The Biomechanics and Electrophysiology Thereof
When Wilhelm Reich referred to “the function of the orgasm,” he was not talking about the purpose or meaning of the orgasm but simply about what happens in it. As we saw in the fourth installment, the orgasm reflex is chiefly characterized by the complete discharge of accumulated sexual tension. In other words, there is no libido-quantitative difference between cathexis and catharsis that can be allocated to the production of neurotic symptoms such as perversion. This cyclic investment and divestment is referred to in Reich’s oeuvre as the orgastic function, the orgasm formula or the tension-charge formula. Reich described the orgastic function as having four distinct phases: mechanical tension, electric charge, electric discharge and mechanical relaxation. However, it is illuminating to consider the two halves of the cycle as individual phases: one characterized by mechanical tension and electric charge, and the other by electric discharge and mechanical relaxation.
In the sexual response, the genital blood vessels dilate and the male and female erectile tissues become filled with fluid. Fluid exerts a mechanical pressure in the corpora cavernosa clitoridis, the bulbo vestibuli and the corpora cavernosa of the penis during the tumescence of these tissues. Moreover, genital muscles such as the ischocavernosus and bulbocavernosus are excited by nerves, whereupon muscle tone is increased (1). All this mechanical tension has a relationship with bioelectricity. The sexually aroused, tumescent erogenous zone can be shown by an electrogram to exhibit a high electric potential with respect to the unaroused erogenous zone or other parts of the skin (2). This implies some polarization in the body fluid’s electrolytic charge distribution. Supporting this is the fact that “pressure of any kind reduces the charge of the [skin’s] surface. If the pressure is removed, the [potential] returns exactly to its original level (3).”
The orgasm reflex itself is an electrophysiological discharge, according to Reich (4). He asserted that the surfaces of male and female genitals act as electrodes (5), but this cannot be correct because both are of more or less the same voltage (in orgastically potent characters, that is). If the space around a charge distribution has a high potential, this must mean that cations* predominate in solution and each penetration must rather produce repulsive forces.
Observing that the vaginal mucous membrane secretes an acidic, electrolytic colloid (6), and that the contacting surface area is greatest during complete penetration, Reich surmised that during these instances, “the difference in potential between [the] two charged surfaces in contact with each other will equal itself out” (7) and that the subjective perception of pleasure originates from this resolution of electrical tension. However, this claim cannot be correct because the skin of the penis does not seem to permit the passage of ions so, theoretically, no significant electric current can go between the genitals. The satisfaction of complete penetration must then depend on electrostatic phenomena, on maximal coulombic repulsion.
By as of yet unknown means, excitation escalates in the “phase of involuntary muscle contraction.” This is characterized by involuntary contractions of the pelvic and genital musculature which are rhythmically related to the union and separation of the genitals (8). Eventually, the entire muscular system convulses in the orgasm reflex (9). We are of the opinion that electric potential energy is transformed into mechanical energy and transferred out of the body by the orgasm reflex: work done by the system on the environment. This is corroborated by the following facts. First of all, the potential difference on the recently satisfied person’s genital is insignificant. Second, in orgastic impotence, wherein this reflex is absent or reduced, catharsis is diminished. Thus we have the phase of electric discharge and mechanical relaxation.
This infant field which may be called electrosexology was only studied for a brief span of about four years. As Europe was electrified by Hitler, Reich was repelled from Germany to Sweden, Denmark, Norway and finally America where, by 1940, he for some reason became convinced that all the bioelectric processes he observed were really epiphenomena of a mysterious, more fundamental energy: the orgone. As for the orgastic function, we will see that it is recapitulated in all expression and that when it is precluded, it can adopt a number of perverse forms.
* Note: After studying the oscillograph used in the original experiments, it has become apparent that we were never in a position to make qualitative judgements regarding the electric polarity of the ionic species or judgements about their concentration. The instrument was only capable of measuring potential difference.
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(1) Reich, Wilhelm – The Bioelectric Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety – 1. The Orgasm as an Electrophysiological Discharge pg. 9-10
(2) Reich – The Function of the Orgasm – Chapter IX – From Psychoanalysis to Biogenesis, Part 1. The Bioelectric Function of Pleasure and Anxiety pg.370
(3) Ibid. pg. 373
(4) Reich – The Bioelectric Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety – 1. The Orgasm as an Electrophysiological Discharge pg. 13
(5) Ibid. pg. 13
(6) Ibid. pg. 14
(7) Ibid. pg. 14
(8) Reich – The Function of the Orgasm – Chapter IV – Development of the Orgasm Theory, Part 3. Orgastic Potency pg.106
(9) Ibid. 107