Sex and Sexuality

Sex and Sexuality

One of the topics of discussion in the Foucault Seminar this week was: “What does Foucault mean by sexuality?” I found a fairly concise answer from Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow’s Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermenutics.

The historical form of discourse and practice which Foucault labels “sexuality” turns on an unmooring of sex from alliance. Sexuality is an individual matter: it concerns hidden private pleasures, dangerous excesses for the body, secret fantasies; it came to be seen as the very essence of the individual human being and the core of personal identity. It was possible to know the secrets of one’s body and mind through the mediation of doctors, psychiatrists, and others to whom one confessed one’s private thoughts and practices. This personalization, medicalization, and signification of sex which occurred at a particular historical time is, in Foucault’s terms, the deployment of sexuality. (171)

Prior to “rationalization,” sex was tied primarily to issues of property rather than identity. Customs regarded as kinship— alliances, inheritance, matters of bride-price, etc.— reflect concern over economic exchange, rather than the constitution of identity. Thinking about this opposition, it occurred to me that there is a quality to “sexuality” which neither of these attitudes deals with— the persistence of the entertainment value of sex.

The statistics suggest that this aspect must be considered. The proliferation of erotic literature, long before the modern porn explosion, is not often considered except by the advocates of what Foucault terms “scientia sexualis.” Surely there must be something wrong with the people who consistently read (or watch movies) for the naughty bits. However, one would hardly class pornography under Foucault’s oppositional rubric of “ars erotica”— usually, there is not much in most pornography that any consensus would term artistic or erotic. However, it seems obvious that sex— in either mainstream or pornographic films and literature— is persistently entertaining.

It occurs to me that both uses of sex for entertainment are essentially satiric and parodic, whether most people recognize it or not. It seems to me that the most persistent trope of romantic comedy is the violation of the property rules long associated with sex— an underclass knave allies with the uppercrust, or vice versa, or an arranged marriage is thwarted—thus satirizing the traditional property values for the cause of “love.” Pornography, on the other hand, satirizes the agenda of scientia sexualis.

While coupling indiscriminately does, in some respects, undermine satirize the property aspects of sex, more than that it undermines and parodies the notion that our identity is constituted by our sexual practice. People in porn seldom have any identity at all. If they do, it is outrageous hyperbole. Concrete identity is a liability in porn, as is conventional adherence to juridical structures of alliance in romantic films. The mythic characters of porn engage in endless sex, and never display any impact on their identity—that would be fatal. The tired tropes of porn—nurses, policemen, doctors, etc.— are often conventional authority figures who subvert our conventional expectations of normalized behavior. They often parody power relations and cultural expectation, and as a result, have a certain entertainment value. Identity, in porn, is established only for the purposes of branding.

But maybe it’s just me. I can’t watch a porno without laughing. I watched a weird one today (perhaps that’s where this entry really came from). Directed by Rinse Dream and starring Pez D. Spencer, Night Dreams fulfilled expectation. It really was “Fellini meets Eraserhead” and the cowgirls on the range lesbian scene to the accompaniment of Wall of Voodoo’s cover of “Ring of Fire” was indeed priceless. Did it appeal to any prurient interest? No, but it certainly was entertaining. And the framing device—that of researchers studying fantasies in a sex clinic—certainly was conducive to writing this argument. In the end, Dorothy LeMay subverts them, as in the end it is revealed that the patient, not the doctors, were in control of the research.

Another thought occured to me. Perhaps the success of porn might also lie in its escape from meaning. Of those 11,300 porn films made in 2002, I would suspect that only a small percentage actually had scripts. The relatively small place occupied by “features” that display at least some thought to set/setting suggests the drawback— indeed the liability— of having any mode of rationality associated with a porn production.

2 thoughts on “Sex and Sexuality”

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