The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1
Part Four, Chapter 4
Foucault traces a history of sexuality that is more complex than the one suggested by the repressive hypothesis. He traces its origins back to the Lateran Council of 1215, which first instituted confession as a part of Catholic doctrine. The form of confession intensified and grew steadily in importance between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. The end of the eighteenth century saw a secularization of sex, as pedagogy, medicine, and demography took interest in child sexuality, women's sexuality, and human reproduction respectively. Though all three of these fields inherited a great deal from earlier Christian interests in children, women, and married couples, their interest lay now in physical health and illness rather than in spiritual well- being. The spiritual Christian concept of the "flesh" was reduced to the level of the human organism.
The nineteenth century saw the birth of the concept of degeneracy as related to sex. People thought that sexual perversions were passed down through generations. As something that could pervade and infect all of society, sexual perversions were seen as a public danger. This fear led to the medical treatment of perversion and to eugenics. The repressive hypothesis claims that sex has been repressed in order to maximize economic production. If this were the case, young men and the working classes would have been subject to the most stringent repression. The fact is, however, that the bourgeois were more vigilant regarding their own sexuality than that of the working classes, and were particularly interested in women and children. The concern was not to maximize productivity but to ensure the morality and purity of one's own family line. The deployment of sexuality in the working class came later.
Though there are a number of problems with the repressive hypothesis, the most significant is its misunderstanding of the purpose of repression. Sexual repression was not exercised on the working class for economic motives, nor was it a form of asceticism. It was a self-affirmation of the ruling, bourgeois class. The bourgeois became interested in controlling sex as a means of preserving their own health and lineage. The bourgeois did not try to get rid of sex, but rather saw it as all-important. They saw the health of both body and soul, as well as the health of future generations, depending on a healthy, controlled sexuality.
The sexual repression of the nineteenth century was intended to increase the strength and dominance of the bourgeoisie. While the earlier aristocracy had a concept of pure bloodlines, the bourgeoisie had a concept of healthy sexuality. They also associated healthy sexuality with general health and longevity that would allow them to extend their power and influence. The deployment of sexuality only reached the working classes through an effort to control them, as the health and fertility rate of the proletariat became increasingly important to the bourgeoisie with the growth of heavy industry. Thus, Foucault asserts, sexuality varies between classes: for the bourgeois, it is a means of self- affirmation, for the proletariat, it is a means of control.
Sexual repression came about largely because the bourgeois needed to distinguish their sexuality from that of the proletariat, and did so by placing harsher controls on themselves. This in turn led to the development of psychoanalysis, which tried to alleviate this repression. Psychoanalysis, which is the birthplace of the repressive hypothesis, does not work against the deployment of sexuality, but is only one more development in its convoluted history. The repressive hypothesis is not liberating us from our sexual history: it is a part of that history.
This chapter gives us a different way of looking at the history of sexuality, one that sees it not primarily as a history of repression, but a history of class dominance. Foucault interprets sexuality as a bourgeois invention that was developed for the benefit and propagation of that class. Chapter 1 deals largely with the juridico-discursive conception of power, and argues that that is a limited conception of power, because it sees power as always and only repressive and law-like, something that is applied to sexuality from the outside. Chapter 2 lays out Foucault's theory of power, in which he suggests that power is pervasive and multi-faceted, working within everything and not moving with a single direction or plan. Chapter 3 discusses what Foucault means by "sexuality": a social construct that has been used to link power and knowledge to sex in a variety of different ways.
According to Foucault, sexuality is a means of focusing, channeling, and transmitting power, and power is a creative force that determines the relationships between people, institutions, and concepts. The bourgeois of the nineteenth century, who effectively invented what we think of as "sexuality," used this invention as a means of bolstering and extending their power. They came to see their sexuality as largely determining who they were physically, mentally, and spiritually. Controlling this sexuality became a means of controlling their destiny.
Sexuality, then, is not, as the repressive hypothesis suggests, something external to power. Rather, it has been a means used by the bourgeois to channel their power, and to extend their control over the body and mind. Nor is the power that the bourgeois exert simply prohibitive or repressive. Rather, it is a means of ensuring their propagation and survival. Even where sexual instincts have been repressed, Foucault shows that this repression has been for the sake of sexual health. The bourgeois do not try to ignore sexuality; rather, it is of such great importance to them that regulating it and ensuring its normalcy becomes highly important. Seeing sexuality as a bourgeois invention directed at regulating health, we understand why Foucault calls it a social construct.
The history Foucault describes shows us that the repressive hypothesis is not something that stands outside the normal repressive discourse on sexuality, calling for our liberation. Rather, it is a part of the same discourse that has been going on for centuries. It is a new bud on an old branch. The repressive hypothesis is a natural outgrowth of psychoanalysis, which in turn is a result of the increasing sexual repression of the bourgeoisie, which in turn is a result of the deployment of sexuality being extended to the working class. In this light, we can see the repressive hypothesis as another page in a longer history. We can detect some sort of chain of cause and effect in the history of sexuality, but there is little sense of an overall plan. It is far from obvious that the deployment of sexuality to the working class should ultimately lead to the formulation of the repressive hypothesis: that outcome was more a matter of chance than part of some grand design. The very notion that sexuality should be a focal point for bourgeois self-assertion is itself highly contingent, depending as it does on the history of Christian confession among other things.
Foucault gives us a history that seems both deterministic and contingent. On one hand, there does not seem to be much room for human freedom. Foucault's philosophy sees power as pervading everything, and so the history of sexuality can be read as the interchange between these various sources of power. What comes out in the end is beyond our control. On the other hand, though, there does not seem to be any clear direction, or even a clear connection between the different directions this history takes. Why should confession be linked to medicine, or the rise of heavy industry to the intensification of sexual repression? Foucault's history does not allow for a narrative that sees some ultimate goal or direction. Rather, it is just a chance series of one thing after another. We might pause to ask where Foucault's work fits into this history. In a sense, we could read this book as a revolutionary act: in making sexuality explicit as a social construction, it takes away from the bourgeoisie the power to wield it as an objective fact. Foucault is weakening the concept of sexuality, and is thus weakening the focal point of bourgeois power.
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