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English review - Let's talk about sex!

We love to talk about sex. We discuss our adventures and confess our phantasies and feel relieved and free in doing so. But how ‘free’ does this talking about sexuality really make us? In two lectures philosophers Jeroen Linssen – philosopher and lecturer at the Radboud University – and Marli Huijer – professor Public Philosophy at the Erasmus university – turn to Michel Foucault (1926-1984) to problematize the apparent freedom that comes with the confessions we make about our), who’s tripartite History of Sexuality (1976, 1984, 1984) was translated anew into Dutch and published. The e first copies were put out the day before.

Finding your true self

Both philosophers emphasize the concept of confession, which seems to be a Christian heritage: the prohibition on (the talking about) our sexuality appears to be derived from the Christian aversion against everything that has to do with the body and the prohibition on all the sexual activities that did not contribute to a functional – reproductive – sexuality. The confessions we made about this, gave us a feeling of freedom and liberation. But, as Foucault points out in the end of the first part on the History of Sexuality on which Linssen focusses in his discussion of sexual freedom, if you focus to much on the prohibition and hiding of sexuality you oversee the essential part: the will to knowledge that is organized around sexuality. If you take a closer look, you can see that there is a desire to collect as much knowledge as possible about sex. Instead of censure, there is a multiplication of the stories and arguments about our sexuality which, as Linssen explains, is connected to the desire to organize our sexuality through the procedure of public debates. We not only keep track of our birthrates and relationship status, it is also in the (mental) health care that our sexuality is examined, identified, categorized and (with that) normalized.

Sexuality defines who we are

One of the categories that came to take central stage in the public debate is the homosexual who, as Linssen quotes Foucault: “has become a person, somebody with a past, a personal history and a childhood. Somebody with a character and a lifestyle. At the same time he is someone with a morphology, a stature that attracts the attention, maybe even a mysterious physiology. Nothing of all that he is escapes his sexuality”. With this Foucault shows us that the will to knowledge about our sexuality is not only connected to the categorization and normalization of our sexual behavior, but is in the end connected to the question of who we are in our inner core. As Huijer explains: everything that deviates from the heterosexual couple with kids must be mapped, like homosexuality. And with that, the idea was born that it had something to do with the nature of somebody: homosexuality is not something you choose, but something that is a part of your personality, it is in your nature. And this goes for everything that deviates from the norm.

The illusion of freedom

We all accept the idea that our sexuality used to be suppressed and has been freed in the sixties. But as Huijer shows us through the work of Foucault this is a fable: our sex has never been suppressed, the only thing that emerged was a command to talk about sex. Huijer: “It doesn’t even matter whether we do it or not, it is all about whether we talk about it”. Which is also connected to the aforementioned procedure of the confession, through which we can find our true self, our true identity. It has become a habit to talk about our sexual pleasures and adventures and we adopt the assumption that you will discover who you are if you talk about your sexual preferences and experiences. As Linssen puts it: with the existence of the sexual personalities, Foucault wants to show us that the will to knowledge about our sexuality is not only connected to the categorization and normalization of our sexual behavior but is in the end connected to the question of who we are in our inner core. But, according to Linssen, this question is not only liberating, but mostly stigmatizing. And he concludes byquoting Huijer who in Beminnen writes that: “every meaning contributes to an identity. We have to behave according to norms and values that belong to it, and because of that we are no longer free to take on another identity”.

Sexual freedom as a criterion for civilization

The key concept in finding your true self is that of confession. Why? Huijer: “Because you have to confess something which is supposed to be present in your inner self. And it is that inner truth that needs to be expressed in public in order to be liberated”. So this procedure of confession is accompanied by self-examination and the understanding of ourselves in terms of identities (like ‘the homosexual’) and the existing of an inner core or truth that needs to be taken out in public in order to be acknowledged for its existence. But it is exactly this excessive talking about our sexuality that became connected to our sense of sexual freedom which is, according to Foucault, an illusion. It is precisely this talking about sex that itself is suppressive. Huijer explains that the confessions we make today have the form of expressing in public what you are or do. It is about confessing to a certain idea or identity. And with that, you ask for acknowledgement. This search for acknowledgement can lead to violence and polarization. The Dutch, for example, are very proud of their sexual freedom, and they will defend it as a part of their identity. It is (even according to certain political parties) a non-negotiable status. In doing so the ideal of “sexual liberation” is turned into a criterion for civilization, regarding the “not sexually liberated” as inferior and uncultivated.

But, as one of the people in the audience asks, isn’t confessing the only way of getting acknowledgment and freedom for groups that belong to a minority? Linssen and Huijer seem to agree: it might seem important to gain public acknowledgment in your way to freedom, but this is a typical Western assumption. In the end, it might also turn out the other way around. Huijer gives an example: we cannot even walk in the street hand in hand with somebody of the same gender without people thinking about us as being homosexual. In other cultures, this is very normal behavior. That people elsewhere are not accustomed to talk about their sexual behaviors does not mean they are not free.

Just do it!

Is there a way to think and talk about love and sexuality without capturing ourselves in these identities? Linssen and Huijer both take us back to the Greeks who did not think about sexuality in terms of confessions, but in terms of lust and pleasure. Foucault had a certain affinity with the Greeks who didn’t problematized sexuality around the question of revealing an identity, but around stylizing lust. It was about mastering of desires instead of the capturing of identities. They asked themselves: how can we love, how can we have pleasure, without the risk of it getting to dangerous? Even though this might not be a good alternative for us today, this does show us that there is a way of thinking about sexuality without the classifications and normalizations that are potentially polarizing identities.

Stay open to otherness

But how can we translate this to our own times? Foucault unfortunately never made it this far, so this is something we must accomplish on our own. Huijer closes with a couple of elements that she finds important in this search: loving is something that first of all you do: it is possible to love without publicly expressing this. You are, of course, allowed to talk about your experiences, but it might be better to do this in a way that does not belong to the procedure of confessions: “try to express about what you’ve experienced without construing this part of who you are”. And with that, there also becomes room for experimenting. You are no longer bound to the sexual identities (man, woman, homosexual, etc.) that fits into your category. And with that, you can stay open to otherness. If you question the existence of a true self that exists in your interior, you might become more open to see that the truth is not something that exists inside of yourself, but that it is something that comes into being in the interaction between yourself and the other.

Report by Willemijn Kroese