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Sexuality and Power in
Modern Societies
•Theories about the individualization of
sexuality in modern societies
•Critique of Foucault’s Discourse Analysis
•Anthony Giddens on Plastic Sexuality
Foucault on sexuality
• In his “History of Sexuality” Michel Foucault criticized the
“repressive hypothesis” about sexuality which assumes that
civilization contains spontaneous sexuality. Modernity, as a civilizing
process, brings discipline in social relations, therefore – control of
inner drives; to be effective this control has to be internalized in the
form of self-control; Control is the exercise of power.
• Power is a constraining force with respect to sexuality. Modern
institutions (hospitals, the school, etc.) become constraining forces
of human sexuality and create “docile bodies”. These institutions
drive sex “underground”, it becomes a secret obsession but is still
controlled (Compare with Freud).
• Yet developments in the 2nd half of the 20th century did not support
this hypothesis. A. Kinsey showed in the 1940s that sexual pleasure
is a wide-ranging experience of American men and women and that
what we call today sexual diversity was not focused in the
behaviours of a handful of individuals but a set of practices that
increase in popularity.
Foucault’s “liberated hypothesis” about
In his later work on sexuality Foucault comes to realize that power is also a
mobilizing phenomenon and those who are subject to disciplinary power are not
necessarily docile in their reactions to it. Sex is a powerful generator of social
reconstruction, especially in the relations of power.
Power is now seen as an instrument for the production of pleasure. He now
sees sexuality in modern societies as a central, dense point of emotional
transfer for relations of power. Modern societies tend to become preoccupied
with sex, so sex is not driven underground by modern civilization.
In the 19-early 20th centuries sex and power become intertwined in several
ways: - sex becomes a widely discussed “secret”;
sexual behaviors are rationalized and interpreted in terms of the
organization of indvidual mental and physical development (e.g.
– the forms of aberrant/peripheral sexuality (“perversions”) are seen as
implanted in the body, not the personality type – thus they are
acknowledged as real and some – redefined as negative – but also arbitrary
social isolation of gays leads to consolidation and mobilization of
“peripheral sexualities” thus redefining modern modes of conduct. (Ex.: the
poetry and erotic prose of Anais Nin sexuality and homosexuality are
experienced in exclusively terms of one’s journey to one’s own
Foucault’s “liberated hypothesis” (Cont.)
Sex becomes the focal point of a modern confessional (the “flesh” against a modern
individualistic preoccupation with sexual desire);
Sexology - a science about modern sexuality emerges; Sexuality itself appears as a
concept in the 19th century. The concept is also a social construct: it is interpreted
through the lens of the existing power structures in society.
These two developments create a discourse around sex: Sex acquires new
individualistic meanings and becomes a personal story, a narrative. It also becomes a
socially-significant story, a social narrative – through several contexts in which power
becomes intertwined with knowledge. For ex., female sexual pleasure is recognized,
analytically dissected through the concept of “hysteria”, and immediately contained;
so is child sexuality – medical doctors predict that childhood masturbation is bad for
the mental and psychological development of children. Sex-for-pleasure in marriage
is also recognized but has to be a “disciplined pursuit of pleasure”…
Foucault argues that the emergence of sex as a central point of discourse in modern
society impacts a whole range of social institutions and takes the form of “anatomopolitics of the human body” – a whole host of technologies of bodily management
aimed at both constraining/regulating and optimising/empowering the capacities of
the human body.
Critique of Foucault’s theory
• The only moving forces according to Foucault’s theory are power,
discourse, and the body/sex.
• Sex is overrated at the expense of gender – where is the role of the
common family person – man and woman?
• Sex is seen as a widely-ranging dicourse in Victorian times (a
secret, but a common secret – open for discussion). But sex
discource was jnot widely available to the common man and even
less – to the common woman (illiteracy)…so discourse is an elitist
mechanism for the social construction of modern sexuality…and de
facto – a form of censorship…Male-authored medical texts…Elitist
discourse ignores the issue of gender inequality altogether…
• But what may be more widely-inclusive mechanisms…? In addition
to discourse there are other social forms of interaction leading to the
social construction of modern sexuality as we know it: F. does not
analyze the connections of sex with romantic love/marriage. What is
the role of adultery?
Anthony Giddens theory of Plastic
• Giddens follows a non-elitist, socio-logic line of explanation by
looking at long-term trends:
• The emergence of romantic love in Victorian times and the social
diffusion of the bourgeois practice of “romancing”/courting in all
social groups;
• The marital bond gradually acquires exclusivity and primacy over
other kinship ties, incl. parent-children bondsquire;
• The “home” becomes separated from the “working place” and
acquires a meaning of exclusivity as a “safe heaven”;
• Practices/movements about family planning emerge long before the
pill (1921); Sex gradually becomes differentiated and disconnected
from procreation – this liberates women’s sexuality;
• Sexuality comes to be seen as a “property” of the individual;
• As a result  “plastic sexuality” evolves as a gender-liberated and
sexually-diverse set of practices and meanings.
The 20th century: Institutional reflexivity
about sexual liberation
Is the modern social re-construction of sex and love relationships only a topdown process as Foucault argues?
Giddens argument: there are also powerful changes through grassroots
practices and lay meanings of sexuality.
Instead of Foucault’s thesis of the “power-knowledge” intrusive
implementation of new definitions of sex into social organisation, Giddens
proposes the concept of “institutional reflexivity” as an on-going process.
Reflexivity New terms/definitions, introduced in social relations to
describe them in terms of their socially-valid aspects, also become
meaningful and are used routinely as building blocks of the frames of action
which individuals or social groups adopt;
Institutional These definitions tend to become also basic structuring
elements of social activity in modern organized settings through the
elaboration of routines and procedures and the emergence of
The expansion of institutional refxlexivity
about sexuality in the 20th century
Institutional reflexivity is a modern process itself: related to geographical
mobility, mass media, Internet, and the ICT revolution which accelerates
this process even further
Continual reflexive incorporation of ever faster expanding knowledge;
ICT disrupts the coupling of knowledge with power  democratization
becomes a distinctive characteristic of institutional reflexivity  the more
connected we are in non-hierarchical networks the more we know about
diverse practices – the more the grassroots meanings become more
influential in the public domain of discourse about sexuality;
Public debates and the use of standards of inclusiveness help to neutralize
moral oppositions to sexual diversity;
The role of therapy and counselling, incl. psychoanalysis.
Institutional reflexivity on the level of ordinary, everyday sexual practices is
accelerating  the mix of knowledge, institutional (e.g. legal) sanctions and
public opinion now can happen in a matter of days or months.
The decline of perversion
In 1905 Freud was the first to argue that sexual traits associated with
perversions were not restricted to small categories of abnormal people but
were common to the sexuality of everyone  it is inappropriate to use the
term “perversion”;
Havelock Ellis substituted this term with “sexual deviation”;
During the sexual revolution homosexual movements were successful in
recoining the “deviation” concept into a concept of sexual
pluralism/diversity: the decline of perversion is the result of a successful
battle over rights and freedoms of self-expression through sex;
In post-modern times we have moved one step further: not only social life
itself, but what used to be considered as “nature” becomes dominated by
socially organized systems and constructs. Ex.: the socialization of
reproduction (method for artificial conception and even birth) logically leads
to a future where heterosexuality is likely to loose its status of standard and
to become just one among many sexual tastes/practices…