over a 13-year period (Dr. Cottee does acknowledge that his views are based on anecdotal data) – I rarely encountered overt language about the 72 virgins. Yes, some of the people we were investigating did look at pornography (some looked at it a lot). But many of those that went on to become foreign fighters or plan acts of terrorism in Canada or abroad were also married or in significant relationships. Based on this I can assume that access to sex was not always a problem. True, this does not mean that these radicalised men did not still harbour unfulfilled sexual fantasies but it rarely if ever struck me that these fantasies were the primary factor for their ideologies and actions.
Interestingly and as a side note, paradise held two other ‘benefits’ that I interpreted as more enticing than ‘perpetually revirginising virgins’. Martyrs were told that their sacrifices would cleanse them of all their previous sins (such as watching porn or going to strip clubs) and that once ensconced in heaven they could help get 70 of their relatives into paradise as well upon their deaths. Those are pretty good enticements, no?
I do not disagree with Dr. Cottee that sex or the lack thereof can be a motivating factor for some young men who get to such a level of frustration and anger that they take out these feelings on society at large (or women more specifically). And I agree that Islamic conservative values can exacerbate these feelings. But I want to stress that seeing sex as the primary reason for terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists is simply not backed up by the data, at least not by the data I used to work with (I cannot speak for incel attacks and more basic misogyny).
If there is one thing that may strike people as remarkable it is the preponderance of young men, whether jihadis or the far right or incel (and we all know what young men are always thinking about!). But even here, not all Islamist extremists are young and/or male. Maybe the others are: I can’t speak to that.
We will continue to hunt for the magic answer to radicalisation and terrorism and we will continue to find that there is none. Contributions like that of Dr. Cottee are useful in that they help draw parallels among different types of violent extremism but they also remind us that this is a very complicated field.