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Shaun Best

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The History of Sexuality


In The History of Sexuality Michel Foucault politicises sexuality and its role within the processes of self-formation. Foucault shows how heterosexuality encodes and structures everyday life. In sharp contrast to Foucault, most of the theorists in the area of sexuality, including many feminist writers, assume that heterosexuality is a natural given. When heterosexuality is couched in naturalistic language it appears as a set of institutional constraints that cannot be legitimately challenged, without going against nature. In other words, heterosexual relations provide the foundation for understanding all other forms of sexuality, such as butch/femme relationships that mirrors the husband/wife relationship. With the emergence of postmodernism in the 1990s and the politics of difference, new forms of gay and lesbian identity emerged which were not seen as derivations of the normal heterosexual identity. In Foucaults work the social and the sexual become linked, through the notion of normal behaviour.

Foucaults work on sexuality has to be seen as an account of how power became directly connected to the most intimate areas of the human body. His work on sexuality has to be seen in the context of his theories of power, exclusion and resistance.
At an individual level the ability of a person to do what they wish is related to the notion of subjectification, which is concerned with:
how the person is trained into certain ways of behaving the extent to which a person is the subject of power
how the person understands their own capacities the extent to which a person is subject to a body of ethics
how the person relates to others the extent to which the person accepts the situation as true.
As Paul Patton explains:
In this manner, the ways in which certain human capacities become identified and finalized within particular forms of subjectivity the ways in which power creates subjects may also become systems of domination. (Patton 1998 p71)

The enlightenment saw the development of bio-power, new forms of control over the bodies of people (by the use of new disciplinary technology). Bio-power can be viewed as the dark side of the enlightenment. In the area of sexuality bio-power manifest itself as: new scientific disciplines which were concerned with an anatomo-politics of the human body (Foucault 1990 page 139) and regulatory controls or a bio-politics of the population (Foucault 1990 page 139). Foucault developed what he called a capillary model of power in which he attempted to understand the relations of power by looking at struggle and resistance.
struggles are not limited to any one place or any one
struggles are concerned with resisting the effects of power on bodies or
struggles are concerned with resisting the role of government in individual self formation
struggles are concerned with opening up and making clear how power is used in change people
struggles are concerned with the politics of self-definition and self-formation
struggles are concerned with resisting the imposition of external standards of taste and decency
political struggles are local and personal in nature.

There are a number of common themes running through Foucaults work on sexuality. His central concern was with how human beings become subjected - are made into subjects within the modern world by the dominating mechanisms of disciplinary technology. In addition, Foucault is concerned with how people become subjects of investigation for new sciences such as medicine, psychiatry, and psychology. All of which was motivated by a search for the causes of abnormality, searching for answers to the question what makes some individuals perverted, sick or mischievous.

A central element for Foucault was the state, a political structure that emerged in the sixteenth century to look after the interests of the totality - everybody within the community. The state gathered information about all forms of human activity: birth rates; death rates; unemployment; public health; epidemic diseases, crime and sexuality. All of these phenomena could be indicators of a serious threat to the community. Friend and colleague of Foucault, Paul Rabinow in his introduction to The Foucault Reader (1986) explains that within Foucaults work it is possible to identify what he calls three modes of objectification, in other words three organising principles used by Foucault to explain how individual human beings become subjects:

1. Dividing practices. This involves the exclusion of people who are viewed as a threat to the community. The most famous example of this is the force withdrawal of lepers from the community into leper colonies during the Middle Ages. This exclusion did result in the eradication of leprosy from Europe, and as such it was believed that other threats to the community could be solved by similar exclusions. The poor were forced into workhouses. Criminals were placed into prison. The insane were excluded into mental hospitals, or ships of fools, which were said to be ships loaded with insane individuals which were pushed out to sea to find their sanity. Although the ship of fools may have been mythical, it is certainly true that the mad once played a recognised role within the local community, as the village idiot for example, and that this role was taken away from the insane when they were locked up in secure institutions. Foucault turns on its head the idea of progress in relation to the treatment of the mentally ill; the common sense assumption that the more we progress the more we care is not true, in Foucaults eyes.

2. Scientific classification. The Enlightenment brought with it a number of new sciences that were concerned with understanding the nature of individuals. In addition these new sciences defined what is normal so that the abnormal could be treated. The key tool for these new sciences was the examination (such as the examination you may have with the doctor), which transformed visibility into power, classified people into cases and trapped them in a straight-jacket of documentation, which clearly stated if they were normal or not. Foucault refers to this as hierarchical observation: ... a mechanism that coerces by means of observation; an apparatus in which the techniques that make it possible to see induce effects of power and in which, conversely, the means of coercion make those on whom they are applied clearly visible. (Foucault 1986 page 189). If we take the case of Psychiatry, the doctor has a notion of the normal mind and classifies individual into normal or into a range of various diseased states. In Foucaults work, power relationships are based upon surveillance and need not be based upon physical punishment.

3. Subjectification. This is concerned with the process of self-formation, self-understanding and the way in which conformity is achieved by problematizing activities and opening them up to observation and punishment. Foucault is concerned with what it means to be a self and how we as individuals are pressurised into creating our selves in a given fashion. Individuals define themselves as normal in relation to a number of factors: sex; health; race and many more. This is primarily concerned with what Foucault was to call the power of the norm, all individual actions are now within a field of comparison which both pressurises people and it normalises. Normal people could legitimately regard themselves as members of a homogeneous social body - the society.

The History of Sexuality

The first volume of The History of Sexuality Foucault explains that he wants to trace the origins of our restrained, mute, and hypocritical sexuality (Foucault 1990 p3) in which silence about sexuality became the norm. Sex was placed into a discourse, supported by powerful mechanisms that functioned to control all forms of desire and pleasure. Discursive practices are rule-governed structures of intelligibility that both oblige people to behave in a given way and give consent to ways of behaving. From the eighteenth century onwards sex became a police matter, in other words, sex became regulated by public discourses, organised around: Canonical law, Civil Law and Christian pastoral support. From the eighteenth century onwards, the state took an active interest in the sexuality of the population. Potential deviations from normal sexuality could have a detrimental impact upon matrimonial relations and family organisation that were seen as important in maintaining the health and prosperity of the country. Legal sanctions were imposed upon minor forms of perversions and other forms of sexual irregularity were redefined in terms of mental illness, Foucault lists, marrying a close relative, to seduce a nun, engage in sadism, deceive ones wife, to violate a cadaver:

debauchery (extramarital relations), adultery, rape, spiritual or carnal incest, but also sodomy, or mutual caress. As to the courts, they could condemn homosexuality as well as infidelity, marriage without consent, or bestiality. (Foucault 1990 page 38)

In The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality Vol 2 Foucault examines the manner in which sex and sexuality were problematized by classical Greek and Latin doctors and philosophers, whose texts on how a person should conduct themselves sexually influenced later Christian ideas about the nature of sexual activity. The central concept in this volume is the mode of subjection: .. the way in which the individual establishes his relation to the rule and recognizes himself as obliged to put it into practice. (Foucault 1992 page 27).

Foucault as a regimen refers to these rules of how one ought to behave. These rules covered areas diverse as exercise, food, drink, sleep as well as sexual relations. What underpinned the regimen was the notion that such activities should be measured and well managed because excesses were bad for the soul and the physical body. The misuse of sexual pleasure could lead to death. The regimen provided a guide on to do in any given situation. Foucault provides the following example, from a letter by Diocles to King Antigonus:

at winter solstice, which is the time when one is most susceptible to catarrh, sexual practice should not be restricted. During the time of the Pleiades ascent, a period in which bitter bile is dominant in the body, one must indulge in sexual acts with a good deal of moderation. One should even forgo them completely at summer solstice, when black bile takes over in the organism; and it is necessary to abstain from sexual activity, as well as from any vomiting, till the autumn equinox. (Foucault 1992 page 113-114).

One area that became problematized argues Foucault was the courting of boys and young men by adult males. For Foucault these areas of sexual activity: constituted the most active focus of reflection and elaboration; it was here that the problematization called for the most subtle forms of austerity. (Foucault 1992 page 253).

Many of these themes were taken up in The Care of the self: Vol 3 of The History of Sexuality (1990) Penguin Books London. Foucault draws upon the classical Greek text by Artemidorus The Interpretation of Dreams. Artemidorus argues nature had established the principle that there was a definite form of sexual act for each species, which was the one natural position. For humans the natural position was a man laid on top of a woman in a face-to-face position:

All the other positions have been discovered by yielding to wantonness and licentiousness. These unnatural relations always contain a portent of defective social relations (bad relationships, hostility) or a prediction of a worsening of ones economic situation (one is uncomfortable, financially embarrassed). (Foucault 1990 page 23)

In particular, Artemidorus disapproves of oral sex, which in common with many of the authors that Foucault reviews, he views as an awful act and a moral wrong because he believes it to be a wasteful discharge of semen, not in common with nature. Other activities that Artemidorus disapprove of include: relations with gods, relations with animals, relations with corpses, relations with oneself and relations between women.
In the area of sexuality, just as in the areas of madness and illness, social and medical practices were used to define a pattern of what constituted normal. A number of sexual practices were problematized and subjected to a rigid set of epistemic rules, discursive and punitive practices that together formed a disciplinary model. Subjectivation operates in a quasi-judicial fashion. The person must conform to a rule or set of rules and to do otherwise is to run the risk of punishment. Sex was not wrong, but a person was expected to enjoy their pleasure as one ought.
Critique of Foucaults work has revolved around the issue of whether Foucault had overstated the extent to which people could be subjected, leaving them little scope for resistance. In addition, Foucaults emphasis on power in to the processes of self-formation means that he ignored the global nature of power relations. Many feminists have argued that Foucaults analysis is not a theory for women; his theorising has no distinctly female/feminist ontology or epistemology.

Foucault, Michel (1990) The History of Sexuality Vol 1 (Translated by Robert Hurley) Penguin London
Foucault, Michel (1992) The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality Vol 2 (Translated by Robert Hurley) Penguin London
Foucault, Michel (1990) The Care of the self: Vol 3 of The History of Sexuality (1990) (Translated by Robert Hurley) Penguin Books London
Patton, Paul (1998) Foucaults subjects of power in Moss, J (1998) The Later Foucault pp64-77 Sage London