The Sexual Struggle of Youth
Wilhelm Reich, M.D.
A Presentation by
The Wilhelm Reich Infant Trust
at the Invitation of the
Institute for the Study of the Work of Wilhelm Reich
March 21, 2009
In 1983, The Wilhelm Reich Infant Trust--through our publisher Farrar Straus & Giroux
--brought out a new book entitled Children of the Future: On the Prevention of Sexual
Pathology. This volume comprised eleven selections of Wilhelm Reich's writings about
infants, young children, and adolescents.
Six of these selections were previously published materials, some of which first appeared
in Europe. Four of these selections, all of them written in America, had never been
published before. And one selection, the book's longest chapter entitled The Sexual
Rights of Youth, was Reich's revision of his 1932 German publication The Sexual
Struggle of Youth.
Children of the Future also included a Preface, written by the children's writer and
cartoonist William Steig, a longtime friend and supporter of Reich's, perhaps best known
today as the author of the book Shrek, upon which the movies are based.
Reich's books, bulletins and journals during his lifetime, plus the many unpublished
manuscripts in his Archives, often contain significant revisions of previously published
materials, revisions that embody the continual evolution across decades of his social and
political thought, his medical work and his scientific research. All of which Reich was
very upfront about.
In fact, in his Last Will & Testament the reason he gives for wanting nothing in his
Archives to be changed or omitted is so that future students of his work will be able to:
"....obtain a true picture of my accomplishments, mistakes,
wrong assumptions, pioneering basic trends, my private life,
my childhood, etc."
So to revisit The Sexual Struggle of Youth from 1932 is to appreciate Reich's
accomplishments, mistakes, wrong assumptions and, most strikingly, his pioneering
First, however, it's essential we put this publication into its proper historic context by
reviewing the innovative activities that Reich was involved in 80 years ago: first in
Vienna in the late 1920s, and then in Berlin from 1930 to 1933 at a time when Socialists,
Communists and National Socialists--the Nazis--were all vying for political power.
And one of the best resources for this historic context is Reich's book People in Trouble,
published in America in 1953. In the Introduction, Reich says this:
"I joined the Socialist and Communist cultural and medical
organizations in 1927 in order to supplement with mass psychology
purely economistic view of society contained in Socialist theory...
"Technically, I was a Socialist and a Communist between 1927
and 1932. Factually, functionally, I have never been a Socialist
or Communist and I was never accepted as such by the Party
"I never believed in the ability of the Socialists and Communists
really to solve human emotional problems. Accordingly, I never
held any party position.
"I knew well their dry economistic orientation, and I wanted to
help them since they played the role of 'progressives' in Europe
of the 1920s.
"At that time, in Europe, the so-called lower-classes were organized
under Socialist and Communist leadership. There were 4 to 5
million Communist and 7 million Socialist voters in Germany
alone and those 12 million leftist votes were significant among
Germany's approximately 30 million voters."
Later in the book, Reich says this of his activities in Vienna:
"It was considered insane for a respectable physician and scientist
to participate in demonstrations of the unemployed, hand out
pamphlets on social hygiene in working-class areas and become
involved in clashes with the police. The intellectuals could not
understand why I would risk my social position by doing such
"As sociologists, they wrote about problems of society, but in doing
so they behaved like a physician who writes a learned book on
typhoid without ever having seen a single case.
"In January 1929 the leftist newspapers carried out the first brief
notices about the 'Socialist Society for Sexual Counseling and
Sex-Research,' which had opened several sex-counseling centers
for workers and salaried employees.
"After several months of preparation at considerable personal
expense, I had founded this organization with several younger
psychoanalytic colleagues who were my pupils and three
"We sent out announcements that sexological specialists had formed
an organization to provide, in the various districts of Vienna free
counseling on sexual problems, the rearing of children, and general
mental hygiene to those seeking advice.
"Lectures were to furnish information on sexual hygiene and the
causes of and possible remedies for emotional difficulties.
"What was new about our counseling centers, sex-hygiene clinics,
was that we integrated the problems of the neuroses, sexual
disturbances and everyday conflicts.
"It was also new to attack the neuroses by prevention rather than
"This depended basically on the handling of sexuality in children
and young people.
"The centers immediately became so overcrowded that any doubt as
to the significance of our work was promptly removed."
And later, Reich says this about some of his activities in Germany:
"The Association of Socialist Physicians invited me to give
a lecture on my special field, the prophylaxis of neurosis.
"In the presence of 200 physicians and students, I was able to
explain the social objective of serious, psychoanalytic work.
They responded with great understanding.
"The Marxist Workers' University (MASCH) held courses
on 'Marxism and Psychology' and 'Sexology'.
"In the spring semester of 1931, I gave a course in a school on
Gartnerstrasse, and again in the Fall.
"Attendance rose with each lecture, peaking in the sexology course
at 250 individuals from all levels of society.
"After a few meetings I was speaking at meetings on an average
of twice a week.
"These lectures were highly instructive for me, because I not
only felt constrained to present my material in simple terms, but
also had to learn to answer the numerous diverse questions and
objections correctly. German youth demanded a great deal,
above all absolute clarity and simplicity.
"I concentrated on visiting the most typical youth gatherings--just
to listen in and get the feel of them."
And now, in Reich's own words, is how The Sexual Struggle of Youth came to be
written and published:
"...through my medical activities, I had met numerous young
people from various circles. All of them encouraged me to write
a book for youth.
"I prepared a manuscript in several weeks and distributed copies
"They were returned to me full of comments and suggestions, which
I then incorporated into the final version which was presented to the
Central Youth Committee, accepted, and sent to the youth committee
in Moscow. The Youth Publishers there were to print it.
"From Moscow came the reply that the book was indeed good, but
that it 'would be better not to assume responsibility for it.'
"It was to be printed by the Workers Cultural Press, which was less
"However, the director of this press sabotaged it for a whole year.
"I had presented the book The Sexual Struggle of Youth in the
summer of 1931 and it had not been published by March 1932.
I then founded my own publishing house for sex-politics, Verlag
für Sexualpolitik, which published this book and The Invasion of
"It was crucial to be completely independent of these petty
Reich's Foreword to The Sexual Struggle of Youth begins with these words which he
wrote 77 years ago, in January 1932:
"This pamphlet is written for the young without age limit.
It does not aim to give the usual 'explanation' which avoids the
problem of the sexual relationships of youth, but rather it aims to
give young people specific answers, according to scientific fact,
about the great problem of their sexual maturation.
"It aims, starting from results so far obtained from sexologists and
sociologists, to draw conclusions which, although inevitable, are
nonetheless constantly avoided.
"The young person who picks up this book wants to know:
- What is the process of sexual maturation?
- Why anything relating to sex is treated with so much mystery
by schools, families, and the whole of public opinion?
- What is the meaning of the contradictions, the states
of excitement, oppressive fantasies, sense of isolation
and other phenomena which occur at this age?
- What are the outlets: if the solution to the sexual problem
of youth is possible or not in the present social conditions?"
And further on in the Foreword, Reich says this...77 years ago:
"The sexual misery of the youth of today is immense.
"The major part of their sexual life is carried on in secret and
doesn't appear openly: reigning conditions do not allow that.
"We want to produce facts which show that the whole problem of
youth can be posed in other ways than is generally thought."
Reich organized the book into the following seven chapters:
- Sexual Tension and Satisfaction
- On Homosexuality
- Difficulties of Comradeship for Youth
- The Significance of the Sexual Life of Youth Under Capitalism
- Social Condition as the Pre-condition of Sexual Liberation
- Politicising the Sexual Problem of Youth
And here, of course, the words "Comradeship," "Capitalism" and "Politicizing"
are indicative of the type of Marxist terminology and Party slogans that are woven
throughout the original text. But before reviewing the content of these original chapters
written in 1931, let's quickly note what Reich himself thought of this book years later
as he started to revise it.
The process of revising The Sexual Struggle of Youth began around 1938, after several
years of Reich's profound disappointment with the practicality of Marxist politics. In the
1942 Preface to the 3rd edition of The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Reich says this of
his socio-political writings from the early 1930s:
--and by "sex-economic" Reich means the manner in which an individual handles his
or her biological energy...
"Sex-economic-biologic knowledge had been compressed into
the terminology of vulgar Marxism as an elephant into a foxhole.
"As early as 1938, while revising my 'youth' book, I noticed that
every sex-economic word had retained its meaning after eight
years, whereas every party slogan included in the book had
So all political terminology in the excerpts I'll be reading were subsequently altered
or omitted by Reich years later in The Sexual Rights of Youth. But his personal and
clinical observations and his medical and scientific facts about human sexual and
emotional lives remain largely intact in the later revision.
Back to the 1932 manuscript:
"Chapter 1 - Reproduction" begins with a section about the "Sexual Organs" which opens
with these words:
"In both sexes, from earliest childhood to an advanced age, the
sexual organs are used for pleasure and sexual satisfaction: from
sexual maturation, when the capacity to procreate appears, to the
'critical' age when that faculty is lost.
"It follows that the function of sexual satisfaction is more important
in sexual life than that of reproduction.
"Despite this, direct discussion of it among the young is avoided
and although it needs to be talked about specifically, people
usually keep within the bounds only of the reproductive function."
And in the next paragraph, he says--and again, these are words written 77 years ago:
"We're not going to get rid of the problem of reproduction like the
priests dressed as educators do--by preaching abstinence to youth."
After this is a lengthy, factual and dispassionate discussion about the anatomy of the
sexual organs, followed by scientific and medical facts about "Pregnancy and Childbirth."
Following this, Reich includes a section on "Abortion" in which he says:
"Abortion is forbidden in most capitalist countries, and severely
punished. What's more, absolutely no account is taken of the
mother's state of wretchedness and misery, nor of the hunger
of the masses and the lack of housing."
Later, Reich points out the hypocrisy of abortion being available to the upper-classes,
while the situation of the lower-classes is much more precarious:
"Poor women, who suffer mental and physical collapse with their
many children, and who, because of their misery, bypass the law
in order to avoid having more and more children abort themselves
by all sorts of harmful methods, with the aid of charlatans, people
who don't even know how female anatomy works.
"For example, each year in Germany, despite the laws forbidding
it, about a million abortions are done. 10-20,000 women die each
year because of dangerous abortive techniques. 60-80,000 fall ill
and 6-8000 go to jail."
The final section of Chapter 1 discusses "Contraceptive Methods" in which Reich says
at the offset:
"We assert that the great majority of youth between the ages of 12
and 15, particularly thousands of the poorest proletarians, peasants
and office workers, are not informed about contraceptive methods,
although many of them have sexual relationships and so become
victims of clandestine abortions."
Then Reich concludes Chapter 1 with a detailed factual discussion about specific
contraceptive devices & methods and their proper use.
"Chapter 2 - Sexual Tension and Satisfaction" is the longest of the seven chapters.
In the second paragraph Reich observes:
"It is very rare that a man and a woman have sexual intercourse
with the conscious intention of conceiving a child.
"The Church, the bourgeois school, and Science always want
to make us believe that sexual relations don't exist except for
procreation. If this were true, humanity would have died out
within two or three generations, certainly under the economic
conditions of the masses today.
"In fact, sexual relations occur under the pressures of sexual
tensions and drive, for the sake of the satisfaction they afford.
"Sexual satisfaction is linked with procreation in that impregnation
occurs during the sexual act. The Church always refers to Nature
when it insists that sexual contact for any other end than that
of reproduction is 'against Nature.'
"In that case, Nature has, most remarkably, made a major mistake;
she has not created a sexuality which only wants intercourse when
children are desired, but has arranged things so that a man in good
health wants to have sexual relations on an average from once to
three times a week.
"Thus, in someone's life there may be intercourse on several
thousand occasions, but on average only two or three times
intended for conception. Consequently, anyone who talks about
the sexual problem and passes in silence over the question of
sexual pleasure--consciously or unconsciously--is in error."
Reich next discusses the topic of "Sexual Maturation," specifically its factual physiology.
He begins by saying:
"The sexual tension or arousal which each adolescent experiences
is the expression of a bodily process consisting of the fact that the
sexual apparatus--in the man, certain parts of the testicles, in the
woman, certain tissues of the ovary--produces substances called
hormones which, poured into the blood stream, cause a state of
sexual arousal in the nervous system."
Reich also notes that:
"The sexual stimuli coming from the sense organs, from the eye,
from the skin, the sense of smell, and the ear have also a very
important role; there is no part of the body, in fact, from which
sexual stimulus of greater or lesser degree does not arise.
"Those parts of the body which are particularly sensitive sexually
are called 'erogenous zones'.
"A physical state of sexual tension becomes apparent to consciousness
as a desire for release, that is to say, sexual satisfaction."
And further on, Reich's continual compassion, empathy and practicality are evident when
"The intensification of the functioning of the sexual apparatus
brings along with it a high state of psychological excitement which
almost always causes, in the contemporary conditions to which
young people are subjected, tormenting anxiety, fantasies, and
bursting imaginative activity.
"The problem of knowing at what moment one is ready for sexual
relations cannot be solved in the abstract. There is no rule
applicable in all cases.
"The fact is, however, that in our cultural situation physical maturity
does not go hand-in-hand with psychological maturity which is
generally delayed by moralistic sexual repression.
"Greatly accumulated sexual tension seeks an outlet. It is at this
point that young people's difficulties begin because there are only
three possibilities: sexual relations, masturbation, or continence
[by which Reich means "self-restraint"]."
After this is a detailed, thoughtful and (again) very compassionate discussion on the topic
of "Masturbation and Young People," in which he writes 77 years ago:
"The bourgeois church and science have portrayed masturbation
by children and adolescents as a serious vice, a very dangerous and
"Only modern sexology has been willing to recognize masturbation
as a completely normal transitional phase from infant and adolescent
"People have wracked their brains to find out what the reasons for
"It is only after unburdening oneself of the idea that masturbation is
a vice that it is possible to establish that it is simply an expression
of physical and mental sexual tension in the young organism."
And Reich is always acknowledging--based on his practical work and observations--
that there are no easy solutions to these sexual issues since, in many people, the damage
may already be too deep:
"...the majority cannot even rejoice in masturbation as the solution
to their misery because they have already undergone so much
sexual repression in childhood that they are incapable of turning
to masturbation without guilt feelings."
Next, Reich talks about the "Sexual Act" itself, appropriating in a highly condensed
fashion, some of the same language he used in his 1927 book The Function of
the Orgasm. He also includes from that book his diagram of the different phases of
the sexual act.
Then Reich goes on to discuss "Difficulties in Sexual Relationships" which begins this
"The written questions which young people usually put in
gatherings and evening meetings after talks on sexuality would
indicate that they are more concerned with disturbances of sexuality
rather than anything else. Many of these troubles, which have lasted
long enough to ruin the existence of many young people, or at least
have made them incapable of work, could have been suppressed
when they first appeared if their exact nature were known; whereas
they can be transformed into permanent difficulties if their nature
and cause fail to be understood."
Reich candidly discusses impotence, premature ejaculation and other problems of
enjoyment. And, again, always acknowledging the practical difficulties for solutions.
"Adolescents will say to us at this point, quite rightly, that it is
all very well to give such advice, but what can they do when they
have no chance to accomplish the sexual act while naked and
undisturbed, when they are forced to be happy with satisfying their
sexual need as best they can from time to time. Such are the
conditions under which our proletarian youth lives."
Another wonderful example of Reich's candor in grappling 77 years ago with issues that
are still relevant today is his discussion about the need to explore different partners:
"It very often happens that a boy or girl, before finding a partner
who suits them, searches around for some time, sleeps with this or
that person and goes on searching. There is absolutely no reason
to denigrate this, since the convention that you recognize the
right partner on first sight is not far removed from the clerical and
bourgeois conviction that people should be united in front of the
altar in the eyes of God for all eternity before they have the right to
know each other physically, even though ninety-nine times out of
a hundred they don't know the first thing about their partner.
"During adolescence, the rhythm and form of mental developments
are so varied, that in time difficulties will emerge in a relationship
and lead to a separation.
"Sexual harmony and satisfaction depend on so many conditions
that these can't always be separated out with precision (capacity
for mutual understanding, comradeliness, temperament, interests
in common, normally developed sexual organs, rhythms of sexual
"Chapter 3 - On Homosexuality" is the shortest of the seven chapters, running four to
five pages. Among those favorably disposed to Reich some agree with his remarks
and some find his comments here problematic. To summarize, this brief discussion is
permeated with such terms as "defective sexual development," "abnormal forms of sexual
development," "deviation" and "illness." These are the terms that are used by Reich,
along with millions
of other people then and now, to describe homosexuality.
That being said Reich also wrote, "But it would be quite wrong to conclude from these
facts that homosexuals should be despised or attacked." In Reich's later revised version,
The Sexual Rights of Youth, his opinions in this chapter remain unchanged.
"Chapter 4 - Difficulties of Comradeship" is heavily imbued with political slogans and
terminology, with lengthy comparisons of bourgeois and proletarian adolescence that
makes for some difficult reading. Even in his revision, The Sexual Rights of Youth--
in which Reich omits all political terminology--some of the discussions here can appear
rather dated today.
But reading through the original chapter reveals some rather touching observations that
were certainly rare for 1931. Such as this one:
"...things are very difficult because girls are much more dependent
sexually on boys than vice versa, due to the sexual education they
have been given, even in proletarian families.
"And a love relationship generally has a lot more significance, not
only physically but also spiritually, for the proletarian girl than it
has for the boy--"
--and in the revision, Reich replaces that word "spiritually" with the word "emotionally".
"That entails some measure of responsibility for the boy when he
takes on a relationship with a girl. As long as boys are so sexually
confused and damaged as they are now, we must insist that no
boy should force a girl into a sexual relationship with him and that when he takes on a relationship he must know exactly whether
the girl would be in a state to bear a separation without falling into
depression, and he must have discussed this carefully with the girl.
A sexual relationship started by force or underhand strategies will
not generally provide the sexual satisfaction which supports the
"Chapter Five - The Significance of the Sexual Life of Youth Under Capitalism" is
predictably permeated with Marxist terminology and discussions of class struggle.
Equally predictable in this chapter are Reich's continued insights and sensitivity about
the emotional life of adolescents.
For example, this passage from 1931 has a freshness and relevance almost eight decades
later (although with a few admittedly outdated references):
"The morality of abstinence is insisted on in a particularly harsh
manner during puberty, because generally it is just that age that
young people start to revolt against their family; the needs and
sexual drives of each rise up against the oppressors.
"The age of puberty is precisely when in all families, almost without
exception, the most bitter conflicts between adolescents and parents
"Insofar as the adolescent has not been completely repressed, as for
example in the circles of small businessmen and officials, he begins
to rebel more and more strongly against the obligation that he is
under to spend the fine Sunday afternoons in adult company in a pub
listening to boring conversations; each adolescent feels sooner or
later, more or less clearly, that his or her place is somewhere else,
among other adolescents, that it is boring to be with adults, that air,
sun, physical education, and sexual relationships are needed."
In Reich's revision, The Sexual Rights of Youth, this chapter appears in a much briefer
version with all Marxist terminology and discussions omitted.
But more significantly, this is the last chapter in Reich's revised manuscript. Reich
completely eliminated Chapters 6 and 7 of his original 1931 text. All of which is perfectly
understandable since both of these chapters are largely political tracts, espousing specific
beliefs and actions with which Reich later disagreed. But like most of Reich's published
writing, these two original chapters reinforce Reich's continual emphasis on practical
Chapter 6 is entitled "Social Revolution as the Pre-condition of Sexual Liberation" and it
concludes with this paragraph:
"We must very clearly understand ourselves, and get the apathetic
to understand as well as those who are still politically reactionary,
that a true solution to the sexual problem of youth will not
be possible until, and only when, the mass of young people
are sufficiently provided with lodgings, clothes, food, and the
possibility of absorbing knowledge and culture, which today are
only accessible to a small number of the offspring of rich homes.
"Only then will the economic and social base exist for the building
of a satisfying, happy sexual life, which will take account of the
full nature of youth."
Chapter 7, the second longest chapter in the 1932 publication is entitled "Politicising the
Sexual Problem of Youth." And this chapter, too, yields some wonderful perceptions:
"Young people have 'ups and downs' because they cannot regulate
their pressing sexuality because of material poverty and the lack of
opportunities, money, and contraceptives."
And later Reich says:
"Some people believe in gaining strength by entirely eliminating
any sexual activity. This is an error. Actually, when you restrain
your sexual life too much, the intensity of your work suffers; but
the time lost on 'private life' is more than made up for the vigor
with which you can work if you have a reasonably satisfying sex
life. You work faster and better."
Reich concludes The Sexual Struggle of Youth with a Questionnaire comprising the
following six questions:
- Do you think that the fundamental line developed in this book
was accurate and capable of resolving the sexual problem of
youth in practice?
- What are the faults of the book (grasp of the problem,
questions raised, political line, etc.?)
- What suggestions, modifications, or additions do you have to
put forward for the next edition?
- Do you have any practical propositions for the organization
of the sexual-political struggle of youth in a revolutionary
- Do you want to participate as an active militant in the struggle of youth?
- If yes, in what way (organization, sale and distribution of
literature, political economy, political sexology, education)?
And finally I'd like to briefly summarize how this book was received when it was first
published in 1932 Germany.
In December 1932, a Communist publication called Red Sport printed a notice that
prohibited the distribution and sale of all of Reich's publications, including The Sexual
Struggle of Youth, which were deemed to be counter-revolutionary.
Two weeks later in Vienna, a Communist publication The Red Banner printed a favorable
review of the book which concluded that "this informative book must be recommended
for struggling proletarian youth." Two months later, a newspaper for teachers in Berlin
reported favorably that "The book is written in a popular style so that it will function
as a guideline, especially for the proletarian youth for whom it was intended. It is
also recommended for all teachers and educators desiring an introduction to the sexual
question from a Marxist perspective."
Youth groups reacted positively to the book, including this comment: "I read the book
with several other fellows. They were enthusiastic and said that something like this had
always been lacking until now. The contents are great. You went into everything we had
on our minds."
But Reich continued to be severely criticized by Socialist and Communist officials who
denied the existence of the sexual and emotional problems that Reich discussed.
Most alarmingly, as Hitler was consolidating his power in Germany in February and
March 1933, The Sexual Struggle of Youth was denounced in the Nazi newspaper.
"It was clear," Reich wrote, "that I could not remain in Berlin any longer."
Reich quickly fled to Vienna and later to Denmark, to Sweden and then to Oslo where he
lived from 1934 to 1939.
Reich arrived in America on August 28, 1939, four days before the outbreak of World
War Two in Europe.
The Wilhelm Reich Infant Trust