Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

"Michel Foucault: The History of Sexuality" (Originally Posted to the Queerchoice Mailing List on This Date)

I mentioned once before that I've been reading the first volume of Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality . . . Foucault pretty much invented the idea that people haven't always been divided into hetero/homo categories . . . I think I'll have to give a little summary of the book in order for my questions to make any sense. I've only read half of Volume 1 so far, so anyone else who's read Foucault, please help me out here if I miss anything.

Here's what Foucault seems to be saying:

During the Victorian era when people were supposed to stop talking about sex, what actually happened is that sex got talked about a whole lot more than it ever had been before--both by the doctors/churchpeople/parents/etc who were saying "Don't do it," and also by the people who were saying "I do do it." Foucault says we should not consider these people radical just because they talked about sex; he says that most people who think that they're being revolutionary by talking about sex are really just blindly obeying the old Catholic idea of confessing their sins, and that this confession probably does more harm than good. He describes the way psychology was invented and how the medical professions in general started focusing all their attention on classifying sex into "natural" and "unnatural" types (this was also when they were inventing words for queerness): the people who "confessed" their sins were no longer just listened to like they had been by the Catholic priests; instead they were listened to by doctors who *interpreted* their confessions and put them into little categories and told them and everyone else what their "sins" meant about what kind of people they were. And unlike the old days when sins had just been sins that anyone could commit, the new idea that the doctors promoted was an idea that some people were just born defective, born to sin. Basically Foucault seems to be arguing that we've all been conned into talking about sex with the idea that doing so is revolutionary, whereas in fact talking about sex is just placing ourselves at the mercy of others, allowing others to "interpret" our behavior for their own purposes and allowing society to impose its punishments on us.

He also sets up a distinction between Eastern and Western attitudes to sex:

According to him, Western cultures see science as the way to understand sex: everyone has to be talked into confessing everything about their sex lives so that the scientists can study and interpret them.

According to him, Eastern cultures see art as the way to understand sex: it is something best understood by looking into oneself. Sex is not a deep shameful secret, but one simply doesn't talk about it because that would be like trying to explain a symphony to someone who has never heard the music played.

(Mohan—I'd really like to hear what you think of this, since I know you're not very happy with India's attitudes about sex. I suspect that Foucault is over-romanticizing Eastern attitudes here just because he never had to live in an Eastern country. And in any case, virtually every Eastern culture has now begun incorporating Western concepts of medicalized sexuality, so I think Foucault's theories don't apply very smoothly anymore, if they ever did.

Anyway . . . Foucault's main theory is that in Western culture, we've been pressured or conned into confessing every detail of every sexual thought we've ever had, and that it all just amounts to mind control, because the whole point of getting us to confess it all is to make sure that we're severely judged, ostracized, punished, etc., for every sexual thought we've ever had.

I'm guessing, though, that the mere fact that Foucault published this 3-volume essay on sex means that he did believe it was possible to talk about sex in a revolutionary way. However, it's not exactly an autobiographical work, so I'm wondering whether he would think it's ever possible to talk about one's OWN sex in a revolutionary way. Although he says that modern Western cultures' view of sex is based upon having "scientists" interpret people's confessions for them (i.e., the scientists have all the power to define people's identities), he also says that in Eastern cultures, there are rare occasions when a truly great master of the art of sex might try to pass on the secrets of the art to the younger generation (e.g., the writer of the Kama Sutra). In this instance, the "master of the art" would be able to speak about sex from a position of authority, as a person who can understand his own sexuality for himself, not as someone whose story is being interpreted by scientists.

But Foucault does not suggest any way at all (at least in the part of the book I've read so far) for people in Western cultures to speak about their own sex lives without having their words reinterpreted by the medical/psychological establishment.

Now here's the interesting part: Foucault lists some of the concepts which Western society uses to con us into confessing all the details of our sexuality.

One of these concepts is that the tiniest quirk in your sexuality could change your whole personality completely: Freudian theory, for example, attributed absolutely every problem in life to supposed sexual problems. The idea that, say, a man's inability to get along with his boss could be attributed to his not having been breast-fed long enough, or that a woman's love for cats is in any way connected with her lesbianism, or that a president's tendency to have adulterous oral sex with his interns somehow makes him an unfit president, made it seem justified for every tiny detail of everyone's sex life to be brought into the open and examined microscopically.

Another of these concepts is the concept of latency—the concept that sexual desire is not something which we automatically know we are feeling. This idea permitted psychologists to claim that they had a better idea that their patients did about what their patients were feeling. If Freud had tried in the 1700s to tell people they were sexually attracted to their parents, he would have just been considered insane--yet when he said that in the 1900s, everyone called him a genius.

So, my questions are . . .

1. Does Foucault's theory make any sense? Do you actually believe that having people tell all the details of their sex lives usually does more harm than good? When President Clinton's sex life was discussed all over TV (especially American TV), do you think that all the discussion made people any more accepting or less accepting of that kind of sexual behavior?

2. If Foucault's theory does make any sense, what can we do about it? Is there a way to talk about sex without having all our statements reinterpreted or punished? Does saying we chose our queerness help anything? Would it do any good at this point if everyone did stop talking about sex? Is it possible to reconstruct the closet as a revolutionary place? Is there anything at all we can do to improve the situation?

3. Do you believe that the tiniest quirk in your sexual development could change your whole personality completely? Can you imagine being able to rid yourself of that concept? Would you want to do that?

4. Do you believe that you can feel sexual desire without knowing it? Can you imagine being able to rid yourself of that concept? Would you want to do that?

Hmm, I think I'd better end my questions there, since I have no idea where I'm going with them and I'm not sure if there are any answers.
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