Recently, an acquaintance became mystified by the peculiar, but surprisingly common, claim that men who seek to reduce their porn use by joining online self-help recovery forums are “fascists, misogynists and white supremacists”. How did such an offbeat concept gain traction? It can be traced to a German medical doctor, the late Wilhelm Reich, and his sweeping views about sex.

Born in Germany in 1897, Reich died in prison in the United States in 1957 after a dramatic life, most of which is tangential to this post. Earlier in his life, Reich hoped for better things from Communism but ultimately realised it was a catastrophe. He lived through the misery and devastation of WW1. He also became disgusted by the Nazis and their duped supporters. Struggling to understand all this chaos, he concluded that mankind’s recurring turmoil would have to be addressed at some more fundamental level than politics. He placed his faith in science…or rather, his interpretation of it.

Reich’s hypothesis

Reich concluded that the reason people followed führers was the same reason they couldn’t live up to the selflessness on which Communism’s underlying principles inescapably rested. The cause of humankind’s problems was simple: Their sexuality had been suppressed when they were children and adolescents.

In Reich’s view, obedience to parents and religious authorities with regard to sexual self-discipline produced sheeple. That is, slaves to authority unable to think for themselves or see their collective best interests. According to Reich, homosexuality, brutality and all sexual perversion arose from the fact that adolescents didn’t freely have access both to birth control and to an “all they could eat” buffet of casual sex. There was no such thing as too much. In Reich’s view, his program would virtually guarantee healthy, loving relationships.

Predictably, Reich devoted the remainder of his life to related causes. Such as endorsing childhood masturbation, adolescent sexual freedom, affairs and uncommitted sex. In part he did this by insisting on the scientific benefits of orgasm itself. Subsequent research has not convincingly affirmed the strength of those benefits. More in a moment.

Despite widespread criticism Reich’s orgasm-theory spread widely in Europe and the United States. In fact, enthusiasts in each new generation have been only too happy to believe that orgasm is so beneficial – and suppression so dangerous – that frequent masturbation and casual sex are practically civic duties! Many young people have never heard of Reich. Yet they have integrated his beliefs from parents and peers…just as Reich envisioned.

What Reich got right

Reich was right to encourage people to look beyond dogma and to think scientifically about sex. The scientific method, however, requires open-minded experimentation…and clear-eyed assessment of actual results.

When it comes to managing sexual desire, too many of us have ceased to experiment and assess objectively. Instead we complacently rely on assumptions repackaged by authorities – whether sexual or religious. Their “indisputable truths” are bolstered in turn by impulses arising from our unthinking mammalian genetic programming (which evolved to spread genes and enhance genetic diversity with novel partners, and not to ensure our wellbeing).

Surely Reich was also correct when he concluded it was pathological to insist that anyone’s self-worth or the love of their creator depends upon strictly avoiding masturbation and sex-not-for-procreation. No one should slavishly adhere to simplistic rules that only create inner conflict or give rise to destructive guilt. On the other hand, nor should people uncritically adhere to flawed sexology principles when their weaknesses become apparent. Blind, undiscriminating adherence indeed leaves us susceptible to manipulation by dubious authorities.

We have free will, and it is up to us to decide how we will manage our sexual desire. No external spiritual authority condemns us for our choices (even if the legal system and our fellow humans may). No one’s inherent value as a person or as a spark of the divine (depending upon your belief system) changes due to how they (mis)manage their sex life. That said, sexual choices and sexual self-control powerfully shape our perceptions, priorities and projections onto the world around us.

The missing element, which Reich attempted to supply in vain, is a clear understanding of the physiological, psychological and ethical repercussions of our sexual choices. Most of us currently think sex is no more likely to alter our perception and priorities than is scratching any other itch. This assumption is naively simplistic.

Scientists are now beginning to unravel the impact of orgasm’s powerful after effects. Indirectly, they strongly influence the degree to which our behaviour is ethical, loving, selfish, short-sighted, and so forth. Most importantly, what our behaviour sows tends to determine what we reap. So, sexual choices are not trivial; they have profound implications.

Finally, Reich was also right that lovers should not become parents without the intention to create and support a child (birth control). Unloved children grow up to be unloving adults.

Reich’s worst mistake

Sex is indeed potentially a path to greater wellbeing, just as Reich believed. However, he made an error that reverberates still when he concluded that the benefits of sex arise from orgasm – merely because it reliably offers momentary relief from sexual tension.

His error was understandable. Like orgasm, eating something sweet registers as intensely rewarding in the moment. Yet too much sugar can set off subsequent cravings for more, make healthier foods gradually seem unappealing, and even give rise compulsive junk-food consumption. Orgasm, an even more intense reward, presents a similar hazard.

In fact, many of the benefits that Reich ascribed to orgasm more likely arise from intimacy. That is, from close, trusted companionship and exchanging desire and affection. Not from mere short-term, self-centred relief of sexual tension.

Incidentally, orgasm is but one way to relieve sexual tension. So is non-goal driven lovemaking – with or without intercourse – such as Synergy lovemaking. Interestingly, Douglas Wile PhD observed that the ancient Chinese Taoists would have agreed heartily with Reich that sex is a vital source of wellbeing. However, they would also have concluded that he completely missed its true potential:

For Reich, the function of orgasm is to discharge sexual tension, and full orgasmic potency is characterized by “involuntary muscular contractions” and “the clouding of consciousness”. The feeling of pleasure is derived from the decline in tension and the return to equilibrium. This to the Chinese makes a narcotic of sex. For them, contact and arousal are the most fundamental biological needs, not orgasm. The energy discharged during sex should not be drained from the body, but shared with the organism as a whole, and particularly the brain. This results in a state of spiritual illumination (shen-ming), which may be said to be diametrically opposed to Reich’s “clouding of consciousness”. The spiritual “irrigation” experienced by the Chinese sexual yogis is a far cry from the Western waters of oblivion.

Research left undone

Unfortunately, Reich’s mistaken assumption has hindered objective sex research for decades. Sexologists simply assume orgasm has vast benefits. Sure, they sometimes investigate benefits associated with sex. However, both they and the mainstream press then write articles implying that the key to these benefits stem from orgasm-during-sex. As a consequence, our society now confounds sex with orgasm without any critical thinking whatsoever.

Sexology researchers have proven curiously unwilling to tease apart the effects of intercourse from the effects of orgasm. On the rare occasions that they have, it turns out that it is not true that more orgasm is better. In fact satisfaction declines or remains static after sex (one presumes sex-with-orgasm) more than once a week. And research reveals that many benefits to lovers likely arise from intimacy itself. Thus, frequent intercourse without frequent orgasm may offer unsuspected gifts.

There’s another unhappy result of Reich’s blunder. Young people believe they are receiving the same boosts to their wellbeing as loving couples engaged in ongoing intimacy – simply by masturbating to online stimuli, or pursuing casual hook-ups.

When they remain restless and dissatisfied, they typically try even harder to scratch their itches Reich’s way. They don’t understand what they’re actually missing: close, trusted companionship, the opportunity to nurture each other, and regular exchanges of affectionate touch. Some escalate to more extreme or risky stimulation, sometimes with grave repercussions. Over all, their sexual tension is increased. Not soothed, as Reich promised would be the case.

Tragically, their assiduous training sessions with non-human substitutes often appear to condition their sexual arousal to artificial replacements. The more that people (of any age) rely exclusively for their sexual wellbeing on orgasms engineered with supernormal sex-aids, such as online stimuli and sex toys, the less arousing they may find real partners.

When today’s lovers do connect with partners, they often find sex unfulfilling. Perhaps they don’t become aroused normally, find partnered sex boring, or they find it difficult to climax. Heartrendingly, some conclude they are asexual or suffering from some other innate disability. They have conditioned their sexual response, not to human beings, but to videos and objects.

Again, researchers seem hesitant to design experimental interventions that contrast the sexual-health recovery of those who use sex-aids with those who stop. So humanity remains baffled by its unsatisfying results.

Assessing results

Humans seem to learn most effectively, if it all, via lived experience. That’s how we recognise what needs to be scrapped or updated. In this sense Reich did humanity a service by hypothesising that indiscriminate orgasm would solve humankind’s susceptibility to fascism and other problems at a fundamental level.

Thanks to his single-minded promotion (and the sexology profession to which it helped give rise), humankind has devoted decades to testing Reich’s hypothesis with impressive fervour. It’s time we consider our collective results objectively. Without reference to existing religious or academic dogma.

In fact, Reich himself would be horrified by today’s sexual wreckage. Despite widespread sexual liberation, the unsavoury outcomes he once ascribed to insufficient sexual freedom are as extreme as ever, and far more mainstream.

Has Reich’s proposed solution averted fascism? Left humans better able to discern their true best interests? Or reduced tension, thus improving physical and psychological wellbeing?

Or has it left us very good at engineering orgasm, yet woefully ignorant of the health-giving benefits of close trusted companionship, selflessness, and regular affection? Have the emotional isolation and self-absorption resulting from pursuit of solo and casual sex left us vulnerable to profiteers selling sex-aids? Do loneliness and egocentricity contribute to today’s historically high rates of mood and mental disorders?

Silver lining

We can admire Reich for endeavouring to cure humankind’s ills, especially given what he lived through. And, of course, it would have been marvellous if he had been right! His solution was certainly an easy one to implement, given how eagerly our genetic programming urges us toward sexual arousal.

In any case, he did humanity a great favour by drawing the subject of sex and the need for investigating its effects into the spotlight. Humanity couldn’t learn to tap its true potential while the subject was effectively off limits.

Alas, he was wrong that the benefits of orgasm outweigh the benefits of intimacy. And it’s likely that his error has caused enormous suffering (not least in his own turbulent, tragic life). However, if our experimental results cause us to back up and follow his admonition that we set aside dogma and think scientifically about the weak points (and untapped potential?) in our physiology – and how we might best hack them – Reich will ultimately have done us all a great service.