What Has Sexual Identity Done for You Lately?
We have seen in this module that Foucault sees sexual identities as social constructs that only emerged in the modern era. This does not mean that the desires people have or the sexual behaviours they engage in are historically novel. What is new is to experience these – and confess to them – as our identities. What is new is that scientists have taken an interest in them, as has the state and disciplinary institutions. What is new is that we are inundated with discourses about these sexual identities. But is it a problem for Foucault to have a sexual identity? We might accept Foucault’s historical argument that sexual identities are social constructs and result from modern forms of power, but does this make them bad? Should we refrain from identifying with a particular sexuality? If our compulsions to talk about sex are a result of power, does this mean that we should resist them and not talk about sex?
For Foucault the answer to this is complex. Biographically speaking, Foucault was openly gay but he did not publicly “confess” his sexuality or “come out of the closet” – although his sexuality was no secret. There are interviews with Foucault where it is clear that the interviewer is unaware that Foucault is gay, and Foucault does not correct them. While some have read this as an indication of shame, others have argued that it was because of Foucault’s critique of sexual identities and sexual confession. Foucault thinks that taking on sexual labels is in no way liberatory, and on the contrary these labels make us less sexually free. In some cases the connection between sexual confession and the loss of freedom has been quite literal, as when queer people have confessed their desires and been locked up in psychiatric institutions because their sexuality has been pathologized. More generally, however, Foucault thinks that when we identify with a particular sexual label, we are constrained by it: we become less free to experience other types of desire or to have other types of sexual experience. So that is what is bad about sexual identities.
On the positive side, Foucault acknowledges in The History of Sexuality that the development of sexual identities has contributed to the building of political communities such as the queer community. Such community-building has enabled a critical mass to form which was in a position to resist the pathologization of particular sexualities. So it is doctors who first invented the sexual labels or identities such as “invert” and “homosexual,” and they intended these as “diagnoses” and they would have liked to “cure” those whome they labeled this way. What happened, however, is not that such people were cured but that they in many cases took on these labels and reclaimed them from medicine. People who were pathologized for their sexualities often accepted some of the things that doctors said about them while rejecting others. For instance, some queer people accepted an understanding of homosexuality as an inversion of gender roles but rejected the scientific consensus that such inversion was a sickness or a bad thing. By taking on the identity that scientists had ascribed to them, queer people could form a political consciousness and community and gain strength in numbers to resist the negative claims that doctors were making about them. As Foucault says, “where there is power there is resistance.”
Ideally we will find ways to take on sexual identities to the extent that they are empowering and pleasurable for us, and so far as they help us to form communities and critical masses to resist oppression. At the same time, ideally we will find ways to refuse the potentially stultifying aspects of sexual identity, insisting, for instance, that our sexual desires and behaviours remain fluid and may shift over time.
CHALLENGE ONE: For this Challenge, identify a case of sexual confession and write a short (500 – 750-word) Foucauldian analysis of it, employing some concepts you have learned about in this module. For instance, you might ask: Do you see the “repressive hypothesis” at play in this example of sexual confession? Do you see the potential for the “perverse implantation”? Do you see the “speaker’s benefit”? Share your reflection in the Challenge Sharing Forum.
CHALLENGE TWO: The third video lecture in this module includes a discussion of biopower, and how death occurs differently when power has become a power over life rather than a right of death. Foucault explores the examples of war and executions, for instance, and in the video the cases of World War II and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 were given as cases in point. For this Challenge, draw upon this lecture and how you have understood biopower to write a short analysis (500 – 750 words) of the current war in Ukraine. How might this war be seen as biopolitical? Share your analysis in the Challenge Sharing Forum.