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June 24, 2019


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Patrick S. O'Donnell

Spontaneous free association called to mind Wilhelm Reich’s pioneering if not revolutionary Sex-Hygiene Clinics for Workers and Employees in 1922 Vienna that later were conceived “under the rubric of ‘sex-political work’” (free Sex-Pol clinics*) and which, while related to the academic world, had an invaluable social and political existence beyond the ivory tower and on the ground, as we say:

“In Vienna and its suburbs Reich’s free Sex-Pol clinics extended to the wider municipal community some unusually open medical and educational services and an abbreviated form of psychoanalysis, ‘Free counseling on sexual problems, the rearing of children, and general mental hygiene to those seeking advice’ were available for the taking. [….] Adopting ‘free sexuality within an egalitarian society’ as the motto for their organization, the Sex-Pol team performed a real service by offering valuable one-on-one health education. On a larger scale their outreach efforts promoted awareness of the possibility of far-reaching sexual reforms that, Reich believed, must accompany social change. [….] [Sex-Pol clinics and] centers included individuals and couples counseling, sex education, birth control advice, and gynecological cabins stocked with diaphragms and literature on effective parenting. The waiting rooms were stocked with pamphlets and psychoanalytic classics. And of course they had ample lecture halls where potential patients could listen to Reich expound on sexual guilt, social repression, and personal liberation.”

Reich’s political activism bound up with his views on love and sex might be seen as one conspicuous historical contribution to the preparation of the philosophical, psychological, and cultural groundwork for the eventual emergence of intelligent and frank discussions of polyamory conducted from within and across a variety of fields on intellectual inquiry.

* An excellent introduction to this is provided by Elizabeth Ann Danto (daughter of the late philosopher, Arthur C. Danto) in her book, Freud’s Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis and Social Justice, 1918-1938 (Columbia University Press, 2005).

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Lest anyone draw the wrong inference from my comment, I perhaps should note that, whatever my sympathies and beliefs, I am not speaking as a member of a polyamorous community nor do I practice polyamory, being in a monogamous relationship (in my case, marriage) for roughly forty years now.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

One final remark by way of clarification: a reader might find the phrase “spontaneous free association” redundant (which it is, in one sense), given that free association, by design as it were, is meant to be spontaneous. However, as Freud himself appreciated, such spontaneity cannot be “willed” into existence and thus what initially appears as the verbal result of the analyst’s request for the analysand to say whatever, without inhibition, comes into his or her mind, the request/suggestion itself rarely if ever immediately takes the form of free association as such, which usually comes more or less unbidden, even if triggered by something that later happens, so to speak, on the couch or in the clinic (for example, something the analyst says or the way she says it, or the result of her particular comportment on that day, or something seen in the office, or the analysand’s newfound sense of security or safety, what have you, or some peculiar and fortuitous combination of these). In short, what might in the beginning fall under the prescribed rubric of free association may be that in name only, truly (spontaneous) free association appearing at a later date.

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