The orgasm theory

From the book The Function of the Orgasm, by Wilhelm Reich, M.D., FS&G, New York 1973.

Instead of a systematic presentation, I want to describe the theory of the orgasm in the way in which it developed. This will enable the reader to grasp more easily its inner logic. It will be seen that no human brain could have in­vented these relationships.

Until 1923, the year the orgasm theory was born, only ejaculative and erective potency were known to sexology and psychoanalysis. Without the inclusion of the functional, eco­nomic, and experiential components, the concept of sexual potency has no meaning. Erective and ejaculative potency are merely indispensable preconditions for orgastic potency. Orgastic potency is 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. Not a single neurotic is orgastically potent, and the character struc­tures of the overwhelming majority of men and women are neurotic.

In the sexual act free of anxiety, unpleasure, and fanta­sies, the intensity of pleasure in the orgasm is dependent upon the amount of sexual tension concentrated in the geni­tals. The greater and steeper the “drop” of the excitation, the more intense the pleasure.

The following description of the orgastically gratifying sexual act pertains only to the course of a few typical, natu­rally determined phases and modes of behavior. I did not take into account the biological foreplay which is determined by the individual needs and does not exhibit a universal char­acter. In addition, we must note that the bioelectric proc­esses of the orgasm function have not been explored and therefore this description is incomplete.

Phase of voluntary control of the excitation

(The arabic figures in the text correspond to the arabic figures in the legend to the diagram.)

l. Erection is not painful as it is in priapism, spasm of the pelvic floor, or of the spermatic duct. It is pleasurable. The penis is not overexcited as it is after a prolonged period of abstinence or in cases of premature ejaculation. The female genital becomes hyperemic and moist in a specific way through the profuse secretion of the genital glands; that is, in the case of undisturbed genital functioning, the secretion has specific chemical and physical properties which are lack­ing when the genital function is disturbed. An important characteristic of male orgastic potency is the urge to pene­trate. Erections can occur without this urge, as is the case in some erectively potent narcissistic characters and in satyriasis.

Sexual act ENG

Diagram depicting the typical phases of the sexual act in which both male and female are orgastically potent.

F = forepleasure (1, 2). P = penetration of penis (3). I (4, 5) = phase of voluntary control of the excitation and prolongation which is still unharm- ful. II (6 a-d) = phase of involuntary muscle contractions and automatic increase of excitation. Ill (7) = sudden and steep ascent to the climax (C). IV (8) = orgasm. The shaded part represents the phase of involuntary con­vulsions of the body. V (9, 10) = steep drop of the excitation. R = pleasant relaxation. Duration from five to twenty minutes.

2. The man and the woman are tender toward each other, and there are no contradictory impulses. The fol­lowing are pathological deviations from this behavior: ag­gressiveness stemming from sadistic impulses, as in some erectively potent compulsion neurotics, and the inactivity of the passive-feminine character. Tenderness is also absent in “onanistic coitus” with an unloved object. Normally, the ac­tivity of the woman does not differ in any way from that of the man. The widespread passivity on the part of the woman is pathological, usually the result of masochistic rape fantasies.

3. The pleasurable excitation, which has remained at ap­proximately the same level during forepleasure activity, sud­denly increases in both man and woman with the penetration of the penis into the vagina. The feeling on the part of the man that he is “being sucked in” is the counterpart of the woman’s feeling that she is “sucking in” the penis.

4. The man’s urge to penetrate deeply increases, but does not take on the sadistic form of “wanting to pierce through,” as in the case of compulsion neurotic characters. Through the mutual, gradual, spontaneous, effortless fric­tion, the excitation becomes concentrated on the surface and glans of the penis and on the posterior parts of the mu­cous membrane of the vagina. The characteristic sensation which heralds and accompanies the discharge of the semen is still wholly absent; this is not the case in premature ejacula­tion. The body is still less excited than the genital. Con­sciousness is fully attuned to the assimilation of the streaming sensations of pleasure. The ego actively participates insofar as it attempts to explore all possible avenues of pleasure and to achieve the highest degree of tension before the onset of the orgasm. Conscious intentions obviously play no part in this. It all takes place spontaneously on the basis of the indi­vidually different forepleasure experiences, through change of position, the nature of the friction, its rhythm, etc. Ac­cording to most potent men and women, the slower and more gentle the frictions are and the more closely synchro­nized, the more intense are the sensations of pleasure. This presupposes a high degree of affinity between the partners. A pathological counterpart to this is the urge to produce vio­lent frictions. This is especially pronounced in sadistic compulsive characters who suffer from penis anesthesia and the inability to discharge semen. Another example is the nervous haste of those who suffer from premature ejaculations. Orgastically potent men and women never laugh and talk during the sexual act, except possibly to exchange words of endearment. Both talking and laughing are indicative of severe disturbances of the ability to surrender; surrender presupposes complete immersion in the streaming sensation of pleasure. Men who feel that surrender is “feminine” are always orgastically disturbed.

5. In this phase, interruption of the friction is in itself pleasurable because of the special sensations of pleasure which attend this pause and do not require psychic exertion. In this way, the act is prolonged. The excitation subsides a little during the pause. However, it does not, as in patholog­ical cases, subside altogether. Interruption of the sexual act by withdrawing the penis is not unpleasurable as long as it occurs after a restful pause. When friction continues, the ex­citation steadily increases beyond the level which had been previously attained. It gradually takes more and more pos­session of the entire body, while the genital itself maintains a more or less constant level of excitation. Finally, as a result of a fresh, usually sudden increase of genital excitation, the phase of involuntary muscular contraction sets in.

Phase of involuntary muscle contractions

6. In this phase, voluntary control of the course of the excitation is no longer possible. It exhibits the following characteristic features:

a. The increase of the excitation can no longer be con­trolled; rather it grips the entire personality and causes an acceleration of pulse and deep exhalation.

b. The physical excitation becomes more and more con­centrated in the genital; there is a sweet sensation which can be best described as the flowing of excitation from the geni­tal to other parts of the body.

c. To begin with, this excitation causes involuntary con­tractions of the entire musculature of the genitalia and pelvic floor. These contractions are experienced in the form of waves: the rise of the wave coincides with the complete penetration of the penis, while the fall of the wave coincides with the retraction of the penis. But as soon as the retraction goes beyond a certain limit, immediate spasmodic contractions take place which accelerate ejaculation. In the female, it is the smooth musculature of the vagina which contracts.

d. At this stage, the interruption of the act is altogether unpleasurable for both the man and the woman. When an interruption takes place, the muscular contractions which lead to the orgasm in the woman and the ejaculation in the man are spasmodic instead of rhythmic. The sensations which this produces are highly unpleasurable and occasion­ally pains in the pelvic floor and the sacrum are experienced. As a result of the spasms, moreover, the ejaculation takes place earlier than it does in the case of undisturbed rhythm.

The voluntary prolongation of the first phase of the sex­ual act (1 to 5) is not harmful up to a certain degree and has a pleasure-intensifying effect. On the other hand, the inter­ruption or voluntary change of the course of the excitation in the second phase is harmful because of the involuntary na­ture of this phase.

7. Through the further intensification and increase in the frequency of the involuntary muscle contractions, the excita­tion mounts rapidly and sharply to the climax (III to C in the diagram) ; normally this coincides with the first ejacula­tory muscle contractions in the man.

8. At this point, consciousness becomes more or less clouded; following a brief pause at the “height” of the cli­max, the frictions increase spontaneously and the urge to penetrate “completely” becomes more intense with every ejaculatory muscle contraction. The muscle contractions in the woman follow the same course as they follow in the man; there is merely a psychic difference, namely that the healthy woman wants “to receive completely” during and just after the climax.

9. The orgastic excitation takes hold of the entire body and produces strong convulsions of the musculature of the whole body. Self-observations on the part of healthy persons of both sexes, as well as the analysis of certain disturbances of the orgasm, show that what we call the resolution of ten­sion and experience as motor discharge (descending curve of the orgasm) is essentially the result of the reversion of the excitation from the genital to the body. This reversion is ex­perienced as a sudden reduction of the tension.

Hence, the climax represents the turning point in the course of the excitation, i.e., prior to the climax, the direc­tion of the excitation is toward the genital; subsequent to the climax, the excitation flows away from the genital. It is this complete return of the excitation from the genital to the body that constitutes the gratification. This means two things: flowing back of the excitation to the entire body and relaxation of the genital apparatus.

10. Before the neutral point is reached, the excitation fades away in a gentle curve and is immediately replaced by a pleasant physical and psychic relaxation. Usually, there is also a strong desire to sleep. The sensual relations are extin­guished, but a “satiated” tender attitude to the partner con­tinues, to which is added the feeling of gratitude.

In contrast to this, the orgastically impotent person expe­riences a leaden exhaustion, disgust, repulsion, weariness, or indifference and, occasionally, hatred toward the partner. In the case of satyriasis and nymphomania, the sexual excita­tion does not subside. Insomnia is one of the essential char­acteristics of lack of gratification. It cannot be automatically concluded, however, that a person has experienced gratifica­tion when he falls asleep immediately following the sexual act.

If we re-examine the two phases of the sexual act, we see that the first phase is characterized essentially by the sensory experience of pleasure, while the second phase is character­ized by the motor experience of pleasure.

Involuntary bioenergetic convulsion of the organism and the complete resolution of the excitation are the most impor­tant characteristics of orgastic potency. The shaded part of the diagram represents the involuntary vegetative relaxa­tion. There are partial resolutions of the excitation which are similar to the orgastic resolution. They have until now been looked upon as the actual release. Clinical experience shows that, as a result of universal sexual suppression, men and women have lost the ability to experience the ultimate surrender to the involuntary. It is precisely this previously unrecognized phase of final excitation and resolution of ten­sion that I have in mind when I speak of “orgastic potency.” It constitutes the primal and basic biological function which man has in common with all living organisms. All experienc­ing of nature is derived from this function or from the long­ing for it.

The course of excitation in the woman is exactly the same as that of the man. The orgasm in both sexes is more intense when the peaks of genital excitation coincide. This is very frequently the case among men and women who are capable of concentrating affection and sensuality on one partner who reciprocates this affection and sensuality. It is the rule when the love relationship is disturbed neither by internal nor ex­ternal factors. In such cases, at least conscious fantasy active ity is completely suspended; the ego absorbs and is fully fo­cused on the sensations of pleasure. The ability to focus the entire affective personality upon the orgastic experience, in spite of any contradictions, is another characteristic of or­gastic potency.

It cannot be easily determined whether unconscious fan­tasy activity is also at rest. Certain factors would indicate that it is. Fantasies which are not allowed to become con­scious can only detract from the experience. It is necessary to distinguish two groups of fantasies which could accompany the sexual act, those in harmony with the sexual experience and those at variance with it. If the partner is capable of at­tracting all sexual interests to herself or himself at least momentarily, then the unconscious fantasies are also superfluous. In terms of their very nature, these fantasies are op­posed to the real experience, for one fantasizes only what one cannot have in reality. There is a genuine transference from the primal object to the partner. It is possible for the partner to replace the object of the fantasy be­cause of the identity between their basic characteristics. If, however, the transference of sexual interests takes place solely on the basis of a neurotic desire for the primal object, without the inner ability for genuine transference and in spite of the fact that there is no identity between the partner and the fantasized object, then no illusion can drown out the vague feeling of artificiality in the relationship. In the former instance, coitus is not followed by disappointment. In the latter, disappointment is inevitable, and we can assume that the fantasy activity during the act did not cease: it served, rather, to maintain the illusion. In the former, one loses interest in the original object and, consequently, its fantasy-generating force is also lost. The original object is regenerated by the partner. In a genuine transference, there is no glorification of the sexual partner; characteristics at variance with the primal object are correctly assessed and tolerated. In an artificial transference, the sexual partner is inordinately idealized and the relationship is full of illusions. The negative characteristics are not recognized, and fantasy activity must be continued, otherwise the illusion is lost.

The more intensively the fantasy has to work to make the partner approximate the ideal, the more the sexual pleasure loses in the way of intensity and sex-economic value. It de­pends entirely upon the nature of the disagreements, that occur in every extended relationship, whether and to what extent they reduce the intensity of the sexual experience. The reduction tends to become a pathological disturbance much sooner when there is a strong fixation on the primal object and an inability to achieve a genuine transference; when, moreover, a great deal of energy is required to overcome those characteristics in the partner which are at variance with the primal object.