Lecture # 7: Unpacking Notions of Sexuality I
-discussion of Sarah Baartman
We saw how Sigmund Freud theorized how infants develop into particularly gendered
sexual beings; we looked at his notion of the subject which is split between the conscious
self and unconscious motive and desires; we followed how polymorphous sensuousness
becomes organized into genitally oriented pleasure; we saw how at each developmental
stage, we are induced to give up certain pleasures and how these become repressed and
lodged in our unconscious.
Michel Foucault’s book The History of Sexuality broke new ground. Foucault argues that
sexuality has not always been repressed. He tells us, that it is only with the advent of the
Enlightenment and the rise of Capitalism, that sexuality has become organized in a
In The History of Sexuality, Foucault attempts to disprove that Western society has seen a
repression of sexuality since the 17th century. Foucault, on the other hand, states that
Western culture has long been fixated on sexuality. We call it a repression. Rather, the
social convention, not to mention sexuality, has created a discourse around it, thereby
making sexuality ever-present. This would not have been the case, had it been thought of
as something quite natural. The concept "sexuality" itself is a result of this discourse. And
the interdictions also have productive power: they have created sexual identities and a
multiplicity of sexualities that would not have existed otherwise or not been named and
analyzed as such.
For Foucault, historically, there have been two ways of viewing sexuality. In China,
Japan, India and the Roman Empire have seen it as an "Ars erotica", "erotic art", where
sex is seen as an art and a special experience and not something dirty and shameful. It is
something to be kept secret, but only because of the view that it would lose its power and
its pleasure if spoken about.
In Western society, on the other hand, something completely different has been created,
what Foucault calls "scientia sexualis", the science of sexuality. It is originally (17th
century) based on a phenomenon diametrically opposed to Ars erotica: the confession.
By confession, Foucault does not just mean the Christian notion of the confessional, but
that the Christian notion of the confessional becomes (in a secular society) transposed
and retained through the relationship between the therapist and his/her patient. A fixation
with finding out the "truth" about sexuality arises, a truth that is to be confessed. For
Foucault, one of the problems with this, is that it reduces us to our sexuality. Foucault
"We have since become an extraordinarily confessing society. Confession has spread its
effects far and wide: in the judicial system, in medicine, in pedagogy, in familial
relations, in amorous relationships, in everyday life and in the most solemn rituals;
crimes are confessed, sins are confessed, thoughts and desires are confessed, one's past
1 and one's dreams are confessed, one's childhood is confessed; one's diseases and
problems are confessed;..."
This forms the strong basis of Foucault’s criticism of psychoanalysis, which, for him,
represents the modern, scientific form of confession. Foucault sees psychoanalysis as a
legitimization of sexual confession. In it, everything is explained in terms of repressed
sexuality and the psychologist becomes the sole interpreter of it. Sexuality is no longer
just something people hide, but it is also something hidden from themselves.
"Coming out" as a concept did not exist when Foucault wrote "The History of Sexuality",
but this process of confessing homosexuality can surely be interpreted as an expression of
this urge to confess. There seems to be a compulsion to reveal one's sexuality to confirm
its existence in our society. In Ars erotica, a very different view is held, and people are
content to let it remain a secret in the positive sense of the word. (but in cultures, where
you have no word to describe your desires or practices, your sexual identity is also
rendered invisible, but at the same time, it saves it from being put into discourse and
having your sexual identity regulated).
The reason sexuality should be confessed is to be found in the Christian view of it. It was
not, as it is today, seen as a strong, obvious force, but as something treacherous,
something only to be found by careful introspection.
Therefore every detail had to be laid forth in confession; every trace of pleasure
experienced had to be examined to find the traces of sin.
Making sexuality something sinful did not make it disappear. Quite the contrary: it was
reinforced and became something to be noticed everywhere.
How Foucault understands Power
For Foucault, power relations are central to any analysis of society, and this is especially
true for sexuality. Power relations are formed in all relations where differences exist.
What Foucault means by power is not necessarily what is ordinarily meant by the word. It
is something that is por