Novelty Acts

The sexual revolutions before the sexual revolution.

Ariel Levy

Vanguardists in the Victorian era thought they were sexual revolutionaries.

Vanguardists in the Victorian era thought they were sexual revolutionaries.

Wilhelm Reich, the father of the sexual revolution, started out as a star pupil of Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology. Reich was admitted to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Association in 1920, while he was still a graduate student, and already a radical idea was percolating in his head: that sexuality, fundamental to our being, and yet a source of shame for centuries, had the power to heal much of what ailed us, if only we would let it.

Breaking with religious teachings that the sole function of sex ought to be procreation and that any other erotic pursuit was sinful, Reich offered a new and defiantly humanist perspective, asserting that sexual pleasure was beneficial—indeed, necessary—to human flourishing, and that, when it came to orgasms, the more the merrier. As Christopher Turner writes in his new book, “Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $35), Reich offered the “tantalizing suggestion that sexual emancipation would lead to positive social change.” Good sex was the path to the good society.

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