Our Sexuality

I’m teaching a class on sexuality and I thought I should collect all of my preliminary thoughts about it into one place and, hey, that’s what this blog is for!

So, to begin, I’d like to say that my perspective on sexuality is quite Foucaultian. I think taking into account the insights (whether one agrees or not) of Foucault’s History of Sexuality is necessary for an understanding of our contemporary sexuality. Not only does he provide a very interesting account of where our sexual mores and proclivities belong in a historical continuum, he provides a very interesting methodological perspective about how to think about sexuality. It is not whether we possess in some essential way a certain sexuality, rather it is that we should question where sexuality comes from and what effect certain discourses on sexuality have on producing that sexuality. It is less important, for example, to determine whether or not we possess a repressed sexuality: it is rather to ask what does the very idea that we have a repressed sexuality do? How does thinking we are repressed effect the way we think and act about sexuality.

So, the first insight of The History of Sexuality and probably the most famous is that:

1) Whether or not we are actually repressed, the very idea that we are repressed (which we buy into a lot) impacts us. It makes us want to be liberated from this repression. It allows for a whole swath of discourse and activities open up that make us more and more concerned about sexuality. Because we think we are repressed we intensify our concern with sexuality. The idea of Repression actually produces more and more discourse about sexuality.

When we trace historically our contemporary notions of sexuality, we see that for the most part, they come from 19th century French and British understandings. Our sexuality is intimately connected to a historical trajectory aligned to a new ordering of Europe (first found in France and Britain) begun in the 19th century. This new order is deeply embedded in the new capitalist global world order that was being constructed through European colonialism and internal European revolutions in the ordering of knowledge, people, and society.

2) While the idea of the nation-state can be traced back to the Magna Carta and all that, the actual implementation and dissemination of nation-state as a practice began to be crystallized in the 19th century. As I mention above, this happens in France and Britain first. For example, until the very end of the 19th century, what we now know as Germany was a collection of loosely aligned political affiliations and diverse cultural regions. Over the span of the second half of the 19th century these loose political affiliations were brought into a collective unity called Germany. The nation-state as we know it, and the only way we order the geo-political world now, is really only about 150 years old.

3) Part of the process of constructing a nation-state was the necessity of constructing a bourgeois middle-class for the formative process of capitalist nation-states. This led to two consequences. First, the middle-class that was being constructed necessitated a whole re-visioning of sexuality. Sexuality became for the procreation of middle-class children. The values of the nuclear family and sexual deviance were all products of this necessity of creating a middle class as the backbone of capitalist nation-state building.

4) Second, this new nation-state necessitated the administrators of it to have comprehensive knowledge of its citizens in order to organize the state better. The discipline of sociology was, in part, the facilitator of this. The rise of sociology coincides with the necessity for certain ways of thinking about the organization of people within a state. Nation-states cannot function without, for example, the census. Statistics as a method, as we know it today, was developed for this expressed purpose.

5) In order to have the bourgeois nation-state continue to produce middle-class subjects, subjectivity had to be ordered in a way to facilitate this. In order to have a middle-class that continued to reproduce middle-class citizens, children’s development had to be rethought. The notion of adolescence was constructed in the 19th century to provide, on the one hand, subjects that could be trained in the values of the middle class through education (and as we see in Discipline & Punish, this followed the disciplines being perfected from prisons) and, on the other hand, the category of adolescence allowed the further disciplining of children’s sexuality so that it could be aimed towards reproducing a middle class. Just to be clear, there was no comprehensive understanding of adolescence until the 19th century. Remember all those children working the mines? Can’t have middle-class children doing that, they need to learn how to be bourgeois subjects. Thus, adolescence facilitated quite nicely this reordering.

6) The profusion of sexology developed as a way to order the knowledge about sexuality such that underlying sexology was the moral ideal of the middle-class reproducing couple. Thus, anything outside of this could be constructed as deviant. We see two interesting trends here. First, aligned to the repressive hypothesis above, the sexologists imagined a hidden sexuality (of deviants, of children, of masturbation) that they could then mobilize against in order to bring it to light. Deviance became the standard of psychological and sexological themes. This is a new way of thinking about sexuality. Jonathan Ned Katz, in his book The Invention of Heterosexuality, shows how our contemporary ways of looking at sexuality were products of late-19th century sexology. Heterosexuality only exists because of the construction of Homosexuality. Indeed, the first use of the term homosexuality meant what we now mean by heterosexuality, and heterosexuality was invented to talk about what we now mean by bisexuality. Eventually in the 1920s heterosexuality came into more popular usage. We take these terms for granted, but sexologists have only relatively recently constructed these terms. Second, the whole epistemological structure of science was mobilized in order to produce deviant subjects and the idea of deviance itself. Indeed, so pervasive was this mobilization (into sociology, sexology, psychology, psychiatry, medicine, the penal system, education, notions of parenting etc.) that Foucault could say the following:

“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)

7) In sum, how we think about sexuality today is not the natural and universal understanding of sexuality. It is a construct of the 19th century that we continue to take up. It is historically contingent and reproduces bourgeois sexuality. Thus, for example, the concern over Same Sex Marriage from a radically Marxist queer perspective is that Same Sex Marriage is just the reproduction of a new injection into the bourgeois middle-class and allows for its reification. Our sexuality today is specifically aligned to a Euro-centric model of the nation-state.

But this has many global consequences. Because of Colonialism and the Post-colonial predicament, Euro-American norms of the nation-state have been exported globally. Every middle-class subject, regardless of region, belongs on the end of a historical trajectory that starts in England and France (with props to Germany for working out some of the details and theoretical ideology to buttress it). So, while postcolonial nation-states are attempting to forge a new national identity, they necessarily must adopt the bourgeois morals of the capitalist nation-state to fit within the global order. So, while there is much concern over the westernization or modernization of regions and their construction of tradition in contemporary times, there is little or no discussion about how the middle class must necessarily fit, to one degree or another, with the ordering I described above. Thus, regardless of where one goes in the world, there is always some connection to the construction of the bourgeois sexual subject.

The consequences for this are manifold.

In postcolonial settings, the concern with homosexuality is a relic of colonialism. Most homophobia world-wide is an import from 19th century colonial ways of constructing deviance. There is much more to say, but I’ll leave that for another post.

Our categories of homo-/hetero-/bi-/trans-sexual are a product of an ordering of sexuality that attempts to police  people to behave in certain ways. The most efficient way of policing people is by having them police themselves. So, values need to be internalized. The war on masturbation of the 19th century that still remains a minor skirmish today was one of the most effective ways of setting up the structure and institutions of surveillance and self-surveillance that could be mobilized for other uses. For example, Ladelle McWhorter notes how the war on masturbation created a series of strategies of policing adolescent sexuality that could be used for other purposes: in her case, rooting out little queers.

“The war on masturbation continued not because it helped prevent masturbation, but because it enabled something else, namely, the infiltration of the family by the medical profession (among others) and, generally, the extension of extralegal [e.g. discursive] mechanisms of control through some of the heretofore most private corners of human existence.” (21)
Strategies of resistance have been produced, such as pride parades and queer theory. But, so too is the concern with the veil and burkahs and gender a kind of resistance at the same time as its a reification of oppression.
Global capitalist culture has now, less so outside of North America and Europe, ordered sex as the prime signifier of desire (because it is a liberation of our so-called repression). And because of patriarchical norms (i.e. the male gaze), the female body has become the site of sexual desire. This explains why we can use naked women to sell anything, even products not obviously affiliated with sexuality. It also explains why, for example, many women who identify as straight fantasize in private about same sex female sex. Women’s bodies have become the site of the liberation of sexuality as well as the site of capitalist desire and consumption. This could help explain the resistance to the veil in, for example, Europe. Everything has become sexualized in North America and Europe, because everything is deployed within a late-capitalist framework of the construction of desire. Foucault seems to have been correct in saying that modern society is directly perverted.
The point with all this analysis is show that our sexuality is not a given. It is to allow a space for us to rethink our sexuality and the sexual subjects that we have become. It is to ask, what are the effects of all these processes on how we think and behave? It is to try and imagine new ways of being subjects such that perhaps we can have less oppressive consequences of our views on sexuality. Why should we accept a heteronormative, gender binary view of the world as a given? Why should we accept a hyper-sexual way of mediating the world that produces women’s bodies as the primary site of consumption?  What other ways can we go about understanding sexuality?
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2 Responses to “Our Sexuality”

  1. Fuzzytheory Roundup « fuzzytheory Says:

    […] I do like my posts on sexuality–which are obviously inspired by Michel Foucault. You can see a sample in Our Sexuality. […]

  2. WIERD Methodology: Some Problems with the Study of Sexuality « fuzzytheory Says:

    […] global contexts, you have to understand your own presuppositions. I wrote about those in my post: Our Sexuality. Furthermore, in examining the sexuality of non-Western cultures, one also has to account for the […]

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