At the enGendered Conference at Peace Church two weeks ago, Rosaria Butterfield gave an insightful talk on “How we Got Here – Gender and Sexuality,” critiquing the attempt to build an identity on one’s sexual desires. In it, she referenced Michel Foucault’s influential 1976 work, The History of Sexuality, whence comes our popular phrase, “the will to power.” Most normal people, if they read Foucault at all, only read the first volume (of three). They only read this far for two reasons. First, the first volume is where he gives most of his main message. In a nutshell the book’s message is (and keep in mind, this is the 1970s):
We’re not really repressed sexually as advertised. Society has been increasingly all about sex. Sex is, and always has been, about power, but not like you think.
There, now you don’t have to read Foucault. That is the other reason people choose not to read on. It is such a chore! Laborious, abstract prose, with few illustrations, often leaving you asking, honestly, what is he talking about? The few illustrations are so obscurely French as to be unrecognizable unless you are French. And who is really French these days?
I’m sorry if I seem unkind to Foucault, but he is already dead after all. And he asks questions, like what is the meaning of sex, for which he admits he has not an answer. It was a fatal quest. I would say that one cannot have that answer without understanding union with Christ.
Anyway, Dr. Butterfield quoted one of the most important lines in the book, from chapter two, where Foucault dates the birth of homosexuality to 1870. He said that it was then that “a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine on itself” was re-imagined. “Homosexuality appeared…when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (p43). Why 1870? That’s when this German psychiatrist published a paper with this re-imagining re-imagined.
His insight here was key. As Foucault shows, same-sex phenomenon used to be an action, not something you were. I would add that the former view–same-sex as an act–can be seen in the ancient Greeks. Plato for example, assumed that you as a man could have relations with a young boy and go on to get happily married, or go back to being married, to a woman just fine.
Dr. Butterfield’s point was that there was a moment in recent history where people started to create an identity based on their sexual desires. This process, she ably demonstrated, resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision sanctioning same-sex marriage last year. Most people missed the main point of that decision, according to her argument. It wasn’t in allowing same-sex couples to marry. It was in the legal creation of identity based on sexual desires. I considered this similarly in my post about SOGI Laws.
This new construction, as Dr. Butterfield also noted, is profoundly dehumanizing. I put it this way in a Harvest USA article about our culture’s great switcheroo on identity: “We are chock full of desires, some lofty, some destructive, many mostly contradictory. While some tell us about ourselves, others lie to us about who we are. To root our identity in a particular one is superficial and likely to mislead us. For a person to identify herself by the direction of her sexual desires (as in, “I am a lesbian”) …limits the psyche. To demand, as our society now does, that people who experience same-sex attraction must identify with those desires, must consider them an inalienable and unchangeable part of who they are, must, in other words, call themselves gay, is one of the great harms of our day.”
Foucault was perceptive in seeing when it began. He called it.