Foucault’s Repressive Hypothesis Theory

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“In the first section of the book titled, We “Other Victorians”, Foucault introduces repressive hypothesis theory. Repressive theory is the thought that modern western society has repressed its sexuality. Explained another way, the theory means to say society has silenced aspects of the language, signs, symbols and semantics associated with a particular kind of discussion about sex and sexuality. This collection of pieces that influence a discussion around something is known as discourse. The cause of this repression is traced back to the 17th century Victorian age through to the 20th century.

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But the rise of capitalism and the growing bourgeois community of the Victorian age are thought to be the main cause of the repression of sexuality. The growth of this upper middle-class community is said to have brought with it materialistic values. Coinciding with this, the growth of capitalism meant working people didn’t have time to engage in many pleasurable things.

A growing class of people with materialistic values would be aligned with the growth of capitalism as an avenue to accomplish their materialistic values. Sexuality was confined to the home and the imperial prude imposed itself as the model and its norms were pushed onto society. Unorthodox sexuality was moved to a place where it could be monetized. These places were the brothel and the mental hospital. Sexual deviants were sent here to be rehabilitated and monetized. These were the “other Victorians”. To combat this repression, the hypothesis believes that society rebelled by talking more about sex and being more open and engaging with sexuality. Surprisingly, Foucault rejects the notion of the repressive hypothesis saying that sex and sexuality were never really repressed. Foucault wonders openly why westerners believe that their sexuality was repressed and why society believes it is such a taboo topic.

Part 2, titled “The Repressive Hypothesis”, Foucault goes in the opposite direction of part 1. Foucault urges that from the 17th century to the 20th century, there was an explosion around sexual discourse. A driving force for this increased interest in sex was the church, specifically, the Catholic church and confessional. Church goers and Christians were told to confess their sins to priest and much of the confessionals were centered around sexual desires, sex and sexuality. The details of sexuality were emphasized in confessional. As such, censorship and proper vocabulary became a focal point regarding sex. Discussions around sex could only occur in certain settings and could be spoken of in a specific manner. But still, the increased interest in sexuality spilled out and society became obsessed with sexuality. This sexuality did not fit within the social norms and marital status. Foucault provides evidence of this by pointing to the publication of My Secret Life in the late 19th century.

The book was written anonymously and detailed the wild and explicit sex life of a Victorian upper-class gentlemen. Other parts of society began to join the conversation of sexuality. People within society began to study sexuality almost as a form of science. Therapist became self-proclaimed experts on the topic while governments took notice of the trends and included itself in the discussion as somewhat of a regulator of the people and sexuality. The thought was, the order of things needed to be maintained. Canonical and civil law were the primary regulators of sexuality. As a result, power dynamics were created between the people of society and institutions of society. Sexuality was policed in the form of proper conduct versus misconduct. The focus shifted from marriage and sexuality to perversion and sexuality. Specifically, Foucault states the shift of sexuality focused on children, medicine and the mentally ill, criminals and homosexuals. As a result, more people were labeled as perverts or abnormal. Sexual actions that were once viewed as normal or acceptable were essentially criminalized. Homosexuality was labeled more as a species rather than a sexual preference.

A pleasure power dynamic was enacted between the perverted citizens and those who studied their actions. Power was taken by institutions such as the church, through confessionals and small group interaction in protestant culture; medicine and medical examination; schools and their pedagogical tactics; the family and its ability to manipulate values and lessons passed down to members; Additionally, people within society took part in certain aspects of perverted sexuality but in specific places and times such as strip/sex clubs, brothels and pornography, many times attempting to hide what they were partaking in.”

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Foucault's Repressive Hypothesis Theory. (2021, May 27). Retrieved from