Foucault and Notions of Sexuality

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Justin Mak
HIS 393

Analyzing Knowledge, Power
and Sexuality

At the turn of the eighteenth century, the notion of sexuality moved from the public spotlight into the home. An era of free expression had transformed into an era of both repressed desires and repression in sexual activities. This was also subsequent with the rise of the bourgeoisie, or the working middle class, as the subject of sex became taboo. Michel Foucalt, author of The History of Sexuality:An Introduction states that through the repression of sexuality, both power and knowledge are outcomes. Both discussion and media on the topic of pleasure or sex became a prime pathway to the repression of sexuality. Through the censorship and regulation of discourse on the subject of sexuality, people in positions of power maintained their grasp on the general public. The powers that were prevalent throughout Europe in the eighteenth century changed the politics of this type of discourse, discouraging sinful language and subjects, while even banning words. Whether it be through law or through common understanding of what discussions were to be held in private or hushed tones.

Foucault goes on to explain that our modern society often views sexuality since the eighteenth century in terms of the “repressive hypothesis.” The “repressive hypothesis” maintains that since the beginning of the rise of the bourgeoisie in the seventeenth century, the spending of time on purely pleasurable acts became a thing to be ashamed of. Extra marital sexual relations were becoming seen as an unthinkable act and even sex in general was now regarded in a more scientific way and in a merely reproductive manner. Of the two “types” of power mentioned in The History of Sexuality, the juridico-discursive concept of power seems easy to relate to as we are part of the society that is “repressed” by this power. The second concept of power is that of Foucault's, himself. His “method” concept is slightly opposed to the juridico-discursive concept by stating that power is in every relation and that the dominance of one over the other does not exactly mean a fluctuation in power. In this essay I will explore the subjects of power, knowledge, and sexuality throughout their history and show the link between them while also relating them to their parts in European society.

Prior to the rise of the bourgeoisie in the seventeenth century, the general mindset concerning sex was very open and the regulations on the nude or obscene were generally lax. “Sexual practices had little need of secrecy, words were said without undue reticence, and things were done without too much concealment; one had a tolerant familiarity with the was a period when bodies made a display of themselves.” (Foucault 3) This quote can be an accurate representation of a sexual lifestyle preceding the emergence of the working middle class. The repressive hypothesis is on track with this, claiming that power has been repressing sex since the seventeenth century and that we can overcome this human constraint by talking more openly about sex and engaging in its practice more often. The figures who held power during this time noticed that the only way to control the public image of sexuality was to control the discourse surrounding the subject. By oppressing the humans natural sexual desire, the powers that be effectively established their dominance in society. “Calling sex by its name thereafter became more difficult and more costly...control its free circulation in speech, expunge it from the things that were said, and extinguish the words that rendered it too visibly present.” (Foucault 17) In this quotation, Foucault shows how the higher authority was beginning to control speech regarding subjects that were seen as sinful. Not only do they begin to control the conditions and settings in which illicit dialectic could be spoken, but they also began to change the language itself....
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