When revelations broke on Sunday about Michel Foucault sexually abusing young boys in Tunisia, the massed opponents of ‘woke’ were delighted at the opportunity to smear one of the intellectual colossi of the worldview they so loathe. But those currently demanding that the woke cancel Foucault for kiddy-fiddling or be outed as hypocrites are looking in the wrong direction.
Trying to cancel a thinker whose influence is as broad as Foucault’s mainly serves internet point-scoring. Meanwhile, the Foucauldian analysis of sexuality is alive and well in international policy-making, under the guise of ‘intersectional feminism’, and seeks to normalise exactly those interactions for which the anti-woke are demanding Foucault be cancelled.
Baked into Foucault’s work is the idea that power is inevitable and its operations are inescapable. And implicit in this argument is also the idea that power could operate otherwise. That is, there’s no such thing as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, only the operations of power.
Foucault’s own History of Sexuality (1976) describes one such operation of power: the punishment of a “simple-minded” farm labourer who sexually abused a young village girl. This wasn’t objectively abusive, though, in Foucault’s analysis, but an “everyday occurrence in the life of village sexuality”. His concern is the way power was used to construct it as wicked and deserving of punishment. There is a note almost of affront in his account of the way contemporary systems of power and sexual control turned “these inconsequential bucolic pleasures”, into “the object not only of a collective intolerance but of a judicial action”.
If inheritors of the post-Foucauldian ‘critical theory’ worldview see existing systems of power as inherently oppressive and evil, then dismantling them can only be good. It’s then incumbent on adherents of this worldview to be open-minded about the attendant dismantling of all norms associated with those systems of power.
A detailed programme for this ongoing project of dismantling was published recently by a ‘Women’s Rights Caucus’ of over 200 intersectional feminist groups, LGBT+ campaigns and trade unions around the world. As flagged by the Women’s Human Rights Campaign, of particular note is a line about how the campaign should encourage governments to eliminate ‘laws limiting legal capacity of adolescents, […] to provide consent to sex or sexual and reproductive health services’.
When we recall that the WHO defines as ‘adolescent’ everyone in the 10-19 age bracket, it becomes clear that this inserts into an ostensibly ‘intersectional feminist’ policy declaration, as mainstream consensus feminist aims, the goal of abolishing the age of consent for everyone over the age of 10.
That this has been waved through by over 200 international NGOs and self-styled feminist campaigns speaks volumes about how widespread and entrenched the commitment is to de-stigmatising all those ‘bourgeois’ sexual norms whose existence so inconvenienced Foucault. So perhaps (despite his posthumous quasi-cancellation) Foucault had the last laugh after all: thanks in part to his analysis of sexuality, ‘sexual autonomy for 10-year-olds’ is now well within the international progressive Overton window.
None of this, though, is an argument for cancelling Foucauldian analysis, as if such a thing were even possible. Rather, it’s an argument for employing it. If Foucault was right, power is inescapable and we all exist within it. I’d wager the majority of us still think it wholly legitimate and proper to use state power to stop adults sexually abusing children. For this majority, then, it’s an argument for mobilising political, social and cultural power and working methodically to remove from positions of influence every single group that has signed this declaration.