A History of Sexuality

Posted: January 6, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Today’s post is about the first two parts of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality: An Introduction Volume one. I found this work to be very interesting, saying things about sexuality that at first seemed completely backwards, but were eventually explained in such a way that they made perfect sense. It seems like if you replace the word “sexuality” with whatever content he is writing about, that sentence makes a really good explanation of everything Foucault wrote.

One of the things Foucault suggested was that sex has become more repressed, not less, over the past few hundred years. He tells us that the Victorian age confined sexuality to the home, absorbed it into the function of reproduction, and silenced it (3). That is, it became the norm not to talk about that sort of thing. Talking about sex was no longer acceptable, and sex became something that happens behind closed doors; specifically, behind the closed doors of a married couple intending to reproduce. In doing so, sex was no longer something that could be talked about.

Not talking about sex represses sexuality. Foucault writes that “If sex is repressed, that is, condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silene, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression. A person who holds forth in such language places himself to a certain extent outside the reach of power; he upsets established law; he somehow anticipates the coming freedom” (6). We know that talking about sex is taboo, and so any time we do it, we are intentionally setting ourselves outside the ‘rules’ of the ‘norm.’ And, like Foucault suggests, there is a certain freedom out here.

Sex is an issue, Foucault tells us, because of politics. “Between the state and the individual,” he says, “sex became and issue, and a public issue no loess; a whole web of discourses, special knowledges, analyses, and injunctions settled upon it” (26). It was not something that could be talked about, because it was a private matter. We could not speak of it, and as Wittgenstein says, of that which we may not speak, we must be silent.

But silence is not a good thing. Foucault writes that “Silence itself – the things one declines to say, or is forbidden to name, the discretion that is required between different speakers – is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies. … There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses” (27). When there is silence, it’s not just a matter of things not being said. More than that, silence is a way of saying, a method of control and of exerting power. By stating what things are or can be silent, we limit what can be debated, what can be considered or even examined. It’s not a real limit to the discourse; that is, there’s nothing actually preventing us from examining these things, Foucault is saying, but rather there is just a strategy of discourse to make certain things ‘off limits’ in order to prevent their discussion.

And sex is a great place to see that. It is something we must be silent about, according to our cultural values, but as Foucault points out, we’re not silent about it. Not by a long shot. He says that “It may well be that we talk about sex more than anything else; we set our minds to the task; we convince ourselves that we have neer said enough on the subject, that, through inertia or submissiveness, we conceal from ourselves the blinding evidence, and that what is essential always eludes us, so that we must start out once again in search of it” (33). So while we talk and talk and talk about sex, we somehow convince ourselves that we aren’t making any progress. We don’t know what that essential thing is, the center of the debate, and so we have to start over again and again. This, I think, is because of that strategy of silence. By making the central part of sex something that must not be spoken of, we are never able to find it. We are seeing the borders put in place by silence and following them, not realizing that those borders are only as real as the borders between, say, Minnesota and Iowa. There’s a line on a map, but we can cross it without even realizing it, and certainly without consequence.

I think I’m on the right track with that. Later on, when Foucault says “What is peculiar to modern societies, in fact, is not that they consigned sex to a shadow existence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret” (35, his emphasis), it suggests that the tactic of secrets, the power of the hidden, is indeed at play here. We talk and we talk about sex, but we never get anywhere, because the truth of it, the core, is a secret. And not just any secret. The secret.

Why is this important? Because it matters when we takl about sexuality. Foucault writes that “Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary abberation; the homosexual was now a species” (43). This takes a lot of unpacking. What I see here is that Foucault is saying that when we made sex something that was silent, something we couldn’t speak about, something that happened only within the home, we forced people who practiced sex a different way to form a solid identity. Men having sex with men was not a new idea; Anyone who’s really read The Phaedrus knows that the greeks engaged in sodomy all the time. But they didn’t consider it being gay, or even being bisexual. It wasn’t about sexuality, it was just something that is done. This was possible because sex was not silenced, was not a secret we couldn’t talk about. But once we make it part of the private identity, sexuality begins to evolve and identify itself. Those who engage in sodomy is just different (ie, an abberation). But homosexuality is a completely different idea.

A change in sexuality, an evolution into new possibilities, brings with it new ways to do gender. Foucault calls it androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. I think we can safely equate that with gender being something no longer directly linked with the biological, but rather with the mind (ie, the soul) and how a person sees themselves; how they perform their gender.

In being able to explore and expand sexuality, and gender performance, we see a shift of power and an increase of pleasure. And Foucault tells us that “Pleasure and power do not cancel or turn back against one another; they seek out, overlap, and reinforce one another” (48). This, to me, suggests that the more we examine sex and sexuality, the more we explore gender and performance, the more power we will be able to seize as groups currently considered to be ‘abberant’ or just against the norm.

Aberant sexuality is temporary; what is coming, if we follow Foucault’s reasoning, is a new species of sexuality. Or several of them.

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