Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality. Vintage Books, New York. ISBN 978-0-679-72469-8
This is not a book of facts and analysis. It is a book of assertions, stated boldly with documentation only as an afterthought. Foucault talks about the pursuit of “truth” about sex while employing no definable methodology that could be challenged or debated. This means that if the data on which he builds his conclusions has gaps, those gaps are impossible to chart. Thus, his conclusions can only be debated by those who have a sufficiently broad and universal knowledge of the field to be certain of their own ground. Whether this is an intentional feature of this genre of text, or simply a convenient byproduct is hard for me to tell. But this is not a book that I would classify as a “history” book in the ordinary sense of the word. Certainly not in terms of history books written in the last quarter of the 20th century. (It strikes me as being far more similar to the sort of thing produced in the 19th century by gentlemen amateurs who considered footnotes and references to be beneath their notice.) I had expected to read this work and disagree with facts and conclusions, but instead I’m mostly frustrated with the respect given to a work that comes across to me as smugly self-satisfied. [Note: after reading the other two volumes, I would soften this somewhat, but for reading the first volume in isolation, my reaction stands.]
* * *
Part I - We “Other Victorians”
Foucault begins by setting up the strawman he intends to tear down. The current age, he asserts, involves two centuries of “Victorian prudery”, contrasting with the free and open sexual discourse that held until the early 17th century. That discourse has now shifted to the privacy of the home and a focus on reproduction. But this idealized state of privacy and prudery was created by denial, avoidance, and repression, with the only sexual safety valves found in the prostitution industry and mental illness, which carefully removed such anti-social activities from public view. (By this, he means that "alternative sexualities" were classified as psychological aberrations, not that people found sexual release by going crazy.) Freud, he allows, offered a small reprieve of honesty from this general represion.
With the beginning of this culture of repression assigned to the 17th century, it is natural to align it with the rise of capitalism and bourgeois dominance of society. Surely repressive Victorian sex culture arose to constrain “non-productive” sex, seeing sexual activity as only one more capitalist enterprise where productivity was the only good?
[Note: as I was reading this, I found it impossible to tell if he was sincere, or engaging in an elaborate set-up. The latter, as it turns out.]
If sex must be repressed, then to speak of it is to be a rebel. Sexual discourse aligns one with prophecy and preaching, calling for a coming better world of pleasure. But this provides an incentive for sex talk to uphold the image of repression in order to make heroes and visionaries of those who engage in it. Then the question becomes not “why are we repressed?” but “why do we insist so vehemently that we are repressed?”
Foucault then turns around and raises several points to ask if they can be demonstrated. 1) Is sexual repression an established historic fact? And does it begin in the 17th century? 2) Have the powers that be acted primarily and consistently to repress sex? 3) Is anti-repressive discourse a counter to, or part of the same system as, repressive discourse?
In addressing these questions, Foucault plans to situate repression as only part of a continuous system of sex-discourse in modern society. Who talks about sex? Which side they are on? What point of view do they have in society and what institutions support them? What forms of power are implicated in sexual discourse?
Part II - The Repressive Hypothesis
Power over sex discourse is exercised by controlling language--how and when it is talked about. But when you look at the record, rather than a decrease in discussions of sex, there is an explosion. This might include a shift in “authorized” vocabulary and shifts in authorized contexts for sexual discourse. But the sheer volume shows a significant increase in the last three centuries.
For example, penitential manuals shifted from eliciting many specific details about sexual sins (exactly what actions and body parts were involved), to recommending that vague language be used, while at the same time the scope of life activities that were subject to scrutiny for sexual implications vastly increased. All thoughts and actions were to be examined for sexual significance.
This focus on expanding detail is not limited to confession, but can be seen reflected in pornography. This compulsion to dissect sex in detail permeated political, social, and technical discourse. Sex-related texts regularly called attention to the “disgust and ridicule” their subjects were expected to generate, supporting the framing of sex-talk as transgressive.
Sexual discourse must be managed and administered. It must be “policed” both literally and figuratively. People as individuals became a “population”--a resource to be managed, and one inextricably tied to sex.
The sexualization of ever-expanding facets of life can also be seen in ideas about the sexuality of children and the function of sexual discourse between children and adults. The official silence and reticence in this context masked the purpose of control. The sexuality of adolescent boys, in particular, became an obsession among medical and educational professionals. There was an expansion of medical and psychological concern, with ever more behaviors being considered “disordered” sexually.
If this increase in sexual discourse were simply quantitative, it might not be significant. But there was also an expantion of the negative discussion of non-reproductive sexual behaviors and obsession over how to control and suppress them. Foucault says he’s not sure if the primary goal can be demonstrated to be population growth/reproduction. Rather than reducing the catalog of sexualities, it has expanded in order to codify the activities labeled as perversions. Earlier discourse tended to identify only two categories of sexual activity: licit and illicit. Interest in cataloging and identifying illicit forms of sex focused primarily on sex within marriage--to distinguish the times, conditions, and circumstances that defined licit sex. Non-marital sex, though illicit, was not explored and cataloged in detail. Prohibitions on illicit sex were legal in nature, not moral. [Note: I don't think this last statement holds water, when you examine the medieval history of the discourse around sodomy. It may have been subject to legal penalties, but the objections were moral.]
From this, the sexual discourse in the 18-19th century shifted in two ways. Normative sex (i.e., m/f marital sex for the purpose of procreation) was less discussed and was taken for granted. It was other types of sexualities that formed the expansion of discourse. At the same time, libertine excesses of m/f sex were distinguished from this new catalog of “perversions.”
If variant sexualities could not be opressed legally, they were medicalized. In theory, legal consequences diminished, but in practical terms, the increased scope of interest and control more than balanced out the severity of effect. Non-reproductive sex was medicalized as “disordered” even within marriage.
What was the purpose in exercising this control over sex? Not the elimination of the acts, but the excuse for their persecution. Deviant sexuality was no longer a set of forbidden acts, but an identifiable set of deviant people.
[Note: This is the essence of the concept Foucault is most often know for: that there was a shift between conceptualizing “deviant” sex as acts, to conceptualizing deviance as adhering to a type of person. In the discussion in which this idea is introduced, we aren’t talking about self-identity or how individuals understood their own actions and nature, but about how behavior was viewed and dealt with by persons and systems of authority.]
The proliferation of medically-named perversions was not for the purpose of eliminating them, but to establish their reality to justify their study and treatment. This power required constant surveillance and proximity to the potential deviants. Power over sexuality became its own reward and justification--a type of perversion itself. Rather than restricting sexuality to the licit conjugal act, now the entirety of life was filled with potentially sexualized acts, thoughts, and experiences.
[Note: Foucault regularly uses the word “perversion” in a way that is ambiguous with regard to his position. Is this a scare-quotes “perversion” meant to signal the point of view of the people studying and defining it? Or is Foucault asserting that there is an objective concept of “perversion” to which acts/thoughts/experiences can belong?]
Foucault’s conclusion is that the modern age has not been an age of increased sexual repression. Rather it has seen a vast expansion of interest and concern about sex that invested all aspects of life and society with sexuality, in order to justify the intrusive study, categorization, and control of any sexualized aspect of life, creating “perverse” power dynamics within the very structures claiming to oppose perversion.
Part III - Scientia Sexualis
Granting the proliferation of sexual discourse, was its purpose to conceal sex behind a screen of avoidance talk? Foucault takes us on a tour through the field of sexology , which created a “pornography of the morbid,” riddled with established delusions, systemic blindness, and disinterest in “truth.” The work of the sexologists was filtered through deliberate omission and distortion of their observations to avoid tackling explicit truths about sexual experiences. [Note: Foucault credits Freud with introducing “truth and rationality,” which is a laugh considering what has come out about Freud’s deliberate omissions and distortions to deflect the truth of actual female sexual trauma into imagined fantasies.]
Truth about sex can be produced in two ways. One means is through a cultural “art of pleasure” which derives truth from the experience of pleasure itself, studied for its effects and codified into expert knowledge which can then be imparted to the student. Alternately, truth can be pursued via the “confession” (the Western approach), in which one self-reports one’s experiences to a judging body, which fits them into a framework of meaning. This places meaning into the hands of “professionals” separate from the experience being studied, who claimed the sole ability to identify relevance, causality, and meaning.
Part IV - The Deployment of Sexuality
This section contains a discussion of the relationship of power and sex and the mechanics of the techniques that power employs. [I skip over a lot in this section.]
Foucault identifies four major strategic threads in the use of power over sexual discourse:
Foucault reviews a timeline of various significant “ruptures” in the history of sexuality: the 18th century silencing and focusing relative to marital sexuality, and the 20th century opening up and loosening of controls. Between those, the invention of a “science” of sex in the 19th century provided a transition.
Part V - Right of Death and Power Over Life
Here Foucault discusses systems of power that claim rights over lives. The claim to power over sexuality and reproduction relate directly to ideas about rights over people’s lives and deaths.