The Repressive Hypothesis And The Power of Confession According to M. Foucault.
“Ours is, after all, the only civilization in which officials are paid to listen to all and sundry impart the secrets of their sex: as if the urge to talk about it, and the interest one hopes to arouse by doing so, have far surpassed the possibilities of being heard, so that some individuals have even offered their ears for hire.” – Michel Foucault, 1978.
There is no doubt that Michel Foucault is one of the most important thinkers of the 20th Century and also among the most influential. His philosophical examination into material history of systems and their construction has altered the way in which we see the world around us and has led to fascinating inquiries in the field of cultural studies. By the end of the 1970s Foucault wrote one of his finest works, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, where he examines “how the key to the human sciences came to be sex,” and he makes explicitly clear that “sex, [is] the explanation for everything.” Throughout his observations, he takes a sort of archeological approach to history that shows the conditions of possibility for the present that explains modern sexuality. He is able to develop a genealogy of the history of sexuality that parallels his history of the prison; just as the modern science of criminology defines categories of social dysfunction, modern sexual science defines categories of sex or sexual dysfunctions that are simultaneously sources of knowledge for control mechanisms. Three volumes of Foucault’s History of Sexuality (originally planned to be six) focus on specific marginalized groups (i.e. children, women, homosexuals), and all of them, like the criminals Foucault described in Discipline and Punish, are constituted and controlled by hierarchical observation and normalizing judgments. Therefore, Foucault is eager to demonstrate the effects that discourses and practices of producing sexual knowledge have had in history, which are significant. He argues that power plays a major part in science by creating discourses. By discourse, in an over-simplified idea, we mean a binary opposition of categories of objects, their mode of existence, and the methods for judging assertions about them; or simply put, judging what constitutes knowledge and truth about them. The scientific side of how sexuality is defined can be used to illustrate this dualistic discourse that is produced as an effect of power.
This essay aims to highlight Foucault’s views of those mechanisms of power that employed this discourse on sexuality not to pursue knowledge, but to extend control over individuals. This essay also aims to explain how the modern view of sexuality became an adaptation of religious techniques of self-knowledge, known as confession. As the practice of confession about sexuality may not be made to a Catholic priest, the method is still performed in a secularized way by confessing to a different body of knowledge, or representative of science, e.g. one’s doctor, psychiatrist, best friend, or even to oneself. This brings about an extraordinary and intimate association with social power structures; these methods of confession, embedded in the apparatus of power, bring another critical category to explore which is the so-called the “repressive hypothesis.” This hypothesis holds the common assumption that the primary attitude of modern society toward sex (starting in the 18th Century until today) was once free but became repressed through Christianity and then again with Victorianism, although it is still struggling to free ourselves today. This essay will underline the reasons for which Foucault rejects this "repressive hypothesis" as well as how the power of confession has shifted from the religious field to the modern adaptation in its secular scientific modern bodies of knowledge, also often referred to as ‘the Freudians.’
The History of Sexuality is not a history of sexuality. It is a history of the desire to understand sex, or as Foucault simply puts it: “sex is no longer about acts or pleasures so much as it is about desire.” His writing centers on the description of the power effects that both discourses and practices of producing sexual knowledge have had in history. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction is history in the sense of genealogy that follows Nietzsche where a genealogy is presented as counter-history, a refutation of a dominant story that we tell about “an institution (such as the prison), a phenomenon (such as madness), a set of beliefs (such as morality) or a practice (such as psychiatry).” Genealogies focus on discontinuities, contingencies, and struggles within power in order to demonstrate that the past was different from the present; genealogies are political as they aim to disrupt, to open up spaces for social change.
Clearly, the dominant story Foucault is disrupting in The History of Sexuality is the “repressive hypothesis.” As stated earlier, this hypothesis assumes that the primary attitude of modern society toward sex that began in the 18th Century is that it was once free but became repressed with Christianity and then again with Victorianism, however it is still perceived as such today. The “repressive hypothesis” assumes an idea of the sexually liberated society toward which we are striving, a society of feel-free love where we can express our sexuality through actions and words. This is teleological since the hypothesis also presumes that there are no repressing frames coming from Christian-moral discourses. In short, our discourse on sexuality, in its promise for a better, freer way of life, is a form of preaching. More so, it undertakes sex in a universalized form assuming that sexual repression was always innate, primordial, and static. Both the teleological view of sexual liberation and universalizing view of sex are questioned by Foucault when he stresses that “sex is a socially constituted phenomenon, thoroughly cultural, contingent and caught up in shifting forms of knowledge/power that the sexual liberation movement has extended rather than escaped.” Foucault suggests that the “repressive hypothesis” is essentially an effort to give revolutionary importance to discourse on sexuality; he asks, why do we proclaim so loudly that we are repressed and why do we keep saying that we can't talk about sex? A pro “repressive hypothesis” advocate might answer that we are so aware of our repression because it is so evident, and that liberating ourselves is a long process that can only be advanced by open, honest discussion. Foucault is neither interested in contradicting this hypothesis nor wants to deny the fact that, for instance, sex has been a taboo subject in Western culture. He is interested in the "discursive fact" of sexuality; he wants to know how and why sexuality is made an object of discussion. Ultimately, his interest is not in sexuality itself, but in our drive for a certain kind of knowledge, a certain perspective, and the kind of power we find in that knowledge. In case we question whether the “repressive hypothesis” is still alive, we can consider what Foucault points out as an irony from those who declare that we are sexually repressed while “we talk so much about [it] that there are not enough people to listen.” Put differently, it is odd for Foucault that we believe in the “repressive hypothesis” when it is clear that we live in a society inundated with sexual discourses.
Throughout the first half of The History of Sexuality, Foucault effectively makes his case for an open refusal of the "repressive hypothesis", explaining in a very precise manner why the discourse on sexuality in the 18th and 19th Centuries was far from being shy and positively promoted discussion, or what he calls a "discursive explosion." Foucault quite brilliantly introduces the two ways in which sexuality has come to be assumed by the human race: as an art and word from “ancient Greece” and as a science in our current times, while in the concluding chapter of the book he develops his own standpoint about disciplinary societies, bio-political regimes, and bio-power. Regarding the latter, is a power of bios, or life, and lives be managed on both individual and group level. Foucault claims that the debate over the emergence of the science of sexuality does not seem to fit into the historical record because the term ‘sexuality’ only surfaces in the 19th Century. By extension, this means that until then, there was no such thing as ‘sexuality’ in “our experience of the self,” in the minds of scientists, or in the world per se. In order words, the scientific concept simply did not exist until the newly-established “Western medical sciences of the nineteenth century adapted, or one may say secularized, from the Catholic practice of confession that was transferred into the scientific discourse.” Before exploring grounds for this change, the secularization of confession, and how it relates to power, it is imperative to assess the particular historical events that could explain the motives behind the practice of confession.
One may assume that the two major causes of our supposed sexual silence were Christianity and Victorianism; however, Foucault affirms that “the Counter-Reformation and the 19th Century were remarkable for igniting compulsory technologies of sexual confession,” He argues that this desire to talk so enthusiastically about sex in the Western world stems from the Counter-Reformation, when the Roman Catholic Church called for its followers to confess their sinful desires as well as their actions. Though this practice had already been in place for centuries, it was only applied within monasteries and the clergy, and reserved for grave sins and one’s deathbed. This sacramental ritual took a turn after the Counter-Reformation of the Catholic Church when it reached a higher level of regulation to a point where “Christians who did not confess annually be excommunicated.”
The regulatory system of confession extended to priests who were insisted to abstain from using certain words and from enquiring into specific acts and positions; the reader may assume there was sexual censorship in this practice. On the contrary, this set of rules enabled sexual interrogations within the confessions. What Foucault sees is that this semi-censorship facilitated the increase of sexual discourses. Moreso, the habit of participating in the “sacrament of confession” became (after centuries of practice) embedded in most Christians to the point where it developed into desire. This is clearly what Foucault meant when he described how discipline works: initially there is a practice forced on the person, and once it is repeated several times it ultimately becomes a habit, then eventually becomes a desire. At that point is when the person ceases to see the practice that one desires as an effect of “power” since it involves an effective control mechanism called fear. The individual not only carries fear but also the sense of guilt due in part to the potential punishments (spiritual ones) that one may earn if the act of confession is not performed. While confession means acknowledgement, it also involves a declaration and disclosure, or admission of a fault or weakness. The acknowledgement is partly about making oneself known by revealing one’s private feelings or opinions that partially form identity. In its religious context, “confession involves the verbal acknowledgement of one’s sins to another,” and one expects to be absolved from them upon confession. Foucault points out the shift of confessional practices from the religious arena to the medical field, then to therapeutic and pedagogical models in secular-contemporary societies. Within the act of confession, the position that dominates does not resides in the confessor, but in the one who questions and listens. Sexual confession became constituted in scientific terms through “a clinical codification of the inducement to speak; the postulate of a general and diffuse causality; the principle of a latency intrinsic to sexuality; the method of interpretation; and the medicalization of the effect of confession.” In the opening paragraph of The Psychology of Confession, Erik Berggren stresses that confessions may take the form of a powerful need to make disclosures, [and] to openly speak about oppressive secrets,” ... “a cathartic element involved is of importance of explaining the genesis of all literary confessions since Augustine’s Confessions.” This is what Foucault attributed to in the last stage to discipline, where the desire becomes a need. In other words, the cathartic, psychologically-curative aim and effect of “confession is being made for Christian confessions from the time of Augustine to today.” History professor Peter Brown argues that Augustine’s writing of the Confessions was an “act of therapy”, or putting this in other words, Augustine was “coming to terms with himself or was engaged in an attempt to find himself.”
Foucault points out that the verbalization techniques of confession have been important in the development of the human sciences into which they have been transferred and inserted and where they are used “without renunciation of the self but to constitute, positively, a new self [and] to use these techniques without renouncing oneself constitute a decisive break.” Over time, the practice of confession came to feel like an emotional need, and confessors (penitents) started to attend church too often, while priests not only had to formulate judgments regarding desires but also cope with individuals’ mental states that were frequently difficult to formulate. This required an expert to help interpret people’s inner states; this role came to be “filled by psychiatrists, psychologists and psychoanalysts.” Sex came to be about subtle mental temptations that might come from the Devil, desires that might be unconscious, or whose causality might have unconscious sources. In any case, a certain level of expertise was needed, placing the subject of sexuality in the hands of priests but later in the tutelage of therapists. Foucault recognized the connection between psychoanalytic practices and Christian confession and also the link to disciplinary power (yet unpredictable) to extend control over individuals. As confession became secularised, a range of techniques emerged in medicine, psychiatry, and even literature. Since Freud, the secular form of confession could be argued as having been ‘scientised’ through “new techniques of normalization and individualization that included clinical codifications, personal examinations, case-study techniques, the general documentation and collection of personal data,” and the development of a big spectrum of therapeutic techniques for ‘normalization.’
What has become apparent in Foucault’s genealogy of confession is his preoccupation with discourse, not a discourse on sex, but “with a multiplicity of discourses produced by a whole series of mechanisms operating in different institutions.” What is centered around sexuality is verbalization as an “imperative was established to transform desire into discourse to pass everything having to do with sex through the endless mill of speech.” To explore this discourse, Foucault turns his attention to confessional practices and how these came to enter secular life:
Western societies have established the confession as one of the main rituals we rely on for the production of truth... confessional techniques... the development of methods of interrogation and inquest... the setting up of tribunals of Inquisition: all this helped to give the confession a central role in the order of civil and religious powers... [T]he confession became one of the West’s most highly valued techniques for producing truth. We have since become a singularly confessing society... Western man has become a confessing animal.
The most obvious benefactor of confessional techniques is clearly psychoanalysis, which is what seems to be one of Foucault’s main targets. Briefly put, Foucault rejects the notion of psychoanalysis that traces perverse sexuality to the unconscious life of the individual. He argues that “perverse sexuality comes from outside,” that it is implanted in the individual by the deployment of sexuality; “wishes, fantasies, or dreams confessed by the patients are not intrinsic” as they are not from the inner world of depths of the personality. Foucault even responds to Freud’s contributions to sexuality with unsurprisingly sharp sarcasm. He mocks Freud’s technique and says: “between the couch and discourse, yet another round of whispering on a bed.” Simply put, the desired results could never be achieved with the help of psychoanalysis. However, equally surprising is how much Foucault concentrates on the development of Christianity’s concern of the self. In fact, he stresses that “Christianity is confession” as its interest with the Truth does not simply concern to the truths of doctrine, but also the exhibition of one’s secret inner life, where “everyone is obliged to tell these things to other people, and thus to bear witness against himself.” What all this comes down to is how central the confession is to Foucault’s understanding of the workings of power. This is clearly stressed in The History of Sexuality: An Introduction where he describes how “Western societies have established the confession as one of the main rituals we rely on for the production of truth” developed under a wide spectrum of confessional techniques beyond those codified by the Christian church; these “helped to give the confession a central role in the order of civil and religious powers.” For Foucault, “Truth is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation, and operation of statement,” and this is clearly the view of truth that guided him through the first phase of writing his History of Sexuality. To be more specific, Foucault summarizes his life’s work in the long introduction to the second volume of The History of Sexuality, where he classifies his research of numerous years as the history of truth: “what I have tried to maintain for many years, is the effort to isolate some of the elements that might be useful for a history of truth, I seem to gained a better perspective on the way I worked and by means of different or successive fragments on this project, whose goal is a history of truth.”
When he points out similarities between Christian confession and contemporary psychoanalysis, Foucault demonstrates a “surprise of Christian confession, its difference from ancient and medieval penitential practices and the violence with which this habit was inculcated in Christian bodies,” while discovering the transformation over centuries from antiquity, the Middle Ages, and our own times. Again, he does not stress the historical continuity; rather, he focuses on diversity and sees “the possibility of resistance as well as the production of docility.” Confession became one of the West’s mostly highly valued techniques for producing truth; we have become a confessing society where this practice was extended through fields such as justice, medicine, education, family relationships, rites, and in most ordinary affairs of everyday life. We have become accustomed to believing that power constrains us, holds us back, and that it is only through confession; “sex has become a privileged theme of confession,” and a form of confession that compels individuals to confess any and every sexual proclivity. Foucault believed that sexual prohibitions are intrinsically connected with the obligation to tell the truth about oneself; through the confession of innermost secrets, truth becomes the means by which sex is manifested. As confession involves more than the simple act of revealing one’s statements, the act implicates thoughts, sensations, motivations and desires that come with it. The confession and therefore the confessor becomes an object of study, implying a body of work that medicine, psychiatry, and pedagogy studied and categorized. By extension, the confession becomes a scientific discourse where “discipline may be seen as bio-power that targets the individual body, while the bio-politics works primarily through the state and through tactics of governmentality.” The interrelation between power, truth, and sex are Foucault’s research interests highlighted in The Will to Know, where power became an important subject for him while continuing in Discipline and Punish to focus on the negative-repressive aspects of power that “runs through the whole social body, much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression.” It is on the basis of this focus that he openly critiques the so-called repressive hypothesis, according to which the history of sexuality is first and foremost the history of persecution and prohibition. According to Foucault “modern society is characterized not by prohibition of discourses on sex but by their proliferation and association with the general system of producing truth.” Describing the attitudes of 19th Century medics toward sexuality, Foucault draws an important conclusion:
The important thing, in this affair, is not that these men shut their eyes or stopped their ears, or that they were mistaken; it is rather that they constructed around and apropos of sex an immense apparatus for producing truth, even if this truth was to be masked at the last moment. The essential point is that sex was not only a matter of sensation and pleasure, of law and taboo, but also of truth and falsehood, that the truth of sex became something fundamental, useful, or dangerous, precious or formidable: in short, that sex was constituted as a problem of truth.
Clearly, one of Foucault’s main points is to show how and why truth has gained such relevance in connection with sex, and why we are unable to conceive of sex as separate from truth. In order words, the regime of truth is not merely a tool of the dominant power but “has inherent power to itself, and irreducible to political power.” Foucault’s drafts of the history of truth are mostly driven by the question “why we so wanted to tie the individual to his truth, by his truth, and by his own enunciation of this own truth;” he was convinced that the answer is provided by the distinctive culture of confession of the West. According to him, confession indeed is what makes truth so important for us, and Christianity is primarily a religion of confession as “everyone in [it] has the duty to explore who he is” ... “moreover, everyone is obliged to tell these things to other people, and thus to bear witness against himself.” In Subjectivity and Truth, Foucault outlines confession as “to declare aloud and intelligibly the truth of oneself.” For Foucault, such a declaration, or confession, is always made in the presence of another individual. In The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, he once more describes confession as a self-referential expression which implies an interaction with another individual, defining it as “a ritual which unfolds in a relation of power, since once doesn’t confess without the presence or a partner who is not simply an interlocutor but the agency that requires the confession, imposes it, and intervenes to judge, punish, pardon, console, [or] reconcile.” It is worth noting that Foucault’s own understandings about the self shifted over the years; late in his life “he remarks that he may have focused too much on the technology of domination and power.”
This essay highlighted Foucault’s views of mechanisms of power that employed discourses on sexuality used not to pursue knowledge but to extend control over individuals, and also explained how the modern view of sexuality became an adaptation of religious techniques of self-knowledge, known as confession. This practice, when not made to a priest, is still performed in a secularized way by confessing to a different body of knowledge or representative of science, e.g. one’s doctor, psychiatrist, best friend, or even to oneself that develops an intimate association with structures of power in society. We saw from Foucault how the discourses on sex, truth, and power are interrelated and that the “repressive hypothesis,” just like any other form of discourse, is not simply a set of facts in a vacuum. The discourses bring a reading of history where sexual repression is part of a larger history. Whether or not this hypothesis is true, what is more important for Foucault is how it is formulated and why. Why it is so important to us to talk about sex, why we have to insist that we are rebelling in doing so, and why we insist on seeing that rebellion as part of a larger, political discourse. Foucault sees this discourse as a surface manifestation of a deeper will, a will to a certain kind of knowledge and a certain kind of power.
He successfully questions the fact that we have come to place sex under a veil of secrecy which must be undone, and how sex has become the key to our personality, our "identity." No work articulates Foucault's ideas with greater clarity than his first volume of The History of Sexuality. As it was described above, it is more of a manifesto than a true history; Foucault deftly outlines the ways in which our perceptions are moulded by systems of knowledge and power. These systems, which he describes as "intentional but non-subjective" (in other words, having a purpose and goal, but not directed by any guiding intelligence) seem like natural forces that shape and mould our understanding of the world while they perpetuate themselves.
Berggren, Erik. The Psychology of Confession. Leiden: Brill, 1975.
Besley, Tina (A. C.). “Foucault, Truth-Telling and Technologies of the Self: Confessional Practices of the Self and Schools.” Counterpoints 292 (2007): 55-69.
Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000.
Foucault, Michel. Subjectivity and Truth: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1980-1981, 2nd ed (London: Palgrave Macmillan.
———. “Technologies of the Self,” in Technologies of the Self, eds. L. H. Martin & P. H. Hutton (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 49.
———. The Essential Works of Michel Foucault, 1954-1984. Vol. 3: Power. London: Penguin, 2002.
———. The essential works of Michel Foucault, 1954-1984. Vol. 1, Ethics. London: Penguin, 2002.
———. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Toronto: Random House, 1990.
———. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
———. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 3: The Care of the Self. Toronto: Random House, 1988.
———. Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling: The Function of Avowal in Justice. Fabienne Brion and Bernard E. Harcourt (eds), Stephen W. Sawyer (transl.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.
Gutting, Gary. Foucault: An Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Puri, Preeti. “The Tug of Confession and Repression in Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality.” Indian Streams Research Journal, Volume 4, Issue 3 (2014): 1-33.
Plant, Bob. "The Confessing Animal in Foucault and Wittgenstein." The Journal of Religious Ethics 34, no. 4 (2006): 533-59. http://www.jstor.org.uml.idm.oclc.org/stable/40018002.
Tamm, Marek. “Sex and Truth: Foucault's History of Sexuality as History of Truth.” Cultural History 5, no. 2 (2016): 153-168.
Taylor, Chloë. The Culture of Confession from Augustine to Foucault: A Genealogy of the 'Confessing Animal.' New York: Routledge, 2009.
———. The Routledge Guidebook to Foucault's The History of Sexuality. New York: Routledge, 2017.
 Chloë Taylor, The Routledge Guidebook to Foucault's The History of Sexuality (New York: Routledge, 2017), 10.
 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (Toronto: Random House, 1990), 78.
 Taylor, 11.
 Ibid., 13.
 Ibid., 12
 Foucault, 7.
 Foucault, 38.
 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 3: The Care of the Self (Toronto: Random House, 1988), 26.
 Ibid., 43.
 Gary Gutting, Foucault: An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 93.
 Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, 116.
 Taylor, 22.
 Tina Besley, (A. C.). “Foucault, Truth-Telling and Technologies of the Self: Confessional Practices of the Self and Schools,” Counterpoints 292 (2007): 63.
 Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, 59-70.
 Erik Berggren, The Psychology of Confession (Leiden: Brill, 1975), 6.
 Chloë Taylor, The Culture of Confession from Augustine to Foucault: A Genealogy of the Confessing Animal (New York: Routledge, 2009), 4.
 Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), 158.
 Michel Foucault, “Technologies of the Self,” in Technologies of the Self, eds. L. H. Martin & P. H. Hutton (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 49.
 Taylor, 22.
 Besley, “Foucault, Truth-Telling,” 65.
 Foucault, 33.
 Bob Plant, "The Confessing Animal in Foucault and Wittgenstein," The Journal of Religious Ethics 34, no. 4 (2006): 533.
 Foucault, 58-9
 Preeti Puri, “The Tug of Confession and Repression in Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality,” Indian Streams Research Journal, Volume 4, Issue 3 (2014): 3.
 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid., 178.
 Plant, 536.
 Foucault, 56.
 Ibid., 58.
 Marek Tamm, “Sex and Truth: Foucault's History of Sexuality as History of Truth,” Cultural History 5, no. 2 (2016): 159.
 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 6-11.
 Taylor, The Culture of Confession, 8.
 Ibid., 61.
 Taylor, The Routledge Guidebook, 47.
 Michel Foucault, The essential works of Michel Foucault, 1954-1984. Vol. 3, Power (London: Penguin, 2002), 120.
 Tamm, 160.
 Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, 65.
 Tamm, 163.
 Michel Foucault, Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling: The Function of Avowal in Justice, Fabienne Brion and Bernard E. Harcourt (eds), Stephen W. Sawyer (transl.) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 253.
 Michel Foucault, The essential works of Michel Foucault, 1954-1984. Vol. 1, Ethics (London: Penguin, 2002), 178.
 Michel Foucault, Subjectivity and Truth: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1980-1981, 2nd ed. (London: Palgrave Macmillan), 173.
 Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, 82-83.
 Besley, “Foucault, Truth-Telling,” 57.