Re: Foucault, Freud and Sex--why the secret?

Dan Moerman (
Thu, 24 Nov 1994 08:05:17 UNDEFINED

In article <3atisr$> (Elizabeth C Dunn) writes:
>From: (Elizabeth C Dunn)
>Subject: Re: Foucault, Freud and Sex--why the secret?
>Date: 22 Nov 1994 15:04:43 -0500

>Finally, Warren tells me that in theory, one could not substitute
>something else for the central place of sex in our society. I had asked
>why we make such secrets, and such a monumental place in our culture and
>society for sex. Why not eating? (Can you imagine people huddling
>furtively in Times Square, gnawing on turkey legs?) Warren informs me
>that it is because there is no analog to the Oedipus complex for eating,
>but I am unsure why that rules it out.


I think you have to broaden this a bit. Cultures often exaggerate or minimize
various "biological functions" to one degree or another, using them as devices
for the attribution of meaning. The most obvious, elaborated, and universal
of such functions is breathing; the modulation of inhaling and exhaling is
what we refer to as "speech." Eating is similarly moodulated, and made
meaningful, in many, but not as many, cultures as breathing. Western
societies are often in the forefront of this process, one which might be said
to attempt to obscure "eating" by transforming it into "dining," but many
others do similar sorts of things (I will never forget the wonderful
description of "eating a giviak" by Peter Freuchen; a giviak is made by
flensing a seal so that you in effect pull the carcass out of the skin,
producing a fat-lined sealskin bag -- the bag is then stuffed with small
birds, and the whole thing is left to ferment for several months producing a
tremendously complex "cheese" of sorts. They are great delicacies eaten with
much ceremony). In Levi-Straussian terms, one might say that all of this is
meant to disguise nature as culture or to transform the natural into the
cultural (hence his book The Cooked and the Raw); such an approach is really
the only acceptable general explanation of "cooking" (hardly a necessity if
one glances across the range of vertebrate adaptations). Often, too, such
transformations are transformed again into religious or ritual activities (as
the Catholic mass, for example, essentially a little meal).

Some "biological functions" are harder to disguise. While eating is very
often a public, ritual, religious act, its necessary consequence --
elimination -- rarely is, and is most often carried out in private, or so it

The Balinese are instructive here: perhaps no other culture tries harder to
"culturalize" the natural than they. My sense is that "dining" is to "eating"
as "dancing" is to "walking" -- and much ethnography convinces me that the
Balinese don't just walk across a room, they dance across it, with the posture
under absolute control, the fingers cupped just so, and so on. Margaret
Mead's book Balinese Character (comprised mostly of photographs) makes this
point well, I think. Interestingly enough, while one might imagine that the
Balinese to be like the French in their approach to food, they are not.
Eating is not a public and ceremonial function for the Balinese who are said
to eat furtively, quickly, and often privately (they might even gnaw furtively
on turkey legs. . .), as if they are aware that all of the napery one might
accumulate would never disguise this "natural" action as "cultural," so they
do it in private (as in western society we eliminate, in the famous shrine of
the Nacirema).

And so to sex, another biological necessity, one obviously under a great deal
of cultural control. It is interesting how likely we are to attribute to
others our own experience of sex as "natural," something professionals at
least would be much less likely to do with matters of, say, cuisine. While
the Sambia are surely instructive here, the Dani may even be moreso: Karl
Heider notes that the Dani observe a 5 year post-partum sex taboo, and seem to
engage in intercourse perhaps 2 or 3 times a decade on the average. Most
interesting is Heider's conclusion (convincing to me) that there is no
particular evidence of "repression" or "sublimation" or any of the other
things so dear to western hearts regarding sex. The Dani just don't make a
very big deal of it, and so it is not a very big deal (hormones or no
hormones); and the Dani do not seem to have the elaborated gender distinctions
one often finds in New Guinea, either. The whole thing is just sort of

By contrast along another dimension are the Asian approaches mentioned in
posts by others where sex is dealt with more in the way we treat food, with
elaboration, standard schemes, "cookbooks" (like the Kama Sutra), and so on,
dressing up sex with napery, one might say, to the point that it can be
carried out in public, perhaps even with children present. And by contrast
along another dimension is the Western approach which largely treats sex like
it does cuisine on the one hand (celebrating and elaborating it), and like
elimination on the other (hiding it). This combination surely makes it
visible in the Foucaultian sense, and frustrating in the Freudian sense, _but
hardly universal in the anthropological sense!_

An approach like this one changes the game a bit, and gets us away from
the notion that sex is always and inevitably hidden and secret, and provides a
context for considering it in a meaningful cross cultural manner.
# Daniel E. Moerman, Professor of Anthropology
# University of Michigan-Dearborn, MI 48128 USA
# Internet:
# (313)769-8938 <voice> (313)769-8643 <fax>