Orgastic Potency


Within the work of the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957), the term orgastic potency referred to the ability to experience an orgasm with specific psychosomatic characteristics. Reich described it as ‘the real emotional experience of the loss of your ego, of your whole spiritual self,’ and believed it was essential for the capacity to love.

For Reich, ‘orgastic impotence,’ or failure to attain orgastic potency (not to be confused with anorgasmia, the inability to reach orgasm), meant that the undischarged libido, which he saw as a physical energy, might cause illness. This he defined as neurosis, arguing that ‘not a single neurotic individual possesses orgastic potency.’ According to one of his followers, Elsworth Baker, someone who can attain orgastic potency ‘cannot maintain a neurosis.’

Reich coined the term in 1924 and described the concept in his 1927 book ‘Die Funktion des Orgasmus,’ the manuscript of which he presented to Sigmund Freud on the latter’s 70th birthday. Though Reich regarded his work as complementing Freud’s original theory of anxiety neurosis, Freud was ambivalent in his reception. Freud’s view was that there was no single cause of neurosis. Reich continued to use the concept as an indicator of a person’s health in his later therapeutic methods, such as vegetotherapy (physical manifestations of emotions). During the period 1933-1937 he attempted to ground his orgasm theory in physiology, both theoretically and experimentally.

Reich developed his orgasm theory between 1921 and 1924 and it formed the basis for all his later contributions, including the theory of character analysis. The starting point of Reich’s orgasm theory was his clinical observation of genital disturbance in all neurotics, which he presented in a 1923, in the paper ‘Genitality from the viewpoint of psycho-analytic prognosis and therapy.’ That presentation was met with a chilling silence, much hostility, and was partially discredited because Reich could not adequately define normal sexual health. In response, and after a further year of research, Reich introduced the concept ‘orgastic potency’ at the 1924 Psycho-analytic Congress, Salzburg in the paper ‘Further Remarks on the Therapeutic Significance of Genital Libido.’

In addition to his own patients’ love lives, Reich examined through interviews and case records those of 200 patients seen at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Polyclinic. Reich was impressed by the depth and frequency of genital disturbances he observed. One example was a patient who had reported having a normal sex life, but on closer interviewing by Reich revealed not experiencing orgasm during intercourse and having thoughts of murdering her partner following the act. Such observations made Reich very suspicious of superficial reports about sexual experience. His analysis of these cases led Reich to conclude that genital disturbance was present in all neuroses and correlated in severity to the severity of the neurosis, and that all patients who improved in therapy and remained symptom-free achieved a gratifying genital sex life. This led Reich to establish criteria for satisfactory sexual intercourse. Based on interviews with people who appeared to have satisfactory sex lives, he described the sex act as being optimally satisfactory only if it follows a specific pattern. Orgastic potency is Reich’s term for the ability to have this maximally fulfilling type of sexual experience, which in the Reichian view is limited to those who are free from neuroses and appears to be shared by all people free of neuroses.

Reich’s precise definition for the phrase ‘orgastic potency’ changed over time as he changed his understanding of the phenomenon. He first described it in detail in his 1927 book ‘Die Funktion Des Orgasmus.’ In the 1980 English translation of the book, ‘Genitality in the Theory and Therapy of Neuroses,’ he defined orgastic potency as ‘the ability to achieve full resolution of existing sexual need-tension.’ In his 1940 book ‘The Discovery of the Orgone, Volume 1: The Function of the Orgasm,’ he defined it as ‘the capacity to surrender to the flow of biological energy, free of any inhibitions; the capacity to discharge completely the dammed-up sexual excitation through involuntary, pleasurable convulsions of the body.’ His last published definition of orgastic potency, which is part of his 1960 published ‘Selected Writings,’ is ‘the capacity for complete surrender to the involuntary convulsion of the organism and complete discharge of the excitation at the acme of the genital embrace.’

Reich related orgastic potency and orgastic impotence to a, respectively, healthy and unhealthy sexual experience for the adult. He described that the healthy experience has specific biological and psychological characteristics; is identical for men and women; is characterized by love and the ability to express it; full, deep, pleasurable breathing is present; deep, delicious current-like sensations run up and down the body shortly before orgasm; and involuntary muscular movements are present before climax. Moreover, Reich defined the healthy sexual experience exclusively in terms of the sexual union between male and female.

Reich was strongly influenced by Sigmund Freud’s distinction between psychoneuroses and actual neuroses, the latter being considered of a physiological origin, and the related libido as the energy of an unconscious sexual instinct. However, Reich emphasized the libido theory exactly when it was being discarded by psychoanalysis. Freud observed that one group of patients suffering from neurosis had sexual disturbances— practicing coitus interruptus (the pull-out method), conflicts related to masturbation or sexual abstinence—and were cured when these disturbances were removed. Hence, Freud reasoned that sexual maladaption caused the active damming-up of ‘sexual stuff’ and defined ‘actual neurosis’ as anxiety based on dammed-up libido. In contrast, those with psychoneuroses had conflicts related to the unconscious: repressed impulses, desires and memories, and repressed unresolved conflicts and childhood traumas. Freud abandoned this view in the 1920s and postulated the never popularly accepted death ‘instinct’ or ‘drive’ to explain the destructive behavior that was earlier attributed to frustrated libido.

Reich distinguished between complete release of accumulated sexual tensions in orgasm, resulting in the restoration of energy equilibrium, and orgastic impotence, in which the release of energy is incomplete. In other words, he argued that the inability of psychoneurotics to wholly discharge sexual energy caused a damming up of energy (or sexual stasis), leaving them in a vicious circle: the actual neurosis physiologically provided the energy for the psychoneurosis, while the psychoneurosis provided a psychological mechanism to maintain the actual neurosis. Accordingly, Reich defined neurosis as the sum total of all chronic and automatic inhibitions of natural sexual excitations and which results in an outer rigidity and inner anxiety fuelling harshness, brutality, sexual sadism, restriction, confinement to routines, and becoming filled with compulsions or phobias as well as loneliness, helplessness, craving for authority, fear of responsibility, and mystical longing. Orgastic potency enables the individual to receive satisfaction in the sex act, whereas those lacking in it are forever seeking it, and are therefore likely to be more sexually needy.

Reich’s view of the relationship between actual and psychoneuroses has not found its way into psychoanalytic thinking. However, it has the advantage of connecting psychopathology with physiology and, according to Rycroft, this makes Reich the only psychoanalyst to provide any explanation as to why childhood pathogenic experiences (causing neuroses in classical psychoanalysis) do not disappear when neurotics leave their childhood environment.

Reich expanded on the concept throughout his career. In his 1942 scientific autobiography ‘The Discovery of Orgone, Vol. 1: The Function of the Orgasm,’ Reich provided the following summary of his findings regarding orgastic potency: it is an outcome of health, he argued, because full orgastic potency can only come about if a person is psychologically free of neurosis (pleasure anxiety absent), physically free from ‘body armor’ (chronic muscular contraction absent), socially free from compulsive morality and duty as imposed by authoritarian and mechanistic ways of life, and has the natural ability to love. According to one source, Reich held that the vast majority of people do not meet these criteria and thus lack orgastic potency.

Reich retained the idea of a sexual energy and the concept orgastic potency as central elements in ‘sex-economy,’ a general Reichian theory of health dealing with an organism’s ‘energy household.’ Reich progressively called this energy libido, sexual energy, emotional energy, bioelectric energy, biophysical energy and, finally, orgone (‘life’) energy. In terms of this theory, an individual lacking in orgastic potency is unable to fully discharge energy in orgasm, and thus remains in a constant state of tension, both physical rigidity and mental anxiety, which constitutes neurosis.

In Reichian psychology, the individual lacking orgastic potency is seen to have developed a neurotic psychosomatic ‘armor’ that blocks the experience of pleasure. This is differentiated between the functionally identical ‘character armor’ and ‘muscular armor.’ Central to Reichian character analysis is the concept of ‘character resistance’ or ‘character defense ‘ by which a person’s character—what the patient did rather than what he or she said—was seen as his or her primary defense mechanism. Character attributes include posture, expression, and way of speaking. Reich defined character armor as ‘[t]he sum total of typical character attitudes which an individual develops as a blocking against his emotional excitations, resulting in rigidity of the body, lack of emotional contact, and ‘deadness.”

Reich used the terms ‘genital character’ and ‘neurotic character’ respectively to distinguish between characters with and without orgastic potency. Real characters of actual people are considered to be somewhere on a continuum between the two. The genital character is the non-neurotic character structure, which is free from armor and, therefore, has the capacity of natural-self regulation on the basis of orgastic potency. The genital character is able to fully focus on a task or object, has a natural yearning for continued human contact that finds expression in work and social life, feels a healthy sympathy for fellow human beings in sorrow and happiness, and experiences life as a fulfilment and unfolding of his or her natural tendencies and struggle to achieve objectives. His or her sex life attains full bloom in a context of heterosexual intercourse with full surrender, without identifying the partner either consciously or unconsciously with a parent, without wishing to torment or to be tormented, without accepting celibacy except for strongly convincing reasons, and without looking for another partner so long as his or her affection for the partner is reciprocated.

The neurotic character operates under a principle of compulsive moral regulation due to chronic energy stasis. The neurotic character’s work and life is permeated by struggle to suppress original and even more basic urges or tendencies. The various forms of neurotic character correspond to the equally many ways of suppressing such urges or tendencies that the human being in question considers to be dangerous or is ashamed of. A feeling of inferiority may sometimes lead to a striving for power and honor; work is directed by such desires or by duty, rather than by a striving for joy and happiness. His or her sex life is disturbed by impulses derived from pregenital wishes, so strong that they prevent the experience of full release during orgasm, or else genital wishes are so suppressed by prohibitions and a guilty conscience that they either inhibit a full release during orgasm or prevent the establishment of an adult sex life. Sexual discharge will leave him or her empty, unsatisfied, and not fully at peace, resulting in sensations of emptiness and a feeling of inferiority, a widespread phenomenon termed post-coital tristesse (a feeling of melancholy after sexual intercourse).

Reich argued that if repression occurred, this energy, in the form of stored emotions or affects, was held back by muscular contraction or armor, which restricts and immobilizes the body and becomes the somatic core of neuroses, making full orgastic discharge impossible. Reich defined muscular armor as: ‘The sum total of the muscular attitudes (chronic muscular spasms) which an individual develops as a block against the breakthrough of emotions and organ sensations, in particular anxiety, rage, and sexual excitation.’ Muscular armor prevents the sexual climax from being experienced throughout the body. For example, forms of armoring are pulling back the pelvis or tightening the thigh and buttock muscles. Reich regarded the ego as playing an active part in the act of perception, since whereas some people perceive the gentle stroking of an erogenous zone as pleasurable, for others it is merely a tactile sensation.

Dissolving character and muscular rigidifications or armorings is the basic principle of Reichian vegetotherapy. This dissolution softens movement, eases breathing, and can also bring back the repressed memory of the childhood situation that caused the repression. The two goals of vegetotherapy are the attainment of orgastic potency during sexual intercourse and of the ‘orgasm reflex’ during therapy. The orgasm reflex may be observed as waves of pleasure moving through the body, a series of spontaneous, involuntary movements, and signifies that the person is free of body armoring, entailing the ability to give and receive love in all its forms.

‘The Invasion of Compulsory Sex-Morality,’ written in 1931, was Reich’s first step in approaching the answer to the problem of mass neuroses in society, followed by ‘The Mass Psychology of Fascism’ and ‘The Sexual Revolution.’ The primary sociological issues with which Reich dealt included in particular the following three: How to prevent neurosis through correct upbringing and education; How to prevent sex-negative attitudes in society through sexual reform; and How to prevent authoritarian repression through general social reform.

Reich coined the term ’emotional plague’ to refer to a special group dynamic when the destructive, pathological impulses of a group of neurotic characters become mutually reinforcing. ‘Emotional’ refers to the element of social irrationalism in people. ‘Plague’ refers to the contagious, infectious nature and the difficulty of resisting it. Thus, whereas the neurotic character struggles with feelings of guilt in order to suppress destructive drives (e.g. a torture fantasy), people with the emotional plague unconsciously provide each other with a social alibi to act out these suppressed drives. That is, they adopt a group ideology that rationalizes acting on irrational, secondary drives. An example would be the Salem witch trials in which dissident Christians were tortured and executed by their own group.

In 1934, Reich expanded his orgasm theory in the essay ‘The Orgasm as an Electrophysiological Discharge.’ Through clinical observations in his sex-counseling centers, Reich concluded that conceiving of the orgasm as only mechanical tension and relaxation could not explain why some experience gratification and others do not. Thus, based on the work of Friedrich Kraus and others, Reich proposed that the orgasm is a bio-electric discharge, and is part of what Reich termed the orgasm formula: mechanical tension > bioelectric charge > bioelectric discharge > mechanical relaxation.

Secondly, in 1934 Reich published the paper ‘Sexuality and Anxiety: The Basic Antithesis of Vegetative Life.’ The paper is a literature study in which Reich explored ‘the physiology of the autonomic nervous system, the chemistry of anxiety, the electro-physiology of the body fluids and the hydro-mechanics of plasma movements in protozoa.’ In conclusion, Reich proposed a functional psychosomatic antithesis between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, captured respectively as pleasure or movement ‘towards the world,’ and anxiety or movement ‘away from the world.’ The corollary is the idea that bioelectric energy displayed an antithetic function: if it flows outward to the skin surface, causing a build-up of charge at the skin, it is experienced as pleasure; in contrast, if it flows inward, away from the skin surface, resulting in a lowering of charge at the skin, then it is experienced as an increase in central tension or anxiety

Thirdly, in 1937 Reich published ‘The Bioelectrical Function of Sexuality and Anxiety’ in which he thought he experimentally verified the existence of what he first termed the ‘libidinal economy.’ The report summarized two years of research into the reaction of the skin to states of pleasure and anxiety. His findings included the following: normal skin has a constant, basic electrical charge of 40 milivolts that does not change with mood states; erogenous zones have a wandering potential that can at times be much higher (200 milivolts) or lower, depending on the mood states; change in potential does not depend on the mechanical nature of the stimulus, but on changes in the subject’s sensation or emotion; and, erogenous zones can have mechanical tension (be tumescent — engorged with blood) without changes in levels of the charge, e.g. as in the case of a ‘cold erection.’

A common misconception about Reich’s later developed ‘orgone energy accumulator’ is that he claimed it could provide orgastic potency to those sitting inside the device. Reich maintained the opposite: ‘The orgone accumulator, as has been clearly stated in the relevant publications (The Cancer Biopathy, etc.), cannot provide orgastic potency.’ Likewise, in ‘The Orgone Energy Accumulator, its Scientific and Medical Use,’ Reich wrote: ‘Neuroses cannot be cured with physical orgone energy.’

According to Sharaf, Reich’s view that the capacity to unite tender and sensuous feelings is important for a healthy love relationship was not new. Freud had noted this as early as 1912. However, Sharaf notes that the involuntary physical aspects of the full genital discharge in Reich’s work were new. He called the concept orgastic potency and the manner in which Reich ‘connected a series of psychological, social, and biological findings with the presence or absence of this function’ unique to Reich. When Reich’s first introduced the orgasm theory at the psychoanalytic congress in Salzburg he was congratulated by Karl Abraham for successfully formulating the economic element of neurosis. However, Reich’s presentation of the orgasm theory came exactly when psychoanalysis was moving away from the original Freudian instinct theory based on psychic energy. In his 1926 book ‘Inhibitions, Symptoms, Anxiety’ Freud completely abandoned his earlier position and wrote: ‘Anxiety never arises from repressed libido.’

Freud was ambivalent in his reception. When Reich presented him the manuscript of ‘Die Funktion des Orgasmus’ in 1926, Freud replied, ‘That thick?’ Later that year he wrote to Reich that the book was ‘valuable, rich in observation and thought,’ but in 1928 wrote to Lou Andreas-Salomé: ‘We have here a Dr. Reich, a worthy but impetuous young man, passionately devoted to his hobby-horse, who now salutes in the genital orgasm the antidote to every neurosis. Perhaps he might learn from your analysis of K. to feel some respect for the complicated nature of the psyche.’ Myron Sharaf writes that the theory was immediately unpopular within psychoanalysis. Paul Federn, Reich’s training assistant, and Hermann Nunberg were particularly opposed to it.

Two further reactions to Reich’s work in the psychoanalytic movement were either completely ignoring it or using the concept as if it was commonly accepted, but without referring to Reich as the source. As a result, the theme orgastic potency survived but became divorced from the concepts in which Reich embedded it. For example, in ‘Clinical Psychology’ Charles Berg uses Reich’s sex economic theory of anxiety as his own without attributing it to Reich. Erik Erikson was another psychoanalytic writer who partially adopted Reich’s concept without acknowledgement. In his bestselling ‘Childhood and Society,’ Erikson wrote: ‘Genitality, then, consists in the unobstructed capacity to develop an orgastic potency so free of pregenital interferences that the genital libido . . . is expressed in heterosexual mutuality . . . and with a convulsion-like discharge of tension from the whole body.’

Otto Fenichel, in the classic textbook ‘The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neuroses,’ uses aspects of Reich’s orgasm theory but disguised that they were Reich’s contribution, and furthemore he hid the conflicts in the psychoanalytic movement that were explicit in Reich’s work. A major entry mainly based on Fenichel’s work appeared in the 1953, ‘Psychiatric Dictionary’ by L. Hinsie and R. Campbell: ‘Impotence, orgastic: The incapacity for achieving the orgasm or acme of satisfaction in the sexual act. Many neurotics cannot achieve adequate discharge of their sexual energy through the sexual act. . . . According to Fenichel, an important concomitant of orgastic impotence is that these patients are incapable of love.’

The two colleagues of Reich who build most on Reich’s orgasm theory and orgastic potency are Tage Philipson and Alexander Lowen. They emphasized the importance of human relationship in orgastic functions. Philipson, in his 1952 book studied natural and unnatural love-life. He wrote that ‘in healthy people sexuality and love will always be associated together. Sex will come from the heart and return to the heart. . . . the fully healthy person must be the person with completely free love feelings. . . . When this is the case other feelings will also be able to stream through the entire organism: hate, sorrow, anxiety, etc., and the orgasm, as the highest point of sexuality, will also be able to affect the entire organism.’ Lowen in his 1966 book ‘Love and Orgasm,’ distinguishes between achieving orgasm in the Kinsey meaning of sexual performance, and the entering into a love relationship as a whole human, similar to Reich. Like Reich, Lowen considers the latter to be the expression of health, not a means to it.

Theodore Wolfe, an American pioneer in psychosomatic medicine and later colleague of Reich, thought that anxiety was the cause of both neuroses and psychosomatic distortions. When reading Reich’s ‘Der Funktion des Orgasmus’ he found in it what he called the key to understanding the dynamics of this relationship. In a review of Reich’s sexual theories Elsworth Baker, a psychiatrist and colleague of Reich, wrote that in particular Reich’s sexual theories were commonly misinterpreted and misunderstood. While Reich was portrayed as advocating ‘a wild frantic promiscuity’ to seek ‘mystical, ecstatic orgasm’ that could cure all neuroses and physical ills, Baker continues, Reich in fact found that the healthy person needs less sexual activity and that the orgasm has a function to maintain health only for the healthy person.

The concepts of the sexual acme used in the famous 1948 and 1953 Kinsey reports and the 1966 research by Masters and Johnson were different from the one used by Reich. Reich directly related orgastic potency with the total response system, the personality, contact-ability, total psychosomatic health of a person. In contrast, Kinsey and Masters and Johnson restricted their conclusions to phenomena that all sexual climaxes had in common. For example, Kinsey defined the male orgasm as ‘all cases of ejaculation’ and the female orgasm as ‘the sudden and abrupt release . . . from sexual tension, [excluding] the satisfaction that may result from sexual experience.’ In other words, Kinsey focuses on the physiology, anatomy and technique involved in inducing a discharge of tension. Therefore, Kinsey’s usage of the term orgasm covers behavior that in the Reichian typology ranges from orgastic potency to orgastic impotence. Furthermore, examples of physiological distinctions Reich made but which were not pursued by Kinsey and Masters and Johnson include the difference between local and total bodily responses, and between voluntary and involuntary movements.

In 1905, Freud developed the psychoanalytic distinction between clitoral and vaginal orgasm, with only the latter being identified with psychosexual maturity. This distinction has since been challenged among others on physiological grounds. For example, Masters and Johnson wrote: ‘Are clitoral and vaginal orgasms truly separate and anatomic entities? From a biological point of view the answer to this question is an unequivocal NO.’ However, a clinically grounded qualitative distinction between psychosexual maturity and immaturity was only introduced with Reich’s concept orgastic potency vs. orgastic impotence (instead of vaginal vs. clitoral). As Masters and Johnson focused on phenomena shared by all sexual climaxes – ranging from what Reich categorized as orgastic potency to impotence – their finding has no direct relevance to or implications for Reich’s distinction.

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