The growing discourse on sex, particularly in the 19th century, had the effect of turning sex into a problem of truth. Sex was seen as something dangerous: perverse pleasures could be a threat not just to one person, but also to society as a whole. Knowing about sex became increasingly important, but it was equally important that this knowledge should take the side of common morality. Learned discourse on sex was full of distortions and downright falsehoods that supported popular prudishness toward unorthodox sexual practices. Foucault remarks that there was hardly any commerce between the study of human sexual behavior and the scientific procedures involved in the biological study of plant and animal reproduction. Rather than emphasize the biases of this learned discourse, however, Foucault points out that, within this framework of discourses, sex was no longer treated only as a matter for morality, and became treated as a matter of knowledge, and of truth and falsehood.
The modern West is not the first place to develop a discourse about the truth of sex. The cultures of Rome, China, Japan, India, and the Arabic-Muslim world, have all treated sex as an object of knowledge. However, Foucault distinguishes these societies from our own by saying they deal in an ars erotica ("erotic art") whereas we deal in a scientia sexualis ("science of sexuality").
The knowledge passed on by the ars erotica is a knowledge of sensual pleasure. The truth it contains is the truth about pleasure itself: how pleasure can be experienced, intensified or maximized. A mystique and secrecy evolves around this knowledge, and it can only be passed from an experienced master to an initiated novice. There is no question of what pleasures are permitted and what forbidden: only a question of the pleasures themselves.
The scientia sexualis, by contrast, deals with confessions extracted from the unlearned rather than secrets passed down from the learned. Since the Middle Ages, Foucault asserts, confession has become increasingly important to us. In law, we demand the confession of criminals; in literature, we relish self- conscious confession; in philosophy, we have increasingly come to see truth as something to be dug out of our own consciousness.
Now that confession has become an omnipresent aspect of our daily lives, we no longer think of the power pushing us toward confession as a constraint placed upon us. On the contrary, we have come to think of confession as a way of finding truth, a form of liberation from repressive powers that try to silence us. Foucault writes that we have become "subjects in both senses of the word": we are subjected to powers that draw confessions from us, and through confession we come to see ourselves as thinking subjects, the subject of confession.
The distinction between ars and scientia is similar to the academic distinction between the arts and the sciences. The sciences deal with the world we inhabit and the arts deal with our responses to that world. That is, the sciences encompass a set of fact that would presumably be true whether or not human beings even existed, whereas the arts deal precisely with the human response to experience. The Greek word eros denotes sexual love, desire, and pleasure. Eros refers to sex as a sensual fact, whereas sexualis refers to sex as an abstract concept. Ars erotica, then, focuses largely on sex as a human phenomenon, something we do, something we enjoy, something we desire. Scientia sexualis highlights the inhuman aspect of sex, the fact of sex as a form of reproduction that we indulge in in much the same way as animals. Ars erotica speaks from personal experience, while scientia sexualis speaks from the perspective of a distanced observer.
Both ars erotica and scientia sexualis are forms of knowledge, and both deal with the imparting of secrets. The knowledge of ars erotica is a knowledge of sensual experience, a knowledge of what sexual contact feels like, and a knowledge of how to intensify one's experience of that contact. If this knowledge is contained in books, it is found in such books as The Joy of Sex or the Kama Sutra. The knowledge of scientia sexualis resembles scientific knowledge. It is intellectual rather than sensual. It concerns not one's own sexual experience, but the sexual experiences of others.
The secrets of ars erotica are like the secret recipes of a master chef. They are pieces of wisdom that must be passed on from acknowledged masters to devoted students who will put this wisdom to good use. The secrecy of ars erotica is closely tied to its sacredness, its esteemed value. The secrets of scientia sexualis are almost the opposite. Rather than being refined wisdom to be passed down from master to novice, they are base confidences to be drawn out of the novice by the master. They are secrets not because they are valuable but because they are shameful. Drawing them out becomes an act of confession.
Foucault's characterization of the modern West as being largely defined by the confession raises some interesting points. In particular, his analysis of our concept of confession as liberation, and his idea that confession has largely shaped our modern concept of the subject. Foucault has already talked about how confessions are being demanded of us by doctors, government officials, judges, teachers, parents, etc. Especially in the light of modern psychiatry and therapy, we tend to see such confessions as liberating, as therapeutic, or as lifting a weight off our shoulders. Foucault suggests that confessions are not inherently liberating, but that we have been pushed to see them that way by the powers that extract confessions from us. Because so many different groups demand confessions "for your own good," we automatically see confession as something good. Foucault implies that the idea of confession as therapeutic is not a fact, but a construction of our culture. Other cultures might think of this demand for confession as coercive rather than liberating.
This compulsion to divulge secrets about ourselves is largely responsible for our modern concept of subjecthood. Our inner life has become something to examine and to talk about. It has also become an object of knowledge and a dirty secret. The "I" that I speak about is no longer an obvious and transparent thing. It becomes a mystery even to myself, something I must dig into my own consciousness to discover. Foucault identifies this (perhaps a little hastily) with the course of modern philosophy. He might point, for instance, to Descartes' "I think therefore I am," at the source of modern philosophy; to Kant's critical philosophy, that recommends the study of our own cognitive faculties rather than abstract metaphysics; to the phenomenology or existentialism of the twentieth century that focuses on the immediacy of lived experience and consciousness. However, his analysis offers no explanation for the turn toward logic away from psychology in analytic philosophy, or the attempt by pragmatists to break down the subject/object distinction. According to Foucault, the confession has both subjected us to the powers extracting confessions and made us aware of our own subjecthood. This is what he means when he says that we have become "subjects in both senses of the word."