Scene from BarbarellaDid you have sex this morning? Did the earth move? Were you overwhelmed by waves of ecstasy and did you scream, shudder or sob? But, most importantly, did you consider, while you were shuddering in the throes of orgasm, that you might be performing a revolutionary act?

That’s what the radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich believed. In his ground-breaking work The Function of the Orgasm, published in 1927, he argued that sexual satisfaction is fundamental not only to individual health but also to true democracy. “The natural function of the socialisation of the human is that of guaranteeing work and natural fulfilment in love . . . Knowledge, work and natural love are the sources of life.”

Reich’s passionate advocacy of sexual liberation as a route to political freedom influenced a generation of writers and thinkers. Yet now his work has been sidelined, his theories dismissed as eccentric, his wilder claims either forgotten or caricatured to the point of absurdity. So in his new book, Adventures in the Orgasmatron, Christopher Turner sets out to reclaim him, examining Reich’s life, his effects and his legacy.

Reich, Turner reminds us, was a disciple of Freud, one of his most brilliant pupils, and in many ways his exploration of human sexuality evolved directly from the work of the master. Indeed, he dedicated The Function of the Orgasm to his mentor. For it was Freud whose work had inspired the revolution in attitudes to sexual mores that pervaded the early part of the last century and helped to pave the way for Reich’s. The difference between them, though, was that while Freud came to believe that sexual repression was an inherent part of the human condition, Reich saw it as an ill that can and must be conquered. And the force that prevented and suppressed human sexual joy was capitalism.

“Reich sought to reconcile psychoanalysis and Marxism,” explains Turner, “thereby giving Freudianism an optimistic gloss, arguing that repression, which Freud came to believe was an inherent part of the human condition, could be shed.” Indeed, the first to use the phrase “the sexual revolution”, Reich argued that not only individual neurosis but political tyranny could be overcome once sexual repression was overthrown.

Capitalism, he believed, enslaved the proletariat to the point where they worked such long hours and in such tyrannical conditions that they had become separated from their true nature – from libido, love and passion. If they could only rediscover the joys of orgasm they would have the impetus to throw off their chains and demand revolution.

This philosophy was recognised in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which a spokesman for the New Order states, “The sex instinct will be eradicated . . . We shall abolish the orgasm.” The novel’s heroine, Julia, explains that the totalitarian state can’t risk the liberating effects of sexual joy. “If you’re happy inside yourself, why should you get excited about Big Brother and Three Year Plans and all the rest of that bollocks?”

But Reich was no ivory tower theorist. In 1929 he founded the Socialist Society for Sex Counseling and Sex Research, which established six free clinics in Vienna. He also operated a mobile clinic from which, on weekends, he would distribute sex education pamphlets and contraceptives. In public squares and parks, Turner tells us, he would invite passers-by to throw off their inhibitions, and would lecture them on “the sexual misery of the masses under capitalism”.

And he achieved the rare distinction of uniting political opposites in their mistrust of him. In the 1930s, Reich infuriated the German Communist Party by recommending sexual freedom for young people, while the Nazis regarded him as a dangerous insurgent: not just a Jew, not just a communist, but an advocate of decadence.

The most outlandish and memorable aspect of Reich’s approach, soon after he arrived in the United States in 1939, was his invention of the orgone energy accumulator. This contraption, a wooden cupboard about the size of a telephone box, lined with metal and insulated with steel wool, was designed to improve the “orgiastic potency” of those who entered it. Reich thought that the box’s organic material absorbed orgone energy while the metal lining stopped it from escaping, so that it acted as a greenhouse. The currents produced, he believed, could dissolve repressions and treat cancer and radiation sickness along with a catalogue of more minor ailments.

So convinced was he of the power of the device that he persuaded Albert Einstein to investigate it. Even though, after two weeks of tests, Einstein could find no evidence for any of Reich’s claims, the orgone box became almost a symbol of the counter-culture in America in the 1940s and ’50s. It was used by such movement heroes as Norman Mailer, JD Salinger, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. William Burroughs was such an enthusiast that he even claimed to have had a spontaneous orgasm inside it.

After the first wild enthusiasms, though, Reich’s star began to fade. Much of this was down to his own developing eccentricities, which caused rifts with many of his earlier associates. The educator AS Neill, for example, who had enthusiastically taken up Reich’s ideas and methods in his free school Summerhill, turned away from him when he developed an obsession with extra-terrestrial invasions and UFOs. Other more conventional therapists were alarmed at some of his more outlandish treatments – he not only encouraged his patients to masturbate, but actually taught them how to do so. He even wrote a paper detailing his eight rules for the “total orgasm”.

He was also, unsurprisingly, regarded with increasing suspicion and hostility by the American establishment, which put him under surveillance as soon as he arrived there. In 1954 a court ruled that, because of his fraudulent claims about his machine, he must stop leasing and selling it. And when he broke the injunction he was sentenced to two years in prison, during which he died.

Reich was also regarded with increased scepticism and even hostility by more radical theorists. Most notable was the scorn expressed by the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who questioned Reich’s claims for sexual liberation, arguing that such ideas would simply be co-opted by the establishment into the prevailing system of production and consumption. Marcuse formulated the concept of “repressive desublimation” to explain how sexual liberation within capitalism was a con: it was only condoned as long as it encouraged market forces.

Decades later, Michel Foucault evolved a somewhat different critique. He condemned Reich not for being a dangerous radical, but for being trapped in conventional ways of thinking about the potency and significance of sex. In The History of Sexuality Foucault suggested that subversive or celebratory talk about sex was as hidebound as its repression, since even presenting it as a topic for discussion made it an arena for anxiety and control. Reich had occasioned nothing more than a “tactical shift ... in the great deployment of sexuality”, which is institutionalised, appropriated and controlled in modern society.

Foucault was reflecting on the revival of ideas of liberation and sexual freedom which characterised the 1960s – a revival which briefly gave new life to Reich’s obsession with sexual climax. “The orgasm has replaced the Cross as the focus of longing and the image of fulfilment,” observed the Catholic moral crusader Malcolm Muggeridge.

Interest in Reich was further nurtured by WR: Mysteries of the Organism, a 1971 Yugoslavian film which explored the relationship between communist politics and sexuality, and paid tribute to the life and work of Reich himself. In its most memorable scene, the artist Nancy Godfrey makes a cast of an erect penis. Another scene features discussions within consciousness-raising groups about female sexual response. And this accurately caught the mood of the emerging women’s liberation movement, where the assertion of women’s rights to sexual freedom was accompanied by impassioned arguments about the nature of the female orgasm.

Suddenly, the orgasm had become a political football – inspiring earnest analysis, fierce debate and anxiety, as well as humour. “I finally had an orgasm but my analyst told me it was the wrong kind,” remarks a character in Woody Allen’s Manhattan. In another of his films, Sleeper, Allen parodies Reich’s orgone as the Orgasmatron, which lent its name to Turner’s book, and in Roger Vadim’s 1968 film Barbarella, Jane Fonda is tortured by the evil Dr Durand Durand by being strapped into The Excessive Machine, which delivers so much pleasure it can kill (though Fonda manages to overload it).

Feminists reacted with outrage to Freud’s assumption that the clitoral orgasm for women was merely a precursor to the true, mature experience of the vaginal orgasm. Despite Juliet Mitchell’s elegant reassessment of Freud in Psychoanalysis and Feminism, there remains a strain of feminist hostility to the man who so famously wondered what women wanted.
His, they claimed, was a misogynist view which maliciously assumed that women’s sexual pleasure was dependent upon men. Their reaction was distilled by Anne Koedt, who, in 1971, published The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm. In those heady days, consciousness-raising groups would experiment with masturbation, sex without men was glorified, penetrative intercourse frowned upon. Women were doing it for themselves – and men were no longer the primary source of pleasure.

It was discomfiting enough for men to discover that they were not indispensable to women’s sexual enjoyment. But it was even more of a shock to realise that they might not all, and not always, be up to the job. No wonder Meg Ryan caused such a sensation in the 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally. In the most celebrated scene she demonstrates in a crowded New York deli how women fake orgasms, proving that men can never quite tell.

More recently, Fay Weldon – never a reliable commentator on the gender wars – recommended that faking orgasms was the route to a happy marriage. Germaine Greer, who had for so long exhorted women to embrace their freedoms and cast off repression, reacted with amused horror.

“Most of us do fake orgasm, often,” she conceded, “but we could do without Weldon betraying our little secret. In every porn video the whores are whimpering, snorting and panting from the git-go, at the merest touch in vaguely the right area from even the rubberiest of male organs. Faking it is de rigueur. Most women do it because given their workload they need to get the sex over with in the nicest way and get some sleep.”

All of these tensions and anxieties have been celebrated, explored and sometimes ridiculed in that paean to women’s friendship and women’s desires, the television series Sex and the City, featuring four women, all sexually active, all seeking the route to sexual happiness. In one episode Charlotte becomes so addicted to a superior vibrator, The Rabbit, that the others have to force their way into her apartment to wrench the whirring, multi-pronged pleasure-giver away from her.

After it was shown, sales of The Rabbit rocketed. It even inspired a film, Rabbit Fever.

But while Sex and the City portrayed the upside of female sexual liberation, many commentators have become alarmed at the insistent and relentless concentration on orgasms that now pervades our culture. What began as a liberation, claim feminists like Natasha Walter in Living Dolls, and Ariel Levy in Female Chauvinist Pigs, has tarnished into a new kind of oppression with the orgasm reduced to a product like any other, that must be promoted and consumed. Women’s magazines still sell on the promise of more and better and deeper orgasms; teenage publications instruct young girls on how to achieve them; those who can’t or haven’t or don’t are made to feel freakish. The discovery of the G-spot, rather than enhancing women’s pleasure, has simply added to their guilt and that of their hapless partners if they can’t locate it.

It’s as though Marcuse and Foucault’s dismissive taunts at the claims for sexual release as an act of rebellion or a bid for freedom have in part at least proved to be prescient.

Eight decades after the publication of The Function of the Orgasm we’re still obsessed, but with the encouragement rather than with the disapproval of the establishment. A recent account of the secrets of French women suggested that regular orgasms were a must for a beauty regime. Self-help manuals are rife with claims about the health-giving properties of the orgasm. The American sex expert Ken Chisholm, for example, asserts that orgasms relieve tension, help you sleep better, burn calories, reduce your craving for sugar and cigarettes and can work as natural pain management. And even the NHS recommends that orgasms are good for you.

They may not quite have achieved the utopia that Reich had prophesied. But it’s worth reflecting that just a few decades ago it was barely acknowledged that women could enjoy sex at all, let alone do so on their own terms and without guilt. Nowadays, sexual fulfilment is seen as a right, a norm, a route to wellbeing. And that, surely, is reason enough to cry out with joy. Even if the revolution must wait.

Adventures in the Orgasmatron: Wilhelm Reich and the Invention of Sex by Christopher Turner is published by Fourth Estate