Sex in a Box: TFT Review of Christopher Turner’s Adventures in the Orgasmatron

For most of my post-pubescent life, I have been a student of sex. I have read everyone from Alfred Kinsey to Judith Butler to Susie Bright, and have even gone as far as to make sex the theme of my freshman-level composition course. This fixation has made more than one of my boyfriends nervous. But I can’t help it—I am fascinated by sexuality’s power, by our schizophrenic reaction to this most universal of acts, and by the sheer staggering variety of desire (how amazing, to be a species turned on by everything from sadism to sneezing!). Understand sex, I feel, and you will understand what it means to be human. So I was especially excited to read Christopher Turner’s Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America, in which a cultural history (apparently) centers around a contraption resembling an orgasmic outhouse. What did a wooden box have to do with changing the way America thought about sex?

Turner’s endeavor is as intriguing as it is ambitious: explain the tidal shifts in America’s attitude toward sex through the cross-continental rise and fall of a single man: the surprisingly conservative, and quite possibly insane, psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Reich’s most famous invention, for which the book is named, was the orgone accumulator (“orgasmatron” was a name later coined by Woody Allen), a box in which patients sat to increase “orgiastic potency” and cure all sorts of ills. Thousands bought, rented, or made their own accumulators, and cultural icons such as Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, and Sean Connery all swore by its power. Inside, several even claimed to have achieved the illusive “Look ma, no hands!” orgasm.

Trained as a psychoanalyst under Freud, Reich found the established talking cure slow and ineffective. He claimed we all have the potential to “rupture the stagnant dams of repression” within ourselves, not through speech, but through that dam-burster of all dam-bursters: the orgasm. Reich had long believed in an “electrical model” of health and sexual functioning, in which orgasmic (or “orgone”) energy flowed through the body, becoming “blocked” by the tension of neuroses (much of Reich’s therapy involved the massaging and even pummeling of various muscles). But in 1939, Reich became convinced that this energy was not just in our bodies, but all around us; if there was a way to harness this energy, its healing power could be monumental. Arise: the orgone accumulator.

The box, and the public’s reaction to it, makes for a compelling read (in addition to its champions, the orgone accumulator inspired an inquisition-like attack by governmental officials, which didn’t end until the boxes were literally hacked apart and Reich’s orgone writings burned). And Turner makes some shrewd inquiries into its metaphorical significance (“Why did a generation seek to shed its sexual repression by climbing into a closet?”). But the orgone accumulator, and even America itself, don’t appear until halfway through an already-lengthy account; the book is far less about the sexual revolution than about Reich himself.

Luckily, Reich was a fascinating man. Turner, in a conscious attempt at impartiality, shows us every side of his paradoxical character. By the end of the book, we see have seen Reich as murderer, communist, gifted psychoanalyst, political leader, schizophrenic, magical healer, fascist tyrant, sexual predator (one of the accusers was his own daughter), mad scientist, uptight never-nude (Reich’s last wife reveals that even in the shower he never removed his underwear), Earth’s defender against alien attack, and Christ. The one thing he was not was particularly liberal, even by the standards of his own time, and to the end of his life he resisted the brand of sexual freedom for which he had supposedly paved the way. Though he believed in the power of the orgasm and fought against sexual repression, he was violently opposed to the sexual freedom of his own partners (despite his own numerous affairs) and thought that only those climaxes that came from intercourse, within a loving (and heterosexual) relationship could be beneficial.

Despite himself, Reich deeply influenced philosophers, writers, scientists, marketers, and gurus, who would themselves change the way America thought about sex. However, we only find this out at the very end of the book’s 450 pages. More than half of the book is devoted to Reich’s evolving (and increasingly eccentric) philosophy, and his rise through and alienation from the ranks of Europe’s psychoanalysts and intellectuals. One feels, at times, that Turner’s determination to be unbiased in regards to Reich’s legacy led him to be less than discerning about what details of his life to include. Do we really need the specifics of each and every rejection of Reich’s orgone theories by the psychoanalytic, scientific, and political world? (The list is long.) And the stuff that should be fun—Reich’s early work toward sexual liberation—feels as staid in Turner’s account of the internal politics of the German Psychoanalytic Society. Readers should be warned that despite a sexy name and cover, this is not an overwhelmingly sexy book. Nevertheless, once Reich arrives in America, a more vivid and vital portrait emerges. This is perhaps because much of Turner’s information for Reich’s later life came from those closest to him—his son, daughter, and last wife. Once impartiality becomes impossible, we begin to truly understand the force of this man’s spiraling madness and charismatic force.

In the end, Turner’s book tells us less about sex, orgasms or revolutions than it does about one man’s particular obsession. And that’s what makes sex so powerful, and so hard to write about academically with any sort of success: it’s devastatingly personal. Impartiality is impossible, each viewpoint and experience entirely unique. And yet, there is something universal about our relationship with sex, and that is our inability to ever understand it. We know its power, but to capture or even define it feels like grabbing at air. No wonder so many responded to the idea of an orgone accumulator—Reich’s box promised to catch hold of the ineffable, to channel it to us through steel and wool. No matter how many theories or sociological histories I read, I will never find a satisfactory answer to the why of sex. But maybe, if I persist with even a fraction of Reich’s tenacity, I can come to understand my own eccentricities and desires—my own particular madness. One thing is certain: it won’t fit in any box.

Claire Barwise graduated from the University of Montana, and received her MFA from the University of Florida. She is a MacDowellColony fellow, and her work has appeared in Swink, The Minnesota Review, ...read more

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