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Sex in Hysteria, the movie, and its relevance looking back 10 years after 9/11.

The soon-to-be-released movie Hysteria, judging from the trailor, looks like good clean fun on a scientificly, historically, and pretty racy subject.  Attitudes toward sex in Victorian England get explored in this movie with what seems to be relatively tasteful and historically acurate portrayals.

From a therapist’s perspective.  the Victorian era illustrates what happens when natural appetites are surpressed or unfulfilled.  The more suppression, the more obsession.  The more sex was seen as an unseemly activity, to be taken care of with minimum of attention, the more sexual expression in prostitution and masturbation became widespread.

In addition, as the movie highlights, sexual release which was deemed unimportant for women led to a lively new outlet.  Women who were in any way nervous, outspoken, depressed, anxious or in any way less than emotionally comfortable were hypothesized to have fallen victim to hysteria.  The treatment of choice for this illness: repeated sessions with a phsician for manual clitoral stimulation to orgasm.

While to our modern sensibilities, this solution to natural sexual urges strikes us as funny, and for the women themselves the frequent sexual experiences with their doctor may well have been fun. Yet the situation of women that created this odd solution was serious.  Denial of the reality of women’s sexual experience was a part of a larger denial of women’s presence in the essentially narcissistic culture of the men-only world they lived in.  Women had few legal or property rights, were treated more like fancily-dressed servents than as full human beings, and were expected, like children, to be more seen than heard.

The culture, encouraged by the popular books of the time, bought into conventional wisdom that for women sex was “at best revolting and at worst rather painful.”  The author of this quote from a 1984 book of sexual advice, Ruth Smythers, wrote her book Sex Tips for Husbands and Wives to help young fiances, about to face “the terrible experience of sex” for the first time.  Her main message to women was to “give it little, give it seldom and above all, give it grudgingly.”

As a psychologist rather than a cultural historian, I can’t help but speculate what personal experiences could have primed Ms. Smythers to offer such sad advice.  My clinical hunch is that Ms. Smythers’ perspective is that of a woman who, as a young girl, suffered sexual abuse at the hands of elders in her household.

This speculation is based on corroboration from the cases treated by the father of modern psychological understandings, Sigmund Freud.  The “hysterical” women that Dr. Freud treated in his medical practice lay on his couch to undergo his “talking cure.”  As they recalled painful buried memories from their childhood, the women fairly consistently reported experiences of molestation by fathers, uncles, or elder brothers, which seemed to have fostered development of “neurotic” emotions and also sexual inhibitions in them as adults.

Molestation of children leaves lifelong scars.  Often the impact is either aversion to sex, or hyper-focus on sex as a means of experiencing connection.  When the molestation is of boy children, the impact can be lifelong anger, sense of humiliation, and urge for revenge against figures of power.

This brings us to a contemporary concern as this weekend America will commemorate 10 years post the terrorism incidents in New York and Washington, DC of 9/11 in 2001.

High rates of childhood sexual abuse occur in the Islamic world, which, like Victorian England, tends to suppress both sex and women.  Sharia law expects women to take a submissive role.  In more traditional Islamic countries, women are expected not only to stay home, as was the custom in England, but when they go outside to imprison and hide themselves in black robes with all but their eyes visible to the world.

At this time of recalling 9/11, it is worth noting sexual frustration and sexual molestation have been pinpointed as sources of willingness of Islamic young men to become terrorist martyrs.  Young men in traditional Islamic cultures have no options for sexual release.  Dr. Tawfik Hamid, author of the books The Roots of Jihad and Inside Jihad, is himself a former member of a terrorist group in Egypt in which he was an associate of Zawahiri who is now the number one man in Al Quaeda.  Dr. Hamid explains why the extreme sexual frustration of young men in the Islamic world makes them easy prey for terrorism recruiters who promise that blowing themselves up (also a sexual release image) as suicide bombers will give them perpetual access in the afterlife to 62 virgins.

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

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

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

Since Marriage was not a realistic option (because of economic and social constraints) it was virtuallly impossible for us to have sexual relationships.  Even masturbation is considered a sin and was not allowed by many Islamic scholars… such a major sin that the person wil go to hell forever….  The sexual desires cultivated by the religion itself combined with no real expectation of achieving any sexual satisfaction in the near future crated extreme feelings of frustration and anxiety among us….We saw many people reaching the age of 40 without ever being with a woman because of their inability to afford the cost of marriage.

The over-stimulated sexual desires of young Muslims … and the hopelessness in soon having a marital relationship due to financial pressures, and dreams of beautiful women waiting in paradise engender frustration, anxiety and anger– all of these are contributing factors which encourage young Muslims to join radical Islamic groups where they then become steeped in terroirst Islamic beliefs such as encouragement “to commit suicidal attachs on infidels, and thus go immediately to paradise as martyrs and enjoy the beautiful ladies there, especially the 72 virgins.”   (pp. 54-56, The Roots of Jihad).

In addition, killing themselves in this manner that is so honored in the Islamic world may appeal because it enables young men to overcome the shame and humiliation they experienced from having been molested sexually as children.

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