March 1, 2016, by Michael Jennings

Who controls our sexuality? LGBT History Month ends with Foucault, BDSM and his philosophy of power

In this guest post, Emily Howard, final-year history student and writer for the University’s student life blog, reflects on the ‘Discipline and punish’ event held on Thursday 25 February.

Sex education in UK schools has been widely criticised from a variety of angles and perspectives, but no reform will be introduced at a state level anytime soon. Why is this? We’re talking about sex and power.

This is how Dr Max Biddulph, Associate Professor of the School of Education and Chair of the LGBTQ Staff Network here at The University of Nottingham, opened his talk for LGBT History Month on ‘Discipline and Punish: Foucault, BDSM and his Philosophy of Power’. It poses some big questions about sexuality and structures of power, which are at the core of the importance of LGBT History Month.

As students, we are constantly questioning the situations faced by our world; and Max insightfully explained how critiquing “normal” situations is at the core of philosophy. Foucault, the infamous philosopher, reflects this. For those who aren’t aware, Foucault’s crucial theory is his knowledge and power dialectic: knowledge creates power and knowledge can also be gained by power. What, then, about the position of sexuality in relation to knowledge and power?

The correlation between power and sexual dynamics is not a new idea, but Max gives it a new spin: was Foucault’s theory of power a mirror or laboratory? More specifically, did his time in the queer and leather-clad “Valley of the Kings” area in downtown San Francisco shape his theories? According to Foucault, three things are crucial for successful power structures: surveillance, examination, and normalising judgements. There is a “theatre” to the concept of control; involving technology, architecture, and even costumes of domination. Sounding kinky?

According to Max, Foucault’s theories could possibly reflect his experiences with BDSM. Although rather private about his sexual life, Max described how Foucault loved “The Slot”: an S&M play club in downtown San Fran. Dr Gayle Rubin, expert on the history of leather, argues that it would not be unreasonable to think that some of Foucault’s insights into power were informed by his leathersex experiences. After all, Foucault believed that power induces pleasure and said himself, “I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am.”

Max’s talk is important not only for probing interesting questions about one of the most infamous (and, for students, the most exasperating) thinkers of the 20th century – and highlighting the sheer significance of LGBT figures in academia and society as a whole – but it is important in thinking about the wider dynamics of power and sexuality. Max highlighted the politics of sexuality, for example Dr Rubin’s theory that sexual behaviours are judged with approval or reproval, which in turn influences our own behaviours and place within society. Unsurprisingly, in Rubin’s theory BDSM is frowned upon; shockingly, only in 2010 did the American Psychological Association conclude that BDSM was not a pathological symptom.

As a fitting ending to the LGBT History Month events at the University of Nottingham, the crux that Max leaves us with is this: who holds power over our sexuality? As students who have been and remain taught a widely criticised yet unchanging sexual education at school, and in a world where many countries enforce the death penalty for LGBT+ individuals, Foucault’s theory springs to mind. Control relies on surveillance, examination, and normalising judgements. When we think about it, the importance of LGBT History Month and The University of Nottingham’s increasing platform for diversity and discussion becomes increasingly crucial.

Posted in events