Today’s selection — from The Birth of the Pill by Jonathan Eig. In the 1800s, in much of the United States and in other countries, birth control and abortion were banned to discourage promiscuity. Attitudes began to change in 1909 after a lecture in America by Sigmund Freud. By 1923, [Wilhelm] Reich had announced that the orgasm was the key to curing neuroses — and proclaimed the need for a “sexual revolution.” “Genital stagnation,” he warned, would lead to both emotional and physical problems:
“Throughout most of human history, men and women have seldom been treated as equals where sex comes into play. In the Old Testament, when Sarah could not bear children for Abraham, Abraham took a maidservant for a mistress. King Solomon not only had hundreds of wives but had hundreds of concubines, too. In imperial Rome, a woman guilty of adultery was exiled from her home and banned from marrying again. Roman Catholic doctrine declared that sexual intercourse was only for procreation and that thinking or acting otherwise was a sin. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, promiscuous women were burned at the stake. In Victorian England, women were told they were not supposed to enjoy sex, and men were encouraged to visit prostitutes rather than defile their own wives. To discourage promiscuity, birth control and abortion were outlawed in many countries, including the United States, and women were often forced to rely on illegal abortions to control family size. Not until the early twentieth century did anyone dare suggest that sex should be accepted and even embraced as healthy or something to be enjoyed by both men and women.
“American attitudes toward sex took a big turn in 1909, when Sigmund Freud gave a series of lectures at Clark University.
“Born in 1856 in the Austrian town of Freiberg, in what is now the Czech Republic, Freud studied medicine and specialized in nervous and brain disorders. He was influenced by the work of a Viennese colleague, Josef Breuer, who found that he could help deeply troubled patients by getting them to speak openly about the earliest occurrence of their symptoms. Freud theorized that many neuroses were rooted in trauma that had often been forgotten and hidden from consciousness. If patients could be helped to recall their experiences, he suggested, they could rid themselves of their neurotic symptoms.
“In 1900, Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams. The unconscious mind was a powerful force, he proclaimed, and sexual drive was the most powerful of all determinants of a person’s psychology. Sexual urges required gratification, Freud wrote; abstinence was both unnatural and potentially harmful. In Europe, critics complained that Freud was making too much of sexuality, and the good doctor came to be despised. But upon arriving in America he found a welcome and influential audience. ‘Don’t they know we’re bringing them the plague?’ Freud asked his fellow analyst Carl Gustav Jung as the two men stood on the deck of their ship, staring down at the cheering throngs awaiting their arrival.
“Most Americans never bothered to read Freud, but they came to understand, correctly or not, that he had endorsed sex as a desire equal in importance to hunger or thirst. His followers argued that sexual satisfaction was essential to happiness and mental health. Young women in particular, recalled the writer Malcolm Cowley, ‘were reading Freud and attempting to lose their inhibitions.’ Freudians did not worship Freud; they worshiped intercourse and orgasms. Among the believers, nothing satisfied desire and made the world a better place more than a mind-blowing, spine-shivering orgasm, or ‘la petite mort’ (the little death), as the French called it, suggesting a mystical quality to sex.
“Margaret Sanger took up the cause, and so did Wilhelm Reich, another disciple of Freud. In 1923, [Wilhelm] Reich told the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society that he believed orgasm was the key to curing neuroses. ‘Genital stagnation,’ he warned, would lead not only to emotional problems but also ‘heart ailments … excessive perspiration, hot flashes and chills, trembling, dizziness, diarrhea, and, occasionally, increased salivation.’ Women and adolescents were particularly vulnerable, he said, because they were expected to remain abstinent (at least until marriage, for women) while men were free to satisfy their sexual appetites. Reich believed that everyone needed orgasms — and lots of them — to discharge their sexual energy and remain healthy. What’s more, he said, unless that energy was released, the world would never achieve progressive political or social reform. It would take nothing less than a sexual revolution — a term of Reich’s creation to create a truly free society. Reich was the prophet of the orgasm. He even devised a special box — the Orgone Energy Accumulator — to help harness orgasmic energy, which he believed circulated in the atmosphere and in the human bloodstream. Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, William Steig, and many other intellectuals later sat in the box (Albert Einstein considered it but politely declined). Eventually the federal government labeled Reich a fraud, but by then it didn’t matter. He had already inspired a generation of believers who would become central players in the sexual revolution.”
The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution
Author: Jonathan Eig
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Copyright 2014 by Jonathan Eig