Sex in a free society

From the Winter 1985-6 issue of the World Socialist

It is a myth to believe that only the wealthy suffer from sexual and neurotic problems. My work as a Reichian psychotherapist allows me a glimpse of people’s private lives, their joys and their misery. There is an enormous amount of shame, self-loathing and guilt. Some feel like automatons, unreal, as if there were a glass wall between them and life. They are full of fear. There is something radically wrong with a society which produces so much unhappiness and tension. I can only help a limited number of people. That is one reason why I am a socialist.

The need for sexual satisfaction is one of the most powerful needs of mankind. Sexual love is probably the most intense form of happiness there is. The advice columns in the magazines, the very existence of many journals, the text of most songs that are written show that people are concerned with the topic. So do the increasing number of books about how to reach orgasm, about positions, and about love.

Puritanism is disappearing. People are encouraged to have sex, even at puberty. These changes have been going on all through the twentieth century, but have been greatly accelerated during the past 15 years. The increasing number of women working full-time, the growth of the women’s movement, the mass-availability of effective birth control, play an important part in this change. There is less tyranny over the young and a greater tolerance of sexual needs. There is some freedom and conditions have undoubtedly changed greatly, and even improved. But to call this breakdown of traditional morality a sexual revolution is only part of the truth.

The changes are not as satisfying as they appear. This relaxation of the moral code has not appreciably lessened our tensions and anxieties. There is some freedom but for performance-oriented, stressful sex. The same conditions of life which limit our political horizon also hamper our sex lives. Millions of us are under the constant influence of stimulants and tranquillisers, of alcohol, cigarettes and other pills — which make life tolerable and at the same time stunt us. Leisure time is directed by the media; people are bored, anxious and dissatisfied. There is more schooling, more nervousness, the speed and stress of life is increasing.

In some countries such as Sweden and Denmark these changes happened earlier and are by now more integrated. No doubt people do lead somewhat better sex lives. But people do not seem to be happier because of it. Because, despite decades of reforms, life in these countries is just as much based on capitalism as it is in Britain or the USA.


Distance and aloneness are typical of life today. The chase after money ruins the lives of everyone. Personal ambition, the frustration, the specialisation at work make many into emotional cripples. Intense competition starts in school, carries on into adult living and we accept it as natural. Prestige and success are more important than feelings. Men and women today are manipulated, superficial and poker-faced. To survive, you have to become hard skinned and a go-getter. Apart from their economic problems, people are filled with inner conflicts, strangers to one another, and lonely. It’s man against woman and man against man and each of them resentful of everyone else. We may not all suffer direct poverty, like our grandparents did, but life has become tougher. The buying, selling and advertising that dominate the streets have seeped into our emotions, and hardened us.

Capitalism is not merely external, around us: laws, markets, shops, police, the Financial Times, the welfare office. Capitalism isn’t only what’s happening in a far away country, it isn’t only the most unfortunate, the ones who live in a slum who suffer from it. Even if you have holidays abroad and a car and some savings, it affects you. Your unhappiness, while less tangible, is just as much a part of the set-up. The mental hardship, the unfulfilled longing, the neurotic traits hurt you, just like unemployment hampers others.

There is class conflict all round us. And other conflicts: between the individual and the community, between town and countryside, between parents and children, between rational thought and sensitiveness. There is little rest and little relaxation. People are driven to achieve and spare no effort. That is why so many are passive in their spare time and sit in front of the television set. More and more pills are taken. Anti-depressants, mood changers, sleeping pills. It is claimed that they can cheer you up, free you from anxiety and stimulate you.

People are preoccupied by economic need. Security-minded, used to taking orders and eager to fit in. Ashamed of inferior status, fearful that they may lose their job. They are nervous, despondent and their everyday lives are grey. Destructive forces flourish. Antagonisms cover the economic and political arena, but also the relationship between men and women. There are intolerable pressures upon us, and an ever-increasing demand for self-discipline. People see the world as dangerous, they are suspicious, apathetic, isolated. Our whole set-up is one where each is trying to do their own thing. We are brought up to be capitalist-minded in the details of our everyday lives.

One cannot have a monotonous and meaningless job, live in full conformity – and then one day start living a marvellous love life. According to the sex books, one can. But the ability to experience passion (and the talent for rousing excitement in others) is never separate from the rest of one’s activities.

For the young, things may at first be brighter. But after the initial period, the number of happy relationships is small. Many develop into areas of mutual resignation. The family, once a haven, is dissolving. Divorce is frequent. The partners have had an inadequate sex education, or none at all. At their routine job they feel insignificant and powerless. At the end of a long day they come home in a bad mood — and pass it on to partner and children.


Capitalism, its competition and the mutual suspicion it engenders is becoming rapidly too complex and stressful. It is a loveless culture and a lonely one. Though outwardly many people live a quiet and orderly life, they are crushed and distressed. Men and women want to overcome their separateness. They want to be warm and gentle, but the system conditions them otherwise.

How do they find a partner? The choice is often made more for protection, security and dependence than for attraction. They use each other. People use each other in marriage, too. Either for security, for a “meal ticket”, to get a husband, to have a father, not to miss the bus – that is, in getting a husband before it’s too late – or as a cook, a housekeeper, and “a hole”. The result is bleak.

There is a constant preoccupation with love and sex. But the lot of many human beings is either loneliness and abstinence, or a relationship which lacks enchantment; or the solace of masturbation and the one-night-stand now and then.

Capitalism severely limits our being. Our love lives are blocked by the sadness and fear and anger we carry inside us – if we have any love life at all. Many people are sexual and emotional cripples. Sex is not a thing apart from the rest of life. The conditions which shackle us in other spheres also come into bed with us. It is not surprising that the capacity to be open, and the ability to enjoy sex are impared. For sex is not something divorced from the rest of our lives, something apart from the quality of our living.

Capitalism produces sick needs, like the desire for large quantities of certain narcotics. In the same way, exploitative attitudes have poisoned sex. People may engage in sexual activities to escape from anxiety, just like others take to drink. Sex becomes a performance, like gymnastics, without emotions. It gives a feeling of relief, a little pleasure, but rarely more than that.

There is much pathological sex. Rape, for example. Nor is the spreading of pornography a sign of sexual freedom, any more than brothels were. Too often sex is something to brag about, a conquest. A way of proving that you are a real man, of demonstrating how potent you are – or affirming that you are irresistible as a woman. Then there are the dirty jokes men tell. Boasting, lying, sexual envy. Burning jealousy, hatred, destructiveness. Masochism, and sadism.

The puritans are not entirely wrong. The sexual activities and fantasies of many individuals are cold and nasty. And dirty. One can understand why the moralists are against sex. But their ideology creates the very attitudes which they disapprove of. Hermits, woman-haters and lechers are part and parcel of the same situation. What I have been describing is the result of age-long suppression of our instincts. Our personality today is the product of mankind living for thousands of years in a brutal, male-dominated society conditioned to privilege, poverty and authority.

During the past two hundred years capitalism has changed our way of looking at the world. It has also changed some of our feelings — and much of our behaviour. Most of us dwell in towns, isolated from the earth on which we live, divorced from the sounds and smells of wood and fields. All we know are urban sprawls, the High Street, and motorways. We rarely walk barefoot, we never pick fruit from a tree and the only animals we meet are a dog and a cat. We have not only lost touch with nature – we have lost touch with each other. We tell our children they must never talk to a stranger. Compassion is rare. Men and women have to armour themselves, and repress their compassion for their fellows.


A repressive milieu affects you from the moment you are born. The child is subjected to many forms of denial and repression. In fact, childhood is the prototype of all later oppression and coercion. The child’s spirit is deformed by constant restrictions. Already children deaden themselves. “The father represents and teaches authority . . .The family in capitalist society . . . protects the woman and the children, but its cardinal function is … to produce a bourgeois outlook and a conservative personality” (Wilhelm Reich, The Sexual Revolution). Small children are active and noisy. Their liveliness is soon quenched. They are made – it is hoped -into obedient workers. In some families the children suffer more than in others. In the course of its upbringing the child is “broken in” to what parents and school demand. Which means to what capitalist society requires, broken in to fit the system.

The manifold frustrations of mother and father, their quarrels (the hidden fights just as much as the open ones) inevitably damage the children. There are individual variations, of course. Perhaps the mother sees in her children the only meaning of her life. The only hope. Possibly the father drinks, or maybe he is hypnotised by his ambitions. As a rule the child tries to please its parents, attempts to make itself into whatever they want of it. After all, it wants to be loved by them. As Arthur Janov puts it, every child “is engaged in a struggle to be different from what he is, since who he is has proved unacceptable to society, i.e. to his parents”.

What is this armour? It is the sum total of repressions, the sum total of mental attitudes, adverse behaviour, avoidances, and muscle tensions which protect the person against suffering. Protect them at the cost of reducing their spontaneity and aliveness. It is a chronic holding back. The price paid is a narrow personality, a rigid body, a static way of looking at the world. Look at the people on a bus, how glum they look. They tend to hold back most emotions; they hold back their anger, their anxiety, their sadness. The hardened person cannot give of themself, and their ability to enjoy is very limited.

The suppression of feeling occurs in the body. We create a fortress-prison for ourselves, a poker-faced shell. This blocking first arose when the child tried to protect itself from real (or imagined) threats. Since we constantly limit our self-expression and our ability to feel, we become cold and neurotic, afraid to take risks. As adults we build an even harder shell in order to survive in a hostile and complicated world. What matters is doing as you are told (that’s what schooling is mostly about), getting a job, keeping your job (however burdensome it might be) and holding your tongue: inhibiting, that is to say, most of the things you might want to do or say.


In the 1930s Reich put forward the hypothesis that sexual repression kept the working class conservative or unpolitical; puritanism prevented the workers from becoming class-conscious, undermined their ability to think rationally, made them passive plodders, made them submit to authority. He tried to connect the demand for social revolution with demands for sexual reforms; sexual changes would make the workers into revolutionaries. Reich’s reasoning seems very convincing, but unfortunately it has turned out to be wrong. Fifty years have passed and most of his demands (free availability of birth control, sex education, abortion, etc.) have become a reality, without people becoming more political or more rational in their thinking, or less submissive. The sexual changes that have happened fit in very well with today’s capitalism. They are no threat to property at all. It could be argued that better sex (and becoming a parent) keeps people toiling even harder. The demands Reich fought for have become a reality in Denmark and Sweden. He thought capitalism could never grant these things without collapsing. But in Denmark and Sweden, modern capitalism is doing very well, indeed.

Some people have, after reading a great deal of Freud, Reich, Janov and others, come to the conclusion that what we need is people brought up in an entirely different way — according to the principles put forward by some of these authors, according to the lessons one might draw from the treatment of the neuroses. They go in for painless childbirth, self-demand feeding, and the maximum freedom for the child in every respect. And when the child is of school age, they send them (if, indeed, they can afford to, for “free” schools are fairly expensive to run) to a school like A. S. Neill’s Summerhill. It is heartening to see the great efforts they make. And yet even their children have been unable to escape neurotic shackles.

We should adopt more natural and freer ways with our children. But even with the best conditions, the child will be conditioned by the world around him. You may escape some traumas, but you’ll acquire others. No child is an island . . . the other children will affect them, the neighbours, the headlines of the newspapers, the gangs of the neighbourhood, the drugs around, the television programmes, the unemployment of the father — no one can escape the debilitating atmosphere of this society.

The sexual problems cannot really be solved under the present system. You cannot solve these problems one at a time. How can people be emotionally warm when they are economically dependent and strongly inhibited?


The culture of capitalism is indeed anaemic as regards loving. Hating and fearing are more distinctive for it. We must terminate class society in order that sensuousness can come into its own again.

Socialism aims to do away with artificial scarcity, put an end to all poverty and establish material equality; wiping all frontiers off the map, overthrowing the money economy and abolishing war. But far from being a mere economic and political revolution, socialism is the framework for the unfolding of the human personality. Socialism is a life-affirming environment where we will live much more openly than today. People will re-discover some of their spontaneity and live according to the principle of self-regulation. There will, in fact, be no laws — and no state either.

The aim of socialism is to increase the richness of living and to extend the range of our happiness. Life will be more intense, and yet more leisurely, with the human being as the centre of things, solidarity the rule rather than the exception. And the fruits of the earth belong to all. Work should become a pleasure wherever possible. An active, productive and co-operative life promotes the ability to love. Where work is not gratifying the individual will have no objection to doing it (during a limited time) because it is needed for the common good. Or a new invention will overcome its irksomeness. In a classless community no one will be “employed”. Work therefore becomes meaningful and men and women develop their potentialities fully.

The co-operation which the abolition of money brings about will ultimately entail a new sense of self, a new personality. Of course, this may take a generation to happen. It may take a decade or two for people to get rid of the blockings and patterns of behaviour they have acquired under the old society. Everyone will get satisfaction from giving their best. The dominant mode, as Erich Fromm put it, will not be to have, but to be. Such a situation engenders new abilities and new strengths, and new virtues which today are unusual. A new kind of human being, able to live without rules imposed by others, many-sided and generous, who is very different from the stunted mass-person of today.

Only in a situation where there is no need to protect oneself, in a milieu where one can live with the minimum of armour, with the minimum of fear and with rich contact, can our personality expand. Socialism is a society where people are concerned with one another. Men and women are more spontaneous, they are direct, they can and do touch each other and there is an animal warmth to them. Our deepest nature is crushed by the harassing demands of capitalist society. And distorted. It will take time to liberate ourselves totally from the inheritance of thousands of years of inequality, from the shadow of oppression and violence. And therewith begins a sexual road which is rich and satisfying.

Will the family survive? We can’t say what will happen, except to point out that socialists are on the side of the lovers. There will be communal raising of children, and much group living, as well as monogamous relationships. Anyone who wants to live in a different way will be free to do so. They will be able to follow their own desires as long as they do not interfere with the lives of others. Supposing some want to prudish and continent, live like Christian or Buddhist monks and nuns? nuns? As far as I can see, that is very unlikely. But they will be at perfect liberty to do so. Socialists have a great respect for the freedom of every individual. In socialism the state will be abolished and a socialist society will include all sorts of views and attitudes to life.

Sex will once again become a pulsating, alive experience. We will have more hope and tenderness. The antithesis between “animal” and “spiritual”, between loving and debauched and brutalised fucking will no longer exist. That antithesis is the result of repression. Body and mind will again be a unity. We will approach each other through the sparkle in the eyes of the beloved, through a richer and healthier imagination, through music, poetry and art rather than in the neurotic ways of today. Socialism is concerned with the enjoyment of life. We demand conditions for the real happiness of human beings not the fantasies and intoxications of TV and alcohol of ambition, over-eating and hash.

Socialism is more than the common ownership of the means of wealth production. It is a state of things where there is trust and co-operation, security and the minimum of fear. An atmosphere for the wholesome and maximum enjoyment of one’s life. Under such conditions most of the troubles I have described will disappear. Some won’t. It would be naive to expect that nobody will have any problems. It is not a paradise we are sketching, but something nearer the longings we all sense. And something far more rational than what exists today. Of course, there will be difficulties. Some women will still have to have Caesarians. Someone who is born a hermaphrodite is likely to have problems. The pain of unrequited love will remain. We do not believe that socialist living can solve every human problem. But the troubles of the majority of humans are not inborn. They are a result of their environment. Of the men I have known who wanted to change their sex, for example, there were several who hated being a male because of experiences in their childhood.

With no money, with free access to everything we can produce there will be no prostitutes. Nor will there be lawyers, haggling about what a woman is worth in terms of money or about who gets what. When a relationship stops there will be no property to leave, no mortgages to disentangle, no separation and no divorce. People’s minds will not be twisted by producers making money from sick video shows.

Once people decide to free themselves from worrying about where the next penny is coming from and from the terror of warfare you won’t need to preach decent behaviour. It will arise as a matter of course.

Ernst Fleischman