From the book The Function of the Orgasm, by Wilhelm Reich, M.D., FS&G, New York, 1973.
Sexual Stasis: The Energy Source of the Neurosis
Since my first clinical observations in 1920, I had carefully singled out and noted genital disturbances in the patients whom I treated at the clinic. Over the course of two years, I had collected sufficient material to permit me to make this formulation: the disturbance of genitality is not, as was previously believed, one symptom among others. It is the symptom of the neurosis. Little by little all the evidence pointed to one conclusion: psychic illness is not only a result of a sexual disturbance in the broad Freudian sense of the word; even more concretely, it is the result of the disturbance of the genital function, in the strict sense of orgastic impotence.
If I had redefined sexuality to mean solely genital sexuality, I would have relapsed to the pre-Freudian, erroneous conception of sexuality. Sexual would be only what is genital. By amplifying the concept of genital function with the concept of orgastic potency and defining it in terms of energy, I added a new dimension to the psychoanalytic theory of sexuality and libido within its original framework. The arguments in support of this were as follows:
If every psychic illness has a core of dammed-up sexual excitation, it can be caused only by the disturbance of the capacity for orgastic gratification. Hence, impotence and frigidity are the key to the understanding of the economy of neuroses.
- The energy source of the neurosis is created by the difference between the accumulation and discharge of sexual energy. The ungratified sexual excitation which is always present in the neurotic psychic apparatus distinguishes it from the healthy psychic apparatus. This holds true not only for the stasis neuroses (in Freudian terminology, actual neuroses) but for all psychic illnesses, with or without symptom formation.
- Freud’s therapeutic formula for neuroses, though correct, is incomplete. The primary prerequisite of therapy is to make the patient conscious of his or her repressed sexuality. This alone does not cure, i.e., it can but it does not of necessity do so. Making the patient conscious of his or her repressed sexual impulses guarantees cure when this also eliminates the energy source of the neurosis, i.e., the sexual stasis. In other words, this kind of therapy brings about a cure when the consciousness of the instinctual demands also restores the capacity for full orgastic gratification. In this way, the pathological proliferations are deprived of the source of their energy (of energy withdrawal).
- There can be no doubt, therefore, that the highest and most important goal of causal analytic therapy is the establishment of orgastic potency, the ability to discharge accumulated sexual energy completely.
- Sexual excitation is a somatic process. The conflicts of the neurosis are of a psychic nature. What happens is that a minor conflict, in itself normal, causes a slight disturbance in the balance of sexual energy. This minor stasis intensifies the conflict, and the conflict in turn increases the stasis. Thus, the psychic conflict and the stasis of somatic excitation mutually augment one another. The central psychic conflict is the sexual relationship between child and parent. It is present in every neurosis. It is the historical storehouse of experience from which the content of file neurosis is nourished. All neurotic fantasies can be traced back to the child’s early sexual relationship to the parents. However, if it were not continually nourished by the contemporary stasis of excitation which it initially produced, the child-parent conflict could not by itself cause a permanent disturbance of the psychic equilibrium. Hence, the stasis of excitation is the ever-present contemporary factor of the illness; it does not add to the content of the neurosis but supplies it with energy. The pathological incestuous ties to parents and brothers and sisters lose their force when the contemporary energy stasis is eliminated, i.e., when full orgastic gratification is experienced in the actual present. Hence, whether the Oedipus conflict becomes pathological or not depends upon the degree to which the sexual energy is discharged. In short, actual neurosis and psychoneurosis overlap: they cannot be conceived as separate types of neuroses.
Diagram depicting the relation between the content of
childhood experience and sexual stasis
- The dynamics of pregenital sexuality (oral, anal, muscular, etc.) are fundamentally different from the dynamics of genital sexuality. If non-genital sexual activities are retained, the genital function becomes disturbed. This disturbance incites pregenital fantasies and actions. The pregenital sexual fantasies and activities which we find in neuroses and perversions are not only the cause of the genital disturbance but at least as much the result of this disturbance. These insights and observations constitute the groundwork of the distinction I made in 1936 between natural and secondary drives. With reference to the theory of instinct and the theory of culture, the most decisive formula was: the general sexual disturbance is a result of genital disturbance, i.e., orgastic impotence. What I understood by genital sexuality was a function that was unknown and did not conform to the usual ideas about man’s sexual activities. “Genital” in the sex-economic sense of the word and “genital” in the usual sense of the word do not mean the same thing, any more than “sexual” and “genital” mean the same thing.
- Moreover, a question of the theory of neurosis which harassed Freud in the following years was solved in a simple way. Psychic illnesses represent qualities only. Nonetheless, they always appear to be dependent upon so-called quantitative factors, upon the strength and force, the energy cathexis, of the psychic experiences and actions. At a meeting of the inner circle of analysts, Freud once exhorted us to be cautious. We had, he said, to be prepared to expect dangerous challenges to the psychic therapy of the neurosis by a future There was no way of knowing what it would be like, but one could already hear its exponents knocking at the door. Psychoanalysis must one day be established on an organic basis. This was a genuine Freudian intuition! When Freud said this, I understood that the solution of the quality problem in the neurosis presupposed the solution of the problem of organotherapy. Access to the latter could be provided only by the understanding and handling of the physiological sexual stasis. I had already begun to work along these lines. Indeed, the first significant breakthrough had been achieved five years before: the advancement from character analysis to the formulation of the fundamental principles of the technique of the vegetotherapy of the neurosis. The interim was taken up with fifteen years of hard work and difficult struggles.
In the years 1922 to 1926, the theory of the orgasm was formulated and substantiated piece by piece, followed by the development of the technique of character analysis. Every subsequent experience, success as well as failure, confirmed this theory, which had developed by itself on the basis of those first decisive observations. For my work, the problems loomed up rapidly and clearly.
Clinical work led in one direction to the present level of experimental work in the field of sex-economy. A second direction proceeded from the question: what is the source and what is the function of the social suppression of sexuality?
Much later, from 1933 on, a biological offshoot of sex- economy developed from the first complex of problems: bion research, sex-economic cancer research, and the investigation of the phenomena of orgone radiation. Some seven years later, the second complex of problems split up into actual sexual sociology on the one hand and political psychology on the other. The orgasm theory has determined the psychological, psychotherapeutic, physiobiologi- cal, and sociological sectors of sex-economy. I do not claim that the framework of sex-economy could replace these specialized fields. But it does claim today to be a unitary natural-scientific theory of sex, on the basis of which it will be possible to resuscitate and fecundate all aspects of human life. This imposes upon us the obligation of giving a thorough presentation of its framework in all related fields. Since the life process and the sexual process are one and the same, it goes without saying that sexual, vegetative energy is active in everything that lives. This statement is very dangerous precisely because it is simple and absolutely correct. To apply it correctly, care must be taken to prevent it from becoming a platitude or deteriorating into a fixed system. Followers tend to make matters easy for themselves. They take over arduously worked-out material and operate with it in the most comfortable way possible. They make no effort to find new applications for all the subtleties of the method. They become torpid and the complex of problems ceases to be a challenge. I hope that .1 shall succeed in saving sex- economy from this fate.
 Cf. Reich, The Sexual Revolution, 1974, The Invasion of Compulsory Sex Morality, 1971, and The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 1970, all Farrar, Straus and Giroux.