The History of Sexuality

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The History of Sexuality is a major text of Michel Foucault, a highly influential Philosopher, Historian and Social Theorist. Our article summarises its implications for the topic of physically experienced attractions and relationships between minors and adults.

Introduction

In Volume 1 of The History of Sexuality, Foucault seeks to challenge the popular discourse of 'sexual repression' and to describe the invention of the notion of "sexuality", which is today treated as though it is some sort of eternal and essential fact.

The popular 'sexual repression' narrative runs thus: Prior to the seventeenth century, sexual frankness was common. Victorian bourgeoisie moved it into the home; silence and prudishness became the rule. Since the 1960s, we've begun to liberate ourselves from two long centuries of repression – the fact that we are doing so is testament to our progress. Discourse on sexual oppression is filled with the promise of a coming freedom. The effects of liberation from repression are bound to be slow, so we must persevere.

This common hypothesis – 'sexual repression' – must be re-situated within the general economy of discourse of 'sex' in modern societies since the seventeenth century; only in this way will it become clear that the 'repression' hypothesis is in fact part of the same historical network as the very thing it professes to denounce.

By shifting ever-greater focus away from physical interactions and onto desires, during the seventeenth century 'sex' became entrenched as a discourse that embraced everyone. Western man thus has been drawn for three centuries to the task of telling everything concerning his sex. This carefully analytical discourse was intended to yield multiple effects of the displacement, intensification, reorientation and the modification of desire itself.

From the beginning of the eighteenth century, there was political, economic and technical incitement to talk about sex in the form of analysis, stocktaking, classification and specification. Such a need derived not from morality or religious sensibility alone, but from rationality: one had to speak of sex not simply as something to be judged, but as something to be managed, inserted into systems of utility, regulated for the greater good of all, made to function according to an optimum. 'Sex' was in the nature of public potential: it called for management procedures; it had to be taken charge of by analytic discourse.

Hence, rather than a massive censorship, what was involved beginning with the verbal properties imposed by the 'Age of Reason' was a regulated and polymorphous incitement to discourse. It is not clear whether the ultimate objective of all the developments was to ensure population, reproduce labor capacity, perpetuate the form of social relations (i.e. to constitute a sexuality that is economically-useful and politically-conservative), but what is clear is that a reduction in sexual discourse was not the means employed. We are not "sexually repressed". The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have instead been the age of multiplication – the invention and dispersion of 'sexualities', a strengthening of their disparate forms, a multiple implantation of 'perversions': our epoch has initiated sexual heterogeneities.

The Invention of Sexuality

One of the great innovations in the techniques of power in the eighteenth century was the emergence of "population" as an economic and political problem: population as wealth, as manpower or labor capacity, balanced between its own growth and resources. At the heart of this economic and political problem was 'sex': it was necessary to analyze the birth-rate, the age of marriage, precocity and frequency of sexual relations, sterility and fertility, the effects of unmarried life, the impact of contraceptive practices, and so on. This was the first time that a culture had affirmed that its future and fortune were tied not only to the number and productivity of its citizens, to their marriage rules and organization, but to the manner in which each individual made use of his sex. The sexual conduct of the population became both an object of analysis and a target for intervention. Between the state and the individual, sex became a public issue: a whole web of discourses, special knowledge, analyses and injunctions settled upon it.

What was involved in these strategies was the very production of sexuality. Sexuality must be regarded as a historical construct; a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the incitement to discourse, the formation of special knowledges, and the strengthening of controls, are linked to one another in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power.

Prior to the eighteenth century, there were undoubtedly deployments of alliance (a system of marriage, fixation of kinship ties, the transmission of names and possessions) which was build around a system of rules (a licit/illicit binary) and tied to the economy due to the role they could play in the transmission or circulation of wealth. But the new apparatus of "sexuality" created and deployed by Western societies from the eighteenth century engendered a [i]continual extension[/i] of areas and forms of control. It was linked to the economy through numerous and subtle relays, the main one of which is the body, the body that produces and consumes. Whereas the deployment of alliance had the function of maintaining the social body as a whole, the deployment of sexuality has its reason for being in proliferating, innovating, annexing and creating individual bodies, and controlling populations in an increasingly comprehensive way.

Particularly since the nineteenth century, this concatenation has been ensured and relayed by the countless economic interests which have tapped into both the analytical multiplication of pleasure and the optimization of the power that controls it. The growth of 'perversions' is not a moralizing theme; it is the real product of the encroachment of a type of power on bodies and their pleasures.

The type of power brought to bear on the body and 'sex' acted by multiplication of singular sexualities; it did not set boundaries for sexuality but rather created and extended forms of sexuality. This deployment of power produced and determined the sexual mosaic. A proliferation of sexualities through the extension of power; an optimization of the power to which each of the newly created sexualities provided a surface of intervention.

The Role of the Sciences

Intervention was tied to the fact that this deployment of power, this creation of sexualities, demanded constant, attentive presences for its exercise: it proceeded through examination and insistent observation, and required an exchange of discourses between 'experts'.

The growth of the human sciences was correlative with the entrenchment of power-knowledges that produced sexualities. Medicine, psychiatry and pedagogy began to solidify all the aspects of sexuality; recording, classifying. In the nineteenth century, the most singular pleasures were called upon to pronounce a discourse of truth concerning themselves within the norms of scientific regularity. The medicalization of sex was both effect and instrument of the deployment of sexuality.

The medicalization of the discourse meant that the sexual domain was no longer accounted for by notions of sin or excess, but was placed under the rule of the normal and the pathological. Sex would derive its meaning and necessity from medical intervention. Thus, for instance, the new focus on childhood masturbation was not an evil to be eliminated, but was instead an excuse for the multiplication of power branches. The body of the child was now placed under permanent and minute surveillance, surrounded by a watch-crew of parents, nurses, educators and doctors.

Since the eighteenth century, 'sexuality' has had its privileged point of development in the nuclear family, hence sexuality is 'incestuous' from the start. (If the West has displayed such a strong interest in the prohibition of incest, perhaps this is because it was a means of self-defense against the expansion and implications of this deployment of sexuality that had been set up.) The family cell made it possible for the main elements of the deployment of sexuality (the four 'great strategies' which formed specific mechanisms of knowledge and power centering on sex: the hysterical woman, the masturbating child, the Malthusian couple, and the perverse adult) to develop along its two primary dimensions: the husband-wife axis and the parent-child axis.

The contemporary family form must therefore not be understood as something that excludes/restrains sexuality; on the contrary, its role is to anchor the notion of sexuality and provide it with permanent entrenchment. In the nuclear family, parents became the chief agents of a deployment of sexuality which drew its outside support from doctors, educators and psychiatrists. The nuclear family is the crystal in the deployment of sexuality: it seemed to be the source of a sexuality which it only reflected and diffracted. The family cell could hence be combined with the 'scientific knowledges' to produce and proliferate hegemonic discourses.

Our societies have thus equipped themselves with a science of sexuality. More precisely, they have pursued the task of producing "true discourses" concerning sex. The society that emerged in the 19th c (bourgeois, capitalist, industrial society) put into operation an entire machinery for producing 'true discourses' concerning sex. Not only did it speak of sex and compel everyone to do so, it also set out to formulate a uniform Truth of sex. It was essential for this society that sex be inscribed into an ordered system of knowledge.

In this question of sex, two processes emerge, one always conditioning the other: we demand that sex speak the truth (but reserve for ourselves the right to reveal its truth via science) and we demand that it tells us our truth. We tell it its truth by deciphering what it tells us about that truth; it tells us our own, by delivering up that part of it that escaped us. From this interplay has evolved a 'knowledge of the human subject', of that which determines him, and importantly, causes him to be ignorant of himself. Through the tactics of power immanent in the discourse of sex, the newly-formed subject requires scientific discourse – biology, psychiatry, medicine – to lift him from his position of ignorance.

Biopower

The emphasis on 'the body' should undoubtedly be linked to the process of growth and establishment of bourgeois hegemony – not because of the market value assumed by labor capacity, but because of what the 'cultivation' of its own body could represent politically, economically and historically for the present and future of the bourgeoisie.

Thus it was the body of the bourgeoisie that underwent the initial changes – it was a long time before they offered the proletariat a body and a sex. Conflicts became necessary (epidemics, venereal diseases) for the proletariat to be implanted with a body and a sexuality; economic emergencies had to arise (heavy industry, the need for a stable and competent labor force, the obligation to regulate population); there had to be established a whole technology of control which made it possible to keep this new body and sexuality under surveillance – schooling, housing, public hygiene, institutions of relief, the general medicalization of the population; an entire administrative and technical machinery which made it possible to safely import the deployment of sexuality into the working classes.

'Biopower': Foucault's concept for that which brought Life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculation and made power-knowledge an age of transformation of human life. Law always refers to the sword, but a power whose task is to take charge of life needs continuous regulatory and corrective mechanisms; it effects distributions around norms. A normalizing society is the historical outcome of a technology of power centered on Life. We should not be deceived by all the constitutions framed, codes written and revised, continual and clamorous legislative activity: these were merely the forms that made an essentially normalizing power acceptable.

'Sex' was at the pivot of the two axes along which developed the entire political technology of Life. On the one hand, it was tied to the disciplines of the body (harnessing and distribution of forces, the adjustment and economy of energies); on the other, it was applied to the regulation of populations. 'Sex' was means of access both to the life of the body and the life of the species.

Thus in the nineteenth century, 'sex' was sought out in the smallest details of individual existences, tracked down in behavior, pursued in dreams; it was suspected of underlying the least follies, it was traced back into the earliest years of childhood; it became the stamp of individuality – simultaneously what enabled one to analyze, and make it possible to master, 'individuality'.

It was in the nineteenth century that 'the homosexual' was first invented as a personage with a past, a case history. Sodomy was no longer an aberrant act, but the perpetrator was now an identity. Nothing that went into his total composition was not affected by his 'sexuality'. The homosexual became a species, as did all the minor perverts entomologized by psychiatrists: 300-philias were created, producing more and more species. The machinery of power did not aim to suppress such identities but rather to give them an analytical, visible and permanent reality: they were implanted in bodies, made into principles of classification, established as a 'natural order' of disorder. The thousand aberrant sexualities were disseminated in order to strew reality with them and incorporate them into the individual.

All along the lines of attack upon which the politics of sex advanced, one sees the creation and elaboration of an idea that there exists something other than merely bodies, organs, functions, sensations and pleasures; something else and something 'more', with intrinsic properties and laws of its own: the contemporary notion of "sex". The deployment of sexuality established this new idea of "sex", which made it possible to group together – in artificial unity – anatomical elements, biological functions, conducts, sensations and pleasures, and enabled this fictitious unity to be used as a causal principle, an omni-present meaning, a secret to be discovered everywhere.

"Sex" is not some autonomous agency which produces various effects of sexuality. On the contrary, sex is the most speculative, ideal and internal element in a deployment of sexuality organized by power in its grip on bodies, their forces, energies, sensations and pleasures.

Through a reversal, we have arrived at the point were we expect our intelligibility and identity to come from what was earlier perceived as an obscure and nameless urge. Hence the importance which we have come to ascribe to "sex", the reverential fear with which we surround it. In creating the imaginary element that is "sex", the deployment of sexuality established one of its most essential internal operating principles: desire – the desire to have 'sex', to access it, to discover it, to liberate it in discourse, to formulate it as truth.

It is this desirability of "sex" that makes us think that in clamoring for 'rights', we are affirming rights against power – when in fact we are merely fastened to the deployment of sexuality that has lifted up from within us a sort of mirage in which we think of ourselves as reflected. The rallying point for the counterattack against the deployment of sexuality therefore ought not to be a 'right to sexual desire' or to a 'sexual identity', which merely reiterates the very discourses that have produced the contemporary utilization of "sex" as a strategy to control and limit, but rather bodies and pleasures.

Conclusions and Moving Forwards

The history of sexuality outlined by Foucault demonstrates that what we consider as 'natural', 'essential' or even 'genetic' – notions of "sex" and "sexuality" – are in fact purely contingent, discursive strategies, utilized since the eighteenth century as part of a project of the body's optimization; turning the human body into a well-regulated machine by means of breaking down its movements into their smallest elements and then building them back into a maximally-efficient whole.

Any 'sexual liberation' based on the discourse of 'sex' or 'sexual identity' thus plays into the hands of this biopolitical project of control and regulation. For example, psychiatric-medico-jurisprudential discourse of the nineteenth century created 'the homosexual', but homosexuality then began to speak on its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or 'naturality' be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories, by which it was medically disqualified. It was not thus 'liberated', but rather entrenched the power-processes that had invented it.

One implication of this for those who identify as 'child-lovers', 'BLs', 'CLs', or 'pedophiles' is that the adoption of an identity and a sexuality, even as a minority discourse, collaborates with the self-same power relations that operate to endlessly classify – and so control – populations. Claims of 'human rights', 'sexual rights', 'freedom from governmental intervention' – in participating with the illusory model of 'power' as a limit set on freedom, and in their failure to understand power as something that produces – equally serve merely to reproduce the 'repression/liberation' delusion.

Foucault's analysis suggests that we must create new narratives, new ways of understanding bodies and their interactions. First, this requires a refusal of all "sexual identities" and the very notion of "sex". In order to produce these replacement narratives, however, we will have to move beyond the limitations of Foucauldian analysis. Possible trajectories will be the subject of subsequent articles.