“The coldness of women is in fact only apparent, either due to the concealment of glowing sexuality beneath the veil of outward reticence prescribed by conventional
morality, or superior else to the husband who has not succeeded in arousing erotic sensations which are complicated and with difficulty awakened … The sexual sensibility of women is certainly different from that of men, but in strength it is at least as great.”
So wrote Iwan Bloch, German pioneer orgasm investigator, in 1908.
Wilhelm Reich & Orgasm
As the twentieth century dawned, the good idea of a flaming female sexuality slowly began to drive out the idea that women could never be like men in the speed or intensity of sexual response.
And every orgasmologist, whether oriented toward Freud or toward the tougher-minded science of sexology, seemed to have a different answer to the question what do women really want during sex?
Wilhelm Reich: Crazy or Sane Orgasms?
According to an old Irish saying, when sex is good, it’s the most beautiful thing in the world, but when sex is bad, it’s still pretty good.
Wilhelm Reich was German, not Irish. He believed that good orgasms were the key to health and happiness, but bad orgasms depressed him. Actually, this weird scientist and sex reformer, who died in 1957, invented the colossal idea of orgasm in excelsis and he blamed much of human misery on the failure to achieve it.
Reich’s notion about cosmic sexual climax swept into history with the publication of Function of the Orgasm in 1927. He was thirty years old at the time and a member of Freud’s inner circle in Vienna.
Thinking that he was following the founding father’s line on the direct connection between mental and genital problems, Reich dedicated the original manuscript “To my teacher, Professor Sigmund Freud, with deepest veneration,” and presented it to him on Freud’s seventieth birthday.
Freud was not pleased. Though he praised the book as “rich in observation and thought” in a brief note to his protege, he poked fun at Reich behind his back.
Of course, orgasm was important to Freud. After all, he had written in “Sexuality in the Aetiology of the Neuroses” (1905) that “no neurosis is possible with a normal sexual life.” But he did not overly concern himself with the explosive event. As long as men ejaculated in the right orifice and women had vaginal orgasms, the subject did not materially interest him!
Nor did Reich’s far-fetched solution appeal to Freud. “Here we have,” he wrote to a friend in 1928, “a worthy but impetuous young man, passionately devoted to his hobby horse, who now salutes in the genital orgasm the antidote to every neurosis.”
Where did Reich get his amazing concept of orgasm as the cause and cure of human misery? As psychoanalysts tend to do, he beheld the universe in his patients mostly when they confirmed his deepest convictions.
Reich started pondering orgasm in a serious way after noticing something unexpected in a group of male patients. When he asked them about their masturbation fantasies he assumed that they would recount pleasant images of intercourse.
Instead, the men reported sadistic or masochistic fantasies that left them discontented after ejaculation. “In not a single patient was the act of masturbation accompanied by the fantasy of experiencing pleasure in the sexual act,” he wrote in “The Specificity of Forms of Masturbation” (1922).
Reich next probed the coital attitudes and sensations of hundreds of male and female patients. What he found apparently convinced him that intercourse would always be a breeding ground for neurotics.
None of the women had vaginal orgasm; and the most potent men felt something like disgust when they climaxed.
Reich concluded that all patients suffered from incomplete genital satisfaction.
His argument was a stretch, and he was forced to admit that not a few patients appeared to have hale and hearty orgasms.
Still, he clung to the insight that some orgasms were better than others and, more important, that the quality of release separated the well from the anxiety ridden or depressed or fearful.
His supposition was reinforced in his private life. After a sexually frustrating period in medical school, marked by periods of melancholy after making love, he fell in love with an Italian woman and, at last, had fulfilling sex.
But Reich needed a theory, something on the plane of the Oedipus complex, to explain his unorthodox interpretation of orgasm. We need to be discerning in selecting out the elements of his theory which are applicable today.
And let us face facts: a good relationship, even a great relationship, is indeed based in large part on enjoying great sexual intercourse (or great sex, since intercourse is not the only form of sex). We know women in a relationship who are orgasmic are happier in all areas of that relationship than women who are not orgasmic.
Reich felt that Orgasmic Potency was the answer to all human problems. He defined it in Function of the Orgasm (1927) as: “The capacity for the surrender to the flow of biological energy without any inhibition, the capacity for complete discharge of all dammed-up sexual excitation through involuntary pleasurable contractions of the body. Not a single neurotic individual possesses orgasmic potency; the corollary of this fact is the fact that the vast majority of humans suffer from a character-neurosis.”
The corollary was the problem. It was all right for psychoanalysts to visit afflictions on the wounded in their practice—that was an occupational hazard—but it was another thing to call almost everybody else “orgasmically disturbed.”
Reich dared to assert that having second-rate orgasms, a condition labelled “orgasmic impotence,” was “the most important characteristic of the average human today, and that by damming up biological energy in the organism, it provided the source of energy for all kinds of neurotic symptoms and social problems.”
This, coupled with radical sexual politics and an ability to attract controversy, led him down a long path of ridicule, rejection and exile.
Reich was surely no Alex Comfort, but he gave step-by-step instructions for attaining ultimate orgasms. First, one needed to be “unarmored,” that is, “muscularly relaxed and physically unblocked“; but after that it was just a matter of method.
Basically, his advice was not to do what neurotics do in bed. They are fast and frantic, violent and stiff, narcissistic and sad post coitum. On the other hand, Reich’s more advanced lovers were slow and easy, the men gentle and the women active.
In “Orgasm as an Electrophysiological Discharge” (1934), Reich referred to “spontaneous and effortless frictions” that focused excitement on the genitals. There was no fear, no fantasy, no rough talk, only surrender to the other. This is reminiscent of the coital alignment technique, about which you can read more here.
As tension mounted in the penis and vagina and orgasm arrived, Reich’s ideal lovers were overwhelmed by involuntary contractions spreading from the genitals over the whole body.
Immediately afterward, tension disappeared and a warm, melting sensation emanated from the pelvis to the limbs.
“The complete flowing back of the excitation toward the whole body is what constitutes gratification,” he concluded in Function of the Orgasm. “What continues is a grateful tender attitude toward the partner.”
Although Reich did not insist on joint climaxes, he assigned simultaneous orgasms top status: “In both sexes, the orgasm is more intense if the peaks of genital excitation coincide. This frequently occurs in individuals who are able to concentrate their tender as well as their sensual feelings on a partner.”