A Skeptical Scrutiny of the Works and Theories of WILHELM REICH

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Orgastic Potency as the criterion for emotional health

By Roger M. Wilcox

Last modified 20-March-2001

Reich coined the term orgastic potency in a 1924 paper entitled "Die therapeutische Bedeutung des Genitallibidos," which has never been translated into English.  A detailed description appeared 3 years later, in his book Die Funktion Des Orgasmus.  It is important to remember, when discussing Reich's book titles, that he wrote two books titled Die Funktion Des Orgasmus over the course of his lifetime.  The first was published in 1927, edited slightly and re-published in a second edition in 1944, and finally translated into English in 1979 under the title Genitality in the Theory and Therapy of Neuroses, or more simply, Genitality.  The second was written in 1940, and translated into English in 1942 as The Function of the Orgasm.  The description of orgastic potency found in 1940's Die Funktion Des Orgasmus was lifted from 1927's Die Funktion Des Orgasmus, but everything else found in the later book was unrelated.

Reich eventually defined orgastic potency thusly:

"The ability for total surrender to the involuntary contractions of the organism and the complete discharge of the excitation at the acme of the genital embrace."
The ability to have an orgasm at all was a necessary prerequisite for orgastic potency, but it wasn't enough by itself.  Orgastic potency wasn't just the ability to have any old orgasm, no no no no.  It was the ability to have an orgasm that involved total surrender to all of the involuntary contractions, and all other physiological and psychological forces, that accompany an orgasm — the ability to "lose yourself in it" and yield all conscious and muscular control.

Reich was convinced that orgastic potency was identical with emotional health.  If you were emotionally healthy, you were orgastically potent; if you weren't emotionally healthy, you were orgastically impotent.  It became the yardstick by which he measured whether he'd "cured" one of his patients or not.

An immediately obvious problem with this approach is: How does the therapist tell if a patient is orgastically potent or not?  How does he know if a patient is capable of total surrender during an orgasm?  Despite their obsession with sex, Reichian character analysts and character-analytical vegetotherapists are not in the habit of watching their patients have sex.  And even if they were, Reich never came up with a method for measuring an orgasm's "totality of surrender" objectively.  Supposedly, only the person experiencing the orgasm can tell, and only people who have experienced a total-surrender orgasm know what one is like.  So how could even someone who was observing the patient having sex tell whether his surrender at the orgasm was "total" or not?

The answer is, they can't.  They use other symptoms, such as various chronically contracted muscle groups ("muscular armor") or neurotic character quirks ("character armor") to judge whether a patient is probably orgastically potent or not.  True, one of the symptoms they can try to look for is the orgasm reflex, but as Reich pointed out in The Cancer Biopathy, chapter V, section 6 (pp. 209-210, 1973 trans.), the orgasm reflex can appear in a "biopathic" patient, whom Reich would have classified as orgastically impotent.  In Genitality, Reich also suggested that, in a female patient, the capacity for a "vaginal orgasm" was an indicator of orgastic potency.  The vaginal orgasm was the invention of Sigmund Freud; Freud speculated that there was a kind of female orgasm felt in the vagina that was more "mature" than an orgasm felt in the clitoris.  Little or no evidence for the existence of a distinct vaginal orgasm has been found since Freud's time; indeed, the only criterion for discerning a vaginal orgasm seems to be that such a thing is "obvious" to the woman who has one.  It is an entirely subjective phenomenon that presents no measurable physiological difference.  So how do therapists use such subjective and inconclusive symptoms to judge if the patient is orgastically potent?  Simple.  If traditional neuroses are present, or if the person seems "screwed up" in some way, then he's probably orgastically impotent.  In other words, they try to determine if the person is emotionally healthy using methods that don't involve the observation of the orgasm.  The assertion that a healthy patient is orgastically potent and an unhealthy patient is orgastically impotent is tacked on as an afterthought.  It is never empirically tested.  And who is the patient to argue, anyway?  If he's told he's orgastically potent, he'll believe it, so long as he can have orgasms of any kind.  If he's told he's orgastically impotent, he'll believe that too, because even if he does have orgasms he can never be totally sure that he's having the "right" kind of orgasms.

Whether the hypothesis that "orgastic potency = emotional health" has any merit or not, no one can tell.  It has no predictive power.  And, later in Reich's life, he began calling the enemies of orgonomy "orgastically impotent" as a kind of mudslinging — they were all out to get him because they all carried the emotional plague, and everyone who had the emotional plague was orgastically impotent by definition.  It was the greatest irony that, in Listen, Little Man!, Reich complained bitterly about the throngs of True Believers he was attracting to his therapeutic couch who "wanted orgastic potency poured into them by the bucketfull."

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