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Foucault, the Leather Scene, and Sexual Liberation

by Gert Hekma in History & Politics , 14 mei 2011

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

Last year spring, the Le Keller bar in Paris closed. This probably doesn’t mean much to you, and even locally, this simple fact didn’t attract the attention of the press either. Yet, I want to draw attention to it, as it is not without meaning. A search on the internet hardly gives any information on the closure of this world-famous gay leather bar, the oldest of its kind in Paris.

Even though the city of light usually runs miles ahead of Amsterdam, when it comes to this it was well behind. Le Keller was established in 1977, whereas the first leather bar in Amsterdam (predecessor of what is now known as the Argos) was established almost a quarter of a century earlier.

But why is Le Keller of interest to Foucault enthusiasts? For the simple fact that he made his first appearance in the leather scene in Le Keller. In that bar, as well as the kinky bars of San Francisco, Toronto and New York, he discovered a sexual world that would inspire him to make certain political, yet somewhat romantic statements. These statements would shed a different light on “The Will to Knowledge,” his book on the history of sexuality, which was published somewhat prior to Le Keller opening its doors.

His visits to this secret gay world gave him ideas he would later express in interviews. As has become clear in comparison to his books, Foucault shows himself to be a different kind of intellectual in these interviews: even more direct and political.

His work, to which he referred as a “history of the present” was indeed political. He tackled topical subjects while researching their historical background, for example in his work about psychiatry and madhouses, prisons, social sciences and sexuality. He wrote and signed manifests, participated in demonstrations alongside Sartre and Gent, set up a “Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons” and was closely involved with the gay magazine “Gai Pied” (1979-1992) and the French gay movement as it was developing around 1980.

Eliciting Confessions

In “The Will to Knowledge,” the first part of his history of sexuality published in 1976, Foucault offers a rather grim picture of sexuality and sexual liberation. It is a harsh critique of the sexual revolution, which was on its last legs by the time the book was published. Overstated, you could even say Foucault gave it the final blow.

According to Foucault, for centuries people have stepped forward to complain about the silence that surrounds sexuality, while promising the world sexual liberation by breaking the silence. Those were doctors, biologists, psychologist, social scientists, and lefties. He hardly named names, but besides sexologists and psychiatrists, he certainly meant Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, and Jos van Ussel.

Foucault strongly opposed the idea that sexuality was given the silent treatment for centuries. Maybe those promises of liberalization and openness were meant well, but in the end they were expressions of power-play and would result in the enforcement of more discipline. The freedom they promised could only lead to stronger submission. The subject would turn into an object of study.

What better way to rein in mankind than to elicit confessions about our deepest emotions and using them to bring about self-control and standardization? There were positive and productive power elements at work, which made the subject into what it was and offered an imaginary illusion of freedom.

Naturally, resistance is intrinsic to power, but in this study, even that resistance seemed more of a derivative, sometimes even a lubrication of power. This according to a wide-spread description of the book, to which Foucault opposed for being too negative, especially when it comes to resistance. He did, however, give enough cause to a critique that his work, despite the rejection of the theory of repression, was very much about subjugation. It was more about assujettissement as repression than about subjectification. And with his critical attitude towards sexual identities, this subjectification could not be seen as a positive outcome either.

Eroticized Power

With friends, I was involved in the gay liberation movement around the time this book was published. We were strongly focused on Paris, our Parisian friends and brothers in arms, and on Guy Hocquenghem, who “translated” the work of Deleuze, Guattari and Foucault for the gay world. Foucault’s criticism of the idea of sexual liberation was a great blow to us all, leaving us slightly confused.

Fortunately, interviews with and articles by Foucault were somewhat reassuring, and we were more than happy to publish them in Dutch. (1) In those interviews and articles, he spoke of collective strategies of friendship, life-style and the art of living, aesthetics and dandyism, and the question of how to shape our own lives.

“Historically, homosexuality is a reason for giving relational and affective possibilities another chance, not so much because of the inner qualities of gay people, but because of their marginal position in society. Gay culture could serve as an example to others.” He spoke with high praise about the kinky world in which the entire body was utilized, power was eroticized, and new forms of pleasure arose.

Let me quote from an interview in gay magazine “The Advocate”: S&M “is a true creation of new possibilities for pleasure which earlier on, people just couldn’t imagine. [...] they discover new possibilities to find joy in unusual body parts...” He mentions fist-fucking and, besides the skin, for the latter quote he certainly thought of the sphincter and intestines. Elsewhere, he says: “S&M truly is a sub-culture. It’s a process of discovering. S&M is using a strategic relation as a source of physical pleasure.”

According to Foucault, it is not the first time people have used these strategic relations (a rather vague term by the way) as a source of pleasure. In the Middle Ages, courtly love is an example of this.

In his last two works, Foucault struggled with the counter forces that escape power, and the resistance that undermines it. He wanted to, with moderate success in my opinion, counterbalance the discipline that is ever-present in his work.

Part three of the history of sexuality was given as the title what can be seen as the program of the book, “The Care of the Self” (1984).

It was to be his crowning glory, but his followers kept struggling with the subject matter that was without elements of power. Some were looking for this in the above mentioned themes of friendship, dandyism, the art of living, and the leather scene.

Gay Sexual Culture As An Example

Despite Foucault’s positive statements about sexual pleasure in later interviews and articles, his students and followers mostly emphasized his bleak view on sexual liberation. Yet, because of him, the study of sexuality was given a tremendous boost after 1980 and has taken enormous flight. Before Foucault, doctors above all were, in hindsight, praising their own “excellent” research on sexuality in a hagiographical tradition. After him, sexuality no longer was nature and biology, but culture and history, man-made.

This serious attention for sexuality was promising. But unfortunately, the dominant tone of most studies on sexuality and gender is negative on the whole. It is more about discipline than development. His historic views on the history of sexuality, and homosexuality in particular, as a subject matter for pathology, standardization and criminalisation, were extensively followed up. Transgender, transsexual and intersexual studies became extremely popular. The social sciences were infected with a somewhat despondent view on sexuality and the politics of intimacy.

A substantial number of books about the art of living and friendship were published after his death, but those rarely dealt with eroticism. His fascination with S&M and his interest in sexual movements were hardly addressed. It seems as if his strong criticism was deadly for the study of sexual freedom and erotic pleasure. Against all studies on the modern day bulk of abbreviations for homosexuals – LGBTTTIQQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, transvestite, intersexual, queer, questioning), there are none about sadomasochism as a new practice and innovative form of pleasure.

The other sexual variations that were referred to as perversions, for example paedophilia, were dealt with by Foucault for good reasons, but hardly attract attention with postmodern academics. None of the classic perversions are included in the abbreviational melting pot: S&M, paedophilia, fetishism, voyeurism, exhibitionism, or the love of animals. Foucault’s appeal to the straight world to take an example in gay men’s sex culture has backfired. Now, the gay world takes its sexual guidelines from the straight world. Not a single country has seen the publication of a summary study on the sexual revolution. My suspicion is it has become controversial, partly because of Foucault’s overly cautious and virtuous interpretation.

Leather Scene Still Going Strong

The lack of academic attention given to the sexual revolution does not reflect the political and social interest for it, which is still considerable. Conservatives blame today’s problems on the break-away and loose morals of the sixties. But even though feminists may have benefitted from it, they mostly point to the disadvantages of this new sexual freedom, such as continued male privileges. Now, literature is the battleground for the inheritance of that time-span.

Biographies of the main figures are now being published, such as those by Nop Maas on Gerard Reve, and Marja Vuijsje on Joke Smit. Some authors even wonder whether the sexual revolution ever really took place.

Others, such as Marcela Iacub, point out that sexuality has lead to an increase in legislative, judicial and police activities, and that at the moment, more people than ever are incarcerated for sex crimes.

Yet it has hardly come to a serious debate about what sexual freedom actually means, how our sex culture could have developed, its historical background, and the future of pleasure.

Despite the great importance that has been ascribed to the sexual revolution, whether negative or positive, it has hardly been the subject of historic reflection. (2) Foucault has given the initial impetus to such questions. Questions that have not been addressed for a number of reasons. In my opinion, it is about time we started. The Le Keller bar may be closed, but the leather scene is still going strong and the inspiration it gave to Foucault can still be found there. As he has shown, sexual variation is food for thought.

It is unfortunate that social behaviors and sexual techniques, collectively developed in that scene to turn our lives into art, did not come up for discussion. This way, straight standards and forms of sexual discipline will only continue to thrive. The hesitations that were wrongfully brought forward by the work of Foucault to address themes such as sexual freedom, including the leather scene, did not work in favor of the efforts to create a uniquely self-made erotic lifestyle.

The Sexual Revolution: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Early April, twenty sociologists and historians will come together in Amsterdam to discuss what the sexual revolution has meant for the Western world. On Friday April 8 from 5 p.m. till 7 p.m., the topics of the conference will be presented in a panel discussion to a broader public and the question asked where the ideals and utopia’s of the sixties have gone: realized, betrayed, or gone wrong?

Participating in the panel are John Gagnon, Alain Giami, Dan Healey, Gert Hekma, Dagmar Herzog, and Lena Lennerhed.

What explains the sexual revolution across Western Europe in the 1960s and 1970s?
The standard narratives gesture either to market and technological forces (from the invention of the birth control pill to the spread of glossy affordable porn) or to the impact of politicized sex radicalism, gay rights activism, and women’s movements’ battles.
Both approaches assume that the sheer overwhelming attractiveness of sexual freedom explains the revolution’s success.

Neither has paid enough attention to the extraordinary difficulties encountered by activists and allied politicians in securing sexual rights and changing repressive laws, and neither has sufficiently explored the ambivalences surrounding sexual freedoms - and the light those difficulties and ambivalences can shed on the present climate of retrenchment.

Sociologist John Gagnon has always been less enthusiastic than many about the concept of revolution in sexual matters. The drama of “revolution” tends to concentrate the attention on proximate events rather than on the longer term processes required for large scale changes in socio-cultural life and individual beliefs and practices.

The sexual revolution had a long prehistory and its results linger on. Sweden was very early compared to other Western countries. Lena Lennerhed, professor in History of Ideas at Södertörn University in Stockholm, discusses the Swedish sex liberalism in the early 1960s – spanning from the demand on abortion reform to the repeal of pornography law, in relation to the history of the Swedish welfare state.

As Gert Hekma observes, in The Netherlands the sexual revolution’s radical moment spans only a few years in the late 1960s. Sexual morality changed, women’s sexual and gay rights were acknowledged, society sexualized. An unreflected traditional ideology of sexuality as being natural, male, private and intimately related to love, of heterocoital norms, and of elevating being sexual above doing sex persists.

Historical revisionism considers the French sexual revolution not to have been that important. Social scientist Alain Giami wants to confirm the major dimensions of this event and show its complexity. The French sexual revolution is a long process including production and divulgation of new ideas grounded in the process of the “second contraceptive revolution,” and marked by some important events in May 1968 which became a mythology.

The process developed during the 1970s with the queer and feminist political activism, the development of research on sexuality and the elaboration of new legal ideas about contraception, abortion, sexual education, pornography, homosexuality, divorce, rape.
People tend to think that the Soviet Union somehow bypassed the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, because of ideological stagnation.

In fact, argues Dan Healy, Reader in History at Swansea University, Wales, there was a sexual revolution in Soviet society: by the 1960s the majority of Soviet citizens were living in cities and experiencing urban freedoms.

Yet experts struggled to find a language to discuss sexuality that would not offend the Communist Party’s neo-Stalinists. Socialist media culture, and scholarly discussions, sometimes managed to investigate the changes in Soviet sexual life, but “liberal experts” imposed a very rigid view of sexual values, for reasons that take us back to the Second World War and forward to the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev and Vladimir Putin.

1. Interviews on homosexuality from which I quote here, have been compiled by David J. Bos, “Michel Foucault in gesprek. Seks, macht en vriendschap.” Amsterdam: De Woelrat, 1985.
2. With my Parisian colleague Alain Giami, I will therefore organize the seminar “Sexual Revolution,” which will take place April 8-9 at de Oudemanhuispoort in Amsterdam. The panel will most likely include: John Gagnon, the grand old man of sexual sociology and former co-worker of Kinsey, Lena Lennerhed, the specialist on sexual revolution in Sweden, Dan Healy, authority on Soviet-Russian history, and the organizers, both specialist in the medicalization of sexuality.



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