Photo by Max Micallef on Unsplash

How to Avoid the Trap of Sexual Desire: Foucault Desexualizes Pleasure

January 6, 2021
6 mins read
Michel Foucault challenges the conventional understanding of sexuality, suggesting a "desexualization of pleasure" and emphasizing that pleasure should be the central focus rather than desire. In this exploration, sexuality is reframed not as a hidden essence of our being, but as an ever-evolving avenue for self-creation, playfulness, and myriad relationships.

Do you have at least a slight feeling that sexuality follows you almost everywhere you socialize? Sex is great. No doubt. But what if your sexual desire determines your ability to experience other types of pleasures? Do you see an opportunity to mate and get down at any “possible” occasion? Is dating and having one-night stands your main (maybe only) way of finding enjoyment in your day-to-day life?

In our day and age, organizing a date can be one click away. Living in Berlin, where queer culture (thankfully) has taken over as a pre-dominant narrative, there is a sense of liberation from romanticized sexuality that is revolutionary; at the same time, it can lead to the notion that sex is everywhere. A “true” Berliner prides themselves on being able to spend whole weekends clubbing, raving to techno, and taking drugs. With all that excitement, sex remains the overall defining moment for most activities.

I have been long asking myself why sexuality takes the central measurement of human pleasure and how it has gained this heavyweight and importance in our understanding of enjoyment despite such a diversity of life.

Into the trap of sexual desire…

Foucault, the author of the multi-volume research project “The History of Sexuality,” highlights that the idea “the law of pleasure is sex” is not new; it has thousands of years of history behind it, at least in Western civilization, from Stoicism to Christianity and until today. It is the worldview that made limitations, restrictions, controls, and regulations on sex and the human body possible for centuries.

Foucault notes that the 19th century was obsessed with the idea that “tell me your desires, I’ll tell you who you are.” That is to say, sexual desire has been long conceived as the essenceimplicit meaning, and deep identity of human beings.

Photo by Max Micallef on Unsplash
Photo by Max Micallef on Unsplash

Therefore, seeking “the truth of one’s sex” is an everlasting project. Though with every article, every video, every book, every movie, and every porn movie, there seems to be a repetition of the same information. No one ever usually invents anything new about sex, but still, we crave constant information and education on it; we seem to want to re-explore it repeatedly.

As individuals and societies, we relentlessly search to discover a secret about ourselves through sexuality. It is the reason that our understanding of liberation is also deeply related to our sexuality. Look, for example, at the 1960s and 1970s Liberation movements, which Foucault mentions numerous times in his writings. He finds such viewpoints as a kind of essentialism and depicts the process such as:

Sex then became the “code” of pleasure. … it was this codification of pleasure by the “laws” of sex that ultimately gave rise to the whole arrangement of sexuality. And this makes us think that we are “liberating” ourselves when we “decode” all pleasure in terms of sex finally brought into the open.” (in the interview, “Power Affects The Body”)

This conventional mindset has dramatically influenced all cultures. We seek our happiness, alongside our pleasure, in the liberation of our sexuality. And Foucault sees it as a fearsome trap that even doctors, psychologists, sexologists fall into and set up for humanity:

They basically tell us: “You have a sexuality, this sexuality is both frustrated and mute, hypocritical prohibitions repress it. So, come to us, show us, confide in us your unhappy secrets…” This type of discourse is in fact a formidable tool of control and power. As always, it uses what people say, feel and hope for. It exploits their temptation to believe that to be happy, it suffices to cross the threshold of discourse and remove a few prohibitions. It ends up in fact repressing and controlling movements of revolt and liberation.” (in “The End of The Monarchy of Sex”)

Foucault notes: Pleasure comes first, sexual desire maybe later…

Going against all the conventional understanding of sexuality, Foucault suggests a new way, the desexualization of pleasure, and describes it such as:

The idea that bodily pleasure should always come from sexual pleasure as the root of all our possible pleasure — I think that’s something quite wrong. … we can produce pleasure with very odd things, very strange parts of our bodies, in very unusual situations, and so on. (in “Sex, Power, and The Politics of Identity”)

So we can reach “a general economy of pleasure that would not be sexually normed.” Foucault, through this concept, removes sexual desire from being the center of human pleasure. It doesn’t play a central role anymore. Nor possesses it any essential value or secret meaning. For Foucault, the multisourcing pleasure is the center itself. He endeavors to diversify the reasons that give rise to it. So, “the possibility of using our bodies as a possible source of numerous pleasures is very important.” In different interviews, Foucault introduces BDSM activities wherein we reach joys through different parts of our body (it is noteworthy that Foucault himself is a BDSM practitioner, and I will talk about his thoughts on the topic in detail in my next writing) and drugs within which we obtain extreme enjoyment as the main examples to attain pleasure. And he goes on,

… if you look at the traditional construction of pleasure, you see that bodily pleasure, or pleasures of the flesh, are always drinking, eating, and fucking. And that seems to be the limit of the understanding of our body, our pleasures. (ibid)

… for centuries people generally, as well as doctors, psychiatrists, and even liberation movements, have always spoken about desire, and never about pleasure. “We have to liberate our desire,” they say. No! We have to create new pleasure. And then maybe desire will follow. (ibid)

The desexualization process, first of all, serves to the liberation of our inner creative and transformative power from not only sexuality but also from our essentialism, which always leads us to discover the hidden secret. Foucault, at this point, is an existentialist; for him, pleasure is about the future, an upcoming thing that needs to be created rather than unfolded. For him, pleasure comes first; if well created and experienced, desire may follow it.

Sexuality is self-creation for Foucault

Then the question arises: If we decenter sexuality, where is its new place? How should we approach it afterward if it doesn’t possess any secret, hidden quality of one’s self? Better to answer the questions in Foucault’s own words:

“Sexuality is a part of our behaviour. It’s a part of our world freedom. Sexuality is something that we ourselves create — it is our own creation, and much more than the discovery of a secret side of our desire. We have to understand that with our desires, through our desires, go new forms of relationships, new forms of love, new forms of creation. Sex is not a fatality: it’s a possibility for creative life.” (ibid)

To Foucault, we should experimentally approach our sexuality. We should be playful with it rather than essentialist. Sexuality is the field of self-creation and transformation. It is not an expression of any hidden meaning but a possibility to create new meanings. So “the problem is not to discover in oneself the truth of one’s sex, but, rather, to use one’s sexuality henceforth to arrive at a multiplicity of relationships.” These relationships can vary endlessly. And Foucault suggests an ethics as to our sexuality: the “ethics of pleasure, of intensification of pleasure.”

Yet pleasure is not that simple to reach

What I have learned from Foucault’s concept of desexualization is the approach of experimentalism and playfulness as to sexuality. I have been once more sure that life, with all its variety of possible pleasures, should always be kept open-ended. But at the same time, I understand that diversifying the sources of enjoyment is not as easy as described here. Foucault himself has had a hard time reaching pleasure. Maybe this paragraph from one of his interviews can function as the final words of this thought piece:

“Actually, I think I have real difficulty in experiencing pleasure. I think that pleasure is a very difficult behavior. It’s not as simple as that to enjoy one’s self. [Laughs] And I must say that’s my dream. I would like and I hope I’ll die of an overdose of pleasure of any kind. [Laughs]. (in “MF: An Interview by Stephen Riggins”)

Khayyam Namazov

I am a committed researcher with expertise in social movements and power and knowledge technologies. My passion lies in helping people enhance their knowledge and skills on diverse subjects, as well as encouraging their personal growth and development.

feminism, feminist identity, feminist
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Khayyam Namazov

I am a committed researcher with expertise in social movements and power and knowledge technologies. My passion lies in helping people enhance their knowledge and skills on diverse subjects, as well as encouraging their personal growth and development.

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