We Other Victorians and The Repressive Hypothesis

Here is the reading for Saturday, March 26.  A printable copy is here.  Check the sidebar for the location, or search for us on Meetup.com.

We Other Victorians

There is a very common story about 19th century Victorian England: that it was prudish and did its best to suppress all non-reproductive sex.  As the story goes, at the dawn of the 17th century, people were still frank about sexuality and practiced it openly.

But then the Victorians, those bastards, ruined it all:  “Sexuality was carefully confined; it moved into the home.  The conjugal family took custody of it and absorbed it into the serious function of reproduction.  On the subject of sex, silence became the rule (3).”  Sex was only legitimate between procreative couples. There was only a single place for sex in social space: the parents’ bedroom.  Anything else had to remain vague, or was denied or silenced.  For example—everyone knew that children had no sex, so they were forbidden to talk about it, and evidence to the contrary was denied.  All of this is what we usually call “repression.”

We tend to consider ourselves more liberated now, though we argue about how much.  Repression—what we might be more likely to call being “sex negative” nowadays, has been a target of criticism for a long time:

“We are informed that if repression has indeed been the fundamental link between power, knowledge, and sexuality since the classical age, it stands to reason that we will not be able to free ourselves from it except at a considerable cost: nothing less than a transgression of laws, a lifting of prohibitions, an irruption of speech, a reinstating of pleasure within reality, and a whole new economy in the mechanisms of power will be required.” (5)

All this holds up quite well – “owing no doubt to how easy it is to uphold”.  By putting the age of repression in the 17th century, it becomes attached to the rise of capitalism and hence a part of the bourgeois order.   We can say that sex was repressed because it dissipated energies that should have been spent in building the capitalist order.  The sexual cause, the demand for sexual freedom, “becomes legitimately associated with the honour of a political cause” (6).

This is a bit suspicious: is all this valorizing of speech about sex still a symptom of prudishness? There is another reason to connect sex and power, what he calls the speaker’s benefit.  “If sex is  repressed. . . then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression” (6).  The speaker is a rebel, outside power, looking forward to the coming freedom.

In the 19th century, when demographers and psychiatrists spoke of it, they were apologetic for discussing something so trivial.   But now, when we speak of it, we feel we are being subversive, that we are looking forward to the age of a new law:

“Tomorrow sex will be good again. Because this repression is affirmed, one can discreetly bring into coexistence concepts which the fear of ridicule or the bitterness of history prevent most of us from putting side by side: revolution and happiness; or revolution and a different body, one that is newer and more beautiful; or indeed, revolution and pleasure.  What sustains our eagerness to speak of sex in terms of repression is doubtless this opportunity to speak out against the powers that be; to utter truths and promise bliss; to link together enlightenment, liberation, and manifold pleasures; to pronounce a discourse that combines the fervour of knowledge, the determination to change the laws, and the longing for the garden of earthly delights.” (7)

Foucault’s goal here is the examine this society which speaks so loudly of its silence and attacks itself for its hypocrisy.  It “takes great pains to relate in detail the things it does not say. . . and promises to liberate itself from the very laws that have made it function” (8).  The question is not, why are we repressed, but why do we keep saying we are repressed? Why do we speak as if we have “sinned” against sex?

The idea that sex has been repressed seems historically evident, and that the job of freeing ourselves from it will be a long one.  It will be all the longer because it is the nature of power to be repressive, to curb useless energies.

Foucault doubts all of this, what he calls the repressive hypothesis, and has three questions concerning this hypothesis.  First, is sexual repression actually a historical fact? Second, Is power really primarily repressive? Third, does the criticism of repression actually block the workings of power, or is it a part of the workings of power?

He is not out to create a symmetrical, contrary argument, such as “sexuality has not been repressed.”  He is also not arguing that power is more tolerant than repressive, or that the critique of repression is not new but actually part of an older process.  The goal is to put all this into a general economy of discourses on sex since the 17th century.  The central issue isn’t to say yes or no to prohibitions or to clarify terms, but to ask why it is spoken of, who does the speaking, and which institutions prompt people to speak.  How and why is sex put into discourse?  He wants to find the forms of power, their channels, how it permeates discourse to reach individual behaviour, and how penetrates and “controls everyday pleasure” — “all this entailing effects that may be those of refusal, blockage, and invalidation, but also incitement and intensification: in short, the ‘polymorphous techniques of power’” (11).  We’re not trying to figure out if these discourses are true or false, but to bring out the “will to knowledge” that serves as their support and instrument.  His basic historical thesis is that since the 16th century, there has been an increase in discourse about sex.  It has not been a process of rigorous selection, but of an increase in polymorphous sexualities.

The Repressive Hypothesis, 1. The Incitement to Discourse

It seems that the 17th century began an age of bourgeois repression, an age we have not quite left behind. It looks as if that people could not quite call sex by its name; in order to control it in reality, it first had to be controlled on the level of language.  Censorship, basically. But a closer look at the last 3 centuries makes things appear very differently.  Instead of silence, there was a “discursive explosion.”  To be sure, the speech was regulated.  Sexual discussion was carried out via allusion and metaphor.  And there was control over when and where sex could be spoken of, and where it could not be—parents and children, or teachers and students.

“This almost certainly constituted a whole restrictive economy, one that was incorporated into that politics of language and speech—spontaneous on the one hand, concerted on the other—which accompanied the social redistributions of the classical period.

“At the level of discourses and their domains, however, practically the opposite phenomenon occurred.  There was a steady proliferation of discourses concerned with sex—specific discourses, different from one another both by their form and by their subject; a discursive ferment that gathered momentum from the eighteenth century onward.” (18)

He does not really mean all the illicit discourses, the ones that were deliberately trying to be indecent.  The tightening of rules did produce this sort of naughtiness, but more important was all the discourse in the field of power itself.  There was an institutional incitement to speak about it, to accumulate ever more detail.  Take the evolution of the Catholic pastoral and penance after the Council of Trent: “Little by little, the nakedness of the questions formulated by the confession manuals of the Middle Ages, and a good number of those still in use in the seventeenth century, was veiled” (18).

For a long time, confessors wanted many details: the positions uses, the places touched.  The language became more refined, but the scope increased.  This was partly due to the Counter-Reformation stepping up the frequency of confessions and imposing new rules of self-examination, but mostly because it paid more and more attention to sins of the flesh.  The flesh became the root of all evil, and shifted the moment of sin from the actual act to the initial desire.  That sort of evil infected the whole of the person.  A penance manual reads,

“Examine diligently, therefore, all the faculties of your soul: memory, understanding, and will.  Examine with precision all your senses as well. . . . Examine, moreover, all your thoughts, every word you speak, and all your actions.  Examine even unto your dreams, to know if, once awakened, you did not give them your consent.  And finally, do not think that in so sensitive and perilous a matter as this, there is anything trivial or insignificant.”

Sex was not exactly named, but “taken charge of. . . by a discourse that aimed to allow it no obscurity, no respite” (20).

Foucault is not so much concerned with the need to admit to violating rules, but instead with the infinite task of examining and relaying the details of it all.  This urgency to detail was created in monasteries, but in the 17th century, it became a rule for everyone. The rule was: not only confess, but transform your every desire into discourse.  “The Christian pastoral prescribed as a fundamental duty the task of passing everything having to do with sex through the endless mill of speech” (21).

Eventually, the same demand for detail appears in the Marquis de Sade:

“Your narrations must be decorated with the most numerous and searching details; the precise way and extent to which we may judge how the passion you describe relates to human manners and man’s character is determined by your willingness to disguise no circumstance; and what is more, the least circumstance is apt to have an immense influence upon the procuring of that kind of sensory irritation we expect from your stories.”

There is also the anonymous author of the 19th century multi-volume novel My Secret Life, who described his sexual activities in great detail.  Foucault considers him “the most direct and in a way the most naive representative of a plurisecular injunction to talk about sex” (22).

This is what the Christians and the dirty writers had in common: excruciating detail, the turning of sex into discourse.  The Christian pastoral wanted to have specific effects on desire: “effects of mastery and detachment, but also an effect of spiritual reconversion, of turning back to God, a physical effect of blissful suffering from feeling in one’s body the pangs of temptation and the love that resists it.” (23).

The important point: for 3 centuries, Western man has been talking more and more about sex.  “. . . this carefully analytical discourse was meant to yield multiple effects of displacement, intensification, reorientation, and modification of desire itself” (23). It was not about censorship; it was rather an apparatus which produced an ever greater quantity of discourse about sex.

All this might have stayed purely within the Christian realm, but it was relayed to the rest of society.  In the 18th century, there were political, economic, and technical incitements to speak about sex.  It was less a general theory of sex than an endless need for classification.  It was an account to take sex “into account” not only from a moral perspective, but also a rational one.  Philosophers spoke of it with embarrassment, and even a doctor in 1857 said, “The darkness that envelops these facts, the shame and disgust they inspire, have always repelled the observer’s gaze. . . For a long time I hesitated to introduce the loathsome picture into this study.”  What is interesting is not the moralism or hypocrisy they betray, but the recognition of the need to get over the hesitation.  Sex had to be spoken about publically; it was not merely something to be judged, but something to be administered.  “It was in the nature of a public potential; it called for management procedures; it had to be taken charge of by analytical discourses.  In the eighteenth century, sex had become a ‘police’ matter–in the full and strict sense given the term at the time: not the repression of disorder, but an ordered maximization of collection and individual forces…” (24-25)

Sex was not regulated by taboo, but “through useful and public discourses.”  One important example is that of one of the great new techniques of power in the 18th century: the idea of “population” as an economic and political problem.  There was population as wealth, as labor capacity, and the balance between growth and resources.  Governments dealt not with subjects, but with a population, with variables like birth and death rates, life expectancy, health, diet, and so on.  At the heart of the population problem was sex.  The birthrate, the age of marriage, legitimate and illegitimate births, frequency of sexual relations, and contraception.

There was a move away from moral and religious demands, which was an attempt to introduce economic and political concerns into sex lives.  Sex became an issue between the state and the citizen.  There were new silences, especially concerning childhood sexuality.  However, “Silence itself—the things one declines to say, or is forbidden to name, the discretion that is required between different speakers—is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within overall strategies.” (27)

Take the secondary schools of the 18th century.  Sex was hardly spoken of, but the architectural layout, the disciplinary measures, and their internal organization indicates that sex was a constant preoccupation.  The sexuality of schoolboys was endlessly spoken of and regulated.  Another example is the way doctors spoke of of nervous disorders, and psychiatry looking for the origin of mental illnesses.  The psychiatrists first considered “excess”, then masturbation, then frustration, then “frauds against procreation”, and so on.  Criminal justice began to speak more and more of “crimes against nature”.

In the Middle Ages, discourse on sex was “markedly unitary.”  Over several centuries, this unity was broken into an endless number of discourses: biology, medicine, psychiatry, psychology, ethics, pedagogy, and political criticism.  “Rather than a massive censorship, beginning with the verbal proprieties imposed by the Age of Reason, what was involved was a regulated and polymorphous incitement to discourse” (34).

There is an obvious objection to Foucault’s thesis.  If there were so many constraining mechanisms involved in speaking of sex, then there must have been a fundamental prohibition that only economic or political requirements could breach.  “But this oft-stated theme, that sex is outside of discourse and that only the removing of an obstacle, the breaking of a secret, can clear the way leading to it, is precisely what needs to be examined. . . . What is peculiar to modern societies, in fact, is not that they consigned sex to a shadow existence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret” (34-35).

The Repressive Hypothesis, 2. The Perverse Implantation

One possible objection to what Foucault has been saying is that it looks like he is just looking at at the quantity of sex discourse, and ignoring what was actually said.  It looks like all these ways of generating discourse were directed at getting rid of non-procreative sex.  The legal measures against “minor perversions,” the way that any strange sexual activity was “annexed to mental illness,” and so on.  It appears as if the goal was to increase the population and labor capacity.  Basically, an economical useful, politically conservative sexuality. Foucault is not certain if that was the ultimate objective; but he is sure that “reduction has not been the means employed for trying to achieve it.” (37)  Since the 19th century, forms of sex have multiplied.

Until the end of the 18th century, there were three explicit codes that governed sexuality: canonical law, the Christian pastoral, and civil law.  They were all centered on marriage, and the rules were legion, and married couples were constantly interrogated.  These codes did not distinguish between violations of marriage rules and “deviations with respect to geniality.”  Breaking marriage rules or “seeking strange pleasures” were equally condemned.   Acts “contrary to nature” were especially abominable; “they were infringements of decrees which were just as sacred as those of marriage, and which had been established for governing the order of things and the plan of beings” (38).  Nature was a kind of law.  For a long time, hermaphrodites were considered criminals, since their bodies confused the law that distinguished the sexes.

So the emphasis was on the legitimate alliance of marriage.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, the discursive explosion change this system in two ways. First, the monogamous heterosexual couple was scrutinized less closely.  Instead, the concern was with children, mad men and women, and criminals, homosexuals, “or great sports of rage,” whatever that means.  It was their turn to confess.  They were condemned, but they were listened to.

Basically, the “unnatural” became a specific topic of sexuality.  Not as much attention was paid to adultery or rape.  Instead, it was things like incest and necrophilia.   The category of debauchery came apart, which various more specific laws being created.  This interest in debauchery is why Foucault thinks Don Juan has remained so popular: “Underneath the great violator of the rules of marriage—stealer of wives, seducer of virgins, the shame of families, and an insult to husbands and fathers—another personage can be glimpsed: the individual driven, in spite of himself, by the somber madness of sex.  Underneath the libertine, the pervert” (39) .

A new world of perversion appeared.  It was a partly legal issue, partly moral.  They were different from the libertines of the past.  The list is long: “They were children wise beyond their years, precocious little girls, ambiguous schoolboys, dubious servants and educators, cruel or maniacal husbands, solitary collectors, ramblers with bizarre impulses; they haunted the houses of correction, the penal colonies, the tribunals, and the asylums; they carried their infamy to the doctors and their sickness to the judges” (40).

So what does the appearance of all these new perversions mean?  Does it mean the law became more lax, or more strict?  This is not entirely clear.  The severity of punishments for sexual offences diminished in the 19th century, but “medicine made a forceful entry into the pleasures of the couple: it created an entire organic, functional, or mental pathology arising out of ‘incomplete’ sexual practices; it carefully classified all forms of related pleasures; it incorporated them into the notions of ‘development’ and instinctual ‘disturbances’; and it undertook to manage them.” (41)  The real point is not the strictness or laxness of laws, but the form of power that was exercised.   Was all this classification of perversions done “to exclude them from reality?”  This mode of power had four operations, which were not simple thou shalt nots.

First, consider the condemnations of incest and adultery, or the ways in which “the sexuality of children has been subordinated and their ‘solitary habits’ interfered with” (41).  It is not clear these are the same power mechanism.  In one case, it was about law, and in the other, medicine. And the tactics were not the same.  The prohibition against incest wanted to get rid of it gradually, “whereas the control of infantile sexuality hoped to reach it through a simultaneous propagation of its own power and of the object on which it was brought to bear.” (42)  Teachers and doctors fought masturbation like it was a disease.

“What this actually entailed, throughout this whole secular campaign that mobilized the adult world around the sex of children, was using these tenuous pleasures as a prop, constituting them as secrets (that is, forcing them into hiding so as to make possible their discovery), tracing them back to their source, tracking them from their origins to their effects, searching out everything that might cause them or simply enable them to exist.” (42)

Children were watched and controlled, which the suspicion that they were all guilty.  An entire “medico-sexual regime” took hold of the family.   What actually developed was a Batman-and-the-Joker relationship of mutual support; the interest was in controlling childhood sexuality as a support for a power regime.  They were not actually enemies, as the law and incest were.

Second, the new persecution of peripheral sexualities created a new specification of individuals.  In older canonical codes, sodomy was just a forbidden act.  In the 19th century, the homosexual became a kind of person: a past, a case history, and a childhood: “Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality.  It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle; written immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away.  It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature” (43).  The first major medical journal article on homosexuality was from 1870, and reading between the lines, we see that homosexuality was less about certain kinds of sexual relations than by a kind of sexual sensibility—the reversal of male and female: “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (43) .

In the 19th century, there were many new names for sexual perversions.  The machinery of power did not seek to repress these perversions, but to give them “an analytical, visible, and permanent reality. . . . Not the exclusion of these thousand aberrant sexualities, but the specification, the regional solidification of each one of them.  The strategy behind this dissemination was to strew reality with them and incorporate them into the individual” (44).

Third, more than older taboos, this kind of power required constant attention to function.  It had to examine and observe and seek admissions.  This implied a physical proximity, which as we might imagine generated pleasure; the overseeing control was rewarded for its efforts in a kind of feedback loop: “Pleasure spread to the power that harried it; power anchored the pleasure it uncovered” (45).

Fourth, People often say that modern society has limited sexuality to the monogamous heterosexual couple, but there are equal grounds for saying it created the conditions for “groups with multiple elements and a circulating sexuality: a distribution of power, hierarchized and placed opposite to one another; ‘pursued’ pleasures, that is, both sought after and searched out; compartmental sexualities that are tolerated or encouraged. . .” (45-46)  In short, 19th century bourgeois society was blatantly perverted.  This was not a matter of hypocrisy, since it was manifest and controlled by institutions.  It was not a matter of society rising up against strict prohibitions.  Rather, the issue is the type of power brought to bear on bodies and sex.  It was not a law or a taboo; it multiplied sexualities. “Modern society is perverse, not in spite of its puritanism or as if from a backlash provoked by its hypocrisy; it is in actual fact, and directly, perverse” (47).

These were not new pleasures, but new rules for the game of powers and pleasures.  It was not sexuality taking revenge on power; rather, it was a growth in power. So we have to drop the idea of increased sexual repression.  Rather, we have witnessed an explosion of different sexualities.  Modern society is not prudish; “never have there existed more centers of power; never more attention manifested and verbalized; never more circular contacts and linkages; never more sites where the intensity of pleasures and the persistency of power catch hold, only to spread elsewhere” (49).


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