Repressive Hypothesis holds that through the European history, human beings moved from the society where the lively talk and expression about sex and sexuality were freely expressed, into the period where all these free expressions were repressed and became forbidden. We moved from the end of Ranaissance period into the Victorian period of 17th century. In this period, sexuality was confined only within a home. The vocabulary and what can be said, when and where, were more strictly defined by the society. It was the way for authority and society to gain control over sex and to be able to regulate it. It was the beginning of censorship which acted as a ban on sexuality.
One of the reasons why this occurred, asserted Foucalt, is the rise of capitalism during that time. Production is at the heart of capitalism and hence any kind of unproductive activity would be viewed as something incompatible with the work ethics. All energy should be harnessed into work and therefore these activities should be corrected and disciplined. When science had taken a prominent place in society and productivity became what to concern for, all social aspects of human beings were then scrutinised in order to improve capitalism productiveness. Madness which was once viewed as kind of ingenious and was an integrated part of the society, became excluded. It was viewed as a pathology that impaired social productivity and should be put away from others. This gave birth to asylum and mental hospital. Similarly, when sexuality was looked at, any form of sexuality that was not productive was to be corrected. Under this light, adultery was more wrongful than ever, while homosexuality became another species. It was put under state attention especially when it was viewed as having some correlation to population statistic, marital problem or the demography which was again directly related to the efficiency of the society. Any sexuality which is not for procreation was viewed as inessential to society and should be suppressed in every way. These thoughts and controls were put into all disciplinary institutes like prisons, hospitals or even schools and universities.
The church also played an important part during the period when repression took place, starting even earlier than the beginning of capitalism. The Christianity pastoral determined which acts are illicit according to marital obligation. Heterosexual monogamy was promoted as the only acceptable sexuality where as homosexuals or hermaphrodites were criminals and that was when sex had become associated with sin. We are now so passionate against sex, against our own human nature and this is what Foucalt is interested in rather than in the reason why we are repressed, and his answer should seem to have something to do with the way society at particular time wanted it to be. For example, the church in the 17th century made into an obligation for everyone to confess regularly of his or her sin. Foucalt viewed this as a tool that controlled the sexuality of people in the form of discourse. All details of their thoughts, fantasies, acts and movements had to be told.
This tradition and conventional value on sexual discourse is devised to allow sex no obscurity and became a rule in 17th century. It is what Foucalt calls, transformation of sex into discourse. This somehow has become essential to society. In the modern time, repression continues, but so does the transformation of sex into discourse, with even greater quantity under the repression. It has been more widespread in many different forms. From confession to psychoanalysis where patients are supposed to tell all secrets of their desire and fantasy, we even have modern literature and films as other forms of transformation. The centre of transformation has splitted from the church and is now even more easily accessible.
Repressive Hypothesis works as a supportive argument for Foucalt’s assertion that sexuality is socially constructed, in contrary to Sigmund Freud who rather emphasizes on biological aspect of human. Freud explained human behaviour by referring to unconsciousness and ego. This means that psychological aspect of the mind, including sexuality, is biologically determined and consequently, madness, neurosis, and sexual perversion are viewed as pathological. This is what happened from the 17th century, up to Freud, and into the modern time. Also became under scrutiny were sexuality of children, mad men and women. Their sensuality were studied, analysed, categorised and became formalised. With emphasis on scientific knowledge, all symptoms, abnormal behaviour and perversion are studied, investigated, analysed. Different kinds of symptoms have been labelled differently. Things which in fact did exist in the past but never been labelled, become something different because people then have different view and feeling towards such things. Foucalt criticised this idea. He did not deny the relation of sexuality to the biology of human but he rather places significance on social aspect with supporting argument such as an example of Repressive Hypothesis. The way people in the Victorian age perceived sex is very much different from that in older period. The term sexuality was born to initiate the series of sexual categories and labels. Sex is perceived with more repression and becomes a private matter which is to be hidden from public. Compared to the older era, a naked body was just flesh whereas from Victorian age to now, it would give a somewhat different feeling and perception. How people in certain time and society view sex and sexuality therefore largely depends on the collective social view.
One point that Foucalt is making seems to be the doubt over the conventional values regarding, for example, sex and sexuality. He wonders why a society can speak so loudly of its own silence, promises to liberate itself from the very law that make it function. Basically, the rational western society in which he lived in seemed be more like a hypocrite. He is very much influenced by Nietzsche, who also doubts the values of rational western society. Having said that sexuality is constructed by society, Foucalt then doubts the values built by this rational western society on the issue of sex. Even though he believes that many people in the society look forward to sexual liberation which should come when the truth is exposed and used against the authoritarian power, he still criticised the way poeple in western society in general deny his/her own nature. It is just like what Nietzsche does when he talks about Dionysian characteristic(the irrational or creative one), which is suppressed by the Apollonion(the rational one), in the rational western society Here, what is criticised by Foucalt is the way society exercises power over these issues and people just accept this convention. From his point of view, the social values in the “rational” society can be merely a hypocrisy and self denial, which is constructed only to gain control over people in the society with the belief that the society is better with these perceptions and rules. The power has been exercised in the form of authority and the educated or the so-called-themselves experts. In the area of pathology, during his time, doctors and researchers did not see human with unnatural behaviour or appearance as human just like any of us, but instead were interested only in the disease which is assumed to have caused it. Their opinions had a strong influence on the public and affect greatly the way people in a society perceive things.
From all criticisms above, the way authority decides what is illicit, for example, on sexuality may indeed be viewed as an act which is against our nature and should be viewed with care and doubts. Though the values and perception that society have created through time by some mechanism do affect us all, but doubting social convention is the way to be authentic, by not letting ourselves flow with the herd. However, a social liberation, say on sexuality, that is not accompanied by consideration and some right mix of rational thinking and empathy, I believe, will not do any better than a society that only talks rationally but against its own nature.