How are we to read the history of sexuality? In the Introduction volume to his great multi-volume essay in critical-revisionism, Michel Foucault set out to demystify the discourse which has informed post-Victorian accounts about sex, whether therapeutic (Reich), scholarly (Bloch) or polemical (Marcuse). Such histories were traditionally cast in a progressive, Whiggish, emancipatory framework, presupposing a dialectics of drives, repression and liberation. Sex was self-evidently a good thing, nature's path to pleasure, individual fulfilment and biological fitness. But, such vulgar Freudian histories contended, Western civilisation - indeed, civilisation per se - had chosen to repress it. Why? To some extent, from fear, ignorance and pseudo-science. To a large degree, thanks to the 'thou shalt not-ism' of Christianity, for which carnality was the root of all evil. Between them, pastoral theology and canon law had judged sex sinful between almost all people in almost all postures on almost all occasions. And not least, according to Marxists, sexual repression had been demanded by the labour economy of capitalism. Maximising work had entailed minimising sex; the social control of the proletariat, of women, and of children, first required their sexual control. Eros had thus been comprehensively denied. Such histories crusaded for sexual enlightenment to end this tyranny. For Sixties Marxo-Freudians, sexual revolution and political revolution would go hand in hand.
LRB 7 July 1988 | PDF Download