The sexual society and the case of Pierre Rivière

The Conservative-DUP coalition and social empowerment

The DUP are currently making headlines across British newspapers, the discussion and confirmation of a Conservative-DUP coalition have been met with mixed emotions; some are relieved at the continuation of a Conservative-led government while; others, sit nervously at the thought of the DUP attaining greater political influence. The DUP has developed a reputation for being ‘controversial’ on issues such as abortion rights, sex, and sexuality; however, critiques of the DUP’s Neo-Christian interpretations of marriage and sexuality often approach the subject from an emotive angle. In contrast, when considered by a philosophical analysis, sex has a less lot to do with emotions but social empowerment.

Society is inherently sexual; consequently, the role of sex within society cannot be presumed to operate in a vacuum, detached from both a political and social context. We live in sexual societies, which constantly contest the parameters of sexual normality and acceptance. It is, therefore, no surprise that the death of Antinous, the lover of Roman Emperor Hadrian in 130AD developed a substantial cult following after his death; subsequently, it can be seen as no small irony that, contemporarily including non-heterosexual sex education in schools is controversial. Once a society turned a gay into a god, now the DUP worry if God likes gays at all. In examining sexuality within society, it can be helpful to look at two rather different writers: Émile Durkheim and Michel Foucault.

In a similar theme to sexuality, suicide can be both a personal and social problem. Émile Durkheim conducted one of the first methodological social studies, using suicide to explore modern social structures. Suicide was published in 1897 and its findings contributed to the founding of the academic field of Sociology, Durkheim helped to display an inter-connection between themes often considered disconnected from each other. The public/private distinction has unfortunately advanced a dichotomy which presumes social matters are either wholly public or private matters; it hardly facilitates for a middle-ground. We all deserve an aura of privacy; however, that does not preclude social influence from affecting our private affairs. Privacy does not operate outside the parameters of society but within it and therefore cannot be considered distinct from socio-political context; under the iconic slogan of 2nd wave feminism, ‘the personal is political’.

If suicide rates can be reflective of social structures, so can sexuality. But how? If we look at sexuality what ties it to a greater social agenda? Perhaps cynically it’s political power. When examining sexuality within societies, a recurring theme is a normalisation or the extent to which certain sexual forms are condoned or rigorously ostracised. Sexually censorial societies often utilise ‘unconventional’ sexual desires as political blackmail, a tool to extort power or defame public influence. It is therefore unsurprising that non-heterosexual sexualities and fetishes have been treated with an aura of suspicion. Hierarchical religious orders have always been keen to comment on the purity of sexuality for more than their own personal amusement. The transition between homosexuality being treated as a sin, to contemporarily in some circles being treated as wrong, immoral, dirty, is no coincidence. It’s the same identity politics but just under a different façade.

No writer to date has perhaps explored normalisation to the extent buy gabapentin 300mg which Michel Foucault accomplished. Pierre Rivière was a case study used by Foucault in ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’ to illustrate the process of normalisation within modern societies. For Foucault, the modern liberal agenda has more so than any other period in history, relied on state violence to sustain a political regime. The case of Pierre Rivière can still be used to illustrate a normalising attitude around sex in society.

Pierre Rivière was a French peasant who on the 3rd June 1835 killed his mother, sister, and brother, before writing a memoir of his confession in which he rationally justified his actions. The memoir was sent in July 1835 to the prison of Vire in which Pierre described his attempt to protect his father, whom he loved, from his abusive wife. Pierre had decided to kill himself after the act so that his father would not regret the actions of his parricide son and therefore could live happier without regret. After Pierre’s sentence was commuted from execution to life imprisonment, he hung himself in 1840.

Pierre created turmoil within the French legal system at the time due to the confusing nature of his case. Rarely was murder considered to be an act conducted with rational intent. Pierre was committed to life imprisonment rather than hanged because he was diagnosed as a monomaniac (a now discontinued psychological prognosis). A monomaniac was considered to be a person with a rational mind but an irrational obsession with a single preoccupation. In the case of Pierre, his obsession was the death of his mother. For Foucault, Pierre’s diagnosis as a monomaniac was necessitated so that he could be adequately categorised within the French legal system. The distinction between rational or insane was contemporarily so dichotomous that Pierre needed to be ‘normalised’ to fit the system.

The case of Pierre Rivière exposes a normalising aspect of modern social structures, a desire to rigorously categorise. When applied to examining sexuality, it can arguably be said that what is often considered sexual normality controls what is seen as different or abnormal. This does not just apply to the acceptance of sexualities but relationship structures, sexual taboos, etc. What is ‘normal’ can rigorously categorise what is different, subsequently; how that difference is treated, can be very politically charged. In the same way that Pierre was classed as mad and therefore not rational a similar process can be applied to sexual acceptance in societies.

Whether the sexual difference is respected and condoned, or condemned, is often determined through legal forms of codification, along with extra-legal forms such as public opinion. The DUP in the coming years may possess a moderate level of political influence, their approach to sexual acceptance is an extension of identity politics. A political party’s approach to sex within society can be an indication of their perspective on a variety of public policy issues. The DUP are not inherently ‘wrong’ when it comes to sex, but their actions are an extension of identity politics, and that shouldn’t be overlooked. Their actions are representative of more than a view of sex but a politically motivated response to modernity.


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Stephen Mallet 2 Articles
Intelligent scepticism is never an overrated characteristic within modernity. I'm a Politics and International Relations student at Royal Holloway and a freelance writer. I take an interest in a variety of topics, mostly concerning political philosophy and contemporary political affairs. An advocate of critical thinking who prizes analysing the normal and justifying the non-existent.

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