Friday, June 24, 2011

Sexuality, Repression, and Power

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Sexuality, its repression, and the power responsible for this repression are the central themes in Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality. Sexuality, according to Foucault, is a repressed entity in modern society, and has been so for the past two hundred years. The sexual openness once common in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries became carefully confined and “moved into the home…silence became the rule.” (page ) Though he believes that we are repressed he advocates that we have been forced into this repression by some form of power � we have been made to believe that we are repressed. Personally, I do not think that Western societies today are repressed in any sense of the word. In all aspects of life � whether it is on TV, in the movies, in the songs we listen to, in the books we read, in the advertisements we see, or just in public � sex and sexuality are prominently displayed. I think it is fair to go as far as to say that nowadays very little sells without sex or anything sexual.

Foucault believes that the repression of sexuality was established by some kind of authority, which included the government and heads of families. This authority used its power to ensure that “not only did [sex] not exist, it had no right to exist and would be made to disappear upon its least manifestation.” (page 4) This is not to say that sex was not acknowledged at all; it was, but mostly only for reproductive purposes. In addition, concessions were made for “illegitimate sexualities” (page 4), which included brothels and mental hospitals. According to Foucault, in light of this power advocating repression, any talk or action pertaining to sexuality was seen as a defiance of power, a “deliberate transgression.” (page 6) Any person taking part in this infringement “places himself…outside the reach of power; he upsets established law.” (page 6)

Although the leap into sexual frankness may have been a result of disregard for power, it has now become the norm. There is no longer any power which requires challenging. Nowadays, people, in general, have no problems with openly expressing their sexuality and, at times, do so even if it is highly inappropriate. If ours was a repressed society, we would not hear about pregnant 1 year olds; we would not have easily-accessible pornographic material; we would not see barely-clad Victoria Secret’s models; TV shows and movies would not have prevalent sexual scenes; people wouldn’t go around displaying affection in public. The extent to which Western societies have integrated sexuality into their everyday lives is evidence enough that any previous power repressing sexuality is definitely either non-existent or on its way to becoming so. Despite evidence to the contrary, a lot of people still think that our society is repressed.

These people believe that since there are certain rules or limitations against doing particular things, society is sexually repressed. A lady gets asked to leave a restaurant because she is breast-feeding her child while waiting for her food to arrive. Immediately there is talk of our society being sexually repressed; that sexuality is not accepted. There are some things are not appropriate to do in certain places. I personally would not breast-feed my child in public, and not because I am repressed or I feel that people will judge me if I do, but because I feel that some things are just not proper if carried out in public. If I was stuck and had to feed my child and I was out somewhere, I would find a place that was sparsely populated, and only because I would not feel comfortable baring myself to others. I don’t think that a woman who chooses not to breast-feed in public is prudish; there is a just proper place for everything.

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Foucault believed that society’s position on repression was a hypocritical one since he considers that there has always been discourse on sexuality, and that this verbalization in itself thwarts the whole idea of repression. He says his aim is to “examine the case of a society which has been loudly castigating itself for hypocrisy for more than a century, which speaks verbosely of its own silence, takes great pains to relate in detail the things it does not say, denounces the powers it exercises, and promises to liberate itself from the very laws that have made it function” (page 8). Despite the fact that this was what he thought about society’s take on repression, Foucault did believe that we, as a society, believe we are repressed sexually. He believed that the relationship between sex and power is characterized by repression and that to not think so was to “[run] counter to a well-accepted argument.” (page 8) He believes that repression is firmly anchored in our society and that to overcome the power that enforces it will take a long time; talking about and accepting sex in its reality is such an alien concept historically, that “it is bound to make little headway for a long time before succeeding in its mission.” (page 10) He couldn’t have been more wrong!

Writing this is 178, Foucault may have felt that society was repressed and that getting to a society in which sex was openly discussed and prevalent was going to be a major feat. However, it seems like overcoming ‘repression’ wasn’t such a conquest after all since sex is now a firm and much accepted presence in everyday life. It doesn’t seem like there were any major obstacles to overcome to get to where we are today � it was just a natural progression from where we were before. Sexuality (not the reproductive kind) has always been a part of society, and has just progressed from being something that was not very prevalent to something that has become very common.

Despite what he refers to as the repressive hypothesis, Foucault does believe that talk of sex has become more widespread, but he feels that it has progressed mostly as a means to gather more knowledge about it � as a form of science. It is true that knowledge about sex has increased dramatically, and that is due to the fact that the subject has been approached with a scientifically, biologically and psychologically; however, other, non-scientific factors, especially forms of media entertainment, have also furthered our acceptance of sex, and these have probably played a larger role in establishing sexuality in Western societies. However, he doesn’t believe that we have made sex more established in our societies because we wanted to; he thinks that it came about due to our repression of the repression.

According to Foucault, “one adjusts [the time repression began] to coincide with the development of capitalism.” (page 5) This gives the impression that sex is severely restricted, not because society wants it that way, but because it is “incompatible with a general and intensive work imperative.” (page 6) This means that we did not want to show that we are repressed and hence tried to cover it up by making is seem like that is the way it had to be. So mentioning sex gave the impression that talking about it was not out of the ordinary and hence this caused the surge in our knowledge about sexuality. This is another way in which Foucault believes society to be hypocritical. Personally, I don’t think that any repression of repression took place. Repression, if you can call it that, was present in the past, and that led to our society today, where sex is more accepted and fewer things are taboo; and mostly these things are unacceptable because they are morally wrong or just unsuitable.

All in all, it seems that Foucault has a set idea on society and its repression of sexuality, and he believes that there is a certain power associated with this repression, causing it. It is this authority that has led us to where we are today, in terms of our acceptance of sex, since our pursuit for the want for sexual freedom has made us go against the roadblocks against discourse on sex. Personally, I believe that this is not the case, and that our acknowledgment of sex has had a natural evolution from being in a society where sex was present, but slightly common, to a society in which sex is highly rampant.

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