The History of Sexuality – An Introduction

July 24, 2011 § 1 Comment

Oh, Michel. Oh memories! It feels like only yesterday I was reading this book as an insufferable undergraduate, scribbling the word “penis” in the margins and underlining every other sentence, to prove to anyone who might be watching that I was Reading Critically. How times have…not changed. Still, my afternoon with Foucault was quite pleasant, despite the occasional tl;dr moments. Because seriously dude, we got it the first three times. So let’s see. The basic focus of this volume is to challenge the so-called “repressive hypothesis,” that is, the assumption/lamentation that we are just sooo sexually repressed you guys and have been since forever. Foucault just isn’t buying it; as he argues, all Victorians –allegedly the prudest of the prudes and our sexual forbearers– ever did was talk about sex, in that they never shut up about not talking about sex, and in the attempt to really seriously make sure no one was even thinking about talking about sex, demanded that everybody confess every single sexthought ever, to purify their filthy minds. Of course, and also hilariously, the impulse to confess only made things worse, since confession meant repentance and repentance meant there was something to repent, that is, something to pathologize, which only gave the perverts new ideas. In other words, DON’T THINK ABOUT ELEPHANTS YOU REALLY SHOULDN’T THINK ABOUT ELEPHANTS IF YOU’RE THINKING ABOUT ELEPHANTS YOU’RE IN BIG TROUBLE MISTER, boom elephant problem solved.

So no, Foucault insists, contrary to popular opinion the Victorian era was not characterized by repression of sex (said to be the byproduct of capitalism, because what isn’t a product of capitalism LOL). Instead it was characterized by the production of sexuality (119) — in women (deemed hysterical, dangerous, out of control, a threat to Hearth and Home), in children (who waste all their precious seed in mittens and/or the ripped-out eyesockets of their sisters’ favorite teddy bear, in direct defiance of Heavenly Father who’s like, gross, and also stop wasting it), in perverts (better watch out, you could be NEXT), in society (birthrates and population control and demographics, oh my) (97; 103-105; the whole damn book). In every case, sex, at least, the discourse surrounding sex, was a vehicle for POWER (i.e. that which puts the “status” in “status quo”) and in that sense functioned as a sort of social control (“bio-power”), first for the Bourgeoisie to go forth and cause even more damage and then for the unwashed baby-pooping masses (141-149).

Um let’s see exams. Per Mary Douglas, sex = DIRT, that which threatens to upset the (presumedly) natural order. So we cordon off that which is “dirty,” language we use even now to describe any and all sex we’re not personally having. Again, “purity” exists only in relation to that which is impure, meaning that the existence of sex –well, sex as pathos– helps reinforce the normative borders. Perverts on one side, normal people on the other. The alleged normal people subsequently enclose the alleged perverts in a metaphorical (and sometimes literal) zoo, which is then open for metaphorical (and sometimes literal) business. All the non-perverts can finally breathe a sigh of relief (the threat! it’s finally contained) then proceed to beat off behind the Dell’s Lemonade pushcart by the women’s bathrooms, as they are wont to do.

Michel Foucault, everybody!


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