Did you ever wonder how Western sexual health professionals became so certain that orgasm is more vital to our wellbeing than virtually any other aspect of intimacy? The current preoccupation with sexual gratification is, of course, the default behavioral program for all mammals, and likely also reigned in primitive hunter-gatherer tribes.1
Yet until recently - and as far back as the ancient Greeks - sexual self-control was a respectable objective in Western thought. Moreover, praise for self-control wasn't confined to the sex-negative Church and its puritanical progeny. For example, all of the authors whose sacred sex classics are reproduced on this site (see "Books & More" link at top of page) are notably sex positive – even John Humphrey Noyes, who graduated with a degree in divinity early in the nineteenth century. And there are centuries of parallel wisdom in China and India (See the "Wisdom" page for relevant links).
These days, however, most people poke fun at, or severely castigate, anyone who suggests that sexual self-control might have advantages (other than the fleeting advantage of producing more orgasms in a partner later). One unintended benefit of this modern disdain is that all four of the sacred sex classics mentioned above are no longer protected by copyright, and may be read freely and shared with others.
Along came Freud
Psychiatrist Rudolf von Urban, the author of the sex classic Sex Perfection and Marital Happiness, who immigrated to the United States from Europe, was heavily influenced by Freud. His work therefore marks the historic turning point in the Freudian direction.
Wise man that he was, he counseled self-control to avoid "depleting the sex hormones" - and the marital disharmony that follows. He also explained why an attempt to ease sexual tension with masturbation is both natural – and somewhat self-defeating - and proposed educating children frankly so they could avoid the pitfalls of both repression and excess. Yet despite years of practical experience with clients who benefited from sexual self-control, he delayed the publication of his book until he was in his seventies because his colleagues warned that he would be ostracized if he published it.
Writes von Urban:
Many of my scientific friends urged me not to publish my experiences before they had been tested and proved scientifically [which, von Urban noted, would be very difficult given the delicate nature of sex research]: otherwise, they warned me I would arouse great opposition.
As I have already stated, I followed their advice for more than thirty years, since, if someone else had told me about such occurrences, I could not have helped either doubting his sincerity or believing him the victim of some mistake or hallucination. Even though I knew my experiences to be true and not the result of any mistakes or hallucinations, I realized that it would be advisable to keep silent about such incredible events, inasmuch as my experiments were of such a delicate and private nature that it was not possible to demonstrate them.
I recalled the fate of Marco Polo who died under a cloud of contempt. Men of his time thought him a fake; nobody believed in the existence of the China he had seen and described.
But now, at seventy years of age, anxiety over such skepticism no longer troubles me. I am firmly convinced that, however justified it may seem today, it will disappear, post mortem, when my findings are verified.
Despite his courage, and despite the benefits of Karezza with which he was familiar, he emphasized delaying orgasm rather than avoiding it altogether. Even so, his colleagues were right. The American Journal of Psychotherapy criticized his work,
It is unfortunate that von Urban’s laudable desire to promote marital happiness has tempted him to lay down sex hard and fast “rules” for sex….
By the time von Urban published his book in 1949, Freudian analysis had captivated Western culture, convincing people that repressed sexual desire was behind most of humanity’s ills. Accepting this premise (and those of Freud's pupil, Wilhelm Reich, who clamored even more loudly for unrestrained sexual expression), most people naturally concluded that the untrammeled expression of sexual energy was vital to their wellbeing. This general "hard and fast rule" has not changed since, despite its unfulfilled promise. (Religious extremists also continue their brand of unhealthy repression.)
There’s no question that sexual repression can be harmful. Yet, as von Urban himself noted, humanity needn’t choose between feast and famine where sex is concerned. A well-regulated sex life can offer benefits that neither too much nor too little sex can deliver. As he points out by way of an analogy, the decision to drive on one side of the road curtails our freedom, but offers so much benefit that we all happily adopt this convention.
In 1949, von Urban warned how vital it was to get our sex lives flowing in a healthy, unselfish direction, and away from ignorance and self-indulgence. He made these remarks, which have proven prophetic:
In 1936, the divorce rate in Europe averaged 5 percent, exceeding that of Australia, Canada, South Africa and China. But in America the rate was over 10 percent. Ten years later, in 1946, the divorce rate in this country had reached the alarming figure of 37 percent. Yet this represents only a fraction of the couples who want a divorce. One out of every two or three of the remaining married couples desires divorce but refrains out of moral compunctions, consideration for the children or financial difficulties. This brings us to the startling conclusion that out of every hundred marriages in this country, perhaps ninety are unsatisfactory. [NOTE: In 2002 the US Census Bureau predicted that one of every two marriages now occurring could end in divorce.]
We have to try to comprehend the full extent of the catastrophe which the consequences of this failure of the marriage relationship will produce during the next two decades. We have to bear in mind that children from broken homes incline toward juvenile delinquency, psychosomatic diseases, mental disturbances, perversion, and, later, impotence, frigidity, alcoholism, crime and prostitution. Therefore it is clear that every effort to build up a better marital life means not only saving the government billions of dollars for hospitals, detention homes, reformatories, and prisons but, what is even more important, procuring for America a more mature, happy and healthy population whose energies are not wasted in domestic conflicts that are exhausting.
Who was Sigmund Freud?
So who was this giant whose insights have indirectly played a major role in our resistance to exploring the benefits of controlling our sexual desire, and how did he reach his conclusions?
In investigating this question I learned that Freud supported his conclusions with only six full case studies. Some of the patients were not even his.
Since Freud’s lifetime scholars have dug up letters and contemporaneous case notes that demonstrate Freud did not, in fact, produce dramatic cures in these cases. In 1998 professor Frederick C. Crews published a series of essays by experts, called Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend.2
Was the father of psychoanalysis a fraud? … The myth: Sigmund Freud was the heroic investigator who …[freed] a culture from its dependence on sexual denial. The reality: Professor Crews argues that Freud devised a self-validating method of inquiry, deluded himself about his patients' illnesses, and failed to cure them. He founded a doctrinaire movement that has excommunicated dissenters while trying to evade empirical scrutiny.
As one reader said:
The essays show Freud as a fabricator of his patients' confessions, a liar, a cheat, a ruthless censor, a myth creator (about himself), a paranoiac, an icy remorseless opportunist, a jealous and imperious character full of a priori's, a megalomaniac, an impostor, a tyrant and a misogynist ('the self-evident superiority of male to female sex organs'; 'civilisation was a male creation.')
He projected his own obsessions on his patients and on his analytical writings ... He could himself not show one single validated psychoanalytical cure! More, he was even not interested in cures: 'I prefer a student ten times more than a neurotic.'
Here’s a tongue-in-cheek account of one the six famous Freudian case studies.3
'Dora' was a depressed and "hysterical" seventeen-year-old (not eighteen, as Freud claimed) who reluctantly came to Sigmund because of problems involving friends of the family, Mr. and Mrs. K.
Dora was upset because (1) Mr. K. obviously wanted a piece of her and had even made passes at her when she was thirteen and sixteen, and (2) she rightly believed that her father and Mrs. K. were getting it on. The good doctor immediately sussed what was really happening: Not only was Dora in love with Mr. K., she also wanted to give her father a blowjob and hop into the sack with Mrs. K.
Not surprisingly, Dora thought this was a load of crap and abruptly quit seeing Freud after eleven weeks. She was still a mess when she died.
Although an impressed reviewer of Crews' book declared the Freudian Revolution dead, that revolution is still reverberating throughout the educations of today’s sexologists.
The Freudian (addictive) cycle
It is worth noting that Freud’s own reward circuitry (in the brain) was apparently out of balance. He used cocaine for years, and publicly touted its supposed benefits, even claiming that it could cure addiction to morphine.
He was fatally addicted to tobacco. He smoked 20 cigars a day, and did not quit even when he was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw. He was operated upon more than two dozen times before the disease finally killed him. Even when his entire jaw had been replaced, he continued to smoke all day, every day.
Following a rare period of abstinence from tobacco, engaged in at the insistence of his physician, he wrote:4
"I have not smoked for seven weeks since the day of your injunction. At first I felt, as expected, outrageously bad. Cardiac symptoms accompanied by mild depression, as well as the horrible misery of abstinence. These wore off but left me completely incapable of working, a beaten man. After seven weeks I began smoking again...Since the first few cigars, I was able to work and was the master of my mood; before that life was unbearable."
In short, we are still governing our sex lives based on the advice of an addict. This is significant, since sex is governed by the same reward circuitry as all addictions. It seems likely that many of Freud's sexual "insights" were unwittingly based on addict-think. Clearly, if the best answer lies in moderation and inner equilibrium, Freud could not have found it. For him, the way to treat the discomfort of withdrawal was indulgence, however deadly.
Those of us who have grown up steeped in Freud's influence find it hard to conceive of a world where children and adults are taught the benefits of a middle path. Yet the pendulum may one day swing in the direction of an approach to sex that calls for no sexual repression based on threats of hell, but instead advises making love regularly - with a clear understanding of the benefits of self-control.
Just think how good it will feel when we stop beating our heads against the Freudian wall.
Some of Freud's influence has come through his pro-orgasm pupil, Wilhelm Reich. Reich's basic assertion is that "The supreme goal . . . is the establishment of orgastic potency, of the ability to discharge an amount of sexual energy equal to that accumulated."
His outline of the phases leading to this "discharge" is interesting, especially in light of the approach to lovemaking we advocate. He breaks sexual excitation into two phases:
1) Phase of voluntary control of the excitation, and
2) Phase of involuntary muscle contractions.
He seems to have noticed some interesting things that happen in this first, voluntary phase, but wasn't able to recognize the potential there, as he was so focused on discharge of tension. He says that the first phase is characterized by the following:
1) Erection is pleasurable, and not painful as it is in the case of priapism ('cold erection'), spasm of the pelvic floor or of the spermatic duct. The genital is not over-excited . . . . The genital of the woman becomes hyperemic and, through ample secretion of the genital glands, moist in a specific way . . .
2) The man is spontaneously gentle, that is, without having to cover up opposite tendencies, such as sadistic impulses, by a forced kind of gentleness.
3) The pleasurable excitation . . . suddenly increases - both in the man and the woman - with the penetration of the penis.
4) As a result of mutual, slow, spontaneous and effortless frictions the excitation is concentrated on the [penis and vagina]. . . . According to the consensus of potent men and women, the pleasure sensations are all the more intense the slower and more gentle the frictions are, and the better they harmonize with each other. This presupposes a considerable ability to identify oneself with one's partner. Pathological counterparts are, e.g., the urge to produce violent frictions . . .
5) In this phase, interruption of friction is in itself pleasurable, due to the particular sensations of pleasure which appear when one is at rest; the interruption can be accomplished without mental effort; it prolongs the sexual act. When one is at rest, the excitation decreases a little, without, however, completely subsiding, as it does in pathological cases. The interruption of the sexual act through retraction of the penis is not unpleasurable, provided it occurs after a period of rest.
He mentions that in the second phase, the "phase of involuntary muscle contractions", there "Now occurs a more or less intense clouding of consciousness." Obviously he did notice a perception shift, without recognizing its full implications in terms of how partners can see each other differently as a result of it.
There is no mention of gentleness towards one's partner,"harmonizing", or "identification" in the second phase, as there was in the first.
Did he over shoot the target? Clearly, he realized that orgasm could cause problems:
The more exactly I had my patients describe their behavior and sensations in the sexual act, the firmer became my clinical conviction that all of them, without exception, suffered from a severe disturbance of genitality. This was especially true of those men who bragged the loudest about their sexual conquests and about how many times a night 'they could do it.' There was no doubt; they were erectively very potent, but ejaculation was accompanied by little or no pleasure, even the opposite, by disgust and unpleasant sensations. An exact analysis of the fantasies accompanying the act revealed mostly sadistic or self-satisfied attitudes in the men, anxiety, reserve or masculinity in the women. To the so-called potent man, the act had the significance of conquering, piercing, or raping the woman. They wanted to give proof of their potency, or to be admired for their erective endurance. This 'potency' could easily be destroyed by laying bare its motives. It served to cover up serious disturbances of erection or ejaculation.
What would have happened if Reich had known about Taoist lovemaking and experimented with it with an open mind? Also see this article, in which Professor Douglas Wile compares Taoist and Reichian thought about sex and orgasm.
- 1. For example, anthropologists have noticed the pattern of lots of romance, sex and broken relationships in tribes who are thought to be good modern-day representatives of our distant ancestors, such as the !Kung of the Kalahari and the Mehinaku of South America.
- 2. by Frederick C. Crews, Viking Press, 1998
- 3. 50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know by Russ Kick, The Disinformation Company Ltd, 2004, p. 51
- 4. See this account of Freud's battle with cancer.