Addressing Sexuality in Bioenergetic Therapy

Embodied sexuality can provide some of the best of what life has to offer including feelings of pleasure, connection and satisfaction. For many people, however, sexuality has led to some of life’s worst experiences—violations, broken connections, and traumas that lead to feelings of shame and guilt. Sexual issues may underlie many mental health issues including depression, anxiety and PTSD. Culturally, we have confused sexuality with how our bodies look rather than how we feel. Helping people restore healthy sexuality, defined as a specific state of vitality in the body, is a central focus of Bioenergetic Therapy. From my many years of therapeutic work with clients I believe that healthy, embodied sexuality, including an orientation towards pleasure, vitality and joy is worth aiming for.

Historical Overview

Sexuality has been a primary focus in Bioenergetic Therapy from the beginning. Wilhelm Reich, a contemporary of Freud and the grandfather of modern somatic therapies, believed that orgastic potency — the ability of a person to build energetic charge and release it in orgasm— is central to the mental health of a person. He observed that his patients, both male and female, consistently did not experience genital satisfaction, including orgasm and states: “Those who are psychically ill need but one thing—complete and repeated genital gratification” (Reich, 1973). He describes orgasm as being a whole body experience, not simply ejaculation, and as serving the function of releasing excess energy of the organism, therefore leaving no energy available for neurotic process.

Alexander Lowen highlighted the importance of sexuality in his development of Bioenergetic Analysis in the 1950s; he added self-expression as a focus of his work. He learned from his own experience in therapy with Reich and from his experience with his patients that, while genital satisfaction and orgastic potency are important ideals, they are not the only goals of Bioenergetic Therapy. Lowen thus shifted the focus from orgastic potency to ego function and self-expression. In his 1983 article titled “Sexuality: From Reich to the Present,” he states: “The ability to fully express one’s self is the goal of bioenergetic analysis” (pp.3-8). He further states that while orgastic potency is important in Bioenergetic Analysis, the development of sexuality from a person’s childhood experience is the focus. “The character structure and the themes of self-expression and self-possession are still my main focus, not orgastic potency. The focus, therefore, is on sexual issues, not sexual potency” (Lowen, 1993, pp.3-8).

Other Bioenergetic therapists have further refined this focus. Miki Frank, a student of Lowen’s states that orgastic potency is not a reachable goal for all men or women, as Reich makes it appear. She notes that while she has experienced orgastic potency at times in her life, orgastic potency is not a permanent condition. She shifts the emphasis of therapy to a goal of wholeness and personal growth, with orgastic potency as a bonus along the journey (Frank, 1993).

In his book, Sex and Self-Respect: The Quest for Personal Fulfillment, Philip Helfaer (2007) contributes the idea that self-respect is central to personal fulfillment alongside sexuality. He states that sexuality and self-respect are interdependent within a healthy person. Therapy, therefore, involves helping the individual develop both healthy sexual expression and a deep sense of self-respect, rooted in body experience. He states: “In each individual’s very personal experience of their own sexuality, nothing is more important than to come to terms with the reality of the tension, ambiguity, ambivalence, guilt, and shame that so commonly infuses sexuality. This is done by freeing the body, learning and developing self-respect and a recognition of the body as self” (Helfaer, 1998).

Defining Sexuality

A valuable part in clarifying the role of sexuality in Bioenergetic Therapy is to define what we mean by sexuality and to distinguish two primary aspects of sexuality.  There is the sexuality of a person, referring to state of aliveness in a person, and according to the dictionary definition: “an organism’s preparedness for engaging in sexual activity” (retrieved from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/sexuality).The second aspect of sexuality is the act of sex, whether it is with one’s self or with a partner, and relates to one’s gender and one’s sexual orientation. This is a big topic in and of itself, and for purposes of this discussion, I will focus on the sexuality of the individual.

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