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Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America

Christopher Turner

Review NYT

“TREAT yourself”, the advertisements say. “You’re worth it”. The image may be a woman bending over or a man with a seductive grin. As for the product, it hardly matters whether it is soap or a car: sex is being used to sell, and latent desires will move consumers to buy—or at least feel titillated by the prospect.

What a darkly ironic epilogue for the sexual revolution, observes Christopher Turner in “Adventures in the Orgasmatron”. Progressive attitudes were meant to free society from the dangers of conformity. Yet some of the most radical ideas about our primal urges have been harnessed by those who want everyone to drink the same brand of beer.

Wilhelm Reich, a charismatic and gifted psychoanalyst who trained with Sigmund Freud, coined the phrase “sexual revolution” in the 1930s. Reich had high hopes for sex. He spent his life insisting that a bone-rattling orgasm was the best way to ensure personal health and a more humane society. Human desires are natural, he argued; it is only when society represses these instincts that problems arise.

As the hero of this erudite and engaging work of social history, Reich is a fascinating subject. He was arrogant and influential, tyrannical and abusive. He fell out with Freud and alienated his peers by insisting not only that orgasms were a panacea, but also that psychoanalysis should be a tool for social change. In his mid-30s when the Nazis came to power, he saw fascism as an inevitable product of repressive social structures, such as the patriarchal family. If the instincts of children weren’t repressed, he argued, then adults wouldn’t crave being told what to do. Reich wanted to apply the revelations of psychoanalysis to reforming sex laws (by, for example, lifting bans on abortion and prostitution) and updating social mores about marriage and children. Free sex, he believed, was the best check on totalitarianism.

Freud found this naive, maintaining that psychoanalysis was not about changing the world, but about helping people to adapt to it. Repression wasn’t something to throw off, but a part of the human condition. “To Freud, misery came from within; to Reich, it was imposed from without.”

Time, however, made Reich’s grasp on reality more tenuous, particularly after he fled to America in 1939. Like a mad scientist, he grew convinced that sexual electricity was quantifiable. His big invention was something called an “orgone energy accumulator”, a box about the size of a telephone booth which collected good atmospheric energy. Time inside the box would not only improve one’s “orgastic potency”, Reich claimed, but also treat cancer, among other maladies (including his own psoriasis). Scientists refused to confirm Reich’s orgone theories, but a generation of young progressives heralded these boxes as sources of sexual liberation, something Woody Allen parodied with his “Orgasmatron” in his 1973 film, “Sleeper”. Norman Mailer had one (though he later described it as “kind of crap”). William Burroughs claimed to have had a spontaneous orgasm in the wooden shack he built.

These pleasure-seeking bohemians gave Reich pause. He rued that they were hijacking his Utopian concepts to unleash “a free-for-all fucking epidemic”. Post-war America was an all too fertile ground for his radical ideas, it seems, as leftist intellectuals flailed about for a new language of opposition to replace Marxist dogma. Reich’s theories about sex made promiscuity seem rebellious and self-affirming.

In 1947 Reich was accused in the press of starting a “new cult of sex and anarchy”. A year later Alfred Kinsey published his explosive report about sexuality, which found that American Puritanical mores were out of sync with reality. The McCarthy trials—which sought links between sexual liberation and communism—added to the hysteria. The Food and Drug Administration began a crackdown on Reich’s work, finding it menacing. The government ultimately demanded that all of Reich’s orgone boxes be incinerated along with his books, and then sent him to prison, where he died of a heart attack in 1957.

Why was Reich considered so dangerous? Though possibly a paranoid schizophrenic, who spent the last years of his life convinced that the world was under attack by UFOs, he offered an intellectual rationale for the sexual revolution. But he also came to regret opening this Pandora’s box. Reich predicted that America’s liberated excesses would be countered by repression, just like in Stalin’s Russia.

Yet Mr Turner suggests a different legacy, one that haunted Herbert Marcuse. The German sociologist, disillusioned by the sexually omnivorous 1960s, came to believe that liberated sexual desires had been co-opted to serve capitalism; advertisers had figured out how to exploit libidinal urges to inspire “false needs”. But this overlooks the benefits. The sexual revolution may not have yielded a neurosis-free Utopia soundscaped with the glorious yelps of orgasms. But a more open society and greater sexual tolerance (at least in the West) means fewer people are looking for pleasure in a funny wooden box.

Review New Yorker

Wilhelm Reich, the father of the sexual revolution, started out as a star pupil of Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology. Reich was admitted to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Association in 1920, while he was still a graduate student, and already a radical idea was percolating in his head: that sexuality, fundamental to our being, and yet a source of shame for centuries, had the power to heal much of what ailed us, if only we would let it. Breaking with religious teachings that the sole function of sex ought to be procreation and that any other erotic pursuit was sinful, Reich offered a new and defiantly humanist perspective, asserting that sexual pleasure was beneficial—indeed, necessary—to human flourishing, and that, when it came to orgasms, the more the merrier. As Christopher Turner writes in his new book, “Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $35), Reich offered the “tantalizing suggestion that sexual emancipation would lead to positive social change.” Good sex was the path to the good society. Read more More books on Sex

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