Armoring and Suppression of Natural Sexual Expression
from “Reich and Gurdjieff – Sexuality and the Evolution of Consciousness” by David Brahinsky (Part II, Chapter 3)
Character armor, according to Reich, generally speaking, is the product of the interaction of a threatening, hostile world with the innocent, vulnerable organism. Chronic muscular rigidity develops because, as infants, children, adolescents, and adults, we are forced to suppress core or basic biological impulses and emotions—in Gurdjieff’s terms, our essences—and the impulses and emotions that result from this suppression.
To suppress such impulses and emotions, we are forced to unconsciously and chronically contract certain muscles and inhibit our breathing. In this way, impulses and emotions are blocked before being expressed. In an environment consistently suppressive of core emotions and impulses—the environment of most societies known to recorded history—people become chronically armored. Our world is a world of armored men and women, a planet of people out of contact with our basic or essential nature.
Reich discriminated a number of character types, each distinguished by a pattern of armoring. The two most fundamental types, for Reich, are the Neurotic Character Type and the Genital Character Type. According to Reich, these two types are defined by the rigidity of the armoring. The Neurotic Character Type is characterized as having rigid armoring to the extent that the person cannot change or eliminate it. The Genital Character Type also has armor, but it is not rigid, and the person is therefore capable of dropping the armor when it is not needed. In other words, the person is able to respond flexibly to different situations.
Although each person and each type exhibits different character traits, Reich presented a general picture of the Neurotic Character Type as one where the organism holds back. The shoulders are pulled back, the chest thrust out, the chin rigid, the breathing superficial and suppressed, the pelvis retracted, and the legs rigidly stretched out—a posture expressive, says Reich, of total restraint. The armored person is incapable of breaking down his or her own armor or of expressing his or her biological (core or essence) emotions; is incapable of expressing a sigh of pleasure, which Reich says comes out as a groan, a suppressed, pent-up roar, or possibly an impulse to vomit; cannot vent anger by banging a fist; cannot breathe out fully due to constriction of the diaphragm.
The armored organism is incapable of moving the pelvis forward and when asked to do so will not understand or will actually retract it. The peripheral muscles are acutely sensitive to pressure because they are chronically contracted. Reich says that when he would touch certain parts of the bodies of particular patients, his touch caused acute anxiety or nervousness.
Each individual character structure is unique. Sometimes it is anger that is suppressed, sometimes mainly expressions of sadness, longing for affection, or the desire to explore one’s genitals. Parents may use physical violence to suppress their children or some form of psychological violence such as mocking the child or berating it. Some parents suppress emotions consistently, day after day, while others do so only intermittently. In some families, suppression is carried out by only one parent, while in others, both parents may be involved, or other siblings, grandparents, boyfriends or girlfriends, and so on. The influence of teachers or religious leaders add to this picture, although it seems that the parents influence is most important, and during the first few months or years, the mother counts the most.[…]
Hostile Suppression of Genital Play
Reich came to believe suppression of sexuality is of fundamental significance in armor formation and development of emotional illness. Sexual feelings are extremely powerful and until suppressed are experienced as normal, very pleasurable sensations. Children have no idea that those feelings that give such pleasure are so “wrong.”
Not all suppression of sexuality is carried out with overt violence or obvious hostility. But when it is, infants and children are put in the position of having to defend themselves. First of all, the infant or child must inhibit its behavior as a means of self-protection. Of course, hostility can come in various forms, the form of overt violence (an adult might shout at or strike a child when the child touches its genitals or engages in sex play with other children, for example), or the hostility can be more subtle (the adult might express disgust, moral “indignation, shame, or indifference). When children are inhibited in sex play, they are forced, to begin with, to pull their hands from their genitals. If the inhibition is consistent, they may become afraid to touch their genitals. This means they must keep their hands away from “there,” even when an impulse to touch arises, particularly when in the company of others.
Reich found that it is the consistency of the inhibition that is crucial to armor formation. If a hostile reaction occurs only once and without great trauma, chronic armoring probably does not form, although there can be no certainty of this since it would depend on the nature of the hostility, its timing, and the circumstances in which it occurs. When parents are consistently hostile, the child becomes terrified to act out the impulse, thus must develop chronic contractions in the segments of the body that are used to hold back the behavior. In the case of genital play, contractions develop, to begin with, in the arms and hands, the neck, and the shoulders—the parts of the body involved in touching the forbidden area.
Since the urge is felt at the genitals, however, the child must also contract the muscles that block the impulse itself, since blocking the impulse is the surest way to prevent the behavior that elicits the hostility. In the case of genital excitation, this means the muscles of the pelvic segment and those of the abdomen, which block sensations from rising from the genital area into the trunk. Furthermore, children instinctively hold their breath when met with hostility to pleasurable sensations, for free, spontaneous breathing stimulates pleasurable sensations, while holding the breath diminishes them. To hold the breath requires contraction of the muscles associated with respiration, those of the oral segment and the neck as well as those of the chest, diaphragm, and the abdomen.
It can be seen then that behavior on the part of adults that we consider perfectly reasonable, moral, and in the best interests of the child—suppression of genitality—which in children, of course, cannot result in pregnancy, often the rationale given for suppression of adolescent sexuality, leads to chronic muscular armoring. Suppression of sexual feelings is crucial therefore not only because it is suppression of a powerful, essential urge in itself, which feels to the one being stifled as if their very being is at stake, but also because suppression of this urge leads to massive armoring, armoring of the entire body in all the segments.
The Hostility of the Adult World toward Natural Expression
Hostility toward genitality and expressions of other impulses and emotions is seen in a variety of ways the world over. The impulse to cry might be attacked with overt violence or with words—“Shut up!”—or more subtly, “Big boys don’t cry,” “Don’t be a crybaby.” Hostility can also be expressed as indifference, which, on the face of it, we might not think would lead to chronic armoring. Such a response, however, especially when contrasted with reactions to other forms of behavior—a home run, for example, or an A on the report card—clearly reveals a negative attitude to children. The child’s need to inhibit the behavior remains, although not necessarily as intensely as when it is met with overt hostility.
Repressive, hostile reactions by adults lead to many feelings in children, including rage, which, like other core or essence emotions, spontaneously seek outlet. Rage, says Reich, can be stimulated simply when other core needs are not met and may be exhibited, for example, in infants whose need to suckle is frustrated. The infant might become enraged because its mother does not understand its needs and does not respond to its cries appropriately. It may be offered a plastic nipple when it seeks the contact of living flesh; the mother’s nipple may not respond, or the mother may not be able to make emotional contact with the infant while nursing or bottle-feeding.
Expressions of rage on the part of the infant can be met with understanding, in which case the infant will be allowed free expression while the adult tries to discover what is needed. Muscular contractions to inhibit the expression of rage would not then be necessary. Rage can also be met with overt hostility, which would be a great shock to the infant and could lead to severe contractions of the body musculature and if consistent, according to Reich, to severe emotional illness.
Longing for love and sadness are other core emotions that can be met with hostility in one form or another. They can be met with out-and-out violence or in the form of ridicule or, less directly, with indifference when the adult fails to respond to the child’s reaching out. When the latter reaction occurs on a consistent basis, according to Reich, a child can develop a “cloying” character, an expression of its desperate need for affection and attention, which can be so annoying to adults—“She always wants attention,” “He never leaves me alone”—and yet is caused by our own lack of contact.
We justify our reactions in various ways—for example, in terms of religion, “We must correct the little devil’s original sin”; by saying that we must teach the children the ways of the “cruel world”; that if children are allowed free expression, they will become wild animals, particularly with respect to sexual behavior; that it was done to us, and we turned out all right, and so on. On the basis of Reich’s discoveries, the impulses and expressions of infants and children cannot be said to be objectively evil but, on the contrary, are expressions of the very force of life itself.
From Reich’s point of view, if it were merely a matter of protection from singular attacks from the outside world, chronic armoring would not develop. Armor would arise as protection to ward off threatening stimuli and subside when the threat was gone; muscles would contract and then relax. This, of course, is what happens with every living thing and initially with infants and children as well. Like desert life, however, humans are consistently and habitually threatened by a hostile environment, by armored reactions to their natural impulses, impulses that to children, as to every living creature, feel, so to speak, completely “correct.”
Infants and children obviously have no understanding of what is happening to them when adults condemn their natural expressions and can take the hostile reactions in only one way, as an expression or a statement that what they feel is “bad,” that what they wish to express is “bad.” In other words, such suppression is taken as a comment on their very essence, that they, in essence, are bad. This attitude toward the living is very well expressed in the popular conception of the doctrine of original sin, which is an obvious cultural and institutional expression of the feelings of a large segment of the adult world toward infants, children, sexuality, and life itself.
As inhibition of impulses and emotions becomes more and more habitual, they—originally experienced as pleasurable, correct, and so on—are experienced as bad, dangerous, even painful, and something to be quieted or kept down. Genital sensations, originally experienced as warm and lovely, become something that elicits embarrassed giggles, twisted smirks, and feelings of guilt or shame, while words with sexual connotations are seen as dirty.
Eventually, says Reich, core impulses and emotions, because they must be held down, cause anxiety when they arise, for although they are held down by the contracted muscles, they do not simply vanish. They remain trapped within the armor and cause tension and pressure, which are felt subjectively as anxiety. Humans, like all living organisms, instinctively seek to eliminate or minimize anxiety and return to homeostatic comfort. To do so requires further quieting of the impulses that cause the anxiety in the first place via more severe muscular contractions. Life brings anxiety enough in the form of hurricanes, economic depressions, sickness, death, and so on; and when the anxiety caused by suppression “of core impulses is added to anxiety caused by natural events, a picture emerges of a nervous, confused, frightened, inhibited human being.
Yet inhibition of core impulses and emotions and of the anxiety this causes is not all that happens in response to a hostile world. Children are forced to hide the fact that they even have the impulses, the anxiety, and are suffering an intense internal conflict. This necessity is forced upon children (and adolescents as well as adults) by an adult world that prefers a false face, a world that is concerned with image rather than with reality, and leads to development of a facade expressing such attitudes as “I’m not a crybaby,” “I don’t care,” “I’m a tough guy,” “I don’t like girls,” and so on. As we grow older, this facade hardens into the rigid mask of what Gurdjieff calls false personality.
By the time we reach adolescence, our character structure has become a many-layered labyrinth. At the “bottom” are the core or essence drives, which continue to pulse. On top of them or surrounding them, the armor used to inhibit these drives, layered according to the time the various impulses were suppressed and the intensity of the suppression. This layer is covered over by the facade, the “face” we present to the world and to ourselves.
To speak of armor as a labyrinth is to imply that it is not neatly layered but that the combination of core drives, suppressed emotions and impulses, anxiety, and the facade intertwine in ways that are often confusing. The nature of the labyrinth depends on the timing and the severity of the suppression, but generally, according to Reich, as mentioned, the earlier the suppression occurs, the deeper will be the armoring. It develops differently if repression occurs when the impulse is at its peak of intensity or if it occurs when it is weaker. These and other factors determine the type of labyrinth that develops, the “character type.”
Is it any wonder that adolescence is a difficult time? During this period, sexual impulses become organized around the genitals, and the urge to superimpose or mate with a lover begins to surface. The labyrinth of armor is already well formed, and added to the tension this produces is the fact that these genital impulses are not allowed free expression.
Teenagers are not told that this is a wonderful time to explore their sexuality. Parents don’t offer their homes for uninhibited, guilt-free sexual activity—condoms provided. This sounds ridiculous or horrible to most of us—immoral. Thus the damage done by sexual suppression in childhood is intensified in adolescence, and the armoring needed to deal with such suppression can only evolve and rigidify. In Gurdjieff’s terms, false personality and the buffers gain in strength at the expense of the essence.
Suppression of sexuality in teenagers increases inner tension and leads to the kind of symptoms adolescence is famous for: drug and alcohol addiction, an inability or unwillingness to concentrate in school, so-called adolescent rebelliousness (considered normal in many cultures), and so on. But are these symptoms inevitable? Would unarmored adolescents who were free to explore their emerging sexuality develop them? Reich’s study of Malinowski’s research into the lives of the Trobriand Islanders, where adolescent sexuality was allowed free expression, indicates that they wouldn’t, that unarmored, sexually free adolescents are not rebellious and do not develop neurotic symptoms.
Adolescent neurotic symptoms, like adult neurotic symptoms, are expressions of the conflict between the core and the armor. Symptoms, therefore, are distorted core impulses, impulses that, before emerging, must make their way through the labyrinth of the armor and are shaped by it. Adolescents often become overtly hostile, pick fights, commit crimes, drive recklessly, and so on. Sometimes they become extremely shy or run away from home. They may have difficulty making contact with others, in studying, need to sleep overlong and yet always feel tired, feel terribly lonely, and feel the need to move in packs to cover the loneliness. They are prone to deep depressions that often lead to attempts at suicide. Many get bored easily and turn to excessive drug and alcohol use to liven things up.
Adolescents, as William James pointed out, are particularly prone to religious conversion, is considered a more acceptable adjustment in many cultures. These days, however, this inclination often takes the form of joining various religious or pseudo-vreligious movements promising instant relief from their suffering (we call them “cults” these days, a rather poor use of a term used in anthropology to name any apparently religious belief system), an alternative (speaking of the so-called cults) not as pleasing to most parents yet caused by their own “policy.”
Some teenagers adjust to the conditions of repressive society in ways considered healthy by society, by competing in sports, for example. Competitiveness is highly esteemed, and so teenagers who become involved in competitive sports or who become socially or intellectually competitive are considered the cream of the crop. Yet is the main focus on competitiveness really healthy? Would unarmored, sexually free adolescents become focused on competitiveness, or would they learn to cooperate for the purpose of helping others, the biosphere, and so on?
Adolescence is often an angry time. The anger can be seen on many adolescents’ faces as they hang around, bored, with nothing to do, no place to go. Nothing interests them because the source of their interest, their essence impulses, are suppressed by their own character armor, and that which they are most intensely interested in, genitality, is denied free, non-guilt-ridden expression. You can hear it in their music: “All I ever hear is no, you can’t do that . . . you can’t do that.”
Of course not all teenagers are angry. Some are just scared, suffering from anxiety about grades, their social lives, guilt about masturbation, and so on. Others give up gratification of their own desires and become resigned to conforming out of deep-seated fear, while others keep as stoned as they can, finding emotional oblivion the best solution. Adults sometimes take adolescent drug use, alcoholism, reckless driving, sexual interest and behavior as symptoms of their fundamental evil nature and as confirmation of their own deep-seated hate of the living (“I told you we never should have had children. Look at the grief he is causing us.”). That their desire for sexual contact can be seen in the same light as antisocial behavior, criminal behavior, reckless driving, and so on is symptomatic of the adult world’s armored, perverse comprehension of sexuality.
Psychologists, educators, social workers, and other professionals appear baffled by the so-called adolescent problem. Numerous articles and books are written on the subject; it is discussed incessantly on talk radio and television, and many “answers” are provided: “Adolescence is a difficult time,” “It’s natural for teenagers to feel awkward with the opposite sex,” “We should put them to work or in the army, that’ll cure them, take their minds off sex and drugs,” “They shouldn’t be allowed to drink or drive until they reach the age of twenty-one,” “They should be treated more like adults,” “There is no one reason for adolescent alcoholism or drug abuse,” “It all starts in the home,” and so on. Each “answer” contains a bit of truth, but few professionals face the problem directly: adolescents are sexually suppressed at a time when genital urges are powerful. This leads to anger, anxiety, deep frustration, heartbreaking sadness, resignation, aching longing, and the need to escape. The fact that many teenagers make it through this period without exhibiting severe or overt symptoms is testimony to the power of the life force, not to “civilized” suppression.
This is not to imply that all problems of adolescence can be solved via sexual intercourse. Sex is not a panacea. But we’ve “tried” the opposite approach for a long time now, and the adolescent problem has not gone away. Might we take a cue from the Trobrianders and learn from Reich’s discoveries that our approach perhaps has been misguided? It is not as if we have no evidence within our midst of the value of sex-positive upbringing. There are those who have loving, sex-positive parents and so develop relatively unarmored regarding their own sexuality. It cannot be easy for them, seeing as they must seek gratifying relationships and meaningful work in an armored, hostile, and resigned world. But at least they have their core intact and may be able to find some satisfaction in life.
The Adult Character
By the time we reach adulthood, we are full-fledged “characters” of one type or another. Our characters are formed initially from the way we deal with the conflict between our first feelings, our core impulses, and the hostility of the outside world. But this conflict produces other feelings, such as anger or rage, and these feelings are also usually suppressed. Suppression of these feelings leads to development of a secondary layer of feelings that are violent and destructive. As mentioned, most of us also develop a third layer, a facade, mask, or persona that hides the secondary destructive feelings as well as the primary core or essence.
By the time we reach adulthood, we have incorporated the “cruel world” into our own bodies. We now are the “cruel world,” and we suppress our children and teenagers. Our characters are expressions of how we have learned to deal with our core impulses and destructive feelings—how we hide these feelings under the facade of mechanical politeness, restraint, false modesty, and so on—which serves to keep the secondary layer and the core within the bounds of “decency.”
The destructive impulses do break through, however, and are factors in the type of facade formed. There is the polite smile that sends a double message, for example, or the polite remark that cuts to the bone, the offhand comment that breaks the heart, the “sincere” expression that seduces, “harmless” gossip that can kill a person. We have evolved a great number of “civilized” ways of doing things that reveal our underlying contempt for spontaneous life: clothing that cuts off body sensations yet seduces, “correct” table manners that lead to nervousness and indigestion in young children, “proper” social amenities that destroy spontaneous human interaction, meaningless greetings and farewells in which real contact is avoided, various unspoken rules of behavior that keep everything under control.
Even more insidious, perhaps, is institutional polite destructiveness, which expresses the secondary layer in a totally impersonal way: the grading system in education that destroys the zest for learning for its own sake; lack of fresh air in schools, office buildings, and factories for lack of windows that open that keep students and workers half asleep (such conditions are not always “polite”—as in the case of the Triangle Clothing Factory fire in which hundreds of mostly young women perished for lack of fire exits and windows that open); the military-industrial complex that sends adolescents to war for profit; laws and mores against natural genitality that prevent the young from expressing their love fully to one another; impersonal job interviews and rejection slips that lead to characterological resignation and despair; business practices that focus on the bottom line instead of genuine essential human needs. The list could be extended endlessly, for much of what we consider civilized behavior is, Reich discovered, a function of underlying destructiveness exhibited through the facade.
Why does the layer of destructiveness form? Reich says that it took him years to understand this process for it takes many forms, not the least of which is the character’s resistance to attempts to melt the armor. Reich found that people reacted with intense hatred whenever he attempted to disturb the neurotic equilibrium maintained by the armor. Destructiveness bound in the armor, Reich learned, is anger about frustration of core emotions and needs in general and a denial of sexual gratification in particular.22 It is an expression of disappointment in love or to loss of love that has become anchored in the personality through repression of core rage. Reich says that he found that when impulses of rage are allowed full expression and dealt with in a life-positive manner, they do not lead to muscular armoring and so do not develop into destructive impulses. The unarmored organism, Reich found, does not have them; Thanatos [“Death Instinct”] exists exclusively in the armored.
Only the impulsive character type, says Reich, expresses the secondary layer in a direct way. This is the person we think of as a sociopath or psychopath, the person without scruples, who has no control of his or her destructiveness. The rest of us manage to keep most of our destructive hate hidden beneath a veil that forms the surface of the character structure. In the process, however, we present a false face to the world and to ourselves. We are afraid to drop that face because we are unconsciously afraid that our inner hate will show itself, not to mention the sadness, longing, anxiety, and love trapped beneath the hate. Insincerity, then, is our way, and we are afraid of behavior that is not calculated, of what is truly spontaneous and alive.
The destructiveness that forms the secondary layer of armoring is not equivalent, for Reich, to core rage, which is the organism’s natural response to chronic disappointment in gratification of its vital needs. It is not, therefore, a primary biological phenomenon but a property of armoring and must be distinguished, says Reich, from natural aggression. The literal meaning of “aggression,” he points out, is “approaching,” and, as he says, all life manifestations are aggressive in this sense.Natural aggression, says Reich, is the living manifestation of the musculature, the system of motion and locomotion, and its goal is to make possible gratification of vital needs.
Suppression of core drives is suppression of primary desire or natural aggression and leads to the development of relatively passive adults whose prevalence, according to Reich, allows for the mass psychology of fascism. People in whom natural aggression has been suppressed have not the energy or power to struggle against those who use their political or economic position to dominate society. Nations of sheep then develop who meekly support or go along with the various führers of the world.
In The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Reich points out how and why people in whom primary desire or natural aggression is suppressed want their leaders to dominate them—for they unconsciously realize their impotence and prefer to leave the tackling of society’s problems to others [i.e. the rise of authoritarianism]. Suppression of natural genitality and core impulses and emotions in general, then, does not merely affect us in terms of our ability to find personal happiness and satisfaction in life but functions to provide the perfect fodder for those who would dominate and fill their pockets on the suffering of everyone else.