The Deafening Silence of Sex and Sexuality

Having recently read History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 in “Perspectives on Gender” with Professor Sara Marcus while beginning Giovanni’s Room in this class at the same time, I found these texts to be undeniably connected to one another. In History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault discusses the “repressive hypothesis” – an expression of the relationship between power and sex over time. Specifically, it holds that human beings have shifted from a time when they could speak freely about sex and sexuality to a period where these same things are not to be talked about or enjoyed. Foucault, however, rejects the repressive hypothesis, arguing that this very rise of repression had instead an effect opposite to silence. While acknowledging there were restrictions placed on discourse surrounding sex, Foucault contends that these same restrictions led to an “incitement to speak about [sex], and to do so more and more; a determination on the part of the agencies of power to hear it spoken about, and to cause it to speak through explicit articulation and endlessly accumulated detail” (18). 

With this being said, I see Giovanni’s Room as a piece that further complicates the relationship between power and sex that Foucault explores; I believe Baldwin’s work serves as evidence both in favor of and against Foucault’s analysis of the repressive hypothesis. On one hand, the theme of shame surrounding sex and nakedness that persists in Part 1 of Giovanni’s Room offers truth to the repressive hypothesis. This becomes evident as David recalls his relationship with his father: “What passed between us as masculine candor exhausted and appalled me. Fathers ought to avoid utter nakedness before their sons” (232). David is deeply uncomfortable by his father’s breaking from the silence surrounding sex and sexuality. David’s response to his father’s openness about these subjects can thus be read as an enforcement of the repressive hypothesis. Additionally, in describing his first encounters with Giovanni at the bar, David admits, “I was glad. I was only sorry that Jacques had been a witness. He made me ashamed. I hated him because he had now seen all that he had waited to see” (254). With the idea that a witness spreads the word to others, David again expresses disdain and fear for the discursive references to sex and sexuality Jacques might make about David. These feelings are exacerbated by the fact that this is a queer relationship and therefore subject to intensified scrutiny. 

Given the autobiographical nature of Baldwin’s work, these moments can be seen as a reflection of his personal sentiments. Yet despite the intense feelings of shame and desire for silence surrounding sex and sexuality that David expresses, in a Foucault-ian reading of this, he (David/Baldwin) also gives voice to these matters and brings them out of the shadow of silence. Through David’s relationship with both his father and Giovanni, Baldwin makes possible the very discussion regarding sex, pleasure, and queer love he tried to avoid. Admittedly, I was at first quite unconvinced by Foucault’s criticism of the repressive hypothesis. However, in reading Giovanni’s Room thus far, maybe he was on to something…

One thought on “The Deafening Silence of Sex and Sexuality”

  1. I really liked your tying in of other classes into the topic, and I am equally ambivalent on whether or not repression has increased or stifled discussion about sex. I do however think that repression has destroyed the ability to talk about sex in a healthy manner. I’m not sure how different Notre Dame, being a Catholic institution, would be from the rest of America on the topic of sex, but on this campus, very people know how to communicate their feelings and/or discomforts in a healthy way and it leads to a lot of repression and conflict. The inherent embarrassment surrounding sex is certainly exacerbated by the church and I think if we are to move towards more open and healthy communication on the matter, the church must be willing to do so as well.

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