In the first chapters of The History of Sexuality, Foucault focuses on the discourses of repression, confession, and sexuality as a medicalized, juridical, and scientific issue. Essentially, he describes, or attempts to describe the genealogy of prohibitive discourses of sexuality beginning from the 17th century, leading up to more modern discourses, showing that the discourses surrounding sexuality are multiple and not necessarily based in prohibition. In this Wiki entry, however, we are going to focus on two distinct contemporary issues related to sex and sexuality. In the process, we will point out which of Foucault’s concepts may be related to or can be applied to the current discourses of same-sex marriage and sex and sexuality in university culture. We’ll conclude by providing a few of our criticisms that arose from the readings thus far.
THE SAME-SEX MARRIAGE DEBATE
“People often say that modern society has attempted to reduce sexuality to the couple – the heterosexual and, insofar as possible, legitimate couple” (Foucault, 1978: 45).
Same-sex marriage has been a topic of debate in the United States for the past couple of decades. Subsequent to the recent Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decisions on United States v. Windsor in 2013 and Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 same-sex couples are now able to obtain federally recognized marriage licenses in every state. The road to obtaining “equal” rights, however, was long and difficult. While the proponents of same-sex marriage appealed to human rights and individual rights, the opponents cited biological and religious reasons why same-sex marriage laws should not be passed. The opponents points seem closely related to Foucault’s discussion of a medicalized sexuality. Consider the following quote from Hollingsowrth v. Perry:
COOPER: Yes, Your Honor. The concern is that redefining marriage as a genderless institution will sever its abiding connection to its historic traditional procreative purposes, and it will refocus, refocus the purpose of marriage and the definition of marriage away from the raising of children and to the emotional needs and desires of adults, of adult couples (Hollingsworth v Perry, p. 23).
Above, Mr. Cooper is saying that marriage (such as Foucault would note some think of sex and sexuality) is directly linked to procreation. Thus, he is making connections between the institution of marriage and sexuality by claiming that sex is a prerequisite of marriage, but that qualifying sex is for procreative purposes. This would exclude same-sex couples from entering the institution (check out work on queer ecologies). On the other hand, Foucault says “One of the great innovations in the techniques of power in the eighteenth century was the emergence of ‘population’ as an economic and political problem […]” (25). We could, then, also make connections between the opposing side’s claims and population control, at least to an extent.
Furthermore, the simple fact that this is an issue debated in the Supreme Court clearly shows that sexuality a juridical issue, as Foucault also notes. Of course this is, at least from our point of view, a slightly better legal issue to be debating than the criminalization of homosexual acts, such as sodomy (the last state laws banning consensual sodomy were struck down by SCOTUS in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas). “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (Foucault, 1978, p. 43) seems to be an accurate statement.
The issue of (same-sex) marriage, however, isn’t simply a legal one, but a semantic one as well. For decades, lesbian and gay couples failed to meet the definitional prerequisites for marriage – a term that was defined as a union between a man and a woman (Mercier, 2008). This definition was also the federal definition of marriage as outlined in Section 3 of DOMA, which was eventually struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor. This definition, however, was used again and again to prohibit same-sex couples from marrying. Other similar institutions, and terms, such as domestic partnerships and civil unions, were created instead. Prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage, the terms husband and wife were also unavailable to same-sex couples, at least in their definition as a man or a woman who is married, or someone is married to. However, despite many same-sex couples rejoicing the newly gained ability to marry, some have experienced conflicting feelings and resistance toward the issue, and have not been keen to adopt the relationship terms either.
“For the effect of sexual liberation has been not, or not only, to free us to express our sexuality but to require us to express – freely, of course – our sexuality. Although we can now choose more easily how to be sexually free, we can no longer choose so easily whether to be sexually free, what to count as sexual freedom, where to draw the distinction between sexual and nonsexual expression – or how to interrelate our sexual behaviors, our personal identities, our public lives, and our political struggles” (Halperin, 1995, p. 20).
GAY MARRIAGE, SAME-SEX MARRIAGE, GENDER-NEUTRAL MARRIAGE, OR EQUAL MARRIAGE?
“SANDRA: umm I was attracted to women before I even thought about being attracted to men… umm… but… despite that I always I never really thought of it as something that I would pursue or that was an option because my family was so conservative so all the while being attracted to women I always in my head envisioned I’m gonna grow up I’m gonna get married I’m gonna have a husband I’m gonna have the house and the picket fence” (Criss, 2015b, p. 12).
In light of the recent legal changes, and past restrictions on marriage, people regardless of their sexual orientation, are having to revisit their notions of marriage. No longer is marriage something that is restricted to two members of the opposite sex. In addition, new terms have emerged to describe unions between two individuals of the same sex, much as Foucault described the emergence of discourses to describe acceptable sexualities, sex acts, as well as perversions and classifications of perverts.
An examination of the SCOTUS arguments in Hollingsworth v. Perry, U.S. v. Windsor, and Obergefell v. Perry revealed that the justices and lawyers were using two different terms to refer to marriage between two individuals of the same-sex: gay marriage (7) and same-sex marriage (38). Overwhelmingly, thus, “same-sex marriage” was preferred over “gay marriage,” and they seemed to be used interchangeably (Criss, 2015a). Although there is not enough data to generalize any findings, it seems “gay marriage” is used when in opposition of the new legal changes, whereas “same-sex marriage” is viewed as a more neutral term.
To complicate things, an examination of the transcripts from two Finnish parliamentary plenary sessions dealing with same-sex marriage laws in Finland revealed a slightly different set of terms used: equal marriage (tasa-arvoinen avioliitto) (13), gender-neutral marriage (sukupuolineutraali avioliitto) (2), same-sex marriage (samansukupuolisten avioliitto) (1), gay/homo marriage or union (homoliitto/homoavioliitto) (5). As with the SCOTUS cases, no definitive conclusions could be made as to the potential contextual uses of each term, but in this sample “gay/homo marriage” was exclusively used by the opponents of same-sex marriage (Criss, 2015a).
(Do you want to change marriage, thousands of years old, into a sex union between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman?)
So, all the legal and political mumbo jumbo aside, what are gay and lesbian individuals saying about the term “marriage?” Did we accidentally assume that they would, of course, love to just use the same term as heterosexual couples? Oops. We may have. In fact, there are many members of the “gay community” (for a lack of a better term, I do not agree that there, in fact, is a community) who did not want their relationships to be represented in the same manner as heterosexual relationships, nor do they want to use the same terms to describe their relationships (Bernstein & Taylor, 2013, Criss, 2015b, Whitlow & Ould, 2015).
To give an example of the complexities of the situation, we’ve added excerpts from Marika’s data from her focus group interview with 3 lesbian/gay couples:
BILLY BOB: it’s a heterosexual term I don’t wanna be associated with that because they tried they tried to take it from me and tarnish it in my head it’s so much more than what they have. their marriage leads into divorce most heterosexual marriages are you know fifty percent sixty percent split up within the first five years and for me it’s like I don’t want what they have I don’t want their pigeonholes and the lifestyle that they have because for me they’ve they’ve tarnished it. it’s like kind of like saying this part of the town was nice and new then somebody goes in and trashes it you don’t wanna live there because they’ve made it look crappy yeah you can go in and build it up make it look better later on and probably better than it was before but I don’t wanna go through the process of building that when I can build this and make it a lot better I want them to want what we have
SANDRA: you know in a certain respect I actually think what you said… earlier about you don’t want to have a marriage you want something that is brand new and it applies to only to what we have and tying that to the fact that we addressed there are so many divorces with straight people and I think what that is is you grow up in a culture that says this is what you do you meet somebody you date you get married you have kids
so maybe we should have our own word
In the above examples, Billy Bob strongly feels the term “marriage” is a heterosexual term, and does not feel comfortable adopting it to describe his own relationship. Sandra, responding to Billy Bob, suggests another term be coined. The participants did specify that they did not want a separate term, but rather that we get rid of the term marriage, and call everyone’s relationships by a new name, such as “registered partnership.” Here, it seems, the participants are resisting restrictions placed on the discourses of marriage as an institution.
“Hence, power is not intrinsically, nor is it only negative: it is not just the power to deny, to suppress, to constrain – the power to say, no you can’t. Power is also positive and productive. It produces possibilities of action, of choice – and ultimately, it produces the conditions for the exercise of freedom (just as freedom constitutes a condition for the exercise of power) (Halperin, 1995, p. 17).
Placed back into the larger political context, the issue of same-sex marriage was not just about the power of the dominant group to deny rights to same-sex couples. The restrictions along with other legal and societal realities, also determined what types of actions were possible to take to change the system. In this case, one possibility was an attempt to integrate same-sex couples into the same marital institution as heterosexual couples – of course following an unsuccessful attempt at creating what can only be called institutions of separate but equal, such as domestic partnerships. However, it seems now a new set of possibilities has been created, and some of the participants were already embracing these possibilities (i.e. could we start thinking about a new kind of legal relationship that is not related to an institution of exclusion?). In this sense also, the opponents of same-sex marriage who claimed that the inclusion of same-sex couples would eventually lead to the recognition of other types of relationships, may have not been entirely wrong.
To wrap it up, here is a recent commentary capturing what some children think about gay marriage. Perhaps because they are largely excluded from discourses on sex, they have yet to form the “normalized” opinions on the issue and speak more honestly about the issue:
We have to applaud the last boy. He clearly understands the distinction between gay and lesbian, and is highly gender conscious (we also think “gay” and “gay marriage” are inappropriate terms to be used to describe lesbians).
The relationship terms related to marriage are generally the gendered ones of husband and wife, and for dating partners, boyfriend and girlfriend. Some couples also use non-gendered terms such as partner or spouse. For same-sex couples, the decision to use gendered relationship terms to refer to their significant others (SO) in conversation, typically means exposing their sexual orientation. Using the term wife or husband may, on the other hand, mark pride in their newly gained right to marry as well (Whitlow & Ould, 2015, Olsen, 2013). The participants in Marika’s study, varied in terms of which term they chose. Two out of 5 participants chose the genderless variant, partner, while 3 chose the gendered boyfriend/girlfriend. In the future, if and when they decided to get married, all but one out of the four male participants planned on calling their SO husband.
BILLY BOB: I think spouse is too informal I think partner is the general term that those people with gay orientation fall into… husband and wife I mean I think people do go that route the reason I don’t refer to husband umm in this is because… umm… is mainly because of… the… it was just never obtainable like I never thought to myself marriage would be available for me… growing up and whenever I started having serious relationships with people of the same sex I never thought to myself well marriage is something I can have because marriage is always been told… that… a heterosexual normative lifestyle
AARON: he and I… I would say joking as we don’t take it seriously but we always say future husband but… to me when that time comes saying actually – – actually saying husband kind of like what he said saying husband sounds weird because I’m so used to the whole… stereotypical on TV like heterosexual stuff of husband and wife and then I’m thinking… I’m a dude I have a husband I’m like…
It seems, then, that the participants were not as keen on creating new relationship terms, as they were creating a term for their legal relationship. However, to an extent they did have difficulties in orienting to the existing (heterosexual) terminology.
“What escapes from relations of power…does not escape from the reach of power to a place outside power, but represents the limit of power, its reversal or rebound. The aim of an oppositional politics is therefore not liberation but resistance” (Halperin, 1995, p. 17-18).
Liberation, or freedom for that matter, is not being allowed into an existing system and operating within it, but being able to transform or reject that system. Here we may be witnessing a change in progress.
University culture as a discourse of sex
Within the plethora of discourses of sex, Foucault says little about who gets away with what and why, and who is ultimately punished? What are the consequences of making a “hushed,” private discourse public? In James T. Sears’ thoughtful and powerful ethnography Growing up Gay in the South, he shows how the intersections of race, class, sex, and gender ultimately (dis)allow young people the freedom to be and display homosexuality. Halperin comments that “…the kind of freedom that sexual liberation has produced imposes on us an even more insidious unfreedom….it enslaves us to a specific mode of freedom and thereby makes the exercise of other freedoms almost unthinkable” (p. 20). The more we are forced to show ourselves for who we really are to the public, the more we are scrutinized.
In making their abuses semi-public via a Facebook page in 2015, Penn State fraternity house Kappa Delta Rho was suspended for three years, specific members also individually accused of offenses, for taking nude photos of women, many of whom are unconscious, and posting them to the account. The “proper” discourse on handling this emerged from university heads marking the behavior as “shocking” and “inappropriate,” the kind of language that might assuage the public eye, but that also allows for such behavior to continue at other campuses, as no one is fooled that this behavior is shocking whatsoever for fraternity houses throughout the nation. In the commentary area below some of the online articles on the offense, however, other discourses emerged in attempts to “normalize” the behavior as “boys will be boys,” or connect it to the immoral nature of Penn State, a campus and surrounding community that is still trying to repair its national reputation after the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Another “private” space gone public takes the form of the “resistance” that Foucault speaks of when countering normalizing actions of power. Emma Sulkowitz graduated from Colombia University in 2015, after spending her final year protesting the campus’ handling of her alleged rape by a male student by carrying her mattress around everywhere she went, including to class and her graduation ceremony. What had begun as a consensual endeavor, according to Sulkowitz became non-consensual during intercourse when the male student Paul Nungesser began unwanted actions on her. The university ultimately decided that the young man was not responsible for the allegations.
Colombia rape victim carries mattress: http://college.usatoday.com/2015/05/19/columbia-rape-accuser-reportedly-carries-mattress-to-graduation/
Sulkowitz’s actions perhaps are reminiscent of the anti-quietism of the ACT UP movement that Halperin discusses. Blocking traffic on the Golden Gate, stopping the New York stock exchange, and managing to disrupt a CBS News broadcast, ACT UP was politically engaged about the problem of AIDS, just as Sulkowitz was so publicly engaged in her political message. And just like Foucault’s critics who amounted his activism to “self-indulgent radical chic” (p. 24) and to getting involved in “fashionable causes” (p. 24), Sulkowitz’s critics found her to be an attention-seeking whore.
But the young man accused of rape also has a story. To his credit, only two people know what really happened that night, and he is one of many young men in the news as of late that may unduly suffer for a potentially perceived wrongdoing. Part of the article reads:
Nungesser has since sued the university, saying it failed to protect him from harassment when Sulkowicz went public with her claims, which were dismissed by law enforcement. According to the suit filed April 23, Nungesser’s “day-to-day life is unbearably stressful, as Emma and her mattress parade around campus each and every day.”
Nungesser “…called Sulkowicz’s accusation ‘untrue and unfounded’ and Mattress Performance an act of bullying. These competing narratives swirling around the discourse of consent in sexual encounters, especially in the context of university life, are battling for “truth”, while the public is left judging the actions of Nungesser and Sulkowitz. The online magazine The Federalist called her performance “sophomoric” and irresponsible: “Here is a man who was found innocent of all charges but whose primary accuser has actually been given course credit for continuing to call him a rapist—and making national news in the process.”
Ultimately we have an incitement of discourses, and although “…the discourse on sex has multiplied rather than rarified…[and] has carried with it taboos and prohibitions” (Foucault, 1978, p. 53), those discourses blend, contradict, fight for legitimacy, and can even both be true at once: In Sulkowitz’s alleged case, that single sexual action came to include both consensual and nonconsensual sub-acts. How, then, do legal discourses disentangle this? And since it is a private act, meaning no one else was around to see it, what evidence do legal discourses have in order to rule on it?
Halperin (1995) is the first piece we have read (we think) that begins to look at critiques of Foucault. However, Halperin’s aim is to show how critics have ultimately misunderstood Foucault’s notions of power. We critique Foucault from a feminist standpoint and ask why he is overwhelmingly male-centric in whom he analyzes (both from a heterosexual and homosexual context). We see little discussed from the point of girls, women, and lesbians, and the politics of female sexuality. For someone who spent his academic career creating genealogies and archaeologies, he sure did a shitty ass job of representing the “subaltern” knowledges that he says he is dedicated to unearthing. What about the history of girls and women in his genealogy of sex? What about non-Western societies’ discourses on marriage, homosexuality, etc? It seems Foucault was very preoccupied with his own penis.
King (2004) writes in “The prisoner of gender: Foucault and the disciplining of the female body that “…despite his preoccupation with power and its effects on the body, Foucault’s own analysis was curiously gender-neutral. Remarkably, there is no exploration or even acknowledgement of the extent to which gender determines the techniques and degrees of discipline exerted on the body” (abstract, p. 29). Based on the first couple of chapters of the History of Sexuality, it seems Foucault is more interested in male sexuality. In part, the impression may be related to issues of translation, and the highly gendered nature of the French language. However, it seems he is not working hard to question the dominance of male sexualities over female sexualities. It seems, in fact, that female sexuality is an afterthought, if a thought at all. Not that this is surprising or new. If people have been preoccupied with discourses of repression, we would argue, they have specifically been preoccupied with discourses of repression of female sexualities without acknowledging that they are preoccupied with female bodies.
To provide contemporary examples of practices related to female/male sexualities, consider the differences in the perceived appropriateness of advertizing male sexual enhancements (e.g. Viagra). How often have you seen similar advertisements for women? In fact, it seems that women are supposed to just be happy their male sexual partners can get it up, with no regard to how pleasurable the act is to the female counterpart.
While they have no qualms about the abnormal and unnatural practice of elderly or unhealthy males being able to have sex, it seems politicians are very keen on regulating the procreative rights of women (e.g. abortion, “the pill”). Furthermore, to manage our monthly expressions of fertility, it seems to be acceptable to have women pay a hefty fee men are exempt from (sanitary towels, tampons, and often, ibuprofen).
Unfortunately, male sexualities are valued more in minorized communities as well. If there were such a space as a “gay community,” that would certainly be the appropriate term. While the imagined members of the community may have similar goals in terms of politics, more exposure is given to gay men. Lesbians and bisexual women are constantly being brushed to the side (it should be noted here that the “lesbian community” is not always inclusive of bisexual women).
As an aside, today’s news brought this to our attention: the policing of community members in all its glory, “Waitress stiffed for not looking ‘normal’”:
“What we ultimately have to liberate ourselves from may be nothing less than “freedom” itself–that is, from the liberal concept of freedom as a regulative or normative ideal of responsible and self-respecting human conduct” (Halperin, p. 20-21).
Media discourse: representation of marriage:
Bernstein, M. and Taylor, V. (2013). The Long Journey to Marriage: Same-Sex Marriage, Assimilation, and Resistance in the Heartland in Bernstein, M. & Taylor. V. (eds.), The Marrying Kind? Debating Same-Sex Marriage within the Lesbian and Gay Movement. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Criss, M. 2015a. Gender-neutral marriage, Equal marriage, Same-sex marriage, or Gay marriage? An examination of the same-sex marriage debate in the U.S. and Finland. (Unpublished).
Criss, M. 2015b. (Same-Sex) Marriage: To conform or not to conform? (Unpublished).
Foucault, M. (1978). The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Vol 1.
Halperin, D. (1995). Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hollingsworth et. al. v. Perry et al., 9th Cir (2015). No. 12–144.
King, A. The prisoner of gender” Foucault and the disciplining of the female body. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 5(2), 29-39.
Mercier, A. (2008). On the Nature of Marriage: Somerville on Same-Sex Marriage. The Monist, 91(3/4), 407–421.
Obergefell v. Hodges, 6th Cir (2015) (No. 14-556).
Sears, J. T. (1991). Growing up gay in the south: Race, gender, and journeys of the spirit. New York: Haworth Press.
United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013) (No. 12-307), available at http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/faculty_scholarship/2858.
Whitlow, J. and Ould, P. (2015). Same-sex Marriage, Context, and Lesbian Identity: Wedded but not always a Wife. Lexington Books.