Foucault's Fetishes

Where would ladies with rape-victim fantasies be without men with rape-perpetrator fantasies?” ~ Dan Savage

In light of the recent post by lewdandshrewd, and not-so-recent posts by manontheside and toughstuff, I would like to examine the issue of sexual fetishization from the perspective of Michel Foucault’s philosophy.

In one of his best-known passages, Foucault suggests that our sexual “natures” are not the expression of some internal, bio-psychological state (as they would be framed in much of modern sexological thought), but are instead the products of discourses – the prevailing cultural norms and ways of framing the world at a particular point in time. He uses the example of “the homosexual” to illustrate this point:

As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The 19th Century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly mysterious physiology… The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species. (Foucault, History of Sexuality Vol. 1: 43).

Thus, according to Foucault, “the homosexual” is not some trans-historical, essential, or “natural” identity, but the product of 19th century psychiatric-scientific discourse, which categorized people according to the various “aberrations” that they displayed. Before that discourse emerged, “he” was not considered a homosexual, but someone who did sodomy. This critique of our sexual “natures” enables an interesting ethical investigation of sexual fetishisms. If sexuality does not exist in some independent realm, “out there,” away from society, then won’t societal prejudices, biases and hatreds also be ever-present in sexuality? And won’t their dominant presence in sexuality reinforce these oppressions’ dominance in society-at-large? From that perspective, male-on-female rape fetishes (even when they occur in an adult-consensual context) become ethically questionable because we live in a patriarchal world in which violence towards women is prevalent, and in which women are often taught that violence towards them is acceptable. The same applies to fetishes/sexual desires that have racist, homophobic, classist or ableist overtones. Thus, when taken out of an essentialist context, and viewed as the product of prevailing discursive conditions, certain fetishes can become increasingly ethically questionable.

On the other hand, this kind of approach may create a dangerous precedent. Do we really want to initiate a moralistic witch-hunt against sexual desires that reflect societal prejudices? Are we really going to screen fetishes in order to ensure that they meet moral standards? Perhaps a better approach would be to realize that sexual fetishes, as much as they can reflect negative prevailing social conditions, are also excellent vehicles for challenging those conditions.

Indeed, Foucault’s thought about sexuality also included a significant championing of sexual fetishes as containing a strong liberationist potential. Foucault himself was an avid BDSMer and fisting enthusiast, and he spent years cruising San Francisco’s fetishy sex scene. As David Halperin points out in his book, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography, Foucault realized that subversive fetishy sexual practices had the power to challenge dominant cultural norms. Phallocentricity, for example, is a major expression of patriarchy that privileges the phallus in all sexual (and social) situations – thus; the goal of normative “heterosexual” sex is for there to be an ejaculation from the penis and the desire of the “receiving” partner may often be left unsatisfied. A sexual practice such as fisting (which was lauded by Foucault as being the only new sexual pleasure invented in modern times), however, had the power of removing the phallus from sexual intercourse, as pleasure was already derived from the use of the anal sphincters and did not have to necessarily begin with an erection or end with an ejaculation. Furthermore, according to Halperin at least, Foucault saw a possibility for an alliance between kinky gay men and feminists that would use BDSM to strip the phallus of its privilege. For example, the use of “cock-and-ball torture” has the ability reframe/reconstitute the penis as a site of sensitivity and weakness to be exploited, instead of a locus of social power and domination (as it is normatively perceived).

Overall, it is up to fetishists to channel and respect the emancipatory potential in their fetishes. I am not calling here for a kind of radical reformulation of all sexual fetishes – but rather for an increase in the social presence of those fetishes considered non-normative in order to broaden the sexual menu, so that those kinds of fetishes that reflect negative social conditions are no longer in the absolute majority, and thus, less able to perpetuate prejudices. For example – I frequent a message that claims to be “the ultimate” Internet site for a particular fetish. However, it is impossible not to notice the incredible privileging of Male-On-Female or Female-on-Female (M/F or F/F) activity over all other forms (F/M, M/M, queer/queer, SheMale etc…), and the amount of time and effort that is put into telling people that have non-normative fetishy desires to keep their fantasies away. Thus, the fetish, in this case, serves as a way of legitimating heterosexualized-male-perspective sex over other forms of sexuality – it reproduces and reinforces the heteronormativity already present in society. A refusal by those interested in the non-“heterosexualized” versions of this fetish to restrict their activity on this website would be a good step towards challenging the heteronormativity of the particular fetish community, and of society as a whole.

***For More Information***
Check out Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality Vol. 1, it is an unforgettable read and a very useful toolbox for talking about sex/gender/sexuality… a real classic. David Halperin’s Saint Foucault: Towards A Gay Hagiography deals mostly with the potential of Foucault’s philosophy for gay male communities. The first essay, “The Queer Politics of Michel Foucault” is the one most worth reading.

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