History of Sexuality

You may not be one for gazing adoringly at your own belly-button lint…
…but if Philosophy is your thing and you are interested in thinking through how Christians can engage with our culture about sex and sexuality, then its well worth getting to know Michel Foucault.
French, Post-Modern, Gay, Bracingly Bald.

Ready to just reach out and grab ya!!Foucault_Grab
(is that a giant lipstick he’s holding?)

Yet, strangely enough, here Christians might find an academic ally.

Foucault is known as a theorist of institutions. His major preoccupation was the flow of power through human relationships in society, and in particular how this affected human knowledge.
He was also a historian (although some would debate this) seeking, in his own phrase, to ‘write the history of the present’. On a basic level this means, that Focault sought to understand modern institutions like prisons, schools, and pyschiatric institutions, through the study of their development and the theoretical discourse that surrounded this development. What did people think about punishment, education, madness? And more important, why has the thinking and talking surrounding these institutions changed over time?
For example, why has our attitude to torture as an acceptable form of punishment been reversed over the course of the last three centuries?

Foucault’s major work was the three volume (unfinished)The History of Sexuality. In it he seeks to trace the development of human thinking about sex through the major periods of Western Civilisation.
It is a fascinating study. Foucault takes us from Classical Greece, through Medieval Christendom, and into the English Victorian period. As a work of history, the value of this study is debatable. Foucault was not a classical scholar and has been repeatedly charged with not being completely on top of his sources.

However, the major contribution of this work is not to our understanding of sexual practice through the ages. Rather, Foucault’s work sets out to demonstrates that people’s thinking about sexual behaviour has changed during different historical periods.
According to Foucault, sex within the classical Greek culture was not theorised as a moral problem but ‘dietetic’, how should a responsible citizen engage in sexual behaviour in a ‘healthy’ way.
A average randy Greek was not asking questions about whether Sex is Good or Evil, but is it Healthy? The primary questions being asked in the relevant Greek literature are for the sake of a healthy life, ‘how much sex should I have, with whom, and when?’

This is transformed with the coming of Christianity. Christians, following their Jewish heritage, regard sex as subject to moral demands.
For Christians, sexual practice is not merely regulated by questions of health and hygiene, instead sexual relations are imbued with a significance that points beyond the simple activity to the will and intention of God. Therefore questions about sex are deeply moral questions.

This might seem rather obvious to you, after all, Christianity as a whole introduced completely new ways of thinking into the pagan world. But Foucault goes beyond this, in fact, his work really only gets interesting when he comes to examine the developments in thinking and talking about sex following the Enlightenment, particularly in Victorian England.

You can really take or leave this historical analysis, Foucault’s reason for going here is primarily to show that our thinking about sex is not set in stone. It is subject to external forces. Foucault’s interest in tracing the development of Sexual Discourse is in seeing how these external factors have operated to produce our current beliefs about sex. He’s engaging in a ‘genealogy’.

Foucault’s analysis points out that through a certain historical period, our society moved from talking about ‘sex’ and started a new form of speech revolving around ‘sexuality’.

This is where his thinking has been most influential and provocative. Foucault argues that while we have always had things to say about sex, ‘sexuality’ is a relatively modern phenomenon. Sexuality joins together sexual behaviour and identity. It’s where we get the notion that heterosexual and homosexual are primary categories of identification.

Foucault’s historical analysis demonstrates that there is no indication at earlier points in Western Civilisation that sex and identity were held together in this way. Rather, sexual behaviour was the outcome of an identity grounded completely elsewhere.

Why is it that we now talk about people as ‘Gay’, rather than People who engage in homosexual practice?

that mon cheroot, is the question…

More to come.

5 thoughts on “History of Sexuality

  1. Hey, nice summary. Of all the books to leave unfinished… but how does it end dammit? Strange how no one's done that weird Austenian thing of writing sequels for it…

    It's interesting to think how that 'healthy sex' v. 'moral sex' question keeps the debate lively about sex education in schools, public health campaigns etc – not to mention the way the spread of AIDs is dealt with (or otherwise) in parts of Africa – possibly an almost parallel with your Wilberforcian postings.


  2. Perhaps I'm becoming more of an omphalologist, but I found that very interesting. We do seem to have a strong tendency to equate behaviour with identity. If I only eat vegetables, I am a vegetarian. If I study at an educational institution, then I am a student. If I give a lot of money to charity, then I am a philanthropist. We even have negative labels like 'alcoholic' and 'drug addict'.

    Yet we pick and choose what behaviour we identify ourselves by. If people have sex before marriage, they generally don't like to identify themselves as fornicators. People who have 'affairs' don't like to call themselves adulterers. Nor do we tend to identify ourselves by whether or not we use public transport, or even our preference for scrunching or folding.

    Christians have been arguing for a very long time that doing Christ-like things does not make you a Christian. Yet, if you are a Christian, then you will do Christ-like things. It seems like the relationship between identity and behaviour is a recurring theme in the bible. All the way through there is a tension between what kind of behaviour should characterise those identified as God's People, and what behaviour they actually display. I would really like to hear people's thoughts on this, as I've been trying to get a handle on it for a while.

    And why is it that we tend to focus on occupation, and one particular aspect of our sexual behaviour to define ourselves?


  3. ans, i think that it is symptomatic of our culture that the classical Greek 'dietetic' view of sex, and the Christian 'moral' view of sex co-exist within different segments of society. It makes our cultural conversation about sex very confusing at times. According to Foucault, what we have in general though, is an understanding that sexual behaviour is somehow constituative of identity.

    James, its certainly nothing new for people to define themselves by their occupation. However, these identifications tend to be made in specific contexts. What is significant is when something like sexual behaviour becomes the ground for a global identity. Being Gay is about much more than homosexual practice.



  4. In some ways defining ourselves by our occupations is lessening I think – one may be a gardener but that does not mean that one's children will be gardeners etc. Universal education may have something to do with that… But then I guess most people do tend to evaluate themselves on their profession and how well they are doing, so perhaps I'm sailing out of the ballpark on that. Maybe it's just less of a social status thing. But again, that would depend on context. So this paragraph: waste of time.

    Do you think how we define ourselves with regard to sexuality also has a lot to do with how important relationships are to us as humans? If you've got a committed bond with someone, then having to pretend that they're the butler is a bit offensive. I'd also suggest that the degree to which we do this (identify ourselves as 'gay' or whatever) is lessening, at least in some situations, as it becomes less of an act of protest to declare that you are gay, and thus less likely to take over your whole life. If you were going to lose contact with family and reduce the likelihood of gainful employment then I can see how it would kind of determine your whole identity.


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