The Repressive Hypothesis

A frequent topic of evasion is sex, simply because it is considered too taboo to talk about in everyday conversation.  The rare time sex is freely mentioned is in the media, where it is frequently assigned a negative connotation.  However,  it is never thoroughly explained in the media and mostly just thrown into the mix as a method of sale.  In recent years discourse surrounding the idea of sex has started to become more common.  Nevertheless, when sex is brought up in conversation, it is mainly to accomplish two goals: to convince people to fear sex in general, and that pleasure is not the point of sex.  Consequently, people who find themselves comfortable with the subject of, or find pleasure in, sex are usually the ones denormalized and repressed in society.

To fully understand why society is so sexually repressed Michel Foucault, author of The History of Sexuality Volume Ⅰ: An Introduction, explains the meaning of his repressive hypothesis.  This term is used to describe the change in how people and communities talk about sex throughout history.  Foucault’s theory of the repressive hypothesis was developed to help society recognize that this repressing discourse about sex is a way to maintain a capitalist society, keeping docile bodies always available to work and make money.  By definition,  his hypothesis shows that the use of biopower, self-surveillance, and repressive identification promotes the reign of an intensified capitalistic economic system that has been forced upon society.

Historically, sex was not a sensitive topic and that there “was a period when bodies ‘made a display of themselves’” (Foucault, 1978, pg. 3).  In the seventeenth century there was little shame attached to sexual acts and discourse surrounding sex.  Moving into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ideals and standards changed in relation to sex and sexuality.  Discourse surrounding sex became more regulated, and kept within the home and between two married adults focused on the exclusive intention of reproduction (Foucault, 1978,  pg.4).

Aside from mostly married couples, no one else was having or talking about sex publicly.  Sex was and still is censored in contemporary culture, keeping children and others ignorant, therefore normalizing the repressed expressions of sex.  Foucault claims that, repression operated as a sentence to disappear, but also as an injunction to silence, an affirmation of nonexistence, and, by implication, an admission that there was nothing to say about such things, nothing to see, and nothing to know (Foucault, 1978,  pg.4).

He describes conversations having to do with sex, as almost non-existent because everyone was silenced into submission.  People who did not fall trap into the repression of sexuality, also known as ‘the other victorians,’ were forced into silence by being admitted to “places of tolerance” (Foucault, 1978, pg.4). These people were not afraid to step outside of the constraints and habitual hypocrisy within today’s society.  The way society works is based on power that is exercised through disciplinary institutions such as hospitals, schools, and prisons. Thus, the act of sexual repression gives opportunity to authority to dominate over docile bodies is termed by Foucault as biopower.  He defines biopower to be literally, power over the body, and in this case, multiple bodies within a society.  In order for this technique of power to be optimized, these bodies need to be both fully available and docile so that it is easier to take control.

Jen Pylypa, who is focused on the concept of medical anthropology, uses Foucault’s work and develops it even further by giving specific examples of how biopower exists in the world today.  Pylypa focuses on personal subjugation of the body and how people conform to and force themselves to participate in daily practices of constant self regulation and the need to conform to the norms of a capitalist society.  She states, “[i]ndividuals thus voluntarily control themselves by self-imposing conformity to cultural norms through self-surveillance and self-disciplinary practices” (Pylypa, 1998, pgs. 21-22).  People being controlled within a society are usually self-servailing themselves in order to fit into a particular norm, in order to save face.  She builds on Foucault’s ideas saying that because of the current capitalist society, people will always manage themselves to fit the norm and make sure not to deviate from social authority.

This can be seen in many different parts of the technological world that contemporary society has become.  Especially with the ideals of what to do, and what not to do within

This photo describes the hegemonic construction of gendered approaches to intimacy and emotion and the ways in which people filter themselves through social media platforms.

the realm of online dating sites.  People who use these types of of sites tend to embellish themselves to make it as though they can fit within the ‘norm’ of society.  In a capitalist society, it is important that people fall trap into the deep hole that is paying for internet services.  The businesses intimates that it is a place where self-servailers can put their whole life out there, when really people only put out what is ‘supposed’ to be scene.

Self-surveillance  is particularly seen in places like gyms and fitness centers as well.  These place advertise that it is important to have a sexy body.  They also represent the idea that being fit and healthy is vital to having a complete and happy life, when in fact they are just trying to expose the people who do not fit the norm.  Gyms and fitness centers end up having control over bodies because they are making people think that they are not fitting into society and having them pay economically to fulfill this achievable goal.  By making

This photo shows an example of what the ‘perfect’ gym body is supposed to look like and what fitness centers will promise if you pay their fee.

people feel like they are inferior, the corporations have gained the power and used it to pry more money out of individuals and keep them distracted from the repressive world that they live in.

Biopower allows for the control over the people.  It is vital to a capitalist society that they can satisfy the work imperative and create economic gain for themselves and businesses within the society.  Susan Bordo, talks about this when dealing with dynamics of feminist ideals.  Women today have become more focused on keeping up with the latest trend to stay with the ever-changing definition of satisfaction.  She asserts that, “the discipline and normalization of the female body… has to be acknowledged as an amazingly durable and flexible strategy of social control” (Bordo, 1989, pg. 14).  The obsession that women have with their appearances through diet, makeup, and clothing are ways that Foucault’s definition of docile bodies is seen in the real world.

Makeup tutorials and shows such as “What Not To Wear,” a show where a person literally tells someone that they are not good enough, are other examples of how Foucault’s hypothesis is represented in real life.  These productions are only showed on platforms for people’s own selfish economic gain.  Viewers are sucked into trying to be a part of a group and not focused on the fact that they are being forced into a society where only few options are accepted. This causes much confusion because we are made to think that there are many options when only few are actually thought of to be appropriate.

Stacy London is a fashion consultant/co-host of a reality TV show called What Not to Wear, which features her using her power as a reality star to convince people that they need to buy into the capitalist world.

Products and advertising techniques that purposefully point out women’s flaws, show the exploitation of an ignorant people, caught up in the binds of social cement.  After a while, people become accustomed to being ‘appropriate’, which causes them to no longer think that they are being repressed, when in fact they have always been.  The more docile the bodies, the less these multi-million dollar companies have to work to achieve economic fortunes.

Although Foucault’s repressive hypothesis is grounded on the main idea that oppressed sexuality is a way to gain power over docile bodies, it is also a way to determine how we as humans are cultured into society and represented by each other.  When discourse surrounding sex or sexuality is intentionally withheld, people remain clueless that conversations about sex and individual representation is being repressed and subjugated by capitalistic authority.

Unfortunately, Foucault claims that there is no way out of this repressive system.  As long as there are jobs that benefit people economically, then there will be no point in things that constitute some sort of pleasure.  A repressive lifestyle produces biopower, power over the bodies, because people are working and gaining money and using the money to fit into the norms of society.  Capitalist authority allows people to focus on work instead of pleasure, and money instead of self.  If most groups censor information like sexuality, consequently it will not be brought up in discourse, creating a accessible pathway for capitalism and biopower to manifest control over multiple bodies at once.


Foucault, M. (1990). The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction (Vol. 1). New York: Vintage Books.

Jaggar, A. M., & Bordo, S. (1992). Gender/body/knowledge: Feminist reconstructions of being and knowing. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Pylypa, J. (n.d.). Power and Bodily Practice: Applying the Work of Foucault … Retrieved May 6, 20118, from,5069.1

Image Attribution: Image I Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0); Image 2 Attribution- CC0 Public Domain; Image 3 Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Written by Erika Reynolds, 2018



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