A man gazes into a metal funnel with the slightest pervy twist to his mouth. We imagine he sees a reflection of himself: a closed circuit of desire. He looks good enough, but there must be something wrong with him, because the funnel, and all of the desire being fed into it, is connected to a hose, which spouts from a small wooden box. There must be something wrong with him, because he is wearing a ridiculous shiny triangular hat and has a thick blanket draped over his shoulder. He looks like a member of the Kibbo Kift cast in Scott Reeder’s 2014 sci-fi comedy Moon Dust. Our guy is a bit too late for the Kibbo Kift, John Hargrave’s 1920s utopic back-to-the-land youth movement—this image was likely taken in the 1940s—but like the KK, his outfit is associated with sex maniacs and anti-fascism.
You might recognize this box—hewn from plywood with internal layers of metal and mineral wool—as a device invented in the early 1940s by the unorthodox psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich: the orgone accumulator. Though Albert Einstein didn’t take it seriously, and it was debunked and banned by the FDA in 1954, everyone from Norman Mailer to William Burroughs used the box in its heyday. The “orgone,” a word Reich coined that marries “orgasm” and “ozone,” is a measurable life force not unlike what Henri Bergson theorized as élan vital. Reich’s new technology was meant to gather and concentrate orgiastic energy from the atmosphere and channel it into its user, a process he likened to what is experienced when energy systems are joined in sexual activity. The box, he claimed, would purge the user’s repressive urges and increase their sexuality.
For Reich, this wasn’t merely a physical process, but a political one. In his 1927 study The Function of the Orgasm, he theorized that the orgasm had healing powers that might extend from the individual to the collective body. He hoped that the box would help eradicate conformity, which he argued fostered fascism. According to his biographer, Christopher Turner, Reich’s project was to reconcile Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis (Reich was a student of Freud’s) with Marxism. If the people could get off, they could shake off the system that oppressed them.
And Reich’s work did spur a sexual revolution. From Turner’s 2011 book Adventures in the Orgasmatron, we learn that in 1947, Harper’s described Reich as the leader of a “new cult of sex and anarchy.” 1Christopher Turner, Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), 6. And in 1964, seven years after the psychoanalyst died—in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, imprisoned for breaking an injunction that banned the sale of his orgone machines—Time magazine claimed, “Dr. Wilhelm Reich may have been a prophet. For now it sometimes seems that all America is one big Orgone Box […] Improved and enlarged to encompass the continent, the big machine works on its subjects continuously, day and night. From innumerable screens and stages, posters and pages, it flashes the larger-than-life-sized images of sex. […] And constantly, over the intellectual Muzak, comes the message that sex will save you and libido make you free.” 2Ibid, 13. Herbert Marcuse was right to criticize this promise of freedom that very year, linking it to the passively affirmative nature of modern culture. Already, in the mid-1960s, the vexed interrelationships of consumerism, libido, and agency were being red-lit in the public eye.
“What does it tell us about the ironies of the sexual revolution that the symbol of liberation was a box?” 3Ibid, 14. Turner asks. The contemporary box—the one that sits on our lap or our desktop or fits perfectly in our hand—has exponentially complicated the math between the libido and consumption. It promises to set us free from the constraints of society by making infinite information available to us, by allowing us to explore our most deviant desires in (supposed) privacy, by lending us avatars through which to explore new kinds of relationships and representations—all while mining our data and slipping us ads. Free love became self-love. And self-love became free shipping.
The ironies at the heart of the relationship between sex and technology have only grown more resonant and more complex since Reich built a technic to improve the sexual health of individuals. But the deepest irony is that he did just that: Despite his utopian aspirations for anti-fascism and community building, he made sexual health an individualist pursuit. He took contact and connection out of the equation.
Of course, sexual prostheses have a far longer history than Reich’s box—the vibrator has been ‘healing hysteria’ since the late 1800s. And their role in making sex positive and possible is overwhelming. But because they are now so ubiquitous, the people are getting off, but they aren’t getting together. Our communities are increasingly ones we participate in immaterially, and the impact of this newly charted globalized network and the kinds of engagements it promotes and allows—the stinging implication of the media echo-chamber effect on the recent American election being the most relevant and gutting example—are unknowable and dire.
In August 2016, a spate of articles dominated my bandwidth that were published under such alarmist headlines as: “Millennials Are Having Less Sex Than Any Generation in 60 Years” (LA Times); “Why Are So Many Millenials Having Zero Sex?” (NY Magazine); and “There Isn’t Really Anything Magical About It” (Washington Post). On the heels of this flurry came The Selfishness of Others, a book by Kristin Dombek that observes and troubles the ways in which the criteria that came to constitute the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder in the late 1970s are now the pervasive qualities of culture at large. Both the flurry of articles and the book were inspired by studies by ‘millennials expert’ and quantitative social psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge of San Diego State University: the articles followed a 2016 paper published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior (with Ryne Sherman of Florida Atlantic University and Brooke E. Wells of Widener University), and Dombek’s book responded to a 2009 book titled The Narcissism Epidemic (with W. Keith Campbell).
It appears that those millennials who were born in the 1990s are more than twice as likely to be celibate in their early twenties than members of Gen X were at the same age. According to the 2016 study, 15 percent of those born from 1990 to 1994 reported having no sexual partners, compared to just 6 percent of those born from 1965 to 1969. Twenge, Sherman, and Wells report that the effects are most extreme among the cohort to come of age when smartphones became ubiquitous. Though popular narratives often purport the effect of easy-access porn and hookup apps to be promiscuity, it is beginning to look like their impact is quite the opposite.
The study’s authors, who also blame this rise in millennial celibacy on learning about sex post-AIDS crisis and the general deferment of adulthood post-recession, have speculated about the ways in which our hyper-networked, mediatized, and technology-saturated culture might be turning youths off sex. Perhaps they have an aversion to hookup culture, which would be understandable, especially as it was nauseatingly advertised by Chris Messina, who claims to be the “inventor of the hashtag.” Messina introduced the concept of “Big Dating” in an article for CNN last year, claiming it “unbundles monogamy and sex. It offers to maximize episodes of intimacy while minimizing the risk of rejection or FOMO.” 4Chris Messina, “Why I choose non-monogamy,” CNN.com, 29 January 2015, http://money.cnn.com/2015/01/29/technology/chris-messina-non-monogamy/ (accessed 18 December 2016).
Sure, it might be that people want to avoid rejection and are more comfortable with their online avatars than their physical bodies—it’s a clear symptom of the dissociation incurred by a social interface that prioritizes the optic, makes personality secondary, and excludes pheromones. Or it might be that they can more easily realize their fantasies via porn, or that they are highly medicated, or that they experience more pressure to succeed and have less time to socialize. Or, they may just be more interested in other forms of entertainment: video games, TV shows, and so on. It is likely a combination of all of these effects, as we learned from anecdotes from a handful of young millennials in Tara Bahrampour’s Washington Post article on the study. 5Tara Bahrampour, “‘There isn’t really anything magical about it’: Why more millennials are avoiding sex,” Washington Post, 2 August 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/there-isnt-really-anything-magical-about-it-why-more-millennials-are-putting-off-sex/2016/08/02/e7b73d6e-37f4-11e6-8f7c-d4c723a2becb_story.html?utm_term=.8c7eb813fe79 (accessed 18 December 2016). Noah Patterson, an eighteen-year-old virgin who likes porn, says he’d “rather be watching YouTube videos and making money. Sex is not going to be something people ask you for on your resume.” Alexandra Wolff, who is nineteen and is also a virgin, explains: “It’s not like I’m saving myself for anything; it’s more like, I’ve been busy.”
They’re too busy. It’s true that the ubiquity of work—the twenty-four-seven-ness of post-Fordist labor, which includes our subservience to e-mail and our drive to capitalize on all experience by capturing and representing it to the world—has brought with it new kinds of alienation. (And while this condition isn’t generation specific, it is easy to imagine it manifests most potently in digital natives.) We are alienated from a benchmark against which to measure any use-value of what we produce. We see that the product of our labor is being more quickly metabolized—distributed and disarmed by the excess it joins: think of the polemic that is posted on an online journal just minutes before a piece promising to share the twenty best places to eat kimchi in Chicago; or indeed, Uber in a world of Lyft and Juno. The ubiquity of work promotes the objectification of relationships, whether by placing greater store in those that might be professionally beneficial or by creating an incentive to think of relationships quantitatively, like followers on social media. This dehumanization may be, in part, what has led to the unthinkable global championing of the ‘alt-right’ that could significantly dismantle many of the achievements in social progress since Reich’s day. Trolls are out for likes, and they get them; they demonstrate in a quotidian, embedded way that bad behavior is monetizable. And it’s not only because nastiness is monetizable that it is has teeth—nastiness elicits an emotional, physical response. But also, our commitment to work, as backed up in the quotes from Patterson and Wolff, has replaced our commitment to our bodies and their indeterminate, spontaneous, troubling functions and needs. It’s no wonder this climate of alienation, objectification, and dissociation has resulted in tocsins of a narcissism epidemic—indeed, one that cleaves to the stirrings of fascism.
Narcissism, Dombek reminds us in her book, “has always been, for psychology, a story about bad romance and desire gone awry.” 6Kristin Dombek, The Selfishness of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 34. British sexologist Havelock Ellis described, at the end of the nineteenth century, the Narcissus-like quality of those “whose primary erotic object was themselves […] who seemed to prefer masturbation to fucking or being fucked by others.” 7I In Freudian terms, this pathology is the libidinal complement of the self-preservation instinct. And what could be more in the service of self-preservation than porn? As Sarah Nicole Prickett put so sharply: “Sex with humans wrecked the home of the Greek gods and obliterated that other Olympus, ‘New York in the 1970s,’ via AIDS.” 8Sarah Nicole Prickett, “Sex Machina,” Artforum (December 2015). Porn and autoeroticism keep things safer, cleaner. They ward against disease as much as they ward against feelings.
Dombek pins the 1970s as the patient zero for the narcissism epidemic—just as Tom Wolfe did in 1976, coining the “me” generation—when the “communal and social justice impulses of the 1960s turned into individualism and obsession with celebrity culture.” 9Dombek, The Selfishness of Others, 63. She cites Twenge and Campbell, who note that even preferences in drugs and music shifted from the community-oriented marijuana and festivals to the more selfish cocaine and disco. Perhaps something similar happened to sex. It was, after all, also the decade known as the Golden Age of Porn, when the private possession of pornography was ruled not to be a crime, and when the court decided that the pornography industry and the prostitution industry were indeed separate.
This isn’t to decry pornography—like cocaine and disco, it’s great in moderation. And of course, the medium has incredible potential to bring eyes and empathy to the gamut of bodies and genders and couplings and expressions of desire. But this might be the point. In her new book, Future Sex, Emily Witt observes that America has “a lot of respect for the future of objects, and less interest in the future of human arrangements.” 10Emily Witt, Future Sex (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 210. We need to find a way to make our technologies service our humanity—rather than make its messiness and unpredictability sterile, serviceable, and easy to both compartmentalize and abuse.
It is definitely too soon to have any real sense of what the ramifications might be for sex, agency, or the self in this hyper-mediated moment. But we can agree that technologically mediated sex—whether that means sex aided by OkCupid or Grindr or RedTube or super dildos—has changed the way we think about and have sex. And it’s hard to look away from the ways in which this is changing our culture. In a sad but potent moment in the recent documentary about Anthony Weiner’s inexplicable and gauche fall from grace, the exhibitionist politician asked: “Do my personal relationships suffer because of the superficial and transactional nature of my political relationships or is it the other way around? Do you go into politics because you’re not connecting on that other level? And did the technology that undid me allow me to be in touch with people and have kind of more superficial relationships? I don’t know… I think it is hard to have normal relationships.” 11Weiner, directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg (New York: Showtime, 2016). It is hard to have “normal” relationships—for everyone, I’d wager. But making kin, or staying with the trouble, as Donna Haraway has recently described it, is what lets us live well.
Though Reich was imprisoned for his quackery, and though his legacy is dominated by Donald Sutherland and Kate Bush and the Orgasmatron of Woody Allen’s Sleeper, it’s worth reconsidering Reich’s proposal of an anti-fascist politics of desire. How might our orgasms be an anti-narcissist tool? Marcuse was prescient in his criticism of Reich’s tenets of sexual liberation. He claimed that Reich focused too squarely on personal liberation, and proposed that the libido should be harnessed for its potential generosity and productive agitation; he believed it should enter our social and work relations. Libidinal freedom and social transformation must be mutual processes, just as we must question the ramifications of technology on our relationships, our work, our sex—lest it return us to the box from which it once freed us. Bodies and their ecstatic expressions have the power to fight repressive forces, even those that are self-imposed.