Thursday, January 02, 2014

Telling Reich From Wrong

My December included reading three books by Wilhelm Reich. It was a challenge from a friend who believes that Reich is still relevant, particularly in his views concerning sexuality and politics.

I've linked to his Wikipedia page in the paragraph above, but to just provide a summary to introduce Reich: he was a student of Freud who wrote extensively in the 1930s. He developed a theory called "sex-economy" which basically says that all of the problems in society can be traced to sexual repression caused by overbearing family and religious situations. This, in turn, led to his theory concerning "orgone," an energy caused by orgasms. He developed a box that collected this orgasmic energy, which he then said helped cure people with a variety of psychology and physical illnesses. Despite the fantastic nature of these claims, he developed quite a following. On the other side of the equation, many considered him a quack and he ultimately ended up getting thrown in prison, where he died.

Quite a character, indeed. Whether his theories were true or not, they are fascinating and I decided to probe further. What follows below are my initial thoughts concerning the respective books I read. Bear in mind that this is not a scholarly article. These are only my thoughts which are drawn from my background, which includes education, life coaching, and wide reading on issues pertaining to relationships and sexuality.

The Sexual Revolution

I think the general comment I have is that people should do what they are comfortable with in terms of their personal lives, and not worry about societal expectations. It’s when we feel coerced into something or doing something because it is expected of us, that’s when we run into trouble. I don’t think marriage and families in and of themselves are necessarily the problems: the problem is that people tend to get married for the wrong reasons. And then if/when things get unworkable, they stay together for the wrong reasons. “Romantic” love only lasts 2-4 years, so of course, getting married purely for the purpose of being able to have sex without religious or moral guilt is not a good idea, to that I do agree.

Now, for some specific comments about issues he raises:

  • The “modern day” in which the book was written, and which is referenced throughout, is actually the 1930s. A lot has changed in the world of sexuality and psychology since then. Homosexuality was still considered a psychological disorder. HIV was not yet around. Women’s rights had a way to go (still do).

  • Masturbation can be a wonderful, healthy, sensual, incredible experience. Reich seems to downplay it as something lesser. This is definitely something that “modern day” experts now would disagree with.

  • Further, he seems to put penis-into-vagina penetrative sex on a higher pedestal than any other form of sexual activity. This is negating all of the wonderful things a couple can do together. It is also male-centric. Most women don’t reach orgasm during the act of penetration, due to the mechanics of things. Chalk it up, again, to the era in which it was written, and also because he was a student of Freud (who downplayed anything except “vaginal orgasms” which actually don’t exist, at least not the way he described them).

  • Putting male/female vaginal penetrative sex on a pedestal is also heteronormative or heterosexist. But then again, in that day and age, homosexuals were considered perverts. Also, what he discusses as “homosexuality” is actually homosexual behaviour as a result of circumstances (like prison), not actual homosexual orientation. Again, this is a generational sort of thing.

  • Psychological problems can be both nature and nurture. A person is born with his/her brain wiring, which can include tendencies towards neurosis, anxiety, or the brain chemistry necessary for problems like bipolar and schizophrenia. None of these things are the fault of someone’s family, other than the fact that it produced them. Stress in the home can exacerbate the problems, to that I agree. However, WR seems to make sweeping generalizations about families as being unhealthy. Some are, some aren’t. Things like PTSD and some forms of depression (which can co-exist with other psychological problems) can be caused by outright, severe abuse in the home, but that is an extreme, not the norm.

  • For women, sex tends to be much more of an emotionally bonding experience than for men. To a woman, if she is sleeping with someone, she thinks that person is her boyfriend (only to be very hurt to find out that actually is not the case, and said man is actually sleeping with a bunch of different people). Casual sex doesn’t work as well for us also because women are more prone to certain kinds of diseases, and yes, we are the ones who get pregnant. I think the way women are wired (as opposed to being conditioned) has a lot to do with is, because women are nurturers because we become mothers. Those of us who don’t become mothers, nurture in other ways (taking care of elderly parents, for example). Reich really doesn’t deal with any of this, likely because he was a man.

    The Function of the Orgasm

    I found WR’s conclusions a lot more agreeable here – it is definitely true that orgasms are healthy to have regularly, for a variety of reasons, both physical and mental. But I think he might be putting a little too much emphasis on them. There are plenty of people who suffer anxiety (the neurotic tendency he keeps coming back to with reference to what can happen if one does not orgasm regularly) who have active sex lives.

    Again, we have to remember the time period in which this was written. Blaming all neurotic tendencies on sexual repression is no longer done. Therapists did not know things back then the way they are known now. The tendency towards anxiety and other mental problems are wired in the brain – either we have them or we don’t. Problems, if one is prone, can become more apparent when one is under stress, which of course, an orgasm can greatly reduce. And yes, stress can cause physical illnesses. But orgasms, while important, are not the be-all, end-all. A person can have an orgasm and still feel anxious. Lots of sexually active people get ulcers and heart problems and cancer. And, he makes references to not having orgasms and being an alcoholic or drug addict as a result. Well, lots of sexually active people are substance abusers. And sex itself can be an addiction.

    While I know WR and Freud departed on a number of issues, WR was still very influenced by him and Freud placed heterosexual intercourse above any other kind of sexual activity. That is an attitude that nowadays has been widely debunked: most women don’t orgasm that way. It’s heteronormative. It debases wonderful things people can do together that don’t involve penetration. And worst of all, it negates the importance of masturbation.

    Remember, most people go for long stretches of time without a sexual partner. It is so great that we as humans have a way of release and at the same time can avoid the emotional complications of casual hook ups (not to mention the time involved in seeking out meaningless, casual sex), and resulting diseases, unwanted pregnancy, etc.

    The Mass Psychology Of Fascism

    I have to say I got the most into this one. It helped that I already read two of his book dealing with "sex-economy" or I would not have been able to follow a lot of what he was writing. I think this one holds up the best in terms of history. I know that is a short summary, but this was the third 400 page tome I had read in less than a month and I was starting to lose steam. Ah, memories of university . . .

    As a postscript, my friend disagreed with me on the issues I have raised here and said I was missing the point, possibly on purpose. However, he (yes, of course, a guy) has yet to tell me what exactly that point is. He believes that Reich's experiments were sound and scientific, and the fact Reich was imprisoned and his books burned indicative that he had found something important the government was trying to suppress.

    What is known is that the FDA went after Reich concerning his "orgone accumulators" considering his theories and practises to be fraudulent (and possibly crossing patient/therapist boundary lines). Could this have been a over reaction and censorship? Possibly. I personally would like to see where the empirical evidence exists that orgasms can cure anything (other than sexual tension). None of the three books I read got into orgone collection and distribution.

    That being said, this was an interesting exercise that made me think deeply about my views on family, religion, sexuality, and feminism. Agree or disagree, Wilhelm Reich stands, along with Freud, as an important early 20th century figure in the history of psychoanalysis.
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