Sexual repression has never been fully implemented in Western societies. There have been certain confessional outlets, where so-called improper sexual feelings could be released safely.
Prostitution and psychiatry are two such outlets. Those who turned to psychiatrists or prostitutes in the Victorian era are known as the “other Victorians.” They created their own space for discourse on sexuality that freed them from the confines of conventional morality.
The 20th century was no different. Freud may seem to have made open and frank discussions of sexuality possible, but this discourse is still confined to the academic and confessional realm of psychiatry.
We cannot free ourselves from this repression simply by means of theory: we must learn to be more open about our sexuality, to talk about it, to enjoy it.
Discourse on sexuality, seen as a revolt against a repressive system, becomes a matter of political liberation rather than intellectual analysis.
Foucault suggests the repressive hypothesis [sex has been deliberately repressed] is essentially an attempt to give revolutionary importance to discourse on sexuality.
The repressive hypothesis makes it seem both defiant and of utmost importance to our personal liberation that we talk openly about sex.
Our discourse on sexuality, in its promise for a better, freer way of life, is a form of preaching.
Foucault wishes to address the modern paradox of our discourse on sexuality: why do we proclaim so loudly that we are repressed, why do we talk so much about how we can’t talk about sex?
A supporter of the repressive hypothesis might answer that we are so aware of our repression because it is so evident, and liberating ourselves is a long process that can only be advanced by open, frank discussion.
Foucault asks three questions about the repressive hypothesis:
(1) Is it historically accurate to trace what we think of today as sexual repression to the rise of the bourgeoisie in the 17th century?
(2) Is power in our society really expressed primarily in terms of repression?
(3) Is our modern- day discourse on sexuality really a break with this older history of repression, or is it part of the same history?
In questioning the repressive hypothesis, Foucault is not primarily interested in contradicting it.
He doesn’t want to deny the fact that sex has been a taboo subject in Western culture. His interest is primarily the “discursive fact” of sexuality.
He wants to know how and why sexuality is made an object of discussion. Ultimately, his interest is not in sexuality itself, but in our drive for a certain kind of knowledge, a certain perspective, and the kind of power we find in that knowledge.
Foucault asks how it is that we have come to see sex as the key to explaining us, as holding the truth about us.
The answer has to do with the relationship sex has with power and knowledge. Foucault criticizes the conception of power as something that simply represses and restricts, always taking a law-like form.
He suggests instead that power is as productive as it is repressive, that it is multi-faceted and omnipresent. Power is everywhere and working in all directions. Sexuality isn’t something that power represses, but a great conduit of power.
Foucault identifies four major focus points: the sexuality of children, women, married couples, and the sexually “perverse.”
The deployment of sexuality through these four points allows power to spread itself into the family and throughout society.