Sex in the head

Roy Porter

  • The History of Sexuality. Vol. III: The Care of Self by Michel Foucault, translator Robert Hurley
    Allen Lane, 279 pp, £17.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 7139 9002 3

How are we to read the history of sexuality? In the Introduction volume to his great multi-volume essay in critical-revisionism, Michel Foucault set out to demystify the discourse which has informed post-Victorian accounts about sex, whether therapeutic (Reich), scholarly (Bloch) or polemical (Marcuse). Such histories were traditionally cast in a progressive, Whiggish, emancipatory framework, presupposing a dialectics of drives, repression and liberation. Sex was self-evidently a good thing, nature’s path to pleasure, individual fulfilment and biological fitness. But, such vulgar Freudian histories contended, Western civilisation – indeed, civilisation per se – had chosen to repress it. Why? To some extent, from fear, ignorance and pseudo-science. To a large degree, thanks to the ‘thou shalt not-ism’ of Christianity, for which carnality was the root of all evil. Between them, pastoral theology and canon law had judged sex sinful between almost all people in almost all postures on almost all occasions. And not least, according to Marxists, sexual repression had been demanded by the labour economy of capitalism. Maximising work had entailed minimising sex; the social control of the proletariat, of women, and of children, first required their sexual control. Eros had thus been comprehensively denied. Such histories crusaded for sexual enlightenment to end this tyranny. For Sixties Marxo-Freudians, sexual revolution and political revolution would go hand in hand.

In Karl Kraus’s celebrated judgment, psychoanalysis was the disease of which it purported to be the cure. Foucault debunked this ideology of sexual emancipation in a comparable way. Properly scrutinised, the vulgar-Freudian ‘dialectics of liberation’ could be seen less as a break with, and more as a revamping of, that regime of sexual inquisition from which it promised emotional rescue. Indeed, Foucault demonstrated, that whipping boy, Victorian ‘silence’ (prudery, expurgation, censorship) was a grotesque misnomer. For never had there been so much discourse about sex as then, proliferating around the family (procreation), children (masturbation), women (hysteria) and adults (perversion). Victorian sexology’s expressed goal was psychophysical ‘hygiene’; its modern counterpart aimed rather at expression. Yet both employed similar techniques, a confessional mode, obliging sex to speak its truth within a voyeuristic scientia sexualis.

Foucault’s strategy was not to re-argue the case for sexual ‘silence’ (strange paradox), any more than it was to champion civilisation over libido. It was rather to expose these drive/repression, prohibition/permission scenarios as false-consciousness, at once self-congratulatory, self-serving and shallow. For if, after all, ‘repression’ had been grounded upon a loquacious sexology, how simple-minded to suppose that libido-liberation could emerge from a ‘talking cure’. And ultimately, Foucault insisted, this was because sexuality was not a biological drive to be denied or liberated, but the product of discourse. The history of sexuality must thus be the history of its discourses. And so he plunged back to the earliest sexual formulations within the Western tradition for the succeeding two volumes of his (alas, unfinished) history.

Greek writings about erotics did not, of course, problematise sex in terms of a timeless battle between inner drives (some ‘id’) and external interdictions. As Foucault’s second volume, The Uses of Pleasure, demonstrated, Greek thought primarily problematised sexuality in terms of how sexual pleasures (aphrodisia) could most amply be enjoyed by men who were simultaneously enjoying their social status as educated, leisured, political animals. Sexuality was inscribed in several distinct discourses: dietetics (finding the right frequency and pitch of performance compatible with one’s well-being); economics (the rules governing sexual relations with one’s wife, geared to forming family alliances and maintaining households); and erotics, which rationalised how boys might legitimately be taken as lovers (when friendship, philia, blessed the relationship).

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