Aphrodiphobia, the Sistine Heresy, and Ecstasy, Part I

Aphrodiphobia, the Sistine Heresy, and Ecstasy, Part I June 23, 2012

“If Catholicism were really like what Greeley describes, there would be no need for the Craft.” Lady Epona (Julie O’R.)

Given what I discuss in the next few installments, please understand that I am not a hostile non-Catholic. I was raised in the church and, after a commodius vicus of recirculation, was trained as a Roman Catholic theologian at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, receiving my Ph.D. in theology from the Franciscan School of Theology (the oldest seminary in the US, founded by Junipero Serra in 1776) exactly on my fortieth birthday. I then taught theology and religious studies at the University of San Francisco and at Holy Family College for the next ten years. Looking at the Church of Rome, knowing what beauty and grace it once did and might again confer on humanity, I am saying with great sorrow that the Emperor has no clothes on.

In the 1950s the Roman Catholicism I was raised in seemed to be all about sex—more precisely, about not having sex. Jesus was a virgin, his mother was a virgin, all the apostles were virgins, and all the saints were young women who were martyred for refusing to have sex. In my catechism classes for confirmation, we were taught to remain “pure in thought, word, and deed.” That is, even thinking about sex was a sin (Don’t think about Sex. Omigod, I just thought about Sex! Omigod, I just thought about it again! Ad nauseum). That was expiated by, usually, saying ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys.

I described in my second blog in this series what happened to me at age 14. To summarize: I hit upon a logical paradox in Catholic doctrine. By the official Nihil obstat; imprimatur teachings of the church, I was relieved from any obligation to believe in the truth of Catholic doctrine. The psychic energy thus released exploded into an ecstatic enlightenment experience of the sort described by William James. Afterward, I knew that I knew nothing—except that I was endowed with a moral imperative to investigate the truth of all things religious for myself. I have carried out that mandate ever since—at least when I had some free time.

I also knew that what I had been taught about sexuality was pathological. However, being relieved from orthodoxy did not reverse the conditioning I had been subjected to. Almost all of the church’s teachings about sexuality seemed like utter nonsense to me, but I was still an extremely inhibited “good Catholic boy” emotionally, and I was quite angry about that disability. Those inhibitions, combined with the high libido I had inherited from my father, combined with cyclic clinical depression, made my teen years quite difficult. I spent many years struggling to uncoil those tentacles of inhibition from around my neck, so that I could at least breathe normally.

I soon began to speculate about what beliefs concerning sexuality might be healthier than what I had been taught. As a teenager, I thought that Christianity was based on the belief that sex itself is sinful. A great many people do believe that. However, as I began to learn in the 1960s (first from Alan Watts), such a belief is just bad theology, opposed to what are historically the essential concepts and beliefs of Christianity. I recently came to the conclusion that believing that “sex is evil” was the first and worst of all the heresies that corrupted what I now think must have been Jesus’s original teachings. I will come back to that.

Wilhelm Reich and Aphrodiphobia

I first heard about Reich from my friend Gerard Kohbieter, whom I met at San Francisco State in 1959. Gerard was then in his forties. His family had escaped the Nazis by taking the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok and then getting to the US. He was a professional magician, among other things, a devotee of Reich’s theories, and a thoroughly charming person. I remember an evening when, during a party, he and two other guys were juggling oranges in our kitchen. He told me that Reich was the only man whose writings had been burned by the U.S., the Nazis, and the Soviets.

About 1963 I got around to reading Reich and found him to be one of the dozen most important thinkers I’ve ever encountered. He provided the first confirmation that my beliefs about sexuality were not merely idiosyncratic. He titled one of his books with the first line of Blake’s quatrain,

Children of the future age,
Reading this indignant page,
Know that in a former time
Love! Sweet love! was thought a crime.

As I’ve sometimes said to my English classes, we are the children Blake was speaking to, and things haven’t got much better, have they?

Reich agreed with Freud’s argument in Civilization and Its Discontents that the domestication of sexuality had made the creation of human culture possible. However, the restrictions on sex needed to enable culture to exist are far less stringent than those imposed by Puritanism. Objectively, orgasm is an intensely pleasurable physical phenomenon, but it causes no other physical changes in the organism. When it is over, nothing has been gained or lost or changed–except sometimes for pregnancy. Reich recognized that there is no objective reason why us human mammals should not indulge in sex joyfully, valuing and safeguarding it, but always enjoying it, nor is there any reason why humans should instead hate, fear, and avoid sex, creating rules to make it almost impossible for anyone to have sex, let alone enjoy it. A healthy adult with a high libido could enjoy having sex roughly 18,000 times in life. A woman who has nine kids would have gotten pregnant during only 1/2000 of those times. That statistic does not support a belief that the only moral purpose for having sex is to conceive a child.

Reich deduced that the domestication of sexuality had evolved into a pandemic mental illness that infects almost all human cultures and that is as pathological as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or sociopathy. He labeled this illness the “Emotional Plague” (as his German term is usually translated). On it he blamed the worst social ills of Western and other societies, including the Inquisition and the Holocaust. He argued that any sort of negative attitude toward sex, any negative emotion or assumption about sex, is a symptom of the Emotional Plague. He proposed that, if after sex a person experiences guilt, shame, anxiety, fear, anger, etc., those negative emotions are caused not by sex itself, but by the negative programming that constitutes the Plague. His choice of Blake’s line displays his belief that a truly human society—peaceful, creative, happy, healthy—cannot be achieved until that Emotional Plague is overcome and extirpated from human societies.

I have long thought “Emotional Plague” is too vague a name for this illness. It’s not just any old emotions that are the issue. Hence I recently devised “Aphrodiphobia,” which means specifically “fear of having sex,” as an alternative name for it. My neologism also gives us “Aphrodiphobes” as a useful name for those who suffer from the illness and the corresponding adjectival form, “Aphrodiphobic.” (An aside to classicists: the name “Aphrodite” was related to “aphrodizein,” a common Greek term for sexual intercourse.) We are immensely far from being able to combat this illness, of course, but being able to recognize it and name it is a first step toward that goal. Obviously, it is difficult to combat a pathology that most people suffer from but think is normal.

There are many symptoms of Aphrodiphobia: A woman is naturally capable of endless multiple orgasms. A woman who has few or none is suffering from Aphrodiphobia. A man is also capable of multiple orgasms, given a little recovery time between them, especially when young. A man can have an active sex life as long as he is alive. For a man to lose his libido completely in his mid-40s is a symptom of Aphrodiphobia.

In the Second World War, about 50 million people died. Although no one has attempted to keep accurate statistics, probably about that many women were raped. That too is a symptom of Aphrodiphobia. As William Blake said, ”War is Energy enslav’d.” Blake had reached the same insight as Wilhelm Reich, that war is a sexual perversion, indeed, the ultimate sexual perversion.

Aphrodiphobia has waxed and waned from time to time and place to place. Very often Roman Catholics have suffered less from it than members of other faith communities. A bizarre detail of history is that, when Innocent III sent the Inquisitors into Provence to root out the Cathars, the Inquisitors quickly found that the surest way to identify the heretics was that the good Catholic girls would sleep with them, whereas the Cathar girls would not. (I learned this from H. C. Lea.)

It was unfortunate and ironic that Reich apparently became manic about 1930, when his concepts and claims became more and more radical—which the Aphrodiphobes have used as an excuse to dismiss all his real work. He began to think of sexual energy, which he called Orgone Energy, as a fundamental force of nature that, if collected and directed, could cure many illnesses, including cancer. As a result, the Feds sent him to prison (where he died) as a cancer quack, and confiscated and burned his publications, even the earliest ones. (The copies Gerard showed me were legally contraband, much prized by collectors.) The Nazis, however, burned his books merely because he was Jewish.

His concept that sexual energy is a fundamental reality may turn out to be correct. There are arguments to support that hypothesis in theology, psychology, and physics—but I’m not going to expand on that here.

In our next episode, we apply the foregoing to the Catholic Church. I do hope my colleagues on the Patheos Catholic Channel will see this.

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