Michel Foucault’s Study Of The Problems Of Sexuality

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The topic of sexuality has traditionally been more or less stigmatized – in many ways taboo. Michel Foucault, a 20th century philosopher, was one of the great minds who plunged into the topic of sexuality when few writers dared to do so, publishing a three volume work, The History of Sexuality, in 1976.

Michel Foucault's Study about Sexuality
Michel Foucault's Study about Sexuality

Meet Michel Foucault and get closer with the study of the sexuality

Michel Foucault somewhat created an overview of how the idea of the sexual taboo evolved through history, noting its correlation to major historical events. You can read the first volume online, here.

Foucault is considered to be a founder of something we may call philosophical history. Foucault thought it was far more important actually to learn from history and see how it influences our own time, rather than just to study it, for the purposes of studying.

His attitude towards science was why many people labeled him as a structuralist. Foucault himself rejected these claims: he didn’t even like being called a philosopher. He examined history through the perspective that each time had to offer, and he considered himself to be a researcher driven by curiosity; no further labels were needed.

Michel Foucault thought it was not that easy to explain sex and the effects of liberation. It was far less difficult to explain the way it was, or allegedly had been – repressed. The era of the 17th century had a reputation as a period in history characterized by widespread sexual repression.

At the time, there were three voluminous laws that legitimized certain sexual behavior. Society, then, defined its sexuality according to law, which somewhat created an artificial moral code, given the fact that the reality was different. The first psychiatrists of the 19th century were apologetic when talking about sex. Sex was considered to be a dirty topic.

But, according to Foucault, the thought about sexual repression was semi-real. Repression was never fully entrenched, given the fact that people always found a way to discuss sex and felt the need to push the limits of it.

On the contrary, the “repression” of some centuries created a contra-effect, motivating people to focus on their sexuality, to express their dark desires. Foucault believed that this “repression” was only an alibi, a form of excuse for expressing behavior that was considered to be deviant, at least in the past.

Liberation implied the need of the “repressed” to impose their sexual behavior, that is – to legitimize themselves. The confirmation of sexuality was never more restricted than in the golden age of the bourgeoisie; a time when society was extremely hypocritical, with its orientation towards work and progress, and with its allegedly open discussions about what sex truly was.

Foucault saw a specific bond of repression between the government and its people, and also spoke about the previously undiscussed economical side of these phenomena.

Ideas about power, from Foucault’s study Discipline and Punishment, found their way in his study of sexuality. Foucault says:

In actual fact, the manifold sexualities – those which appear with the different ages (sexualities of the infant or the child), those which become fixated on particular tastes or practices (the sexuality of the homosexual, the gerontophile, the fetishist), those which, in a diffuse manner, are found in highly structured relationships (the sexuality of doctor and patient, teacher and student, psychiatrist and mental patient), those which haunt spaces (the sexuality of the home, the school, the prison) – all form the correlates of exact procedures of power.

The manifestation of the sexual instinct is closely linked to the idea of power and domination. Therefore, some people enjoy experiencing the other side of the power relationship, through sadistic and masochistic sexual games.

It is a well known psychological fact – experimenting with sex has a lot to do with the subconscious, which is a way for a person to experience multiple roles, while staying safe.

Besides repression, in Foucault’s first volume of History of Sexuality, you can read about ars erotica and scientia sexualis.

Ars erotica is a term he used for erotic art, mainly in societies such as China, Japan, Rome, or India. Here, the truth about sexuality lies in the pleasure it gives, so it is all about experience.

Pleasure is there, regardless of what is permissible and impermissible. Sex is not primarily just a means of reproduction, but it finds a purpose in itself. Enjoyment – that is the real meaning, and it has been discussed through describing how it feels, how long it lasts, and what are its effects on the body and the soul.

Scientia sexualis is a term that Foucault uses for a new approach towards sex, and its main characteristic lies under the word confession. It starts putting up walls around sex as pleasure, while medicalizing it. Sex is now a topic for scientific research and is studied in a more detached way.

According to Foucault, we don’t live in a time of sexual liberation. Nothing much has changed since the establishment of scientia sexualis.

Still, we are witnessing more and more explicit content all around us. Sexualized commercials, an internet overwhelmed with sexual content, movies, books…

Maybe the most recent example is the global popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey. Still, all this doesn’t necessarily mean that we are at ease with sex. In fact, maybe the representations of sex all around us serve as a decoy, to hide what is really the issue here.

There is no open discussion of sex, only its visual forms, and that actually may increase the distance between it and us. Taboos still exist, they have only changed their form.

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