Sex & the Psychology of Authoritarian Ideologies

A mysterious Middle Eastern woman wearing a black Niqab.
by Rosa Ann Seidler, Leiden University, The Netherlands
November 6, 2017

Sex negation in patriarchies is not only the point of origin for authoritarian ideologies but also their breaking point. Psychological constraints on sexual expression for all sexes and age groups allow and guard authoritarian ideologies across history. The psychoanalyst and sex-economist Wilhelm Reich envisions “the formation of the authoritarian structure [to take] place through the anchoring of sexual inhibition and sexual anxiety” (1947, 2, 69). In this vein, he reasons that the “sexual perversion” mirrored in patriarchal religions also secures political totalitarianism (Reich 1947, 2). Sex negating ideologies and authoritarian governments thus mutually reinforce each other.

In 1933 psychoanalyst Reich set the foundation stone in the contentious study of fascism and religion in the wake of fascist ideology in Europe. Three decades later, Middle Eastern political scholars began drawing parallels between fascism and Islamism (Halpern 1963, Rodinson 1979, Arjomand 1984, Herf 2010). To be sure, Islamism is not synonymous with the Muslim faith. According to The Washington Institute, a well regarded international think tank, “Islamism is not a form of the Muslim faith or an expression of Muslim piety. It is, rather, a political ideology that strives to derive legitimacy from Islam.”

Since 2001, terrorist attacks in the “Western world” have brought further attention to the study of the two ideologies (Abdel-Samad 2014). The pointed-out parallels between fascism and Islamism range from nationalism and leadership cult to anti-Semitism and the acceptance of violence, including inherent claims to ideological and religious superiority (Samad 2014). However, while these identified similarities describe outer characteristics of autocratic regimes, they fail to diagnose the underlying disturbance in the host communities (Croitoru 2014; Stauffer 2014). Reich’s analysis, on the other hand, delves deeper and examines the societal family structures in communities in which totalitarian ideologies emerge. He thus focuses on the origins of autocratic ideologies, not their expressions, namely the parallels scholars identified between them.

Correspondingly, this article will turn the tables and treat totalitarian ideologies as a symptom of disease in societies, not as the disease itself. Reich’s analysis of mass psychology in the 1930s examines the human psyche by focusing on the influence of self-imposed destructive psychological constraints (i.e. sexual inhibition) on political responsiveness in societies during their development towards fascism. His findings, however, have not lost relevancy as illustrated through their application to contemporary authoritarian ideologies, such as Wahhabism. Methodologically, this article will conduct a comparative study between two societal structures in which the totalitarian ideologies of fascism and Islamism historically flourished, concentrating on the society’s patriarchal character and interrelated sexual repression.

To this end, three logical steps divide the thematic structure of this article:  (I) Firstly, the influence of sexual repression on the individual’s role in society and its relation to fascism is clarified; (II) Consequently, concepts of Islamism and fascism are differentiated, and the contemporary scholarly debate of Islamism to fascism is put into context; (III) Then to apply Reich’s thesis to Wahhabism, the cultural expressions of patriarchy in the Saudi society are assessed; (IV) Finally, to contrast the two societies applying Reich’s analysis of the sex-economy of fascism, the mass psychological traits that Islamism and fascism share are analysed. Despite socio-cultural and religious differences between the cradle of fascism in Europe and the birthplace of radical Islam in the Middle East, racially and religiously supported totalitarian ideologies are built on similarities in societies, namely, patriarchy and sexual repression.


The Relationship between Sexual Repression, Patriarchy & Fascist Ideologies

Psychological repression of sexuality in societies starting at “the structure of the authoritarian miniature state” – the family – is not limited to causing individual harm but grows, instead, into a societal disease (Reich 1947, 26). Fascist ideologies, consequently, continue to reinforce “sexual inhibition and sexual anxiety” (Reich 1947, 26). In the past century many renowned psychologists, most prominently Freud and Menninger, have addressed the negative physical and mental health consequences of suppressing sexual needs. Reich’s approach to sexuality, however, surpasses that of Freud, who initially advocated that a “child is first of all a sexual being,” and adds to that of Menninger, who linked varieties of self-mutilations to forceful repression of sexual desires conforming to societal norms (Reich 1947, 294, 20-21; Menninger 1966 [1938], 239).

The psychoanalyst embraces the novel awareness of omnipresent sexuality put forward by Freud and shares alertness of the harmful effects on health identified by Menninger. Yet instead of finding the harm restricted to the individual mental and bodily state, he argued that the damage extended to affect societal structures at large (1947, 26). Therefore, rather than revealing the “pathological effects” of sexual repression “on the individual” as psychoanalysis does, the “sex-economic sociology” practised by Reich in The Mass Psychology of Terrorism focuses on the political and ideological role of sex-negation in society (Reich 1947, 67). He identifies an interplay between suppression of sex in patriarchies and emergence of autocracies. To understand the effect of sex-negation on political awareness, Reich emphasizes the necessity to study the family, where “the economic and the sex-economic situation of patriarchal societies” are combined (1947, 69).

According to Reich, suppressing sexuality from infancy onwards cannot be adequately justified by religious instruction or moral and cultural philosophy of Freudian origin (1947, 67). Sexual inhibition in civilisations occurs at a late stage, the sex-economist argues, profiting “the interest of a minority” and is not inherent to a culture or religion (1947, 68). Cultural activity does not benefit from sex-negation; however, patriarchal autocracies do. Sexual anxiety – a consequence of sexual suppression – guides the behaviour of the individual, paralyzing his or her role in society. Reich recapitulates the phenomenon as follows:  The suppression of “natural sexuality in the child, particularly genital sexuality, makes the child apprehensive, shy” and “obedient” (Reich 1947, 25).

Repression of the child’s sexuality denies the gratification of primitive sexual needs, which, as opposed to “the suppression of the gratification of primitive material needs” leading to rebellion, paralyses revolt (Reich 1947, 25-26). Furthermore, suppression of rebellion is unconscious to the masses raided of their sexuality (ibid.). Differing reactions to the denial of the two different substances is anchored in society. Mysticism of religion, concepts of purity and cultural ideals of honour and asceticism constitute the framework perpetuating sexual anxiety in contrast to rebellion in light of material poverty (Woltmann 1947, 367; Reich 1947, 26).

Sex-negation in children, therefore, inhibits “rebellious forces” because disobedience translates into anxiety (Reich 1947, 25). This, accordingly, extends to other domains of social life. Reich claims that by preventing “sexual curiosity” and “sexual thinking” in a child, a general fear toward political criticality and curiosity develops. Character-analytic investigations show that, especially during the first years of childhood, imposing restrictions on sexual behaviour are consequential because the intertwining of “the socio-economic and the sexual structure as well as in the structural reproduction of society” takes place in this time frame in the patriarchal family (Reich 1947, 24).

At the cost of generalization, it can be argued that fascism is the answer to patriarchal longing. Reich clarifies the support for totalitarian systems in sex-negating patriarchies arguing that, instead of one being a clearly articulated policy of the other, their relationship is threefold:

  1. Suppression of sex creates a structure with an interest in “actively supporting the authoritarian order;”
  2. “The process makes the mass individual passive and unpolitical” (Reich 1947, 27, 26);
  3. As Reich already presumed in 1933, repression of “natural sexual satisfaction” results in different kinds of “substitute gratifications” – traits essential in war, such as “natural aggression” and “brutal sadism” (1947, 27).

It is, therefore, in the totalitarian system’s interest to protect itself through discourses and narratives spread in media and religion to avoid rebellion and population uprisings. The family is the “factory” of ideology for society, a function continued by religious institutions (Reich 1947, 51), which will be addressed in the following section.
Sexual suppression is that of producing an individual who is adjusted to the authoritarian order and who will submit to it in spite of all misery and degradation (Reich 1947, 25).
The Scholarly Debate on Islamism & Fascism

The Wahhabi doctrine differs from Sunni and Shia (طائفة) denominations, as well as their numerous subordinate schools (مذهب), in that it is not only severely fundamentalist and restrictive but also intertwined with state ideology. In Saudi Arabia, the governing Al Saud heir not only embodies the ruling party but also the righteous Islamic leader. Wahhabi teachings are, therefore, the glue that holds Saudi society together. Both religious devotion as well as societal obedience are secured through Abd al Wahab’s teachings.

Its impact, therefore, exceeds the religious domain and encompasses economic and social structures to an extent greater than any school belonging to the two major denominations of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. Wahhabi societal structure can, thus, not be understood as a strictly “puritan” reading of religious scriptures, as is claimed, but needs to be seen in a larger sociologic, historic and economic context (Abisaab 2000, 312). Patriarchy and the accompanied male-gender privileges, and the visible suppression of sexuality in women and children, and Wahhabism mutually sustain and nurture each other.

The similar social structures in the two states explain parallels between the two authoritarian systems. Nevertheless, these initial parallels have to be analysed in a differentiated manner to understand the nature of the distinct ideologies – Wahhabism and fascism. Contemporary academia has engaged intensively with fascism and Islamism while at times distorting realities or resorting to simplifications. In the previous sections of this analysis, Islamism and fascism were both defined as being totalitarian ideologies.

At this stage, a thorough distinction shall be made:  On the one hand, fascism is defined by Reich as “a political movement [which] differs from other reactionary parties in that it is supported and championed by masses of people” (Reich 1947, 13-14). Moreover, it is a “mixture of rebellious emotions and reactionary ideas” (ibid.). The most recent Oxford entry defined fascism as a “political system characterized by dictatorship, strong socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and often militant nationalism and racism” (Mayhew 2015, Oxford-Dictionaries).

Islamism, on the other hand, is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “Islamic militancy or fundamentalism” and is not to be confused with Islam. As opposed to Islamism, Islam is not an ideology but a religion (2017, Oxford-Dictionaries). Militancy abuses Islam as a justification in the same way fascism exploits the race theory to back its ideology (Reich 1947, 13). However, in contrast to religion, the latter “forms the basis of economic theory and policy” (2017, Oxford-Dictionaries). It is precisely this distinction that is so often blurred in academic debates on Islam. In 2014, Hamed Abdel-Samad published a book titled “Islamic Fascism” in which he not only argues that Islamism is a form of fascism but also accuses Islam of having fascist tendencies (Pfahl-Traughber 2014, Web).

Despite once being of Muslim faith himself, he continues to deliver essentialist arguments stating that Islam is a religion calling for an infallible leader, anti-Semitic sentiments and a strong opposition against modernity and Marxism (Pfahl-Traughber 2014, Web). What he fails to mention, however, is that he describes human, fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and not Islam as such. A poignant awareness was described by Pfahl-Traughberger, who identified extremism and totalitarianism as a common denominator accounting for many other similarities. Samad disagrees that these features would showcase similar findings within other religions, saying that followers of other faiths do not commit terror attacks of equal proportions (Finger 2015, Web).

Moreover, he is comparing Islamism to other religions implying Islamism is a religion, not an authoritarian ideology. Yet, a similarity between these ideologies is the sanctuary both Islamism and fascism provide. A former Islamist describes his experience among militants as an initially positive experience. He found a father-figure in the leader, a purpose in life – a mission- and the loss of accountability for one’s actions (Biazza 2015, Web.). These positive sentiments can quickly manipulate followers into committing violent, brutal crimes – a reality demonstrated by both ideologies of Islamism and fascism.

This, nevertheless, does not constitute an exclusivity between militants taking advantage of Islam as opposed to other religions. Despite their different standpoints, Samad corresponds with Reich in that both believe “fascism is in some ways related to monotheism” (Biazza 2015 Web). Although it is unclear what Samad precisely had in mind, Reich equally sees a connection, arguing that fascism is “the extreme expression of religious mysticism”. Furthermore, he contends that it is fascism that “changes the masochistic character of the old patriarchal religions into a sadistic religion” (Reich 1947, 15). These statements support the assumption that the sex-economist views Islamism as a vehicle to solidify fascism and not vice versa.

At this point it has to be reminded that Reich referred to religion in general, not Islam in particular. The securing of ideologies with religious teachings is not exclusive to Islam. It occurs with all monotheistic religions – Christianity and Judaism included (Reich 1947, 15). Moreover, patriarchy is not inherently an indication for a totalitarian system in the respective society. But according to Reich, it is a precondition needed for fascist, totalitarian ideologies to gain a hold. Contemporary scholars, however, mistakenly understand radical Islam as a manifestation of the Muslim faith instead of an autocratic ideology enabled through psychological collective sex-negation. Their comparison largely rests on the misassumption that radical Islam is representative of Islam.


The Sex-Economy of the Patriarchal Wahhabi Society

Sexual inhibition and gender segregation constitute a central element in the Wahhabi society. The difference between expression of male dominance in Saudi Arabia compared to that in other countries of predominantly Muslim faith is commonly observable. Mouhanad Khorchide, a German-Lebanese scholar of Islam, describes the different societal structures he experienced growing up in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, and elaborates on the large segregation between male and female in the Wahhabi state in his book Islam is Mercy (title trans. from German, 2012).

Women and men are separated in their social networks:  Women visit malls whereas men meet in coffee houses, and in order to socialize during family visits guests divide according to sex (Khorchide 2012, 18). In the same vein, religious doctrine classes at sexually segregated schools proclaim sexual interest in the opposite sex a sin. To support such statements, girls were not only taught in separate classes but also separate buildings (Khorchide 2012, 20). If the Wahhabi tradition was upheld, girls and boys would consequently not come into contact with one another until marriages were arranged.

Sexuality in the Wahhabi society, following marriage, is only permitted to men. Women are consequently watched by patrolmen (“mutawi’in”) from the “Society for the Promotion of Virtue and of Prevention of Vice” (Abisaad 2000, 312). This suppression of sexuality in the Saudi Arabian patriarchy is justified through Islamic doctrine, namely Sharia, which is derived from Qur’anic interpretations not text (Morocco World News 2013, Web). Women’s sexuality, or lack thereof, is equally emphasized in the Wahhabi constitution, which notably serves both as the religious and legislative framework of their society (Morocco World News 2013, Web).

Consequently, women are legally prompted to disguise their femininity and to cover themselves in loose, black clothing. Another example of a personal status law concerning women is the ban on women driving. It is one of many narratives in the Middle East where the ban on women steering cars stems from the prophet’s ban on unmarried women riding hoses, as this could tear their hymen before marriage. This archaic prescription is not only inapplicable to driving cars but also carries gender and sexuality into the personal status sphere of women. Recently, Gulf psychologists released a report, backed by Saudi Arabian clerics, stating that “driving affects the ovaries” and can cause health problems in the children of driving women (Reuters 2013, Web.) These personal status laws are assisted by religious ideology, which makes protests targeting the ruling system, as well as the religion, a dangerous pursuit that most refrain from.

The fact that women, and to a lesser extent young men, are not allowed to express sexuality until marriage intrinsically relates to their passive and inferior political status. The discriminating laws against women in Saudi Arabia stem from the ruling Wahhabis’ interpretation of out-dated religious scriptures and combine the suppression of sex with the paralysing of political participation in society, thus creating obedient subjects. Rebellion against suppression is, therefore, equated with the shame and guilt felt for sexual expression, Reich suggests (1947, 69). However, despite “the inferior status of women [being] a consistent theme in many Muslim countries, its correlation with Islam, though not arbitrary, is not absolute” (Moroccan World News 2013, Web).

The Monarch’s sole right to religious interpretation must, therefore, not be forgotten in Saudi Arabia’s case. Moreover, women’s status cannot be equated with Islam but has to be seen in a geo-political context. Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian leader uses the religious narrative as a ruling instrument. Notably, despite changes in the Wahhabi tradition, oppression of female sexuality in its persistent function of creating social coercion cannot be overlooked (Abisaab 2000, 312). All in all, repression of sexuality in Wahhabi society creates consent, obedience and political passiveness among the people towards the regime and its economic and authoritarian ambitions.

Poignantly capturing the interplay between religion and totalitarian ideologies, Reich argues that “a sex-negating religion begins to develop which gradually builds up its own sex-political organization . . .  this has its sociological reason in the exploitation of human[s] . . .  which sets in at this stage” (Reich 1947, 58). Religious ideology provides the supporting structure for a social order, which could not be upheld without the “mysticism” and justification faith provides. The authoritarian Saudi clan uses religion both as legitimization and tool for exploitation and compliance.

The relationship between fascism and Islamism is widely discussed, and there has yet to emerge scholarly consensus. Nevertheless, the two authoritarian ideologies share similar preconditions and consequently display parallels in their execution, strengthening them and lifting their followers out from other societies – both through racial and religious distinctions.



Overall, the link between sexuality suppressing patriarchies and their susceptibility to authoritarian ideologies transcends geographical, religious and temporal spaces as demonstrated through application of Wilhelm Reich’s analysis of fascist German society to contemporary Wahhabism. This relationship, initially put forward by Reich, is an extension and continuation of Menninger’s and Freud’s psychoanalytic findings on effects of sexual suppression. Two questions, however, persist: (1) It is unclear whether sexual inhibition is a state only found in patriarchies and (2) Reich’s argument that suppression of gratification of sexual needs induces a different individual reaction as opposed to denial of satisfaction of other human needs (as food and shelter) is not sufficiently explained by “mysticism.”

Therefore, the exclusivity of sexual repression and patriarchy, as well as the paralysing quality of denying sexuality in contrast to other human needs, remains to be contested. Since modern societies, as well as monotheistic religions, are patriarchal, possessing predominantly father-figure-oriented family structures, the exclusiveness between patriarchy and sexual suppression is difficult to contest due to lack of case studies. The sparse tribes living in matriarchal structures without sexual suppression are not sufficient to account for a margin of error within the study.

The paralysing effect of repressing sexuality, on the other hand, is witnessed widely and supported through inductive reasoning, which leaves room for epistemic uncertainty. One can witness sexual emancipation of women and earlier sexual awareness of youth going hand-in-hand with political awareness, outspokenness and criticality of the population. However, whether this is a consequence of increasing sexual freedom remains to be proven.

Parallels between the societal structures of fascism and Islamism are, however, not exclusive to these specific ideologies but can be found between other authoritarian ideologies as well. A comparison between two ideology-backed totalitarian regimes is undoubtedly going to display similarities. But ignoring this insight and simply equating Islamism and fascism is a sign of naiveté and unsophistication. This article points out similarities in societal structures in authoritarian governmental systems, thus confirming Reich’s hypothesis through an application on the Wahhabi society. By comparing fascism and Islamism – two authoritarian ideologies – in different geo-political settings, it has been reasoned that sexual suppression as a feature of patriarchy is undoubtedly in ideological totalitarian regimes.

Patriarchies with their intrinsic suppression of sexuality in children and women are a criterion for totalitarian ideologies to gain hold and to thrive. Repression of sexuality creates an unsatisfied human need that can shift into aggression and other radical substitution gratifications. Mysticism that upholds the impurity of sex through the patriarchal family, and later religious institutions, can also equate to an embarrassment associated with rebellion. This is comparable to the one felt when engaging in sexual pleasure despite the societal narrative and discourse condemning it.

Further exploration concerning the connection between suppression of sexuality and political paralysis could be conducted in analysing whether rebellion against a respective authoritarian ideology was preceded or accompanied by sexual emancipation of women. For now, Reich’s claim that sexual suppression under patriarchal society structures is a precondition and stabilizing factor for totalitarian systems – and that the two factors in turn mutually reinforce one another – proves to be true for both Islamism and fascism, despite their different ideological repertoires.


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