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Sexual Repression or Proliferation?

In Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, he argues that the concept of sexuality has been misrepresented and misinterpreted subject amongst Western societies, here introducing his “repressive hypothesis”. Foucault explains that it is during the rise of bourgeois society that the understanding of sexuality as a pleasurable activity was simply deemed offensive and was not to be tolerated (3). Sexual relations outside the private confines of matrimony were not only not acceptable but repressed.

So much so that extra efforts were taken to make illicit sexual relations unspeakable acts; “repression operated as a sentence to disappear, but also as an injunction to silence” (4). Foucault’s repressive hypothesis also explicates that there was an obvious need for “concessions” to be made, as sort of outlet whereby sexual tensions could be safely released outside the boundaries of marriage (4). Foucault identifies prostitution and psychiatry as two forms of outlets whereby individuals were given the opportunity to release their confessions concerning their illicit sexual desires.

If an act or thought of, is prohibited then the mere fact of speaking of it would be considered a transgression against the established power, here introducing Foucault’s concept of the “speaker’s benefit” (6). Foucault demonstrates that there is a connection between the discourse of sexuality and power. Here he explains to the reader that it is the desire for the possible knowledge that can be gained from sexuality and the ability to speak freely about the subject that is in complete contradiction we the established order (6).

He argues that “what sustains our eagerness to speak of sex in terms of repression is doubtless this opportunity to speak out against the powers that be” (7). Despite the fact that individuals such as Freud have made it possible to have honest discussions concerning sexuality, this form of discourse remains closed off to the realm of academic and scientific investigation. Unfortunately these psychiatric advancements leave the individual with only theoretical means to deal with their issues of sexual repression; this is why it is imperative that society also have access to political liberation (6).

It is quite evident here that Foucault believes that power has been utilized in order to repress sex and its discourse; in turn he reveals that this power was held by the bourgeoisie who decided on how sexuality was to be presented and spoken of. As a result it was the bourgeoisie who controlled what kind of knowledge the individual was to gain from sex and its discourse. The need to control both sex and its discourse was evidently a need to control the people and thus to gain as much power over society as possible.

However, despite his extensive explanation of his hypothesis of the repression of sexuality Foucault feels that this does not account for the complete discussion in respect to sexual discourse; he argues that since the 17th century historical data has demonstrated that Western societies have been intrigued by the issues surrounding sexuality and as a result have led to the formation of an extensive discourse on the topic.

The historical data thus demonstrates that the evolution of the discourse has led the concept of sexuality and its issues to become omnipresent within the public sphere. Foucault seeks to uncover the “discursive production” vis-a-vis sexuality in order to demonstrate that within the moments of repression there have also been moments of liberation (12). The 17th century although filled with evident attempts by the bourgeoisie to repress the language of sexuality and its discourse there was an “apropos of sex […] a veritable discursive explosion” (17).

However it is important to note that Foucault is not taking a complete divergent position on the matter, rather he argues that the repressive approach to sexual discourse is in and of itself a discourse of sexuality. For despite the attempts on the part of the bourgeoisie to police language concerning sex and its use in order to silence the development of a sexual discourse “practically the opposite phenomenon occurred” (18). According to Foucault “there was a steady proliferation of discourses concerned with sex […] a discursive ferment that gathered momentum from the 18th century onwards” (18).

As a result of the repressive means utilized by the bourgeois society individuals developed a need for liberating themselves from this repressive approach and began to create a discourse that would enable them to freely use the language associated to sexuality. The need for sexuality to be spoken of under certain circumstances, such as “in the field of exercise of power itself” allowed for sex to be spoken about more and more “through explicit articulation and endlessly accumulated detail” (18). More importantly for Foucault, were the reasons as to why the repressive hypothesis was formulated?

Why sexuality was so widely discussed or rather why was there a need to limit and place boundaries around its discussion? (11) What were the effects of power generated by what was said about sexuality? (11) What knowledge was formed by connecting power and sexuality? (11) For Foucault the discussions which developed around the subject of sex and its discourse were really overshadowing the manifestation of a more hidden motivation; a motivation to acquire a particular sort of knowledge which would in turn reveal a new type of power.

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