History of Sexuality

In the “History of Sexuality”, Foucault positions the discourse of sexuality within what he claims to be a history of repression.  He extrapolates this sexual suppression, which renders sex outside of reproduction taboo, to the technology of power and the hegemonic order.  Foucault begs the question as to why the western world has always approached sex as either scientific or perverse- two polarities difficult to reconcile.  He goes further to divulge the social inclination to believe that there is a finite truth connected with sex which is rooted in the discourse’s relationship with knowledge and power.

Foucault traces the birth of sexual repression back to the seventeenth century, at which point he argues the discourse’s disposition manifested in tandem to the rise of the bourgeoisie, who regarded sex for pleasure unproductive.  From here, Foucault goes further to claim that power is harnessed through the act of repression.  He juxtaposes traditional forms of sociopolitical control with that of the present.  Three centuries ago, the sovereign had the “right of death” over his subjects.  The threat of deduction, in other words the power to take another’s life, property or freedom was used as a form of dominance over the populace.  In modern times, the “right of death” has been replaced by the “power over life”.  This transformation in the mechanisms in which power is exercised over the people marks a paradigm shift.  In contemporary time, political interests lie in the practice of preserving life as opposed to threatening death.

Modernity and the rise of capitalism regarded the human body as a productive unit that’s part of a larger machine.  The economic growth of a nation is hinged on the efficiency of its populace. Through social conditioning, certain taboos are internalized and expectations are put in place.  This vein of control is diffused through the military apparatus, the education system and the media.  Social stratification is secured by the allotment of certain tasks to different demographics.  Foucault argues that the power structure has to be “capable of optimizing forces, aptitudes, and life in general without at the same time making them [the people] more difficult to govern” (141). Foucault coins the term “bio-power” to explain the political mechanisms employed to harness control of the populace.  He goes on to argue that biopower is responsible for the rise of capitalism and the modern day nation-state.

Biopower and the “power over life” takes another form in the case of population control, demographics and resource analysis. This is where the discourse of sexuality is invited in.  With human life under the jurisdiction of politics, the reproductive practices of the people become political.  This is evident in cases like the population control policy put in effect by the Republic of China, which restricts the number of children urban couples may have.  Foucault’s interest lies in the obscured and discursive tie sex has with language, knowledge and power.  He unveils the means in which culture bans the politics of sexuality outside the confines of certain social norms such as the institution of marriage. Pajaczkowska writes in ‘ Issues in Feminist Visual Culture’ that “ as a concept, sex is particularly anxiogenic in our culture and tends therefore to be idealized in romantic, divine and sublime love or to be debased as carnal, instinctive or perverse, as dirt” (9).  This rigid dichotomy creates a schism in the discourse of sexuality. Perhaps through debasing sexual liberation, the governing forces are able to maintain control through repression.


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