Invisible Sexual Repression: Destabilising Foundational Norms [Book Review]

I write this short paper as a comment on Sara Mills and Michel Foucault’s works. Sara Mills analyses Foucault’s observations on sexuality from his book titled, ‘The History of Sexuality Volume 1’. This paper reacts to some of the critical observations and analysis by Mills as well in her book titled ‘Michel Foucault’.

It is easy to misconceive Foucault’s work on sexuality as tracing how sexuality has evolved. However, as Foucault clarifies, far from this, his analysis provides an insight into the “theoretical and practical context with which it has been associated”. This seemingly simple statement has far reaching consequences and understandings that shall be explored. What has been theorised is the way power and politics has shaped sexuality. The methodical procedure of performing the right sexual act has evolved through time.

As Sara Mills rightly points out, Foucault’s work has provided a backbone to feminists who do not wish to fall into the trap of essentialism. Gayle Rubin is one such theorist who has written about how sex is political. He recognises essentialism and provides a constructive alternative, that is, how the body just provides the tools essential for human sexuality. Sex is indeed a social phenomenon. What is biological is the urge or sexual arousal that occurs as a result of hormones. The act of performing sex has evolved through history into many different forms. Out of those of those forms, as Rubin puts it, only a certain kind of sexual activity involving married heterosexual couple, inside the conjugal space is acceptable. Masturbation, for instance, is seen as taboo. This phenomenon is certainly not a result of biology. History and politics have played a role in defining sex.

Repression is certainly different from penal law. This Foucauldian understanding goes a long way in looking at today’s world from a different lens. It is true that children are taught to turn a blind eye to the word ‘sex’ as though it does not exist. Surely, the penal law outlaws certain kinds of sexual acts and relationships. However, to understand repression, as Foucault points out, it is important to observe how parents do not permit children from even hearing the word sex. A recent example is how the government has banned ‘condom’ advertisements during the day time, since children are most vulnerable during the day to watch those advertisements. This is a form of sexual repression that is a result of history and politics.

The process of confession is something that Foucault explains, developed “within the Christian Church, but can be seen in a wide range of practises to day”. As a recent example, Karan Jauhar (film maker), in his autobiography wrote about his homosexuality and in a way ‘comes out’. Although this could be seen as a way of liberating oneself, the fact of the matter remains, as Foucault points out, that homosexuality is seen as a sin. Confessions involve confessing about a crime and seeking forgiveness. Looking from another lens, the act of ‘coming out’ involves confessing. Confession or ‘coming out’ may also be looked at as an act aimed at seeking acceptance, rather than forgiveness. An individual’s social standing plays a major role in this process. A film maker is more susceptible to not care about what others make of his confession, for he has gained popularity and commercial success. He would have certainly not confessed at the nascent stages of his career fearing repression.

‘The repressive hypothesis’ is truly remarkable in correlating architecture to sexual repression. For instance, the way dormitories are designed, may seem meaningless or may assume other meanings, that is to save space or otherwise. However, as Foucault points out, sexuality of male children became an issue of public importance. This sexuality had to be repressed in order to maintain the sanctity of children. Bunk-beds in dormitories derive their origin from this understanding that has penetrated the society so much that today, bunk-beds are an essential feature of each and every dormitory at least till the high-school level.

The OP Jindal Global University’s rule book provides that public display of affection is prohibited and any instance that is reported would be heavily penalised. The penalty may involve intimation to parents and suspension. Entering an opposite gender’s dormitory is considered a grave offence as well. There have been instances where hostel wardens with security guards have entered into private spaces of students to keep a check on them. Sexual repression has become the ideal norm that the University and parents seek to enforce, even through coercive measures. It is astonishing how an institution that prides on being ‘global’, with highly qualified faculty members from around the globe, represses sexuality in this manner, among other things. As Upendra Baxi puts it, the teacher must put into action what is taught in the classroom.

Much of what has been observed by Foucault in his work on sexuality destabilises certain foundational assumptions. Pertinently, it offers no solution or a method as to how to go about doing certain things to break free from these unsettling observations. At the same time, critique may or may not involve suggesting an alternate path, or for that matter, offer a workable solution. Foucault’s work has certainly provided an avenue to think and engage in discussions. It is only this way that thought can be provoked. Structuring one’s theoretical foundations from Foucault’s work, one can develop ideas and engage with them. Remarkably, Foucault’s writings do not have much citations like other academic writings. However, the facts that are provided seem to be extremely well researched and accurate.

[This post has been contributed by Niranjan Shankar Rao, law student at Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat.]

Featured Image: Foucault portrait. Flickr/Thierry Ehrmann.


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