It is a fallacy to believe that the Victorian era marked the beginning of sexual repression. Counter intuitively deconstructing the ‘repressive hypothesis’, Foucault claims that sex and sexuality was not conceived in the vein of a discourse until the 17th century. Before this point in history, sex was largely ignored by state powers. However, I would argue that despite this, it was central in how the Church managed and controlled the masses. With that said, I propose that what we really witness is a shift in power from Church to State as well as a shift in the social psyche and the mechanism in which power was implemented.
In tandem to the growth of the industrial era came the birth of subjectivity- a sociocultural phenomenon that had inexplicable implications. Although there is no subject only subjectification, the pretext of selfhood led to a reconfiguration in the architecture of power and its manipulation of the masses. The human subject is said to be an invention of the seventeenth century. In part, subjectivity came as a result of the mass production and thus accessibility of mirrors to the bourgeoisie. Prior to 1630, mirrors were rare and seen only in the homes of the wealthy- thus selfhood and class were strongly intertwined. Before, “the rich and powerful had a great deal of control over their self images, unlike historical selves who left ‘only’ their actions behind, or the millions of whom we knew nothing personal whatsoever”
Ultimately, it is a question of what came first: the chicken or the egg. The mechanisms in which power was exercised mutated in accordance to this widespread notion of individuality, or perhaps people adjusted to this economic structure evolving later into neoliberalism. Control was no longer reinforced through means of deduction but rather through optimizing the productive power of the populace. The mutation in the mechanism in which power was exercised followed in tandem the paradigmatic shift from Church to State. Historically speaking, in a monarchy a serf was granted a plot of land in exchange for his labor, a portion of the crops he harvested and his willingness to fight in the name of his king. Fear that his land, crops or life could be taken away secured his compliance as did the fear implanted by the Church of God. Yet, with the rise of industrial power and the birth of subjectivity came a paradigmatic shift away from deduction as a means of control to the sphere of production.
Internalizing a sense of selfhood, an individual’s labor was translated as personal gain. A digression from work meant a crippling of one’s own prosperity. Time translated as money, so sex for purposes outside of reproduction was perceived as unproductive. In the Victorian era, sex became central in how medical, state and industrial apparatus’s of power functioned in relation to the public. The repressive hypothesis was rooted in the bourgeoise mentality that saw sex for pleasure as frivolous, social norms were cemented as were gender roles. This perception fueled the proliferation of discourses like psychoanalysis that sought to articulate sexual taboo’s and perversions. With the longevity of life being in the best interests of the power apparatus, population control became paramount and sex for the sake of sex for thus reason as well was shamed.