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The End of the History of Sexuality

Monday, February 3, 2020 - 07:00

Well, there it is: my final thoughts on Foucault. I'm glad I read it, but not sure I've taken away much of value except renewed skepticism.

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Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality. Vintage Books, New York. ISBN 978-0-679-72469-8

With this third volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality it’s time to sum up my impressions. And mostly I’m just confused why the big take-away that has made a mark in the study of sexuality is the whole thing about “pre-modern people didn’t have a concept of sexuality, they focused on acts not identities.” Because that’s not the theme I take away from this work at all. Oh, to be sure, in the first volume Foucault argues strongly against the pre-modern existence of “sexualities” in the sense of “personal identities that correlate with a particular sexual experience”. But I’m not sure he demonstrates that non-existence unless we’re defining “sexual identities” as only and specifically the set of identities considered standard today. I see evidence and arguments for identities throughout Foucault’s arguments, they just aren’t identities narrowly defined by the gender (or sex) of one’s partners, or by engaging in particular types of sex acts. I’ll agree that to understand sex in the past it’s necessary to break free of assuming that modern sexual identities are fixed, unversal, and exclusive. But I don’t see the evidence that it’s necessary to discard the concept of sexual identities entirely and to view all experience in terms of isolated acts and random expressions of personal taste.

The second take-away I get from reading Foucault (and which I suspected I was going to get before reading) is that any pretensions this work has to presenting some sort of philosophical truth are fatally undermined by the functionally exclusive focus on elite male experiences. Further, by the lack of any genuine self-awareness that this exclusive focus might be a problem. There are places where Foucault appears to acknowledge the narrowness of the population he's studying, but no acknowledgement that this negates any claim that he has to identifying a "truth" about sexuality in general.

In the first volume of this work, Foucault makes a strong point about how the supposed age of Victorian prudery was actually an era of obsessive, excessive focus on sex. He points out that “sexual repression” as a concept is actually a question of enforced control over who is allowed to talk about sex and how they’re allowed to talk about it. It’s unclear that he took these questions to heart and considered what topics he engaged in an obsessive, excessive focus on. How he was part of the social apparatus controlling whose voices on sexual topics were amplified and whose were suppressed.

At any rate, I have paid this part of my dues. But if reading The History of Sexuality changes any aspect of how I discuss sexuality research in the future, I suspect it will be that I drift away from using “Foucaultian” as a shorthand for “social-constructionism”. Because viewing sexuality as shaped by social constructs is a more expansive topic than the position he puts forth, and it embraces possibilities he argues against. And I don’t think that social-constructionism is necessarily in conflict with an understanding that some aspects of sexual desire are innate. But that’s a topic for another day.

Part 1: Dreaming of One’s Pleasures

This section examines Artemidorus’s book The Interpretation of Dreams--the only work of the (classical) period that systematically addresses different sexual acts. It’s the only survival of what was once an extensive literature of dream interpretation and was intended as a practical manual. [Note: One might say that professional dream interpreters were the psychoanalysts of the day.] Artemidorus also presented a theoretical argument for the validity of the field of dream interpretations.

Artemidorus identified two types of dreams: those that simply reflect the dreamer’s present state, and those that tell what is to come and shape the soul to implement it. Another dichotomy is between images that can be read transparently and those that must be read allegorically. The professional dream interpreter comes into play for the latter two of each pair.

Four chapters of the work involve sexual dreams, with other scattered references to sexual imagery. The sex acts in dreams fall in three categories: those in accordance with law, those contrary to law, and those contrary to nature. [Note: The distinction between these categories and the assignment of acts to them is also present in other types of texts, but this work is often cited for the underlying concepts as it discusses them overtly.]

As allegories, the nature of one’s partner in the dream (wife, mistress, prostitute, stranger, married or not, of higher or lower status) is the key to interpretation, not the nature of the act itself. Also relevant is the dreamer’s role in the act, whether active or passive. This distinction gets a bit fuzzy when dealing with things like the category for “against nature”. For a man to dream of being the passive participant in anal sex carries a negative interpretation not because anal sex is involved, but because it’s “unnatural” for a free adult man to be in this position relative to a lower status partner.

There is a very brief mention of interpreting the sexual dreams of women, but a male partner is assumed and the analysis is not detailed in the same ways as that of men’s dreams.

The category of acts “contrary to law” is explored primarily as meaning incest. The category “contrary to nature” can refer either to the sexual position involved or to acts against the relative “nature” of the participants. Dreams of acts “against nature” generally have negative meanings, as do dreams of acts “against law” except in a few highly specific cases. But even negatively-valued sex acts can imply positive dream meanings in particular contexts. [Note: My perception is that Artemidorus was able to construct a positive meaning for almost any sort of dream by manipulation of the allegorical meanings.]

Dream-sex between women (unlike dream-sex between men) is always categorized as “against nature” because the only types of sex acts being considered involve penetration, and it is always considered against a woman’s nature to penetrate.

[Note: This is a point that is easy to misunderstand. “Contrary to nature” doesn’t mean “completely unnatural and never to be done” but rather “not consistent with the characteristics assigned to this category of person.” For example, it is contrary to the nature of a free adult man to allow himself to be penetrated, but it is not contrary to the nature of a male slave to be penetrated by someone of higher status. It is contrary to the nature of a woman to take an active, penetrating role in sex, regardless of partner, because it is woman’s assigned “nature” to be passive/receptive in sex. Thus if Woman A is the active partner in sex with Woman B, then only Woman A is acting “contrary to nature”, whereas if Woman A is the active partner in sex with Man C (regardless of his status) then both are acting “contrary to nature”.]

These interpretations always assume the dreamer is present in the dream and that sex is always a “predictive” image rather than one reflecting current reality. The focus of the interpretation nearly always assumes a male subject.

Part 2: The Cultivation of the Self

[Note: It feels to me as if the rest of volume 3 is a recapitulation of the topics covered in volume 2, but now considering them more in the context of Roman rather than Greek society. If this is the intended distinction, it isn’t made clear.]

The book shifts to a consideration of  a philosophy of “strictness” and a type of individualism in how “the self” was approached. The primary themes are self-control and self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is considered a life-long project. The body must be attended to so that one can attend to the mind and soul. Abstinence (either temporary or permanent) plays a key role in self-knowledge.

Part 3: Self and Others

The “cultivation of the self” now has less focus on the role of pleasure and this shift is associated with, or attributed to, changes in marriage practices and shifts in political dynamics. Marriage was evolving away from a private “ownership” transaction between the bride’s father and the husband--one that did not have significant social or political meaning. In the 1st to 2nd century BCE, marriage was shifting to being a civic institution in which the city participates. The rise of laws regarding adultery are one example of this. As upper class status became more tied to civic roles, marriage as a political strategy became less important. There was more emphasis on marriage as a voluntary partnership. Women gained (relatively) more power in making marriage arrangements. Men were increasingly expected not to maintain other sexual relationships outside marriage.

On the political side, the decline of independent city-states and political life as an upper class profession resulted in a turn to focus on the self as the “profession” of the aristocracy.

Part 4: The Body

This section discusses the field of medicine in classical references, especially medical understandings of sex--both as physiology and activity. Sexual activity was thought to have physical effects on the body, and medical manuals advised how both procreation and sexual pleasure should be organized to optimize health. The mind and “soul” had a role in the pursuit of proper enjoyment of sex. This idea developed into a fixation on sex as a potential hazard to health and spiritual well-being. But this idea must be distinguished from associating sex with sin.

Part 5: The Wife

This section discusses the place of marriage in the understanding of a “good life” (but only from the male point of view). Foucault reviews the evolution of philosophical views of marriage, including emphasis on the personal bond between spouses. Marriage was considered “natural” due to its place in procreation and community. People were expected to have an attraction to a joined life, but there was a constant tension with arguments regarding the proper forms of marriage. Treatises were written on the proper “regimen” for married life that gave rather limited space for discussing sexual relations. An ideal emerged that sex was only proper within marriage. The focus is still on self-restraint as virtue but there is also a focus on legitimate offspring as the purpose of sex. Though pleasure within marriage is expected, excess sexual pleasure can be considered inappropriate. It might suggest you are treating your wife as a courtesan, whose purpose is only to provide pleasure.

Part 6: Boys

In the early centuries of the common era, reflection on the love for youths became a less vital and less important debate. In part, this was a difference between Greek and Roman attitudes. A relationship with an older male figure was no longer an expected part of a free-born man’s youth. Discussions about the “love of boys” began to mean relations with male slaves.

[Note: There's an interesting contradiction here in Foucault's equation of these two types of male-male relations. If the nature of the object of desire and the types of erotic activity do not define a "sexual identity" then why should there be any conceptual connection between the Greek system of erastes/eromenos and the relations between (male) Roman citizens and their (male) slaves? Yet Foucault makes a direct connection between these two practices by context and impmlication while still maintaining his disbelief in the concept of sexualities.]

The sons of Roman citizens would be shamed by being sexual objects. But there was also a shift from the importance of male-male philia to the valorization of marriage as the primary bond. Love was no longer viewed as being elevated by the removal of physical pleasure.

It is the “naturalness” of male-female relations that becomes the argument both for and against the love of youths. “Natural” can be considered lesser because it’s common or ordinary, or it can be considered elevated because it aligns with one's inherent nature. This debate became its own genre of literary argumentation.

Conclusion

Foucault sees several strands of philosophical thought in the first centuries of the common era that converge on an elevation of the ideal of austerity. Was this a precursor to the ethics that developed within Christianity? Dual strands in this process include focus on the ethics of pleasure and care for the body with consequent consideration of the effects of pleasure on it and a distrust of those effects.

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