The Highway to Transcendence, London: Pinter & Martin, 2009.
The Functions of the Orgasms by Michel Odent is a cutting-edge study on the human pleasure function in its largest contextual framework, and with a special regard upon female sexuality and the biological function of birthing and breastfeeding.
Odent’s [book] is a stylish polemic that mixes endocrinology, comparative anthropology, philology, anecdotes from the author’s own medical practice.
—Steven Poole, The Guardian
‘Fetus ejection reflex’, ‘milk ejection reflex’, ‘sperm ejection reflex’, ‘orgasmogenic cocktail’ . . . These are examples of terms used by Michel Odent in his study of the ecstatic/orgasmic states associated with different episodes of human sexual life. This book about male and female orgasms is an opportunity to convince anyone that humanity is at a turning point. Due to the improved technique of medically assisted conceptions and cesareans, the advances in anesthesiology and pharmacology, and the development of the food industry, women can now conceive a baby, give birth and feed their infant without relying on the release of ‘cocktails of love hormones’. Human intelligence and ingenuity have made love hormones redundant. Let us think long-term and let us raise questions in terms of civilization. The future of humanity is at stake.
The study confirms and fully corroborates the earlier psychological, neurological and sociological research conducted by Wilhelm Reich, Herbert James Campbell, James W. Prescott, Ashley Montagu, and others. The title of the book is deliberately coined to allude to Wilhelm Reich’s pioneering study The Function of the Orgasm (1942) as the author expressly notes, saying that his intention for writing the book had been to ‘rewrite The Function of the Orgasm in a new scientific context.’
Before I review this book in detail, providing some quotes, I may say this as an introduction. It is natural that one ventures out from one’s own pleasure continuum. In other words, the understanding of the whole of life, and the way we perceive life, is conditioned by how we experience pleasure. But it is also a limitative view when one ventures to know only about one’s particular emotional or sexual addiction.
Michel Odent’s approach is comparatively larger. While the focus in this book is primarily upon female sexuality and the sexual nature of the process of birth, and breastfeeding, he is saying that the experience of pleasure, in its ecstatic dimension, connects us back with our source, and thus becomes an experience of transcendence, an experience that is not just subjective and ‘personal,’ but essentially transpersonal. Odent links back to the oldest of traditions, the times when women had freedom and power to live the whole of their feminine erotic experience.
Odent’s main tenet in this book is that the female has been disempowered to give birth autonomously, because there is a fetus ejection reflex that is connected to the limbic system and the hypothalamus, and that is overridden by the neocortex.
Hence, all kinds of procedures that ‘assist’ the mother in the birthing process are dysfunctional; all support, even midwifery, is dysfunctional as it activates the neocortex in the laboring woman and suppresses the fetus ejection reflex as a result.
The same is true for the orgasmic experience of breastfeeding which was invaded by guilt and shame as a result of cultural conditioning. Odent also reports that the rise in Cesarean birth led to the fact that mothers do not want to breastfeed or only a short time. He advances evidence for the fact that breastfeeding should be a matter of years, not of months, with humans. He also reports interesting details about certain apes and especially dolphins and their non-reproductive sexual life, which is based, as with humans, exclusively upon pleasure and exchanging pleasure.
Besides, he speaks of a ‘cocktail of love hormones’ that is involved in any kind of sexual experience and a special hormone called oxytocin that triggers in the laboring woman an altered consciousness that leads to the mother ecstatically embracing the newborn with all her soul, making for deep bonding between mother and infant.
Needless to add that because of all our birth assistance and tons of machinery, the flow of those hormones has been largely blocked in our culture, which is the ultimate reason why women came to dislike breastfeeding their infants, nor really bond with them in the first moments after birth, which makes, as my own research demonstrates, for our society’s enormous problems with codependence.
One of the key factors in this etiology is lacking mother-infant symbiosis during the first eighteen months of the newborn, including a lack of breastfeeding and tactile care for the child from the part of the emotionally frigid mother. Generally speaking, it is the inability of the mother to derive pleasure from the birthing experience. As a result of this blockage of the emotional flow, the mother emotionally ‘clings’ to the child which is why she is unable to give to the baby a sufficient amount of autonomy to explore the world in freedom.
When one grasps the universality of pleasure in the higher vertebrates and especially in the human, one’s personal addiction loses importance and one ventures into a larger realm of human experience that is valid and experienced by many more people than a tiny group. This then makes for a higher level of erotic intelligence and better overall judgment ability in matters of human emosexual experiences and their cognitive, emotional and social importance.
To fully understand the similarities between orgasmic states and other ecstatic states, we need to go far back in time, namely to the Eastern Tantra, a culture that preceded the pleasure-hostile Vedanta by thousands of years.
While Vedanta is a relatively new religious paradigm in Hindu culture, Tantra was much longer-lived, and for good reasons.
Odent also cites the ‘age of sacred prostitutes’ as being besides Tantra one of the cultures that understood this hidden connection. Generally, the author speaks about a distorted scientific worldview in which the main paradigms were forged only by men:
It is as if there are female ways to evaluate the comparative importance of different perspectives in exploring human nature. All scientific hypotheses are more or less based on intuitive knowledge and intuitive knowledge is gender related. Until recently the scientific world was highly dominated by men. We are entering a new phase in the history of sciences, with a more symmetrical input from each gender. /4
Based upon this insight into cultural bias, which is intrinsically a bias of perception, the author explains how the fetus ejection reflex could be overlooked for so long:
There are several reasons why we’ll first look at the fetus ejection reflex. The first reason is that after thousands of years of culturally controlled birth very few people—including the natural childbirth advocates—can imagine what it is about. Another reason is that, in the current / scientific context, when the fetus ejection reflex is understood, it is easier to look at the other orgasmic/ecstatic states. We must add that this climax probably corresponds to the top of the highest possible ladder human beings may have the opportunity to climb. /4-5
In accordance with the oldest religious teachings of the world, not only Tantra, but also Taoist doctrine and especially the teachings of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu in China, Michel Odent advocates the cultivation of sensuality and ‘orgasmic states’ as the ultimate pathway to transcendence, and the realization of unity with all-that-is. It is wonderful to see that a medical doctor, famous obstetrician, scientist and author of our days has found this perennial wisdom that I equally dug out of the cultural treasure of the ancient wisdom traditions.
And equally in accordance with these traditions, Odent warns of the danger to overstimulate the neocortex through an exaggerated focus upon language, and concepts. In all natural processes that require a let-go and an utmost of spontaneity, such as the sexual embrace and particularly, as the author shows, the birthing experience, the neocortex should be at rest, for otherwise it interferes with the quite automatic processes that nature has set in place for regulating and maintaining these processes.
An authentic fetus ejection reflex takes place when a human baby is born after a short series of irresistible contractions, / which leave no room for voluntary movements. In such circumstances it is obvious that the neocortex (the part of the brain related to intellectual activities) is at rest and no longer in control of the archaic brain structures in charge of vital functions such as giving birth. /9
Dr. Odent has summarized two decades of research done on spontaneous birthing to demonstrate that in the case nature is respected, there is neither excruciating pain involved in giving birth to a child, nor any psychological symptoms that let birthing appear like a disease. We don’t need to look back very far; still recently birthing was done in hospitals in pretty much the same way as operating a tumor, in antiseptic rooms, under strong lights, with metallic instruments making sharp noise, and with cameras installed for monitoring the ‘operation.’
I may be allowed to report here what I saw in a documentary in my younger years. It was showing how women from a mountain tribe in Caucasia give birth under extreme conditions.
The film showed a strongly built woman walking naked into a mountain lake, at about –20ºC. At the shore, a crowd of people was waiting in silence, her extended family and friends. In walking ahead, she had to break the ice with her hands and feet, until she reached a spot that she found suitable for giving birth.
She broke the ice in a circle around herself, and was then took a position with her feet firmly on the ground, and her legs slightly bent, as if riding a horse.
Then she seemed to enter a state of trance or meditation, as she suddenly was completely silent and immobile.
A few moments later her pelvis exhibited strong contractions or convulsions that appeared to push the baby out. It took no more than three of those major spams and the baby was falling out of her womb, in her hands, that she had held wide open, while bowing down with the last contraction. She took the newborn up, smiling, and bate through the umbilical cord. Then she slowly and gracefully walked back to the shore where the crowd attended her in silence.
This documentary fascinated me to a point that to this day I have not forgotten a single detail. And it of course came to mind right when reading the present book. It shows that, while the author makes believe that all tribal populations practice or practiced quite abusive and insane birthing rites, what the author claims to be a medical or obstetric novelty is none. This natural knowledge existed since millennia in tribal populations, while much of this wisdom was lost for our own culture, mainly because of our patriarchal past.
The book also contains a professional and perhaps surprising criticism of midwifery.
Understanding that laboring women need to feel secure, without feeling observed and judged, leads us to the root of midwifery. It seems that women have always had a tendency to give birth close to their mother, or occasionally close to an experienced mother who could fulfill the role of a mother figure: the midwife was originally a mother figure and, in an ideal world, our mother is the prototype of the person with whom one can feel secure without feeling observed, or judged. In most societies, though, the role of the midwife has been gradually altered. Most languages condition women to accept that they do not have the power to give birth by themselves; they must ‘be delivered’ by somebody. As a result, the midwife has gradually become a figure who is more often than not an authoritarian and dominating guide, an observer, and an agent of the cultural milieu. She has also played a key role in the transmission of perinatal beliefs and rituals. /11
The fetus ejection reflex can also be inhibited by vaginal examinations, eye-to-eye contact or by the imposition of a change of environment, as would happen when a woman is transferred to a delivery room. It is inhibited when the intellect of the laboring woman is stimulated by any sort of rational language, for example if the birth attendant says: ‘No you are at complete dilation. It’s time to push.’ In other words, any interference tends to bring the laboring woman ‘back down to Earth’ and tends to transform the fetus ejection / reflex into a second stage of labor which involves involuntary movements. /12-13
In addition, there is another important key element in the birthing process that was traditionally overlooked in our medical tradition. It is how the natural mechanism of mother-child bonding. This was notoriously a matter fervently discussed in religious and transcendental circles, as science was saying since quite a few decades that no mother loves her newborn ‘automatically’ but that there must be something like a mutual kind of adoption.
This was also what psychoanalysis is saying and what, for example, the late Dr. Françoise Dolto was telling me in an interview back in 1986 about the matter. Of course, in those circles this scientific view was and is debated and it is alleged that ‘naturally, all mothers love their babies.’
What is true here, and what is myth? Michel Odent shows that both views are somehow true, depending on how we define ‘love.’
Nature has not overlooked this important clue. It is namely through the same ‘cocktail of love hormones’ that birth becomes a natural and easy process, and that mother-infant bonding occurs immediately after birth.
There are clear similarities between the immediate post orgasmic states following a fetus ejection reflex and an orgasm of genital sexuality. During the hour following the birth, when mother and newborn baby are in close skin-to-skin contact and have not yet eliminated the hormones released during the ejection reflex, each of these hormones has a specific role to play—natural morphine being a typical example. Since all opiates have the properties necessary to create states of dependency, it seems obvious that body-to-body contact between two individuals who are under the effects of endorphins can induce the beginning of a co-dependency, or in other worlds of an attachment. /45
Finally, the author emphasizes the importance of extended breastfeeding, which is not only a concern for bringing up infants within a continuum of optimal tactile stimulation and nutrition, but also a concern of public sanity, for the turndown of breastfeeding is one of the primary factors in the etiology of violence. The author writes:
The duration of breastfeeding is undoubtedly influenced by family structures. Since human societies organize mating and create marriage rules, they also indirectly influence the duration of breastfeeding. Nobody knows exactly what the physiological ideal for the duration of breastfeeding is among humans. For any other mammal, the answer is simple—almost as simple as for the duration of pregnancy. For example, after spending 230 days in the womb, the baby chimpanzee is fed by its mother for two years; a bottle-nosed dolphin is breastfed for 16 months. For human beings the answer is much more imprecise, although a / physiological ideal can be deduced as a reference point. Comparing human beings with other mammals and taking into account the duration of our life in the womb, our degree of maturity at birth, our lifespan, the special nutritional needs of our big brain, tooth development, and so forth, we might conclude that breastfeeding among humans was originally maintained for a matter of years rather than a few months. /66-67
The author also clarifies that before the ‘lifelong strict monogamy,’ most babies were breastfed for two to four years, which was a practice that started in ancient Greece and went along all the way up until the 19th century.
Michel Odent gives conclusive samples out of the life of the higher apes and dolphins that demonstrate that these animals, that are genetically most related to the human race, enjoy a sexual life that is non-reproductive.
This research is important for it shows the invalidity of the view forwarded by fundamentalist religions that sexuality, if used properly, was exclusively procreative in the whole of the animal realm, and that only humans had ‘transgressed’ this ‘natural law’ by being ‘pansexual’ to the utmost degree.
Dolphins are known to have sex very frequently, in many different ways, for reasons other than reproduction, and they sometimes engage in acts of a homosexual nature. Copulation takes place face-to-face and though many species of dolphins engage in lengthy foreplay, the actual act is usually only brief, but may be repeated several times within a short time span. Various dolphin species have even been known to engage in sexual behavior with other dolphin species. Occasionally, dolphins will also show sexual behavior towards other animals, including humans. /90
[Bonobos] often copulate face-to-face and the frontal orientation of the Bonobo vulva and clitoris both strongly suggest that the female genitalia are adapted for this position. During sexual intercourse the females have been heard emitting grunts and squeals that probably reflect orgasmic experiences, which perhaps explains why sex, among bonobos, is not just for reproduction—it is the key to their social life. Bonobos become sexually aroused remarkably easily, and they express this excitement in a / variety of mounting positions and forms of genital contact. Perhaps the bonobo’s most typical sexual pattern is genito-genital rubbing between adult females. The two females rub their genital swellings laterally together. Male bonobos, too, may engage in pseudocopulation; they often perform a back to back variation, one male briefly rubbing his scrotum against the buttocks of another. These mammals also practice so-called penis fencing, in which two males hang face-to-face from a branch, rubbing their erect penises together. /90-91
Michel Odent also emphasizes that humans have close genetic relations with aquatic animals, a fact that has been overlooked by scholars for thousands of years. It is significant in this context that human babies can stay erect and walk in water before they are able to walk on dry land. The author then concludes that ‘all chapters of human anatomy, physiology, behavior, pathology, and evolutionary medicine must be rewritten in the light of this so-called ‘aquatic-ape theory.’
I sincerely wish that this important book finds a large audience beyond the circles of academia. This is a vital and noble cause when we think of reformulating basic social policies that regulate human behavior, and sexuality. We must grant this research a prime agenda for it unveils most of the myths that cultural conditioning has brought up about the nature of pleasure, thereby belittling or outright turning down the importance of pleasure of the human race, and generally, all of life.
We also should keep in mind that cutting-edge consciousness research demonstrated that even particles possess consciousness and actually choose where they wish to be and in which orbits they wish to circulate around the nucleus. We have good reasons to assume that the pleasure function is not restricted to human beings alone, but that all of creation basically ‘runs on pleasure,‘ which means that positive sensations are the stimulus for evolution. It is deplorable that over the last five thousand years, and with the turn of Tantra into Vedanta, the pleasure function was demonized in human evolutionary history.
This namely led to forging so-called sex laws, which are punishing life, and that are countering the positive evolution of humanity.
There cannot be any evolution of the human race as long as we demonize and prohibit pleasure, and regard human sexuality as basically dangerous and aggressive.
Our penal code does not display much respect of the human nature; in fact our sex laws seem to consider us to be an ‘impossible human’ instead of a ‘possible human,’ which is why these laws need to be abolished.
For anyone who is engaged in law reform and reformulation of our basic social policies, the scientific contribution Michel Odent made in this book, and his other books, is substantial and important. It is important because it shows that the natural pleasure function is in no way to be taken as a ‘potentially chaotic behavior’ but is regulated by nature so that no harm is done. When harm is done, it is not the result of the natural pleasure function, but exactly the denial of that function through the imposition of compulsory sex morality.