In Part Two of The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, An Introduction, Foucault provides an expected history of sexuality. For Foucault, the relationship between discourse and sexuality is significant and hence becomes the focus of his argument. Through disagreeing with the repressive hypothesis (sex, except for the means of production is a taboo and should therefore not be discussed), Foucault claims that discourse on sex has intensified since the 18th century. Now this notion may not be shocking, considering that sex is found almost anywhere:
Yet what makes Foucault’s argument striking and even relevant to today (in spite of our commodified sex culture) is the specific discourse that Foucault focuses on. According to Foucault, efforts that were meant to control the discourse on sex ended up being the exact reason for an increase of discourses on sex. He exemplifies this through discussing the practice of confession in Catholic churches. Taking traditional penance up a notch, priests began to expect “the infinite task of telling – telling oneself and another, as often as possible, everything that might concern the interplay of innumerable pleasures, sensations, and thoughts, which through the body and soul, had some affinity with sex” (1504). In other words, rather than confessing their sexual transgressions, people were now placed in the predicament of discussing their sexual desires or anything that could be traced to sex. Through this, confession inadvertently increased discourse on sex. Another example of this is shown through the sexuality of children. Children were taught to talk about sex in a way that would show that they possessed a proper, non-perverse understanding of sex yet “Not any less was said about it; on the contrary. But things were said in a different way” (1508). Imagine someone in a possession of a thesaurus, attempting to revise their writing because they constantly use the same word, and for the sake of this topic, let’s imagine the word is “sex.” They then change it to: intercourse, or making love. Or to make my point even more clear, when one plays the Sims and has the option to have their characters “Woohoo!” the mention of sex is still present. Despite the changes, they are still (essentially) talking about sex, and this was exactly Foucault’s point.
In the second chapter, Foucault discusses a possible objection to his claim that discourses on sex has increased. The objection that could be made is that these increased discourses are reducing non-productive sex, however, Foucault counters this as he states, “reduction has not been the means employed for trying to achieve it. The nineteenth century and our own have been rather the age of multiplication: a dispersion of sexualities, a strengthening of their disparate forms, a multiple implantation of ‘perversions’” (1513). Sex has saturated due to scrutiny that it has undergone – everything is seen in terms of sex. In this sense, the actions that attempted to repress sex have allowed sexual discourse to blossom. As Foucault is someone who is constantly concerned with power dynamics, we cannot forget the resulting relationship between sex and power. Through attempting to control sexuality and sexual discourse, the tables have turned and we have inadvertently granted power to sex as it has altered our perception as mentioned above. I believe that Foucault discusses the reason for this at the end of chapter one, “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” (1513). To explain this, I think referring to a SpongeBob episode is suffice. In this episode, Squidward comes across SpongeBob’s diary and the secrecy surrounding the diary sparks curiosity. He then becomes obsessed with uncovering the secret behind it. In terms of sex, Foucault would all agree that we are Squidwards. Our talking about sex as if it were a secret is what compels us to unravel it, to learn more about it, to talk more about it. If sex were perceived as something mundane and accepted like kelp, the discourse on it would not be as magnified. Until then, we remain as Squidward and the rest of Bikini Bottom who relish in the pleasure gained from exposing (conceived) secrets.
Foucault, Michel. “The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, An Introduction.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Lietch. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. 1502-1521. Print.