ACCORDING TO COMMON WISDOM, we witness an increasing discourse of repression that develops hand in hand with the rise of capitalism, culminating finally in the pervasive stereotype of the Victorian as "imperial prude" (Foucault, History of Sexuality 1.3). Foucault raises three doubts about this repressive hypothesis: 1) "Is sexual repression truly an established historical fact?" (1.10); 2) "Are prohibition, censorship, and denial truly the forms through which power is exercised in a general way, if not in every society, most certainly in our own?" (1.10); 3) "Was there really a historical rupture between the age of repression and the critical analysis of repression?" (1.10).

Foucault points out that the rise of repression that is generally believed to begin in the seventeenth century leads not to silence but to "a veritable discursive explosion" (1.17). Yes, the discussion of sexuality was restricted in certain areas (the family, the school, etc.) but that restriction was accompanied by "a steady proliferation of discourses concerned with sex—specific discourses, different from one another both by their form and by their object: a discursive ferment that gathered momentum from the eighteenth century onward" (1.18). Far from silence, we witness "an institutional incitement to speak about [sex], and to do so more and more; a determination on the part of the agencies of power to hear it spoken about, and to cause it to speak through explicit articulation and endlessly accumulated detail" (1.18). The effect of all this rational discourse about sex was the increasing encroachment of state law into the realm of private desire: "one had to speak of [sex] as of a thing to be not simply condemned or tolerated but managed, inserted into systems of utility, regulated for the greater good of all, made to function according to an optimum. Sex was not something one simply judged; it was a thing one administered" (1.24).

Our continual call to speak of sexuality in the present age (on television, in popular music, etc.) is, therefore, not significantly different from the ways state power imposed its regulations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: through the continual demand for discourse.

Foucault also argues that censorship is not the primary form through which power is exercised; rather it is the incitement to speak about one's sexuality (to experts of various sorts) in order better to regulate it. Indeed, silence itself can be read as caught up in a larger discourse about sexuality:

Silence itself—the things one declines to say, or is forbidden to name, the discretion that is required between different speakers—is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies.... There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses. (1.27).

Foucault gives the example of eighteenth-century secondary schools. Sex was not supposed to be spoken of in such institutions; however, for this very reason, one can read the preoccupation with sexuality in all aspects of such schools: "The space for classes, the shape of the tables, the planning of the recreation lessons, the distribution of the dormitories..., the rules for monitoring bedtime and sleep periods—all this referred, in the most prolix manner, to the sexuality of children" (1.28). And a whole industry of experts (doctors, educators, schoolmasters, etc.) were, indeed, consulted regularly on the matter of sex in order to regulate all the times, spaces, and activities of the school.

Foucault does not question the fact of repression; he questions, rather why sexuality "has been so widely discussed, and what has been said about it" (1.11). His goal is to "define the regime of power-knowledge-pleasure that sustains the discourse on human sexuality in our part of the world" (1.11), what he terms the "polymorphous techniques of power" (1.11).


Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Foucault: On the Repressive Hypothesis." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <>.



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