Review: The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 – Scientia Sexualis

Today I’m moving on to the second part of my review of the History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault. In this post I am going to be focusing on what is only 20 pages of Foucault’s piece, but what are probably the most important, his chapter titled Scientia Sexualis.

Before we start, let’s just recap of where we left off: the repressive hypothesis. In my last review we saw a challenge from Foucault; one where he called on us to question what he called the ‘repressive hypothesis’, or the argument that we live in an age of sexual repression and censorship. Foucault argues that in fact, that we have seen an explosion of sexual discourse over the past centuries.

So, how has this explosion of sexual discourse occurred? Let’s start at the back of this chapter to get our answer. Foucault argues that what we’ve seen is the development of what he calls scientia sexualis – or what I would call the scientification of sex. Scientia sexualis is a scientific discourse around sex focused around obtaining sexual ‘truth’.

“Let us put forward a general working hypothesis. The society that emerged in the nineteenth century – bourgeois, capitalist, or industrial society, call it what you will – did not confront sex with a fundamental refusal of recognition. On the contrary, it put into operation an entire machinery for producing true discourses concerning it. Not only did it speak of sex and compel everyone to do so; it also set out to formulate the uniform truth of sex.” (p. 69)

So how did we develop this scientific ‘truth’ of sex? Foucault argues that societies have historically done this in two ways. First, is the mode used largely in Arabo-Moslem societies, China, India, Japan and Rome; ars erotica:

“In the erotic art, truth is drawn from pleasure itself, understood as a practice and accumulated in experience; pleasure is not considered in relation to an absolute law of the permitted and forbidden, nor by reference to the criterion of utility, but first and foremost in relation to itself; it is experience as pleasure, evaluated in terms of its intensity, its specific quality, its duration, its reverberations in the body and the soul.” (p.57)

In the Western World however, scientia sexualis is focused around the method of confession. Foucault argues that since the Middle Ages, confession has been a major tool used in the West as a means to reveal the ‘truth’. This ritual of discourse is one which unfolds in a very distinct power relationship, one in which the confessor has some authority above them that requires the confession. The confession however, also provides a sense of purification for the confessor – it absolves them of their sins. In that sense therefore, confession is a bottom-up process – one in which the confessor is the instigator through coming to the confessional booth.

Scientia sexualis was the movement where confession moved from the confessional booth in church, into the scientific and medical world, into the world of psychiatry. It was here that these confessions began to be noted, taken down, codified, and used to develop an understanding of scientific truth. Foucault argues that this was a momentous time:

“It was a time when the most singular pleasures were called upon to pronounce a discourse of truth concerning themselves, a discourse which had to model itself after that which spoke, not of sin and salvation, but of bodies and life processes-the discourse of science. It was enough to make one’s voice tremble, for an improbable thing was taking shape: a confessional science, a science which relied on a many-sided extortion, and took for its object what was unmentionable but admitted nonetheless.” (p.64)

Sexual confession therefore became a practice of science. Science began inducing confessions through codifying an inducement to speak in clinical practice, creating causality (often negative) between people’s sexual practices and the events in their lives, forcing out something that was inherently hidden, scientifically interpreting what was and wasn’t said, and through medicalising the effects of confession (p. 65 – 67).

With science at its base, the discourse around sex now therefore took on two distinct orders of knowledge; biology and medicine. If we think about this clearly, you can easily see this today. Our discourse around sex is focused on the medical and biological – how can we improve our sexual performance, what sort of drugs can we take to do this, what is medically wrong with people who engage in ‘perverse sex’?

This scientification of sex went well beyond this discourse however. As Foucault explains:

“But beyond these troubled pleasures, it assumed other powers; it set itself up as the supreme authority in matters of hygienic necessity, taking up the old fears of venereal affliction and combining them with the new themes of asepsis, and the great evolutionist myth with the recent institutions of public health; it claimed to ensure the physical vigour and the moral cleanliness of the social body; it promised to eliminate defective individuals, degenerate and bastardised populations. In the name of biological and historical urgency, it justified the racisms of the state, which at the time were on the horizon. It grounded them in “truth.” (p.54)

What we see therefore is a great is a twofold process; one in which the new discourse of sexuality, scientia sexualis, forces sexual confession through scientific practices, and a second which then transforms these confessions into the ‘truth’ around sex – a truth which often has much meaning and impact beyond someone simply knowing people’s sexual practices.

And this is where we return to our original repressive hypothesis. Whilst we have seen an explosion of sexual discourse – this does not mean a lack of sexual repression. It is just that this repression is now framed in a scientific manner – it is framed in ‘truth’. If we think about it in that way, it is in fact much more terrifying than the original repressive hypothesis Foucault posited.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *