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Modern society, according to Foucault, "put into operation an entire machinery for producing true discourses concerning sex".

By Roy Hornsby

Michel Foucault's "History of Sexuality" is an undertaking in nullification of the notion that Western society has experienced a repression of sexuality since the seventeenth century. Further to this he dispels the idea that sexuality has not been the subject of open discourse. The purpose of this paper is an attempt to explain, through the reasoning of Foucault, that modern society has implemented the mechanisms necessary for generating true discourses relating to sex.

Foucault raises three doubts in "A Will to Knowledge", volume one of the trilogy "The History of Sexuality". Firstly, is sexual repression an established historical fact? Is what first appears to our view really the accentuation or establishment of a regime of sexual repression beginning in the seventeenth century? Secondly, do the workings of power in our society belong to the category of repression and is power exercised in a general way through prohibition, censorship and denial? His final question asks, does the critical discourse that addresses itself to repression act as a block to the power mechanism that has operated unchallenged to this point or is it in fact a part of the same thing that it denounces and misrepresents by calling it 'repression'? Was there really a rupture between the age of repression and the critical analysis of repression? (Foucault, 1998).

Foucault's doubts about the conception of repression were stimulated by evidence of an emerging proliferation of discourses on sex since the seventeenth century. His analysis begins with an examination of the widely held belief that in the Victorian era, sexual experience and practice were subjected to a power of repression (Smart, 1985). Smart (1985, p.95) cites Foucault as formulating a radically different set of questions;

"Why has sexuality been so widely discussed and what has been said about it? What were the effects of power generated by what was said? What are the links between these discourses, these effects of power, and the pleasures that were invested by them? What knowledge (savoir) was formed as a result of this linkage?"[1]

Foucault initially directed his work on sexuality to questions such as these although there was evidence from the seventeenth century onward of a whole new set of proprietary rules in the domain of sexuality and a growing sense of prohibition, censorship and general silencing of sexual discussion. He argued that there was another tendency that became apparent in the increase of sexual discourse (Smart, 1985). According to Smart (1985, p96), Foucault stated that as the seventeenth century drew to a close;

"there emerged a political, economic and technical incitement to talk about sex. And not so much in the form of a general theory of sexuality as in the form of analysis, stocktaking, classification and specification, of quantitative or causal studies"[2].

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a diversity of discourses on sexuality in the fields of medicine, psychiatry, pedagogy, criminal justice and social work emerged. This occurred as sex became increasingly an object of administration and management through government inquiry. The analysis of population demographics led governments to focus on investigations into birthrate, legitimate and illegitimate births, age of marriage, frequency of sexual relations, fertility and so on. The effect of these analyses was a grid of observations that related to sexual matters. In that manner, sex became confined to the privacy of the home and the procreative couple and at the same time it became an enmeshment of a web of discourses and forms of analysis between the state and individuals (Smart, 1985).

Foucault shatters the illusion that from the Middle Ages onward a prudish Victorian culture did everything that it could to silence sexuality when he claims that sexuality was, in that period, the subject of immense verbosity. He states that the desire to speak about the repressed nature of sex participated in the very structure that it was seeking to decipher (Bristow, 1997). Foucault argues further by suggesting that it is peculiar to modern societies not to consign sex to a shadowy existence but to speak about it ad infinitum whilst at the same time exploiting it as the secret. Foucault states that rather than a prudishness of language or a uniform concern to hide sex, what distinguishes these last three centuries is the proliferation of devices that have been invented for speaking about it, having it spoken about, inducing it to speak of itself, for listening, recording, transcribing and re-distributing what is said about it: a whole network of varying, specific and coercive transpositions into discourse. Rather than censorship, what evolved was a regulated and polymorphous incitement to discourse (Foucault, 1978). Foucault has no patience at all with what is termed the 'repressive hypothesis' as he feels that a society cannot be sexually repressed when there is such an incitement to discourse upon this very belief (Bristow, 1997).

According to Foucault, until Freud, the discourse on sex that scholars and theoreticians engaged in never ceased to hide the thing that they were speaking about and by speaking about it so much, by multiplying it and partitioning it off there was created a screen-discourse, a dispersion avoidance meant to evade the unbearable and too hazardous truth of sex. It began to be spoken about from the rarified and neutral viewpoint of science, a science that refused to speak of sex itself but spoke of aberrations, perversions, exceptional oddities, pathological abatements and morbid aggravations. It stirred up peoples fear as it claimed to tell the truth as it ascribed an imaginary dynasty of evils destined to be passed on for generations (Foucault, 1978).

During the nineteenth century Western civilizations developed a scientia sexualis the goal of which was to produce true discourses on sex. The 'Right to Reconciliation' or the 'confession', the history of which may be traced back to the first centuries of Christianity, was the technique at the centre of this production of truth about sex. Sex has been the central theme of confession from the Christian penance to the psychiatrist's couch. Through the confessional process truth and sex have integrated and knowledge of the subject has evolved (Smart, 1985). Foucault desired to trace the thread through so many centuries that has linked sex and the search to identify the truth for our societies. He said;

"how is it that in a society like ours, sexuality is not simply a means of reproducing the species, the family and the individual? Not simply a means to obtain pleasure and enjoyment? How has sexuality come to be considered the privileged place where our deepest "truth" is read and expressed? For that is the essential fact: Since Christianity, the Western world has never ceased saying: "To know who you are, know what your sexuality is". Sex has always been the forum where both the future of our species and our "truth" as human subjects is decided.
Confession, the examination of the conscience, all the insistence on the important secrets of the flesh, has not been simply a means of prohibiting sex or of repressing it as far as possible from consciousness, but was a means of placing sexuality at the heart of existence and of connecting salvation with the mastery of these obscure movements. In Christian societies, sex has been the central object of examination, surveillance, avowal and transformation into discourse" (Michel Foucault, Politics Philosophy Culture, 1988)[3]

This intersection of the technology of the confession with scientific investigation and discourse has constructed the domain of sexuality within modern societies as being problematic and in need of interpretation. Indeed to construct a knowledge of the individual the object of the investigation has become to uncover the truth of sex and to reveal its assumed hidden secret. Sex became our privileged locus or secret of our being - our truth, and the pursuit is now for the 'truth of sex' and the 'truth in sex' (Smart, 1985).

The confession has spread its effects far and wide; we confess our crimes, our sins, our thoughts and our desires. Whatever is most difficult to tell we offer up for scrutiny with the greatest precision. We confess in public and in private to parents, educators, doctors, loved ones in pleasure and in pain, things that would be impossible to tell anyone else. The confession can be voluntary or wrung from a person by violence or the threat of it. Sex, albeit hidden we are told, has been the privileged theme of confession from the Christian penance to the present day. The transformation of sex into discourse along with the dissemination and reinforcement of heterogeneous sexualities are all linked together with the help of the central element of the confession which compels individuals to express their sexual peculiarity no matter how extreme it may be (Foucault, 1978).

The confession is a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement and it is also a ritual of power manifested by the presence of another. The other becomes the authority who requires the confession in order to arbitrate upon it. Through the complete expression of an individual secret, truth and sex are joined but it is the truth which serves as the medium for sex and its manifestations. The end result of this ritual produces fundamental changes in the person who expresses it as it exonerates and liberates him with the promise of salvation. It is the bond between the one who speaks and what he is speaking about within the intimacy of discourse that warrants the integrity of the confession. The dominant agency does not reside within the constraint of the person who speaks but rather within the one who listens and says nothing; neither does it reside within the one who knows and answers but within the one who questions and is not supposed to know. The discourse of truth takes effect finally however, from the one from whom it was wrested and not from the one who receives it (Foucault, 1978).

The possibility exists that sexual discourses merely served to provide a foundation for imperatives aimed at the eradication of 'unproductive' forms of sexuality. That perhaps all of the forms of discourse had as their end the cultivation of a vital population, reproduction of labour capacity and the prevailing social relations. Foucault argues that if the discourses were aimed at eliminating fruitless pleasures then they had failed, for by the nineteenth century a multiple implantation of perversions and a dispersion of sexualities had occurred. He suggests that non-conjugal, non-monogamous sexualities were not prohibited or eliminated by the power of the discourse of the confessional but that they were incited and multiplied. As a consequence a proliferation of unorthodox sexualities has eventuated. It is the sanctity accorded to the heterosexual monogamy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that has as its natural consequence the incitement to confession of a multitude of sexual perversions that were deemed as unnatural or abnormal equivalents to the 'regular' sexuality of the 'acceptable' couple (Smart, 1985).

Foucault informs us that historically there have been two main procedures for producing the truth of sex. Societies such as China, Japan, India, Rome and the Arabo-Muslim societies granted to themselves the ars erotica, and from this erotic art, truth is drawn from the pleasure in itself. The practice is understood and experienced while pleasure is not defined in relation to the permitted or the forbidden. Our society has broken with the tradition of ars erotica and bestowed upon itself a scientia sexualis by adapting the ancient procedure of the confession to the rules of scientific discourse. Nearly one hundred and fifty years have gone into the making of the complex machinery for producing true discourses on sex and the enablement of the truth of sex and its pleasures to be embodied in a thing called 'sexuality' (Foucault, 1978).

The immense extortion of the sexual confession came to be constituted in scientific terms in the following ways; a clinical codification of the inducement to speak, the postulate of a general and diffuse causality, the principle of a latency intrinsic to sexuality, the method of interpretation, the medicalisation of the effects of confession (Foucault, 1978, pp 65-67). Foucault has rationalized that contrary to the opinion that the society of the nineteenth century had little dialogue relating to sex, that they did in fact put into operation an entire machinery for producing true discourses about it. To Foucault the censorship and taboos on the mentioning of sexual topics are secondary, or perhaps even complimentary to the explosion of discourses on sexuality (Cousins & Hussain, 1984). This society conceived a new type of pleasure as it endeavoured to create the homogeneous truth concerning sex: pleasure in the truth of pleasure.

[1] Smart is citing a passage from The History of Sexuality, Vol 1, p 11, Hurley, R. (trans). back

[2] Ibid., pp. 23-4 back

[3] Originally published as "Foucault: Non au sexe roi" in Le Nouvel observateur, March 12, 1977, this interview was translated by David J. Parent as "Power and Sex," in Telos 32 (1977), pp. 152-61 back


Bristow, J. 1997, Sexuality, Routledge, Great Britain.

Cousins, M. & Hussain, A., 1984, Michel Foucault, Theoretical Traditions in the Social Sciences, Macmillan Education Ltd., London.

Foucault, M., Levy, B-H. 1988, Michel Foucault, Politics Philosophy Culture, Kritzman, L., ed., Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Inc., New York.

Foucault, M. 1998, The Will to Knowledge, The History of Sexuality Volume 1, Hurley, R., trans., Penguin Books, Great Britain.

Smart, B. 1988, Michel Foucault, Routledge, London.

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