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Orgasm is the pleasure obtained at the culmination (end pleasure) of sexual activity; it differs from the preliminary pleasure of foreplay in that it corresponds to a relaxation rather than a rise in excitation. Freud takes up the commonly referred to link between orgasm and death (petite mort ) by analogy with the separation between the soma and the germen and, in some of the lower animal species, the death of the male. From a metapsychological viewpoint the momentary short-circuiting of Eros through the satisfaction obtained ensures Thanatos a degree of supremacy.

The question of female orgasm and its dissimulation for reasons of cultural propriety is discussed by Freud in the first manuscripts addressed to Fliess (1950a [1897-1902]) and in the Studies on Hysteria (1895d), where he notes that, during orgasm, thought disappears almost completely and this restriction of consciousness is very similar to the hypnoid state, or even a hysterical crisis. Some years later, in the Three Essays (1905d), referring to the observations of the pediatrician Lindner, he notes that the sensations of the satiated infant can lead to a motor reaction similar to orgasm if it does not lead to sleep. He also acknowledges that the orgasm associated with genital emission is inaccessible to the infant, whose masturbatory activity is incomplete, a perspective he associates with the infant's endless quest for sexual knowledge (1910c). It is interesting that among Freud's last works this same idea reappears:

"The ultimate ground of all intellectual inhibitions and all inhibitions of work seems to be the inhibition of masturbation in childhood. But perhaps it goes deeper; perhaps it is not its inhibition by external influences but its unsatisfying nature in itself. There is always something lacking for complete discharge and satisfactionen attendant toujours quelquechose qui ne venait point [always waiting for something which never came]and this missing part, the reaction of orgasm, manifests itself in equivalents in other spheres, in absences, outbreaks of laughing, weeping [. . .], and perhaps other ways.Once again infantile sexuality has fixed a model in this." (1941f [1938], p. 300).

Freud didn't actually define orgasm as a psychic or affective phenomenon associated with, but somewhat distinct from, a somatic process, although he drew attention to its absence in discussions of the symptom of frigidity. Sándor Ferenczi (2000/1931), in describing masochistic orgasm, attempted to define normal orgasm as the "meeting of two tendencies to action. The love relationship apparently does not arise from subject A or from subject B but between the two of them." This definition of a hypothetical "normality" does not go as far as his description of masochistic orgasm during female rape: "The reaction," Ferenczi writes, "is primarily a shock, accompanied by the anxiety of death and disintegration, and only secondarily a plastic identification with the emotion of the sadist, a hallucinatory masculine identification" (p. 248).

The function of the orgasm played a central role in the work of Wilhelm Reich (1940/1968), illustrating that it is necessary to incorporate an "actual" neurosis into any psychoneurosis. Reich took up Freud's propositions concerning libidinal stasis and its conversion into anxiety. He defined "orgiastic power" as "the aptitude to achieve satisfaction matching the libidinal stasis of the moment." Moreover, according to Reich, while inhibition prevents the transference of sexual excitation to the sensorimotor system and the genital apparatus, the excitation remains compressed within the vasovagal system and produces the phenomena of vasomotor neurosis. Reich believed, however, that civilization and monogamous marriage do not allow orgasm to develop and fulfill its function. There is not only a biological perspective in Reich's work (bioenergy, orgone), but a moral and political vision as well: "The patient, previously moralistic in his ideology and perverse, lascivious and neurotic in reality, becomes free of this contradiction in himself; with his moralism he also loses his sexual anti-sociality and acquires a natural morality in the sex-economic sense" (1933/1946, p. 156).

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Adolescence; Anorexia nervosa; Dipsomania; Orgone; Partial drive; Perversion; Reich, Wilhelm.


Ferenczi, Sándor. (2000). On masochistic orgasm. In Final contributions to the problems and methods of psychoanalysis. (p. 248-49; Michael Balint, Ed; Eric Mosbacher, Trans.). London: Karnac Books. (Original work published 1931)

Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1941f [1938]). Findings, ideas, problems. SE, 23: 299-300.

Reich, Wilhelm. (1946). The mass psychology of fascism (T. P. Wolfe, Trans.). New York: Orgone Institute Press. (Original work published 1933)

. (1968). The function of the orgasm: Sex-economic problems of biological energy (Theodore P. Wolfe, Trans.). London: Panther. (Original work published 1940)

Further Reading

Abraham, G. (2002). The psychodynamics of orgasm. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 83, 325-338.

Eissler, Kurt R. (1977). Comments on penis envy and orgasm in women. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 32, 29-84.

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