We all knew something was up in Melbourne when the Hellfire Club opened in the early 1990s. The brainchild of a bloke named Richard Wolstonecroft — I presume he is dead now, though I haven’t googled him — the Hellfire brought to an Anglo-Saxon city that was still yet to get its first hole-in-the-wall bar the Grand Guignol of a Berlin-style S&M club, with kitsch 18th-century references upstairs and a dungeon in the basement. It was at the old Angler’s Club in West Melbourne, which had become a sort of scratch bar, a scene coalescing spontaneously out of a desire to drink and to try to get laid beneath an audience of gawping fish heads.

The opening of the club was the first irruption of commercial sado-masochism into the city, about a decade after S&M of any sort had returned to the wider mainstream of heterosexuality.

That seems impossible from our era, but so it was. S&M, venerable sexual subculture from the mid-19th century into the 20th, was pushed to the very margins by the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, not out of any disgust, but simply because the attitude to sex had wheeled around to such a degree — from pleasurably dirty to clean and healthy — that S&M became, for many, something of a dead language, a sort of erotic Sanskrit. Bettie Page, put back at the centre of 20th-century culture by postmodernism, was essentially lost to memory, even though the postcards of her light bondage sessions photographed in curtained rooms above theatres, dusty dance studios and the like were a staple of sexual consumption up to the great liberation of the 1960s. Such S&M erotica was, in its literal form, an example of what the German Frankfurt-school philosopher Herbert Marcuse called “surplus repression” — the capacity of modern, and especially American, society to generate forms of domination far in excess of what was needed to keep people reproducing capitalism and the general authoritarianism of modernity, without questioning its nature. The pleasure of Page’s pictures was gendered of course, a way of resolving male anxieties about the new type of independent woman, liberated by World War II and barely contained by the forced re-domestication of the 1950s. But there was far more to it than that. It mirrored the domination felt by men in industrial work — Simone Weil, writing about the factory work she lived in the 1930s — noted that its dominant motif for men was humiliation, and unwanted feminisation by power, dealt with by hyper-aggressiveness — but it also restaged the pleasures of being dominated and constrained.

Marcuse, like all the German Freudian Marxists who had come to exile in the US in WWII, had seen America’s fusion of mass production and mass consumption as a near-perfect trap, by which humanity’s life-creating drives — erotic, protean, creative — were diverted from fluid activity to ego identity to possession. From doing to being to having, as Erich Fromm put it, each step a deadening of life. Such an analysis became a means by which escape could be found. Marcuse and Adorno were obscure figures in the 1950s, but their colleague Erich Fromm wasn’t. His popularised versions of this theory were bestsellers, part of what is overlooked about the decade — that everyone was furiously reading cultural critiques in an effort to find a way out of the trap. Fromm’s invitation was to take a step back from the life that was being sold to the young couples fomenting the baby boom — the deadened Levittown suburbs, the glossy-advertised consumer durables, the high-finish popular culture, sealed and inviolate bodies — and to explore the possibility that life could be more sensuous, raw, spontaneous, creative, both at an individual level, and through systemic change. Sex, seen as expressive, dynamic, creative, autonomous, an experience of depth, was part of that, and Fromm moved the view of sex on from that of Freud, who had talked about civilisation as being a state of “everyday unhappiness” as if he rather relished the prospect. Fromm’s work in turn flowed into yet more popular works, such as the ’50s bestselling self-help book How To Live 365 Days a Year, which introduced the idea of illness created by emotional stress, i.e. repression, to millions.

But Fromm was far from the most radical of the sexual liberationists. That title went to Wilhelm Reich, inventor of Sex-Pol, the idea that sexual repression — and particularly bad sex — was at the root of human domination. Reich, a German communist and psychoanalyst, reversed Freud’s notion that repression was necessary to civilisation, and argued that a genuine human society could only emerge once such repression was thrown off. But Reich wasn’t interested in the playful adultery a la Viennese, which he saw as life-denying and repressed as monogamy. For Reich, most people barely had sex at all — their bodies were so tightened and knotted by internalised repression that a full ego-annihilating orgasm had ceased to be possible. The ultimate result of such embodied repression was fascism, and its hard-body cult — a body like Tony Abbott’s, effectively — in which living flesh of varying textures and strengths had been trained to a deadened uniform hardness. This musculature armour protected one from a world which threatened to crush you, but also from one which might stimulate you to feeling; it was a fortress inside which the self could be sovereign over its lonely, isolated domain. Connection was thus offered by collective automaton force, a goose-stepping army, pleasure could come only through domination. Reciprocal pleasure or a radical equality was a contradiction in terms.

To counter this, Reich developed a sex therapy in which he, well, trained people to fuck better, to loosen their bodies and lose a refractive, repressive self-consciousness, such that they could achieve orgasms of such power as to dissolve the ego for a time, and clear its accumulated neuroses — its envy, sadism, ressentiment, all the deadened silting up of self that denied life and love. The idea of Sex-Pol was that once everyone was doing this, communism, a world of sensuous particularity and universal right, would be achieved because no one could possibly want to dominate anyone else. Also, there was no way that communism could be achieved without it, and the failure to pursue a Sex-Pol line, according to Reich, was one of the reasons that the Bolshevik revolution had turned into such a death-driven grotesque parody of the liberation it had promised.

Reich, well, can you not see why he is one of the most important figures of the century? He put full sexual realisation of self at the centre of contemporary life, opened out its meaning and being in a way that simply did not exist for hundreds of millions of people before his work (and that of the other Freudian Marxists, and Kinsey’s work) was popularised. Of course, the idea of mindblowing sex existed before him — but it was not seen as a pivot point on which healthy subjectivity turned. Today, that is a given of every self-help book, of therapy and counselling, of book and film plots around. And, particularly, of every woman’s magazine. For though his work was criticised as masculinist — Reich’s orgasm was the male orgasm — the greatest carrier of his work came to be second-wave feminism, and Germaine Greer in particular. Despite its critical attitude to Freudian psychoanalysis, The Female Eunuch is one of the most Reichian books of the century. Why isn’t Reich better known? Well having escaped from the Nazis and Stalinists, to the US, he then fell foul of the FBI — whose cross-dressing racist boss was more or less the anti-Reich — and also went mad, deciding that sexual energy was really a subset of a wider stuff called “orgone energy”, a substance which happened to make the sky blue, and could be collected in insulated boxes. When you sat in an orgone box, you could come to a full-body orgasm, a combined physical-spiritual experience. William Burroughs said he had one every time. It’s just possible there was a power of suggestion at work.

So there were no more Reichains — the following he had developed essentially went underground, in gestalt therapy, primal screaming etc — but Reichianism was everywhere, in that aspect of the ’60s/’70s known as the sexual revolution. This was an expression of modernity, not of postmodernity — the idea that there was good sex and bad sex, and that the latter tended to be associated with the trappings of civilisation, of old practices like courting, flirting, gender roles, fetishism, variation itself. The current framing of sex — in which it is more like food, its pleasure coming from a ceaseless variety — is the reverse of the deep bodily ethic that underlay the sexual revolution. The idea that sex and love had to be coupled had been thrown away, but not the idea that it was some authentic encounter, and that that authenticity was embodied in contingent human flesh, its wetness, hairiness, fluidity of boundaries because of fat, and the like. Few things have generated more hilarity, from the mid-’80s onwards, than the line illustrations for that Sex-Pol manual par excellence The Joy of Sex, with its illustrations of a naked brunette, who could do with a few pilates classes trying out moves with a bearded polytechnic lecturer (or possibly Gerry Adams) — and that is a measure of how quickly the underlying culture changed. And, how brief was the victory of the dissident culture of the 20th century, before the more repressive standard model returned to power …

*Read the rest at Daily Review.