Sexual Theories of Wilhelm Reich Elsworth Baker, M. D



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Sexual Theories of Wilhelm Reich

Elsworth Baker, M.D.

The Journal of Orgonomy, Volume 20 Number 2

The American College of Orgonomy


Wilhelm Reich has been incredibly misunderstood and maligned, and almost everything he has written has been misinterpreted. Particularly is this true of his sexual theories. The usual distortion is that he advocated "free" sexual expression - "obey that impulse" - amounting to a wild and frantic promiscuity ever seeking a mystical, ecstatic orgasm that is supposed to cure all neuroses and even physical ills. This could, presumably, be accomplished by sufficient practice and knowledge, and it would free everyone of his inhibitions and repressions. In order to achieve this end and, incidentally, to satisfy their own countertransference needs, Reich and his followers were said to masturbate their patients and to have sexual relations with them. (It was never explicitly stated whether homosexual relations were included; if not, then half of the patients must have felt neglected.) In any event, they conjured up an exceptional sexual prowess and lack of discrimination on the part of Reich and his followers. This distortion, of course, came from the sex-starved neurotic longing of some of the reviewers and readers of orgonomic literature, and surprisingly, even more from those who knew nothing of Reich and his writ-ings. It was not based on anything Reich ever wrote or practiced. Actually, medical orgonomy as developed by Reich is a rather puritanical discipline. [Footnote 1] True, not entirely in keeping with the social mores of armored man, but puritanical nevertheless.
The healthy individual has a natural, rather than a compulsive, morality. The former leads to health and order, the latter to neuroses, criminality, perversion, and chaos. From the view-point of a natural morality, many social mores are incomprehensible, for example, living with a mate one does not love merely because the law says one is married, or an insistence on faithfulness out of duty. Natural morals are concerned with different values: Sex is desired only with a partner one loves, promiscuity and perversion are uninteresting, pornography is distasteful. One is self -regulated. The orgasm, rather than being a cure for emotional ills, is an expression of health and enables one to maintain health. One who is not healthy cannot experience a true orgasm but, rather, what Reich termed a climax." [Footnote 2] The latter does help reduce sexual tension but cannot eliminate it. If it could, everyone would attain health by sexual activity, as Reich's critics insist he claimed. This is obviously not the case.
Reich was originally a strict Freudian and accepted Freud's theories, particularly regarding the libidinal development through the oral, anal, phallic, and genital stages and the concept of psychic energy. This con-cept holds that an individual is born with a given amount of psychic energy so that, the more it is bound up in fixation and repression at the various stages of growth, the less remains free for adult adjustment. Reich, I however, came to disagree with Freud on two important issues. Freud believed that culture and instinct were antithetical and that the baby was born with both libidinal and destructive drives. He believed, thus, that the destructive drive legitimately required repression for an orderly society and that, in the last analysis, society was correct in imposing such restrictions - otherwise, there would be chaos. Reich believed that the baby was born without destructive drives and with only the primary 11-bidinal (love) drive, and that he was capable of regulating himself if allowed to function naturally. He believed that the destructive drives were a result of the repression of the libido, which then built up tension and pressure that could express themselves only forcefully and brutally. In this view, society is wrong in restricting the natural drives of the child, for it thus forces on him irrational and neurotic behavior.
To Freud, psychic energy (or the libido) was simply a working hypothesis. Reich believed it was a real energy that required adequate discharge in order for a person to avoid the buildup of tension. He, eventually, was able to demonstrate this energy experimentally. If repression occurred, this energy was held back in muscular contraction (the armor). The contraction of the musculature tended to restrict and immobilize the body and became the somatic core of neuroses, making full orgastic discharge impossible.
Repression occurs when parents or nurturers restrict emotional expres-sion in the growing child through a series of repeated verbots - "Boys don't cry"; "You must not leave a scrap on your plate"; "Stop touching yourself"; etc. - without regard for the child's needs. Especially dam-aging is the restriction on any sexual interest or display. Reich never advocated nor countenanced encouraging sexual display or acting out in children. He did feel that the natural sexuality of infants and children should be protected and allowed expression at an age appropriate level. This did not mean child-adult sex or salacious promotion of sexual activity in children. However, if children were allowed early sexual activity with their peers, as well as masturbation, they would discharge libidinal tension. Thus, the oedipal stage (the incest wish) would be divested of its charge and, with it, the classic source of the neurosis, the oedipal triangle. Then repression of the incest wish becomes unnecessary because it carries so little charge. In our society, childhood sexual activity is not permitted, with the result that the incest wish usually remains a serious problem throughout life.
Drawing on many years of clinical experience and the study of social attitudes, Reich briefly stated his theory, which he called sex economy, as follows:
Psychic health depends on orgastic potency, that is, on the capacity for surrender in the acme of sexual excitation in the natural sexual act. Its basis is the unneurotic character attitude of capacity for love. Mental illness is a result of a disturbance in the natural capacity for love. In the case of orgastic impotence, from which a vast majority of humans are suffering, biological energy is dammed up, thus becoming the source of all kinds of irrational behavior. The cure of psychic disturbances requires in the first place the establishment of the natural capacity for love. It depends as much upon social as upon psychic conditions . . .

The vital energies, under natural conditions, regulate themselves spontaneously, without compulsive duty or compulsive morality. The latter are a sure indication of the existence of antisocial tendencies. Antisocial behavior springs from secondary drives which owe their existence to the suppression of natural sexuality.


The individual brought up in an atmosphere which negates life and sex acquires a pleasure-anxiety (fear of pleasurable excitation) which is represented physiologically in chronic muscular spasms . . .
Armoring of the character is the basis of loneliness, helplessness, craving for authority, fear of responsibility, mystical longing, sexual misery, of impotent rebelliousness as well as of resignation of an unnatural and pathological type. Human beings have taken a hostile attitude toward that in themselves which is living, and have alienated themselves from it. This alienation is not of biological, but of social and economic origin. It is not found in human history before the development of the patriarchal social order.
Since then, duty has taken the place of the natural enjoyment of work and activity. The average character structure of human beings has changed in the direction of impotence and fear of living, so that authoritarian dictatorships not only can establish themselves, but can even justify themselves by pointing to existing human attitudes, such as lack of responsibility and infantilism. The international catastrophe [World War II we are passing through is the ultimate consequence of this alienation from life.
This formation of character in the authoritarian mold has as its central point, not parental love, but the authoritarian family. Its chief instrument is the suppression of sexuality in the infant and the adolescent.
Owing to the split in the human character structure of today, nature and culture, instinct and morality, sexuality and achievement, are considered incompatible. That unity of culture and nature. work and love, morality and sexuality for which mankind is forever longing, this unity will remain a dream as long as man does not permit himself the satisfaction of the biological demands of natural (orgastic) sexual gratification. Until then, true democracy and responsible freedom will remain an illusion, and helpless submission to existing social conditions will characterize human existence. Until then, the extinguishing of life will prevail, be it in compulsive education, in compulsive social institutions or in wars. [Footnote 3]
Man has been aware for centuries that there was some relationship between sexual starvation and emotional and even physical disorders. The ancient Greeks recognized it, particularly in hysteria. In more modern times, Charcot noted a relationship between sexual unsatisfaction and emotional and physical complaints in his women patients. Freud learned this from Charcot and, as he developed psychoanalysis, proved that neuroses were due to sexual repression; he believed that, if the repressed conflicts where made conscious, the patient would be cured. He also shocked the world by discovering that children, too, had sexual desires and interests. It seems that everyone must have forgotten his own childhood. For many years, Freud was ostracized for his insights, and we must admire his courage and Reich, who was born in 1897, was raised in a freer environment, and without religious training or sexual repression. After serving as a lieutenant in the Austrian army at the Italian front in World War 1, he came to Vienna and entered medical school in 19 18. He soon became interested in Freud and psychoanalysis and was trained by Paul Federn. He became a practicing analyst in 1920, two years before his graduation. His brilliance led Freud to choose him as first assistant physician for the newly started Vienna Psychoanalytic Polyclinic in 1922, and two years later, he was made vice director and a member of the teaching staff. His duties included conducting seminars and training young psychoanalysts. By 1925, he had laid down his basic tenets of the relationship between sex and the neuroses and the factors involved in a healthy sexual life. These tenets are still valid today.
In the Polyclinic, Reich had the opportunity to study, with his students, hundreds of patients who came for treatment and to evaluate Freud's assertion that, when the unconscious conflicts were made conscious, the symptoms disappeared. He found that this did not always occur. Some of the most thoroughly analyzed cases remained in their neurotic morass or relapsed shortly. The problem then was to find out why. What factor was missing in the uncured cases that must be present in the cured ones? This factor proved to be that the latter had attained a satisfying sexual life, while the former had not. During analysis, symptoms frequently Improved when the patient had a satisfying sexual experience or even masturbated with pleasure. Genital release was, therefore, necessary to maintain health. This did not mean that the uncured cases remained in abstinence, as many of them did have a sexual life. At that time, analysts simply took the patient's word for it that his sexual life was adequate and refrained from detailed probing. Reich found that all these patients suffered from sexual inadequacy consisting of premature ejaculation or orgastic impotence in the male and anesthesia or absence of orgasm in the female. The cured cases regularly achieved a pleasurable orgasm with total involvement of the body. This brought in the quantitative factor of discharge of libido or excess energy. This was significant, as it meant that the libido, which Freud had postulated as a psychic concept, is a reality. The libido must be a real energy which, unless discharged at more or less regular intervals, increases in the body, causing tension, and exciting the vegetative and vasomotor systems, causing nervousness, irritability, and other symptoms.
It now became clear that the cause of neuroses consisted of two factors: first, an infantile sexual conflict, basically the Oedipus and castration complexes, and second, a disturbance of genital functioning characterized by undischarged libidinal energy. Neurotic symptoms did not develop unless the latter were present. Certainly, the organism has some ability to absorb and handle excess energy without developing symptoms of stasis, but this is true only up to a point. In the healthy individual, this period is roughly one year. Work alone cannot discharge sufficient energy to prevent symptoms. Worry and some illnesses may prevent symptoms from developing for long periods of time through using up the body's energy or failing to produce it.
The genital is the only organ capable of discharging sufficient energy to avoid stasis. Pregenital zones such as the mouth and anus only add to the excitation rather than discharge energy, except in infancy when the mouth replaces the genital in orgastic discharge. The important factor in adequate discharge is the experiencing of pleasure in the sexual act, which means that, with pleasure, energy reaches the genital and can be fully discharged if there is no holding in the organism.
Reich investigated the orgasm experimentally and found that the mechanical functions of tumescence and detumescence do not explain orgastic phenomena. Erective ejaculation and detumescence may occur without any trace of satisfaction or may lead to disgust and unpleasure. This fact can be seen in cases such as nymphomania or satyriasis, where sexual outlet is constantly sought but gratification never achieved. In the course of experimental investigation, Reich postulated that the orgasm was basically a bioelectric phenomenon. That is, in addition to mechanical filling and discharge, there occurs a bioelectric charge and discharge in the following sequence, which he called the four-beat orgasm formula:



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