Category: We Other Victorians

“We ‘Other Victorians’” by Michel Foucault

Sexual Repression and Class Disparity

In his longwinded first chapter, Michel Foucault discusses society’s repression of sexuality in the 18th century compared to the 20th century. Not much has changed. Despite the lack of progress, It is nice to see the ways in which society has evolved since Foucault wrote “The History of Sexuality”. After reading this piece, I’m not really sure that I have anything of substance to say in response to it. I found his writing to be verbose and overwrought which made it hard for me to actually grasp what he was saying, thus making it even more difficult to form thoughts in response to the piece. The repressive hypothesis makes sense especially when one thinks about the institution of marriage and how much those ideals are forced upon us. The bourgeoisie profits from marriage because married people feel motivated to earn money in order to provide for their family, so they make up the bourgeoisie’s workforce. They then use the money that they have earned to buy things to provide for their families because that is what is expected of you when you get married which puts the money they earned right back into the bourgeoisie’s pockets.  I don’t think I have ever considered the ways in which discourse on sexuality (or lack thereof) is used as a means to create class disparity, but I think that it’s a productive way to think about it. Although Foucault does not seem to like the revolutionary nature of speaking about sex, I think that it’s okay that it’s seen  as revolutionary because I think it creates progress and I think it pushes more people to be speak openly about sex.

Issues with Psychology and Gender in We “Other Victorians”

In We “Other Victorians”, Foucault considers the repression of sexulality in modern times as compared to historical eras. One thing that struck me was the mention of Freud and the shift in views towards sexuality that his research caused. I found it interesting that Foucault considered Freud’s conclusions of sexuality to be “scientific” and “medical” rather than holistic and psychological considerations of sexuality. It is understandable that Freudian theory about repression of sexuality caused a great shift in the late Victorian era and beginning of the Edwardian era. However, I also understand that Freud’s theories are now considered outdated and not empirical or scientific enough to be highly ranked within the realm of human psychology. I therefore argue with Foucault’s view that mentions of sexuality are still only determined by psychological and medical reasoning. Instead, I believe that modern day society has begun to accept sex to be liberating.

However, I agree with Foucault’s discussion about the abuse of power in sexual relationships. I believe that sex and power are related, and a huge reason for this is in fact society’s internalization of Freud’s theories. According to these theories, females are born with an Electra complex, which causes them to resent their mother for castrating them, but they still identify with the mother in order to avoid losing their attachment to their father. Because of this, I would argue that Foucault’s theories are more applicable to debates about gender with regards to sexuality and power struggles. After all, modern day society seems to have more cases of men taking advantage of their positions in power in order to gain sexual gratification, as I hope to learn more about in the discussion on the Aziz Ansari scandal. Overall, I think that Foucault’s conclusions have a strong foundation of understanding the relationship between power and the repression of sexuality, but I think that we must dig deeper into understanding the power dynamics between different genders, as well as different sexual orientations.


The Modern Repression of Sexuality

In Michel Foucault’s introduction to The History of Sexuality, he discusses the repression of sexuality that was evident during the Victorian era, and compares it to the modern world. Foucault argues that while Freud has allowed for more open discussions on sexuality, these discussions (as in the Victorian era) are still only limited to the scientific realm of psychiatry.

Furthermore, Foucault examines the topic of sexuality with regards to marriage, stating that the institution of marriage has now claimed this discourse on sexuality, “mov[ing] it into the home” (3), where couples can decide what is and what isn’t said about sexuality. Taking it a step further, Foucault touches on the discourse of sexuality and how it is used to gain power. He takes the old saying “knowledge is power,” and applies this to sexuality, inferring that whoever determines what can be talked about also determines what can be known.

This repression of sexuality has not changed much since the Victorian era. The stigma that accompanied the “Other Victorians” that Foucault discusses, those that have taken their “infernal mischief” (4) to brothels and mental institutions, has not disappeared; rather, the names have changed, and these individuals are now known to modern society as “sluts,” “tramps,” “hookers,” and “whores.” Even in today’s morally loose society and despite the willingness of recent generations to talk about sexuality, there is still a sense of taboo surrounding the topic of sex. Public discussions of sex are only considered acceptable by society when in the context of an academic setting, and even then, many parents have issues with sexual education being taught at schools, arguing that it is crude and indecent.

The Repressive and Negative Aura Surrounding Sex

Foucault’s introduction to “The History of Sexuality” focuses on the repression of sex and sexuality from the Victorian era to modern day. Foucault emphasizes throughout his introduction that with the start of the 18th century sex moved into the most intimate and secret parts of a household and became solely used for reproduction. He sheds light on how repressive the culture became by referencing the frank and open nature of the 17th century while contrasting that time with references to sex only being accepted in “the brothel and the mental hospital” during the 18th century.

Foucault also uses the introduction to pose interesting questions, for example, “By what spiral did we come to affirm that sex is negated?” or “… ask why sex was associated with sin for such a long time?” By asking these questions he does acknowledge that today people seem to recognize the negative undertone that comes with the discussion of sex but points out that we are still repressed today. He does acknowledge that there are small rebellions against this culture taking place, but that in order to change the culture different questions must be answered. Foucault uses the end of his introduction to question what power drives the repression and look into the institutions that drive people to address sex in the way that they do. Foucault provides very thought provoking questions and ideas that are helping one understand how sex is addressed but also these questions pose a way to change the narrative about sex.

The Power Dynamic of The Repression of Sex

In We “Other Victorians”, Foucault emphasizes the repression of sexuality and the power dynamic it has on humans. He introduces the repression by using historical basis of the Victorian era and how it hasn’t changed much since. During the Victorian era, spending energy on activities that distracted from work were not ideal. Sex was one of them and thus became an activity and discussion confined within a marriage. With the bourgeoisie controlling what and where sex can be discussed, the power dynamic shifted towards them. Foucault then also shows how this repression is relatively new, since it wasn’t common few centuries before the 18th.

However, the interesting part is that Foucault mentions how the repression still exists today. It’s hidden in the way we mention sexuality. In society, we openly talk about how we recognize the repression.  As humans, we have discussed of how we can’t discuss about sex or how we feel restricted. By conversing of these issues, it shows how repression is still controlling and we’re looking for a way to combat it. It seems that humans are revolting against the bourgeoisie that started this repressive practice many years ago. With that, the power dynamic seems to shift towards the other side.

With the many questions at the end, Foucault shows how he is fascinated by the “Why? “of the situation.  Why are interested in conversing about sex or, Why is there this innate rebellion? Foucault doesn’t get to the root of these questions in this chapter, but they are thought provoking. Also, it shows how Foucault is interested in going beyond the scope of the repression and finding out what is the driving force of it.

“Repression” and Modern Discourse

Michel Foucault’s introduction to The History of Sexuality grounds his examination in the repression of sexuality during the Victorian era.  Foucault questions whether we are truly unshackled from these same expectations of discretion and silence regarding the discussion of sexuality, likening us to the “other victorians,” or those individuals like “the prostitute, the client, and the pimp, together with the psychiatrist and the hysteric,” who accepted sex in spaces hidden from society (4).  By titling his essay “We ‘Other Victorians,’” Foucault suggests that we still tend to abide by this concealment of sexuality in the public sphere, yet questions whether we are truly “repressed,” or arbitrarily consider ourselves to be so.  Foucault examines sexuality’s relationship with power, its presence in modern discourse, and our own guilt regarding our previous prohibition of sexuality in the public sphere in order to outline the rest of his book.  He stipulates that he does not wish to base his examination of the history sexuality solely in terms of its repression; rather, he wishes to track how knowledge and discourse about sexuality disseminates and who has control over such information.

Foucault’s article is the introduction to the rest of his book, so some of his arguments are rather general.  Much of the article explains his goals in examining the history of sexuality rather than actually examining them, making his tone appear more ruminative than argumentative.  However, he does make several observations about our modern discussion of sexuality, such as our own fixation on our sexual repression and the effects of the Victorian era’s rejection of sexuality.  I found the article to move in many different directions at times, but overall I would be interested to hear what Foucault has to say in some of his more concrete examinations of the history of sexuality.

Foucault’s Challenge of Modern Sexual Convention

In the chapter “We Other Victorians” from his book, Michel Foucault addresses the modern notion that sexuality is a repressed taboo. While this chapter is merely an introduction to the rest of the book, Foucault still manages to introduce several important points and questions. For example, he addresses the greater historical context behind this discussion, most specifically mentioning the Victorian era and how propriety and prudence were very highly valued. He then contrasts this era with the centuries prior to it, and emphasizes that the idea of repressing sexuality is fairly new, as it was not common practice before the seventeenth century.

Foucault also introduces the dynamic between sex and power. Rather than simply addressing modern day sexuality and sexual practices, he chooses to question the manner in which we view sex and ask why we talk about it the way that we do. Why do we look at ourselves as sexually repressed? Furthermore, how did things come to be this way? Foucault insinuates that in order to answer these questions, we must examine who is actually doing the talking. Who is given power over these things, how do they exert their power, and what effect does that have? These are all very preliminary questions and do not evoke answers on their own. However, by bringing up such questions, Foucault effectively challenges modern sexual conventions and opens up the door to greater critical discussion.

Why we talk about sex the way we do

In the chapter “We ‘Other Victorians’” Michael Foucault explores the historical context behind the repression of discussing and having pleasurable sex confidently in society. He claims that there was a shift from the 17th century, where sex was openly accepted as a far of life, to the Victorian bourgeois where “Sexually was carefully confined; it moved into the home” (3). Unless one was in a mental institution or a brothel sex was “taboo, nonexistence, and silent.” (4). This change in ideology around sex is accredited to the power systems the bourgeois society created and also capitalism.

Foucault emphasises the importance of recognizing the relationship between sex, repression, and power. He questions the systems which led us to question sex, shine it in a negative light, and reject our positive relationships with sex. An important question he asks is why did we, or do we equate sex with sin? He answers that abuses of power have created this complicated relationship. It will take an honest, open discussion about sex over a long period of time to start to unravel these preconceived notions of impurity surrounding sex. In a culture of repressing pleasure it will take years to have conversations of this unprecedented nature because of our history of avoiding sex as a subject. His focus becomes more clear at the end of the essay when he asks many questions and then answers them himself. His questioning of “The way in which sex is ‘put into discourse’” (11) raises important points such as who talks about it? How do they talk about? How are they controlling the conversation around sex? What are their underlying motivations? This piece hinted at many of these answers but I’m really interested in hearing a more detailed account of these systems of power and repression.


Repression and Avoiding the Point

In “We ‘Other Victorians,'” Michel Foucault skillfully speaks of sexual repression, power, and defying the norm, without directly addressing any of those issues. In his opening chapter to The History of Sexuality, he criticizes how Victorian values have bled into modern day values of sexuality without describing the specific ways in which Victorian values are in any way similar to today’s, instead choosing vast generalizations and accusatory judgements.

Starting off, Foucault explains Victorian values effectively, contrasting them with the earlier, more open values and using the historical context of industrialization to support its origins. As he moves into the modern era, however, he not only fails to explain the nature of repression today, but also continually contradicts himself. Foucault claims that society today is repressed, but his major support for that is how many people enjoy talking about sexuality in order to defy social norms. By his own definition, he refutes his own claim without ever backing it up.

Foucault also dodges his way around other points that he brushes over, specifically power dynamics and non-traditional sexuality. He frequently mentions the role of power in sexual repression, but never explains what he means by it. Historically, the largest power dynamics in sex often relate to either gender (repressing women through marriage, rape, or both) or race (in Western history slavery and rape went hand-in-hand). Without him clarifying, Foucault does not make his positions clear in either regard, or make it clear if he meant something else entirely. Similarly, he mentions Victorian mental hospitals in his “other Victorians” point without elaborating. In general, those hospitals held non-conforming individuals such as people attracted to the same sex, among others. By skimming over these points, Foucault himself refuses to talk about the effects of repression on many people in society.