Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Cure by Orgasm

It stands to reason. If sex is sexy, then orgasms must be sexier. And if sex sells, then orgasms must sell more.

Otherwise, I do not really see the point of Ariel Levy’s New Yorker essay about the utterly bizarre and slightly mad psychoanalyst named Wilhelm Reich. Everyone knows that Reich promoted a theory about the therapeutic value of the orgasm. For Reich and his followers orgasms were a panacea; they could cure mental illness, cancer, and scabies.

Snake oil, anyone?

By New Yorker standards Levy’s essay is not very well written or thought out. Consider yourself forewarned.

Why does Levy think that we need to bring back Wilhelm Reich? Perhaps she is using him to redefine the function and purpose of human sexuality.

She describes Reich’s contribution to the field: “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.”

Of course, Levy is caricaturing religious views about sexuality. Someone at The New Yorker should know that, in Catholic theology, for example, sex, procreative or non-procreative, always contains an element of sin. Exception given for the Immaculate Conception.

If you agree that sex should be detached from its primary purpose, which is reproduction, then you should also cease and desist from calling yourself a Darwinian.

Reich’s perspective is not humanist, in any sense of the term that I recognize, but it is certainly mindless. It sees human beings as organisms containing a certain amount of energy, and it imagines that if humans release a lot of this energy, they will be healthier, wealthier, and wiser.

In contemporary thought, the term “human flourishing” has a notably positive value, so when Levy uses it she appears to be attributing a positive value to the activity of passing your days and night luxuriating in sexual release.

For an adolescent mind, “the more the merrier,” has a great deal of appeal. Otherwise, it is a formula for inanition, lethargy, sloth, and social dysfunction.

You are not going to accomplish anything in the world if you spend a significant amount of your time trying out new and better ways to get off.  This lotus-eating mentality is not only the enemy of work, but  it fails to recognize the satisfactions that one might gain from, for example, a job well done.

And what do the Pied Pipers of the orgasm have to say about the fact that more than a few people find an orgasmic release through drugs? Should addicts be told to indulge their addictions because, when it comes to the good feelings that accompany such release, “the more the merrier?”

The orgasm-mongers seem to have forgotten that humans are social beings and that sexual activity, more often than not, takes place with the context of some kind of human relationship.

It seems naïve to imagine that the satisfaction attained through sexual activity is identical regardless of the relationship between the participants.

Admittedly, some people achieve the greatest sexual enjoyment when a fetish object or fetish situation is directly involved. But even then, the participants are usually involved in some kind of relationship. It may be more theatrical than real… but still.

Reich saw human beings as mere organisms. He stripped them of their human identity, their place and role in society, their duties to other members of society, the better to put them in a box where, in perfect detachment, they could luxuriate in orgasmic energy.

Levy describes the famous orgone box: “If Reich’s conviction that humanity could fornicate its way to freedom was shared by the erotic vanguardists of previous centuries, he did come up with a new apparatus for the purpose: a machine to trap the potent, healing force of the orgasm. His orgone-energy accumulator, or orgone box, as it became known, resembled a wooden telephone booth lined with metal sheeting and steel wool.”

Of course, there is a political angle to this. Just not the one that Reich or Levy think. If you are spending your time achieving the maximum number of mind blowing orgasms, and if you do not have a very solid trust fund, someone is going to come along and eat your lunch.

If you are competing with an opponent or enemy you will save yourself a lot of time and effort if you can convince him to spend his days in an orgone box and his evenings getting off.

Levy also explains that there was libertine behavior even before the more contemporary sexual revolution. In the following passage she offers a rather lame explanation for the fact that some among us feel that they have discovered sex for the first time.

In her words: “We seem to have a peculiar urge to believe that the way we have sex, the thing that got us all here, is unprecedented. It’s like the familiar difficulty people have imagining that their parents had sex. The reason sex can be revolutionized again and again is that we’re reluctant to believe our ancestors could have known and felt what we know and feel. Yet what has been will be again; what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the covers.”

This is dime-store psychoanalysis.

I don’t know, and don’t really want to know, about anyone’s peculiar urges.  I want us to see that the story Levy is telling has to do with social anomie. Calling it a sexual revolution feels like a new way to talk women out of their clothes.

Whatever the cause or the reason, when society fragments, through the social mobility caused by rapid industrialization or free trade, people feel alone, isolated, and detached. Given the anguish caused by this anomie, free sexual expression becomes a consolation prize. It makes a virtue of necessity and mistakes the problem for the solution.

It’s one thing to commit lubricious acts with an anonymous man or woman you meet in a bar or a club. It’s quite another thing to sex it up with a man or a woman who lives in the neighborhood, belongs to the community, and whose family attends religious services with yours.

In one sense the first is freer than the second, but only in the sense that you feel freer to exploit an isolated individual than a member of a family or community.

If you want to indulge this kind of behavior, that’s your business. I would recommend that you start thinking about how you can get over it, rather than how you can take advantage of people when you do not have to answer to their fathers or brothers.

Anyone who finds Reich’s views sympathetic should visualize the following scene.

A man is telling a woman that her primary sexual concern should be whether or not she has an orgasm. Try explaining to her that if she wants more than an orgasm, she should try to have more orgasms. And try explaining that she should not much care about the identity of her partner, whether the man desires a relationship, or whether the relationship is leading to  a commitment or a marriage.

See how that works out for you.


Comment Monster said...

First, love your blog, recommend it frequently.

Second, I'm not defending The New Yorker or their jejune faux sophistication.

But I do think you were a little hard on the beaver...

Orgasms matter. Women and men who don't have orgasms together on at least an intermittent basis are unlikely to stay bonded enough to put up with each other long enough to raise their kids.

Female orgasms matter more than male orgasms. I'm not going to back that statement up--either it's self-evident, or you don't have a lot of experience with a woman, or your woman is existentially pissed off at you.

Couples who aren't having sex, or who aren't sure that their partner is loving the sex that they're having, should treat it as a serious issue.

That last paragraph probably paintballed a lot more women than men. Oh, well, truth stings.

Ladies, when he promised to forsake all others, you promised, somewhat implicitly and discreetly, to do him till you're dead. If you're not putting out, that's the flip side of him banging hookers.

(Yes, of course, if he's not putting out and you're banging the poolboy, it's the same dynamic.)

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you for supporting the blog, CM. It's much appreciated.

I agree with what you are saying... but I don't think that that is not what Levy and Reich were contending.

They are not really saying that orgasms matter... though I suspect that they matter more to men than to women, on reproductive grounds... but that orgasms are the only thing that matters.

Reich had a peculiar notion that orgasms were a panacea, and that, as Levy put it, "the more the merrier."

I was trying to show that the orgasm-centric view was distorting human relationships and human reality. By seeing people as organisms needing release Reich and Levy are really undermining human relationships and downplaying other forms of human satisfaction.