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Foucault argues that we generally read the history of sexuality since the 18th century in terms of what Foucault calls the "repressive hypothesis." The repressive hypothesis supposes that since the rise of the bourgeoisie, any expenditure of energy on purely pleasurable activities has been frowned upon. As a result, sex has been treated as a private, practical affair that only properly takes place between a husband and a wife. Sex outside these confines is not simply prohibited, but repressed. That is, there is not simply an effort to prevent extra-marital sex, but also an effort to make it unspeakable and unthinkable. Discourse on sexuality is confined to marriage.
The repressive hypothesis explains that there have been certain outlets of confession, where "improper" sexual feelings could be released safely. Foucault identifies prostitution and psychiatry as two such outlets. Steven Marcus labels those who turned to psychiatrists or prostitutes in the Victorian era as the "other Victorians." These "other Victorians" created their own space for discourse on sexuality that freed them from the confines of conventional morality.
The 20th century is no different, according to the repressive hypothesis. Freud may seem to have made open and frank discussions of sexuality possible, but this discourse is still confined to the academic and confessional realm of psychiatry. We cannot free ourselves from this repression simply by means of theory: we must learn to be more open about our sexuality, to talk about it, to enjoy it. Discourse on sexuality, seen as a revolt against a repressive system, becomes a matter of political liberation rather than intellectual analysis.
Foucault suggests the repressive hypothesis is essentially an attempt to give revolutionary importance to discourse on sexuality. The repressive hypothesis makes it seem both defiant and of utmost importance to our personal liberation that we talk openly about sex. Our discourse on sexuality, in its promise for a better, freer way of life, is a form of preaching.
Foucault wishes to address the modern paradox of our discourse on sexuality: why do we proclaim so loudly that we are repressed, why do we talk so much about how we can't talk about sex? A supporter of the repressive hypothesis might answer that we are so aware of our repression because it is so evident, and liberating ourselves is a long process that can only be advanced by open, frank discussion.
Foucault asks three questions about the repressive hypothesis: (1) Is it historically accurate to trace what we think of today as sexual repression to the rise of the bourgeoisie in the 17th century? (2) Is power in our society really expressed primarily in terms of repression? (3) Is our modern- day discourse on sexuality really a break with this older history of repression, or is it part of the same history?
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