An Orgasmic Apocalypse
Coronavirus isolation has caused an upsurge of video-based dating. You and your new virtual partner are encouraged to become “players” rather than mere conversationalists. It’s a pathetic denouement to 100 years of Sexual Revolution. Barbara Kay looks back on the 20th Century’s “orgasmic utopians,” a motley crew of social scientists who believed breaking sexual taboos delivered human happiness.
On December 21, 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled (with two vigorous dissents) that for-profit sex clubs could operate legally without regard for community standards of decency, on the grounds that the clubs did no harm.
By harm, they perhaps had in mind physical pain or coercion. They did not, as they should have, give thought to the social harms their decision opened the door to. For thenceforth, it was legal not only to operate group-sex clubs, but to advertise and solicit business from young men and women at a psychologically vulnerable stage of life.
And so, it was perhaps inevitable that during its 2012 “Sexual Awareness Week,” the University of Toronto’s Sexual Education Centre (SEC) would include a deeply-discounted excursion to the Oasis Aqua Lounge, an aqua-themed sex club where baskets of condoms are helpfully stationed throughout the building, where full nudity and voyeurism are encouraged, and sex is permitted “everywhere but the hot tub.”
However, when one enthusiastic student promoted the event as an “orgy” – precise and fair comment on the sex club’s line of business – the SEC and the University administration erupted in dudgeon at the word’s moralistic overtones. A SEC spokesman blustered that it was not an orgy, not at all; rather it was a…“sexy social,” its purpose “to foster a sex-positive attitude in the greater U of T area.”
This risible euphemism was nothing but a sanctimonious bid to transform an invitation to vice into a pious act of social virtue. As I mockingly noted in the National Post’s opinion blog, Full Comment, “I was not aware there was a ‘sex-negative attitude’” in the area. I also took the university to task for lending its name and money to the event (facilitated by default student dues).
Stung by the public criticism, the U of T’s communications director informed me (in an unsolicited e-mail) that it was not the University’s policy to “censor, control or interfere with any group on the basis of its philosophy, beliefs, interests or opinions,” unless they led to illegal activities.
I then called the U of T out for hypocrisy, citing the University’s 2007 decision to shut down the campus’ 88-year old rifle club on the grounds of “values.” To which the communications director responded, “The University would like to decline further comment on this matter.”
In her place I would decline as well. For what is there to say? It is clear that the U of T is appalled by even the thought of students using guns for recreation and competitive skill-building, even in a safe underground environment so hidden many people were surprised to learn of its existence, but benignly smile on a sex “awareness” week, during which the come-one-come-y’all screening of pornography, the marketing of sex toys and subsidized orgies are subsumed under the rubric of “education.”
The sharp contrast in the university’s values – guns, symbolically aligned with patriarchy and political conservativism, are evil; transgressive sex, symbolically aligned with female empowerment and political progressivism, is good – provides us with a historical teaching moment.
For proliferating campus sex weeks – inaugurated at Yale University, then replicated at Harvard, Brown, Duke, Northwestern, and others – are not spontaneously conceived projects. Rather they are the culmination of nearly a century’s promotion by left wing intellectuals of what we may call “orgasmic utopianism.”
The left has changed its centre of gravity over the decades. In the first half of the 20th century, the left focused its activism on economic revolution: chiefly on the empowerment of unions and furthering state ownership of the means of production. But during the 1960s counter-culture, the focus shifted to social and sexual revolution as the left’s consuming obsession. According to Jeffrey Bell, policy director of the American Principles Project, this shift in focus wasn’t an innovation so much as a return to the left’s origins in late 18th-century France, when the left “took the form of an assault on organized religion and the traditional family.”
But the underlying principle that human beings under capitalism lived in a state of oppression, and wanted liberation through revolution, remained constant. Just as leftist ideologues never considered that, far from being oppressive, private property and reward for individual enterprise were consistent with human nature and the drivers of economic prosperity, so they could not imagine that codes of sexual modesty, restraint, exclusivity and long term commitment were not symbols of oppression either, but also accorded well with human nature and were the drivers of social stability. In their eyes, the sexual revolution was the social equivalent of the worker’s revolution – a liberation from what they read (erroneously) as servitude.
But these are abstract ideas. How did the “liberation” trope filter down into the general population?
The demotic fusion of sex and politics is the brainchild of German Marxist psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, who coined “the sexual revolution.” Reich, a disciple of Freud (whom Freud disowned in a schism over orgasms) believed that both political revolution and the realization of optimal personal health had to be preceded by the overthrow of bourgeois sexual morality. As he declared in his 1927 book, The Function of the Orgasm, “There is only one thing wrong with neurotic patients: the lack of full and repeated sexual satisfaction.”
Although Reich soon became an embarrassment to his professional colleagues in Germany, who considered him quite whacko, not to put too fine a point on it, Americans, especially intellectuals, looked kindly on Reich’s message when he arrived in the U.S. in 1939. So it was in the U.S. that Reich invented his Orgone Energy Accumulator, a telephone booth-like apparatus in which, via the absorption of “orgones,” one allegedly achieved “orgastic potency,” leading to positive mental hygiene.
Einstein tried the Accumulator and refuted its claims, but other cultural elites bought or paid homage to the allure of Reich’s snake oil: such brainiacs as Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, amongst others. Saul Bellow “irradiated” himself daily in the box. Woody Allen parodied the Accumulator as the Orgasmatron in his 1973 film Sleeper.
In his book Adventures in the Orgasmatron: Wilhelm Reich and the Invention of Sex, Christopher Turner explains how, through the “apocalyptic orgasm,” Reich became a prophet of salvation to intellectuals struggling to come to grips with Communism’s failings. Reich’s theories were hotly debated along predictable lines. Progressives saw the (ironically claustrophobic) box as liberating; conservatives saw it as corrupting.
Reich’s timing didn’t hurt. The Kinsey Reports on human sexual behaviour – on males in 1948 and females in 1953 – had galvanized the nation. “Frigidity” and wife swapping were now part of the cultural conversation. Kinsey’s data played straight man to Reich’s razzamataz. Together they brought the house down.
Reich influenced many other sexology innovators, such as Fritz Perl, who brought Gestalt therapy to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, and Arthur Janov who invented “primal scream” therapy, during which one writhed about and screamed loudly. (Norman Mailer had his Accumulator padded so he could scream uninhibitedly while absorbing orgone rays.)
It’s difficult, now that the sexual “revolution” is simply a joyless stew of pornography (of which Reich disapproved, funnily enough), voyeurism and revulsion art (a few years ago a Yale student created an art object out of what she claimed to be blood and tissue from repeated abortions) to imagine how spiritually elevated mid-century orgasmists perceived themselves to be by their utopian visions.
But at the time, when God had passed from the intellectual landscape, and the secular god of Marxism was tottering, intellectuals were scrambling for a replacement totalitarian vision. In the sexual revolution, they found justification for the extreme, shame and guilt-free indulgence of sexual appetites by creating a morality of pleasure, with promiscuity ennobled to a form of political activism.
Norman Mailer wrote in his 1957 book, The White Negro, “Man knows at the seed of his being that good orgasm opens his possibilities and bad orgasm imprisons him.” This is errant nonsense, of course, but it offers a sobering glimpse into the bottomless capacity for self-delusion in support of amorality that can co-exist in perfect harmony with a superior mind.
The works of psychoanalyst Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) enjoyed a vogue in the 1950s. Seriously sexually troubled himself, Ellis was an orgasmic utopian who believed notions of duty and morality-based goodness were barriers to true goodness, which naturally depended on unfettered sexual exploration. Ellis broadened the contours of the convenient fig leaf “science” provided for a movement that essentially sought to demolish the behavioural pillars of civilized society.
By 1964, Time Magazine’s January edition informed its mass audience, “Gradually, the belief spread that repression, not licence, was the great evil, and that sexual matters belonged in the realm of science, not morals.”
America was finally catching up with Samoa. Or rather with the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead’s romantic vision of Samoa. A disciple of Ur-cultural relativist Frans Boaz, Mead did her anthropological field work there. Her 1928 best seller, Coming of Age in Samoa described a noble-savagist society in which guiltless, freewheeling adolescent sex was the approved norm (but in which, mysteriously, girls never became pregnant, a biological lacuna Mead apparently did not question).
Decades later, it was revealed that the islanders had led Mead a merry dance, telling her what she seemed to want to hear. In reality, Samoan children were raised according to what we would recognize as conservative principles of modesty, restraint and decorum.
(In 1928, of course, it would have been unthinkable to recommend that, for optimal psychological health, American children should have as much sex as they wanted with however many peers they fancied between puberty and marriage under the benign gaze of parents and educators. But the implied message of the book would eventually become the precocious vision of most sex education programs in western schools today.)
Then there was British sexologist Alex Comfort, whose best-selling 1972 book, The Joy of Sex, made Comfort a celebrity of rock-star proportions. The book also cemented the illusion in the popular imagination that sexual passion and fulfilment fall into the line of purely scientific inquiry, with sexual satisfaction purely a function of uninhibited orgasmic proficiency. Observing volunteer couples having sex, part of Comfort’s methodology – voyeurism to the unenlightened – was now projected as merely one more clinical tool in the advancement of knowledge.
Sexologist John Money’s name may ring a bell to those who follow trends in theories of gender identity. He was the genius who advised the parents of twin boys, one of whose penis’s had been damaged in a botched circumcision, to have the boy castrated and brought up as a girl, assuring them “social construction” dictated gender identity. His confidence was based wholly in theory. The outcome was tragic. But Money never accepted blame for the stubbornly male-identifying victim’s eventual suicide.
Like the other orgasmic utopians, Money believed our sexually taboo-ridden society was the source of all unhappiness, and that happiness was within our reach if only – if only – we broke more taboos! Including pedophilia, which, he said, only those in a state of “self-imposed moralistic ignorance” could condemn.
Money is not an outrageous outlier in breaching what many people today believe is the last taboo standing – sex with children. As I noted in an October 2012 column about the notorious BBC entertainer and pedophile, Jimmy Savile, “Savile may have been emboldened by a group called the Pedophile Information Exchange (PIE). From 1974 to 1984, PIE openly campaigned on behalf of pedophilia as a culturally viable practice, arguing that adult-child sexual relations were harmless and should be legal. Their activists lobbied to abolish the age of consent and facilitated introductions between adults and minors.” Some university professors in the U.S. and even Canada (see under Hannon, Ryerson) have openly declared their approval of sex with – and/or between – children.
The common theme amongst all the orgasmic utopians was – is – that, in the words of conservative cultural critic Theodore Dalrymple, “sexual relations could be brought to the pitch of perfection either by divesting them of moral experience altogether, or by reversing the moral judgment that traditionally attached to them; all [orgasmic utopians] believed that human unhappiness was solely the product of laws, customs and taboos.”
This message directly contradicts the conservative view of human nature and society, which regards the restraint and regulation of all the appetites – through laws, customs and taboos – not only as conducive to personal dignity and psychological health, but as the sine qua non of civilization itself.
It is an infallible rule of human nature that appetites ungoverned by moral boundaries will feed on themselves and metastasize uncontrollably. A second infallible rule is that unregulated appetite may produce periodic episodes of pleasure, but cannot produce enduring happiness. But the orgasmic utopians were incapable of seeing that the prescription for fulfilment was not more transgression, but less. So they kept pushing the sexual envelope in search of the ever-elusive grail of “enough.”
It was inevitable that once promiscuity became normalized amongst young people, premature jadedness would set in, and new sources of titillation would be explored. Pornography is now ubiquitous, and pushing the bounds of voyeurism is the current frontier.
We saw that in the 2012 “Sex: a Tell-All” exhibition mounted in Ottawa’s Science and technology Museum, whose curators seemed not to understand that educating children about masturbation (as if they needed instruction) is properly done in private, controlled circumstances, not via animated demonstration on videos watched by schoolchildren in the company of strangers. They had become blind to the bright distinction between what is appropriate behaviour in public and what is reserved for intimacy, a distinction on which all civilized, decent behaviour rests.
And now we begin to tighten the cultural noose around the umbrage of the U of T administration over the use of the word “orgy” to describe the orgy in which the students were invited to participate.
To sexual revolutionaries, giving offense to those holding the conservative, judgmental view is an entitlement the left cherishes almost as much as “liberation” itself. Turned tables are anathema. How dare anyone challenge any sexual activity at all on the retrograde grounds of “morality” or “decency”?
But even though morality may never under any circumstances be applied to sex, that doesn’t mean the left has abandoned morality altogether. Morality, judgmentalism and extreme prudishness are very much in evidence amongst progressives when it comes to certain other activities.
Like shooting guns.
Consider the U of T rifle club, so antithetical, as we have seen, to the university’s “values.” What are its hallmarks? Foremost: members’ recognition of firearms’ power to harm others and the inherent dangers of impulsive and irresponsible behaviour in their handling. Then: mutual respect for protocols and boundaries; mature acceptance of personal responsibility for one’s actions; self-discipline; serious attention to skills-building with a view to improvement in performance; trusting, reliable camaraderie; and satisfaction in mastery of an exciting pastime in a completely safe environment.
Hmm. Sounds a lot like the conservative view of sexual relations, doesn’t it? Which is why, according to the University of Toronto’s stated “values,” the orgy was welcome on campus, but the Rifle Club, sadly, offensively out of step with the times, simply had to go.
Barbara Kay has been a weekly columnist with the National Post since 2003, and is a frequent contributor to the Post’s opinion blog, Full Comment. Her writing also appears in polemical blogs such as Front Page Magazine and Pajamas Media. She has also published essays in various magazines, such as the Dorchester Review and the Canadian Observer. Her background is in English Literature. She taught literature and composition for many years in the Montreal CEGEP system. She is the co-author, with Aruna Papp, of Papp’s memoir, Unworthy Creature: A Punjabi daughter’s memoir of honour, shame and love (2012). Her new book, ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS, a cultural memoir and other essays has just been released. Barbara is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow. She holds The National Coalition of Men’s 2009 Award of Excellence for promoting gender fairness in the media. She was awarded a Diamond Jubilee Medal for “excellence in journalism.” Barbara lives in Montreal. She has two children and five grandchildren. Her columns and various public addresses are archived at www.barbarakay.ca.