History of Sexuality, Volume 1, part two, repressive hypothesis, 2, perverse implantation

Foucault, M.  (1990/1978/1976).  The history of sexuality:  Volume 1, an introduction.  Translated from the French by Robert Hurley.  New York, NY:  Vintage Books.

Part Two:  The Repressive Hypothesis; Chapter 2, The Perverse Implantation (pp. 36-49)

Foucault asks if all of these social controls and discourses were merely to reinforce procreation and take the pleasure out of sex?  He believes the answer to that is “yes” but he takes it a step further.  He asks if the purpose of the medicalizing and socializing (through psychiatry, pedagogy, and criminology) of the sex act and sexuality was “to ensure population, to reproduce labor capacity, to perpetuate the form of social relations:  in short, to constitute a sexuality that is economically useful and politically conservative?” (p. 37).  In addition, Foucault notes that the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been the age of “the implantation of perversions” and the initiation of “sexual heterogeneities” (p. 37).

Going back to the eighteenth century codes, Foucault notes three which governed sexual practices:  the canonical law, the Christian pastoral, and civil law.  These codes delineated the “division between licit and illicit” (p. 37) sexual activity.  Marital relations were “saturated with prescriptions” (p. 37) and under constant surveillance.  “Breaking the rules of marriage or seeking strange pleasures brought an equal measure of condemnation” (p. 38).  Homosexuality, infidelity, marriage without parental consent, and bestiality were all condemned equally.  “Prohibitions bearing on sex were essentially of a juridical nature” (p. 38).  Hermaphrodites, for instance, were seen as criminals or “crime’s offspring” (p. 38).

Two changes occurred as a result of the explosion of discourse in the eighteenth and nineteenth century:  a focus upon heterosexual monogamy and scrutiny of the sexuality of children, mad men and women, and criminals.  The libertine of the past became the pervert of the present; unnatural; degenerate.  Perverts were akin to madmen and friendly with delinquents.  Foucault attempts to tie these changing attitudes back to repression and social control by addressing the forms of power that were exercised:

1.  “an entire medico-sexual regime took hold of the family milieu” (p. 42):  marriage was the best, adultery was wrong, masturbation and incest became of interest along with children’s sexuality

2.  “the homosexual was now a species” (p. 43):  sodomy had been considered a forbidden act, but now sodomy described a person or an identity, along with other so-called perversions

3.  “The medicalization of the sexually peculiar was both the effect and the instrument of this” (p. 44):

The medical examination, the psychiatric investigation, the pedagogical report, and family controls may have the over-all and apparent objective of saying no to all wayward or unproductive sexualities, but the fact is that they function as mechanisms with a double impetus:  pleasure and power.  (p. 45)

4.  through heterosexual, socially sanctioned marriage, the family became the focus of all sexual activity:  “all this made the family, even when brought down to its smallest dimensions, a complicated network, saturated with multiple, fragmentary, and mobile sexualities” (p. 46)  leaving the classroom, the dormitory, the visit, and the consultation the site of “forms of a nonconjugal, nonmonogamous sexuality” (p. 46).

Nineteenth-century “bourgeois” society—and it is doubtless still with us—was a society of blatant and fragmented perversion….Modern society is perverse, not in spite of its puritanism or as if from a backlash provoked by its hypocrisy; it is in actual fact, and directly, perverse.  (p. 47)

The growth of perversions is not a moralizing theme that obsessed the scrupulous minds of the Victorians.  It is the real product of the encroachment of a type of power on bodies and their pleasures.  It is possible that the West has not been capable of inventing any new pleasures, and it has doubtless not discovered any original vices.  But it has defined new rules for the game of powers and pleasures.  (p. 48)

Therefore, Foucault concludes, we must abandon the idea that “modern industrial societies ushered in an age of increased sexual repression” (p. 49) and understand that “it is the opposite that has become apparent…never have there existed more centers of power…never more sites where the intensity of pleasures and the persistency of power catch hold, only to spread elsewhere”  (p. 49).


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