Foucault’s Notion of Power

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Power and sex have undeniable bond philosophers and theorists have been trying to explain for thousands of years. If one thinks upon the heinous act of rape, it’s all about the power the aggressor has over the victim. We can even see the relationship at work here in this country today. All one has to do is read upon the countless articles written about same-sex marriages to understand that sex and power have a long, historical relationship. In this paper, we are instructed to explain Foucault’s notion of power, why it is easier to think of power in negative terms and share our speculations about the positive account of power in terms of gender. 

Generally speaking, Foucault examines the relationship between sex and power and addresses the notion that sex has been repressed and was seldom discussed. Rather, sex has a long and continuous history of discussion, and it is through this societal discourse, as well as everyone’s own process of introspection, that one can notice the regulation of society’s sexual expression. Foucault attributes confessions through the Catholic Church the beginning of the discussion of sex and of the beginning of controlling sexuality in an authority-follower type of relationship, where the priest is the one in power and the congregation is the one asking for forgiveness (20). In acknowledging and speaking about sex, sex was immediately taken control of by an authoritative figure, the Catholic Church. It was from there that people had begun to discuss sex, what is acceptable behavior and what is not acceptable (Foucault 34).

Foucault stated that traditionally, sex has been viewed in terms of legislation and restriction, resulting in the supposition that the relationship of sex and power was always of a negative, restrictive nature (Foucault 84). Instead, Foucault feels power is not something that is confined to the government. Power cannot be understood from a focal point, such as government.. “Power is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared, something that one holds on to or allows to slip away; power is exercised from innumerable points, in the inter¬play of nonegalitarian and mobile relations” (Foucault 94). Rather, it is better understood by tracing its participants and tracks the development of sex within society in terms of societal relationships. 

Foucault felt that sex was not heavily regulated, but instead, was first aligned with the focal point of the family (120). From there, it was discussed and studied in terms of healthy, natural development, as understood from different disciplines within society, such as sexuality in relations to economics, and sexuality as it is understood through the medical field. It wasn’t until the issue of sexuality, sexual practices, and sexual preferences began to appear in legislation did the concept of repression appear, when the 18th century working upper class of Western society had a greater influence on thought and society (Foucault 127). Psychoanalysis relieved the ill effects of sexual repression.

Over time, Foucault stated, the progression of the regulation, the discussion, and the study of sex resulted in the regulation of life itself, both in procreation and in the power of life and death in terms of extending or ending life. This is when sex moved into the political realm. He wondered if someday, another society will emerge that will puzzle over our willingness to subject ourselves into this relationship of power over sex and life and authority (Foucault 149).

From this summary, it is easy to see why society might view sex and power negatively. As stated previously, Foucault felt the relationship between sex and power was viewed negatively only when the working upper class of the 18th century began to institutionalize the regulation of sexuality, where previously sex was simply viewed, studied, and treated in terms of wellness, procreation, and the economic culmination of society’s sexual behaviors, and not only abhorrent behaviors, such as incest or inappropriate behaviors of the mentally ill. Once sexuality moved into the political realm, the nature of the governance was punitive. Laws and regulations state what is allowed, but also what is not allowed, and a lot of sexual laws have to do with regulation rather than allowance. As stated in the introduction, the regulation of sexuality is sometimes necessary, especially in deviant behaviors that hurt other people. Some arose out of societal necessity and the concepts of personal right to freedom. Yet, there are some that reflect cultural beliefs in their time. The cultural norms of society, the manner, and execution of sexual acts are where negative impressions arise.

If one was to search for how Foucault’s theories of the balance of sex and power can be viewed in a positive light and in terms of genders, it would be in the connection between sex and procreation, and while both sexes are involved in procreation, a woman is the one who gives birth to life. As Foucault stated, “We must not look for who has the power in the order of sexuality (men, adults, parents, doctors) and who is deprived of it (women, adolescents, children, patients); nor for who has the right to know and who is forced to remain ignorant. We must seek rather the pattern of the modifications which the relationships of force simply by the very nature of their process” (99). Moreover, if a woman was to exercise her legal choice to exterminate a pregnancy or can simply decline the choice to procreate, it is really women who have the power over life and death. The survival of the species depends upon women.

In conclusion, Foucault’s theories of sex and power were discussed and restructured within the gender framework. Foucault’s theories continue to be a theme for discussion and resonate within the minds of modern thinkers. It is apparent Foucault’s concepts are widely read and studied because of its relevance in the understanding in the balance of sex and power. 

Work Cited

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Volume 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1990.