Wilhelm Reich and the Irony of Liberation

How the Sexual Revolution Made Everything Boring

The Austrian doctor and psychoanalyst, Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957), coined the term “the sexual revolution” in his 1936 book, The Sexual Revolution.

Reich envisioned a society where no obstacles would be put in the path of sexual gratification. In order to achieve this sexual utopia, Reich believed steps first needed to be taken to erode the sense of shyness that normally surrounds sexual matters. In particular, he wanted to see men and women overcome their reluctance to expose erotically important parts of our bodies.

When suggesting new policies for sex education, Reich said that his plans hinged on “the concrete question whether the sexes should lose their shyness to expose their genitals and other erotically important parts of their bodies,” and “whether educators and pupils, parents and children, when bathing and playing, should appear before each other naked or in bathing costume; whether nakedness should become a matter of course.”

Reich’s answer to these questions was clear: the mainstreaming of nudity among adults and children should be a central pillar of sex education in order that the new generation could develop a “sex-affirming” attitude. As he put it in The Sexual Revolution,

"If one is not ashamed of appearing naked before a child it will not develop sexual shyness or lasciviousness; on the other hand, it will undoubtedly wish to have its sexual curiosity satisfied.”

These sex education goals were preliminary to Reich’s ultimate objective: helping men and women achieve better sex.

Shortly after immigrating to the United States in 1939, Reich began work on a sophisticated phone-booth-like-machine, known as an “orgone box,” that people could enter to increase their sexual energy. (The box was also said to be able to cause rain by unlocking energy in the atmosphere.) Albert Einstein studied the invention for two weeks before concluding that it was an insult to the laws of physics.

For all his quackery, Reich’s theory of sex and society remained remarkably clear and consistent, running something like this.

  1. Widespread societal acceptance of immodesty will lead to greater comfort (less embarrassment) for children to expose “erotically important parts of their bodies.”
  2. This in turn will result in a net increase in sex-affirming attitudes.
  3. Sex affirming attitudes will result in better sex and thus to healthier human beings.

How the Sexual Revolution Arrived

When the American sexual revolution came into full force in the 1960’s, Reich’s proposals were mainstreamed by new forms of erotica, changing norms pioneered by men like Hugh Hefner, and new sexual habits made possible by the pill. And if you fast-forward to today, the spirit of Reich’s sexual education policies have been implemented almost entirely. Although we do not yet have nude bathing in schools, new versions of “sex literacy” and “porn literacy” go even further than Reich’s expectations. Here is a smattering of what school children are now exposed to, from The American Conservative:

a drag queen was recently caught teaching five-year-olds how to twerk at a library; a Wisconsin school district is offering sexually explicit books that feature passages about anal sex and dildos; a Washington Post op-ed defends displays of kink at Pride parades and recommends that kids be exposed to them; and the Chicago Public Schools announces that condoms will now be available to elementary school students.

Formal school education is now supplemented with the mainstreaming of erotica in social media, particularly Instagram, where it is now routine for children to post highly sexualized pictures of themselves. Even the final taboo—exposing school children to full frontal nudity—has been eliminated as smartphone porn access has become normal for school children.

This is the educational paradise Reich envisioned. These cultural shifts have helped to realize Reich’s goal of eliminating the shyness and embarrassment surrounding exposure. As I mentioned in Salvo #19, Reich would be pleased to see a European beach today, which is often more in keeping with his ideal than what is found in brothels.

"In a brothel, women have had to overcome the natural shyness surrounding erotically important parts of their bodies in order to sell sex. On a sunny European beach, women in various states of undress can be seen to have overcome this natural shyness—with no thought of sex at all. By refusing to acknowledge the erotic implications of revealing attire or nudity, they have so nearly achieved Reich’s goal of overcoming shyness that, for them, sex is flattened of its inherent potency. 'Profane' may be the best word to describe Reich’s ideal and its realization, given that the term originally meant 'to treat as common.'"

How the Sexual Revolution Failed

But while Reich’s sexual revolution has arrived, it is a complete failure even on its own terms. The irony of the sexual revolution has been that we remain stranded in stage one of Reich’s agenda (widespread acceptance of immodesty), without ever reaching happier and healthier sex lives (stages two and three). What went wrong?

A clue was suggested by Nicole King in her Salvo article, “Stripping Sex of its Sexiness.” King referenced Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which he imagined a society of over-sexualized children who spend time on the playground enjoying the sexual act with no guilt, no relationship, no consequences. “As much as Huxley got right,” King observed, “he still got one thing terribly wrong. The characters in Brave New World still enjoyed and sought sex—enthusiastically.” But in the real world, King shows that oversexualization has a strange relationship to its inverse, for as nudity becomes commonplace, sex becomes cheapened; the result, ironically, is that we become desexualized. This dynamic has been played out in the recent Instagram controversy as new experimentation in childhood eroticism is routinely defended as “not sexual.” Are these girls participating in their own de-sexualization when they claim there is nothing sexual when they display themselves undressed? Nicole King thinks the answer is yes, and references Matt Purple’s article, “The New Puritans.”

"This new, cheapened understanding of sex has actually left us undersexed.… America and many other developed, porn-saturated countries are actually experiencing a 'sex recession.'” Purple writes, “By turning sex into just another 10 for $1 Tupperware sale at Stop and Shop, you strip it of the mystique that makes it so alluring. You replace intimacy with cold utility, passion with ‘don’t catch the feelz.’ That isn’t to say we’re going to kill off sex entirely, of course. But we’ve still fundamentally dulled what it ought to be, even as we imagine that we’re unshackling ourselves.” As a society, Americans are now undersexed because our culture is so saturated with a cheap and thoroughly wrong view of the power of sex.

I think King and Purple are onto something. As sex has devolved into just one more subject, and as the soft porn of advertising has mainstreamed erotic images into every aspect of our lives, sexuality has become demystified, trivialized, and dull for many people. Research shows that people are having sex less than they used to, aided in part by widespread porn access and a new range of sexual activities that circumnavigate the vulnerability involved in person-to-person bonding.

Surveying the emerging state of affairs over two decades ago, Wendy Shalit discovered that our sex-saturated culture has flattened the body of its implicit eroticism, introducing a banality to the entire phenomenon. She even cited evidence that when sex becomes less of a “big deal,” it becomes less pleasurable.

If the first sexual revolution was about enjoying sex without being encumbered with the possibility of child-bearing, the second has been about enjoying sex without being encumbered by bonding, as if human connectivity is a kind of byproduct to be overcome in the quest for total sexual liberation. How ironic that this itinerary would end up flattening sexuality of the very elements that make it so potent and pleasurable, reducing nudity to something tame and benign. We started to get a glimpse of this even in the time of Wilhelm Reich, as we shall see.

The Irony of the Sexual Revolution

A tension lay at the heart of Reich’s proposals, which it has taken over a century of sexual revolution to clarify. On the one hand, Reich wanted to evacuate nudity of its erotic implications so that “erotically important parts of their bodies” would become emptied of shyness. But on the other hand, he wanted men and women to be hyper-sexed, with increased erotic energy (the justification for his attempts at tinkering, both with physics and with the norms of society). But it never occurred to Reich that these two goals might be antithetical, that this project might only sever the important link between the body and the erotic.

In the interest of achieving the first of these goals, namely the normalization of immodesty, Reich cited with approval a study from the Moscow psychoanalyst, Vera Schmidt, about a school environment where nudity and masturbation were encouraged. “There was no objection to their mutually inspecting each other; correspondingly, their utterances concerning the naked body were ‘entirely calm and objective.’” As a psychotherapist, Reich attempted to apply this principle in counselling sessions, in which he would require his clients to remove all their clothes.

From our perspective, it seems obvious that an “entirely calm and objective” approach to the naked body that Reich advocated—nudity without erotism, nakedness without sex, and the reduction of genitalia to something merely ordinary—is a recipe, not for greater sex, but for de-sexualization. This is not a mere hypothesis but the actual experience of a growing number of young people. In short, by reducing the erotic to the commonplace, sex has become demystified and stripped of its power.

This, finally, is the irony of the sexual revolution. It is the irony of Wilhelm Reich, whose fixation with nudity merely evacuated the body of its implicit eroticism; it is the paradox of Hugh Hefner whose unlimited access to women left him perpetually unsatisfied; it is the paradox of today’s sex-saturated society, where sex has become so cheapened that it has receded into banality.

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020) and writes for a variety of publications. He has a Master's in history from King’s College, London, and is currently working on a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is editorial assistant for the Fellowship of St. James and a frequent contributor to Salvo and Touchstone magazines. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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