Sexual Morality and the Law
Sexual Morality and the Law is the transcription of a 1978 radio conversation in Paris between philosopher Michel Foucault, playwright/actor/lawyer Jean Danet, and novelist/gay activist Guy Hocquenghem, debating the idea of age of consent reform in France.
In 1977, the issue was brought to public attention in France by a French petitions against age of consent laws addressed to the Parliament, defending the decriminalization of all consented sexual relations between adults and minors below the age of fifteen (the age of consent in France). Foucault stated that the petition was signed by several philosophers including himself, Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, pediatrician and psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto, and also by people he described as belonging to a wide range of political positions.
The dialogue was broadcast on April 4, 1978 by radio France. It was originally published in French as La loi de la pudeur [literally, "The law of decency"] and reprinted in English as The Danger of Child Sexuality. The text was later included under the title Sexual Morality and the Law in Foucault’s book Politics, Philosophy, Culture – Interviews and other writings, 1977-1984.
Full transcript available here:
The following is an excerpt:
Indeed it seem to me that we have reached an important point. It is true that we are witnessing a real change: it is probably not true that this change will be favorable to any real alleviation of the legislation on sexuality. As Jean Danet has shown, a very large body of legislation was gradually promulgated, though not without difficulty, throughout the 19th century. But this legislation was characterized by the odd fact that it was never capable of saying exactly what it was punishing. Harassments were punished, but were never defined. Outrageous acts were punished; nobody ever said what an outrage was. The law was intended to defend decency (pudeur); nobody ever knew what pudeur was. In practice, whenever a legislative intervention into the sphere of sexuality had to be justified, the law on pudeur was always invoked. And it may be said that all the legislation on sexuality introduced since the 19th century in France is a set of laws on pudeur. It is certainly a fact that this legislative apparatus, aimed at an undefined object, was never used except in cases when it was considered to be tactically useful. Indeed, there has been a whole campaign against teachers. There was a time when it was used against the clergy. This legislation was used to regulate the phenomenon of child prostitution, so important throughout the 19th century between 1830 and 1880. We are now aware that this instrument, which possessed the advantage of flexibility, since its object was undefined, could no longer survive when these notions of pudeur, outrage, and harrassment were seen as belonging to a particular system of value, culture, and discourse; in the pornographic explosion and the profits that it involves, in this new atmosphere, it is no longer possible to use these words and to make the law function on this basis.
But what is emerging - and indeed why I believe it was important to speak about the problem of children - what is emerging is a new penal system, a new legislative system, whose function is not so much to punish offenses against these general laws concerning decency, as to protect populations and parts of populations regarded as particularly vulnerable. In other words, the legislator will not justify the measures that he is proposing by saying: the universal decency of mankind must be defended. What he will say is: there are people for whom others' sexuality may become a permanent danger. In this catagory, of course, are children, who may find themselves at the mercy of an adult sexuality that is alien to them and may well be harmful to them. Hence there is a legislation that appeals to this notion of a vulnerable population, a "high-risk population,"as they say, and to a whole body of psychiatric and psychological knowledge imbibed from psychoanalysis - it doesn't really matter whether the psychoanalysis is good or bad - and this will give the psychiatrists the right to intervene twice. Firstly, in general terms, to say: yes, of course, children do have a sexuality, we can't go back to those old notions about children being pure and not knowing what sexuality is. But we psychologists or psychoanalysts or psychiatrists, or teachers, we know perfectly well that children's sexuality is a specific sexuality, with its own forms, its own periods of maturation, its own highpoints, its specific drives, and its own latency periods, too. This sexuality of the child is a territory with its own geography that the adult must not enter. It is virgin territory, sexual territory, of course, but territory that must preserve its virginity. The adult will therefore intervene as guarantor of that specificity of child sexuality in order to protect it. And, on the other hand, in each particular case, he will say: this is an instance of an adult bringing his own sexuality into the child's sexuality. It could be that the child, with his own sexuality, may have desired that adult, he may even have consented, he may even have made the first moves. We may even agree that it was he who seduced the adult; but we specialists with our psychological knowledge know perfectly well that even the seducing child runs a risk, in every case, of being damaged and traumatized by the fact that he or she has had sexual dealings with an adult. Consequently, the child must be 'protected from his own desires', even when his desires turn him towards an adult. The psychiatrist is the one who will be able to say: I can predict that a trauma of this importance will occured as a result of this or that type of sexual relation. It is therefore within the new legislative framework - basically intended to protect certain vulnerable sections of the population with the establishment of a new medical power - that a conception of sexuality and above all of the relations between child and adult sexuality will be based; and it is one that is extremely questionable.
- Foucault, Michel, edited by Lawrence D. Kritzman. Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and other writings 1977-1984. New York/London: Routledge, 1988, p.273. ISBN 0-415-90082-4.
- The Danger of Child Sexuality - an interview with Michel Foucault. Retrieved on 2010-01-30.
- Michel Foucault, edited by Lawrence D. Kritzman (1988). Politics, Philosophy, Culture – Interviews and other writings 1977-1984. ISBN 0-415-90082-4. .