One of the defining aspects of our culture right now, though it is rarely acknowledged and discussed, is the problem of the young man. We often reflect as a society on the way in which our culture, especially as it is articulated in the media, has very strong and very negative consequences for our young women. From the way in which our media is affecting our cultural understanding of normal body image, to the psychiatric disorders (including but not limited to eating disorders) that ravage a shocking proportion of our teenage daughters, to the ways in which this new culture is making it difficult for our young people to form long-lasting emotional connections built on trust with each other, these are aspects that receive a fair amount of attention.
What is less frequently discussed, and one feels is not taken quite as seriously, is the ways in which young men find themselves equally abused by the dominant mainstream cultural narrative. The ideal of “masculinity” that our media projects is not just equally mismatched to our biology as the ideal of “femininity” that is sold to young girls, but it is also completely incompatible with the way our society works: we live very interconnected, peaceful societies with little gender role-specializations (and most of us agree that the vestiges of such specialization should go away sooner rather than later), but young men are still told that to be a “man” you need to be a violent, emotionally retarded and socially inept alpha-male over whom women will swoon. And if they don’t, then obviously, they are seen as too willing targets of sexual conquest. Notice that it is still essential for the “man” to be acknowledged by “women.”
Skewed ideal of masculinity
So what is a young man to do when he has bought into the ideal of masculinity sold to him by the media, but has no outlet to express this masculinity. He cannot be socially dominant through violence because violence is not tolerated and will get you in prison. He cannot become a celebrity because there are only so many celebrities that even a culture like ours can sustain. He cannot become wealthy because such opportunities are still limited to only a few lucky ones, often despite talent and hard work – the last few years since the financial crisis have put rest to the myth of economic meritocracy in our society. He will be lucky to get a normal job. But, as “luck” would have it, he can still be abusive towards women. That is still something that our society tolerates.
Enter the resurgence of misogyny that we have seen in recent years, from the Twitter trolls that hound women with death threats any time an intelligent woman has an opinion on the television to mass shootings. The logical conclusion of the problem of the young man left behind is the emergence of social phenomena like the Pick-up Artist movement, which regards women as little more than a hunter would regard a fox, and attributes to half of the world’s population just as much agency and personhood. Women, in this frighteningly prevalent ideology, are nothing more than objects of sexual interest for “real men” and are the prize a man will inevitably gain if he “plays” the right game of psychological and emotional abuse on his victims – often complete strangers.
But nowhere is there more scope for a man to be “manly”, which also includes the abuse of women, than in a war. And there is no war like “holy” war. Pick-up Artists everywhere must stand in awe of what the ISIS “lads” have achieved. Forget silly one-liners in the hope of a one-night stand. Grab a Kalashnikov, move to Syria, and get yourself a bunch of underage sex slaves. This is not to dispute the complex entwining of causes, ideological, socio-economic or geopolitical that gave rise to the monstrosity that is ISIS. But nor can there be any doubt about the prevalence of the maladjusted young man among the ISIS ranks, and indeed the attitudes of these people towards women.
Extreme sexual behavior
Exhibit A: A recent report has indicated that ISIS fighters are engaging in some extreme sexual behavior. This should not come as a surprise as even pornography was even found in Bin Laden’s compound when he was captured by Navy Seals and we have all seen CCTV images of 9/11 hijackers in strip clubs days before the attack. More recently Edward Snowden exposed how the NSA was fully aware of the hypocritical relationship between radical preachers’ public image and their private pornographic habits with at least two radical preachers grooming underage girls online.
Fighters are attracted to ISIS for a wide number of reasons. Some may be ideologically driven militants who want to establish Islamic state. But many others are social outcasts who are not all religious but join for the same reason as young men join gangs in LA and commit horrible acts - they want to belong. Many from the UK and other Western countries fit this category and have a history of petty crime, drug dealing and broken families.
Exhibit B: I know from reliable journalist sources in Turkey that many foreign fighters are joining ISIS attracted by the entire sexual slaves fantasy. In fact, a lawyer friend of mine who up until 2010 represented over 50% defendants in anti-terrorism cases confirmed to me that those arrested in the UK in anti-terrorism raids had over 90% of their hard drives filled with pornography. These are social misfits who are sexually frustrated.
But deeper than that is a lack of empathy and understanding: for these men, “females” are an enigma, a strange animal, which they fail to understand and thus must control and subjugate brutally. Which is why they engage in deviant sexual practices whilst at the same time forcing women to cover their faces and even hands in public.
Like in many other things, ISIS is the ugly symptom of some really rather ugly realities. And not just in the Muslim world – our young men have been seduced by this ideology. But the problem of the young man does not seem to be going anywhere any time soon, and it is imperative that we recognize it. There are no obvious or easy solutions to it, but we must start thinking about it, sooner rather than later. Until we do, there will always be some kind of ISIS fantasy somewhere in the world.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute US Army War College and Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy