|by Wik Wikholm|
CAMPnote: Beginning with this issue, we're excited to welcome Wik Wikholm as the new writer of PASTOutour gay history column. The webmaster of http://www.gayhistory.com, Wikholm is passionate about gay history, and he has the research and writing skills to bring the past alive. Upcoming topics include Frederick the Great and the history of the Advocate.
In 1976, most Americans ignored a philosophy book published by Michel Foucault, a French philosopher they had never heard of. But when The History of Sexuality, Volume I appeared in English in 1978, it created a sensation in U.S. academic circles. The book slaughtered the sacred cows of the gay liberation movement, the sexual revolution, and Freudian psychoanalysis in just 159 pages.
The privately homosexual Foucault, 52 when the French edition of the book was published, had already established himself as a lion of French philosophy. His analyses of the idea of normality and abnormality in prisons and psychiatric hospitals were so well-received in France that many felt he was the rightful successor to Jean Paul Sartre, then the reigning icon of French philosophy. Americans finally noticed his work when he focused his attention on sex.
The 1978 book began with an assault on a belief widely held among progressives. From the early 1900s, sexual liberals, including most psychiatrists, gay liberationists, and proponents of the sexual revolution, believed that Western culture had a big sex problem: repression. Foucault would have none of it. If our culture is so repressed, he asked, why have we been talking so relentlessly about sex for the last 125 years? According to the historical sources he cited, a few medical texts in the mid-1800s started the longest, most public discussion about sex in history. Psychiatrists, in particular, seemed barely able to talk about anything else.
Yes, Foucault agreed, there was a problem, but no, it was not repression. The problem was the way in which Western Culture viewed some people as unnatural and perverted. Ever since doctors first started addressing sexuality, Foucault argued, they have created a veritable zoo of perversions with labels like zooerasts, auto-monosexualists (masturbators), and homosexuals. Once the categories were created, doctors got busy trying to determine the essence of each perversion. Some imagined that the cause lies in a biological mistake, while others were convinced they could find it in a person's personality, the unfortunate result of a flawed upbringing. This perpetual nature/nurture argument held no interest for Foucault. Instead, he claimed that the categories of sexuality doctors had created, the heterosexual, the homosexual, and all the others were just arbitrary inventions of modern
medicine. Sexual pleasures can be taken in many ways, he wrote, but categorizing sexual desire is pointless.
Foucault went on to say that when doctors label people perverts, they create the very thing they claim to want to treat. In his most controversial arguments, Foucault asserted that homosexuality is not born of nature or nurture, but is socially constructed. When doctors created the profusion of perversions, they unwittingly produced the models that gave rise to gay, lesbian and other sexualities. In Foucault's opinion, these identities are themselves a form of oppression. Above all, the philosopher believed in freedom, and he argued that when a person accepts the label homosexual or heterosexual, possibilities of pleasure are foreclosed and sexual freedom is surrendered.
Though he was sympathetic with gay liberationists, Foucault thought they, too, were on the wrong track. When American activists encouraged gays to come out, called for gay pride, and demanded gay rights, Foucault dismissed their efforts. In his opinion, these actions simply confirmed the idea of sexual categories he found so oppressive. Instead of fighting for homosexual rights, Foucault recommended a battle against any power that tried to restrict or regulate sexual pleasure.
The book's attack on gay liberation left American gay libbers cold. Activists were fighting a pitched battle against the Moral Majority, and reversals of gay rights ordinances in Florida and elsewhere foretold the rise of the Christian Right. In the middle of some of the worst setbacks since the inception of the gay liberation movement in the late 1960s, many activists found the French philosopher's pronouncements ill-timed, unsupportive, and impractical.
Foucault was received more warmly on college campuses. When Foucault visited the University of Buffalo in 1972, he could barely attract a hundred people to his talks, but at a 1980 lecture at the University of California at Berkely, his fans were so enthusiastic that police struggled to control the overflow crowd that gathered outside the lecture hall. Many feminists and gay and lesbian scholars endorsed Foucault's social constructionist philosophy in spite of activists' reservations. Feminists saw Foucault's philosophy as a promising approach to overcome stereotypes that attributed women's secondary position in society to genetic influences, and many gay and lesbian intellectuals have since embraced Queer Theory, a philosophical attack on homophobia based on Foucault's work.
Foucault died of AIDS in 1984, however, the debates and tension he inspired between activist and academic communities lives on.
Wik Wikholm produces gayhistory.com, an introduction to modern gay history. He can be reached on the site's discussion boards, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Letters from CAMP Rehoboth.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 10, No. 8, June 30, 2000.