In his seminal work, “The History of Sexuality, An Introduction, Volume 1,” Michael Foucault set out to examine why people were so afraid to discuss their sexual behavior. What could possibly be so wrong about discussing what one did in the privacy of one’s own home? In the Middle Ages, when people often had to sleep in churches after natural disasters, it happened that sex occurred in public, where everyone could see- including children. The sounds of soft moans could often be heard through the night in a communal area where everyone slept together.

By the 19th century, the advances of the marketplace provided an increase in personal property, which also brought an increase in privacy. No longer did people have to sleep- or have sex- in public spaces. However, in consequence of this, sex itself was shoved into the bedroom, under the bed, put under lock and key, never to be discussed except in the most dire of circumstances. Sailors on leave might run straight for a brothel where they promptly caught a sexually transmitted infection, yet discussion of sex itself remained taboo.

Foucault relates a story of 19th century France which may shed some light on this:

One day in 1867, a farm hand from the village of Lapcourt, who was somewhat simple-minded, employed here then there, depending on the season, living hand-to-mouth from a little charity or in exchange for the worst sort of labor, sleeping in barns or stables, was turned in to the authorities. At the border of a field, he had obtained a few caresses from a little girl, just as he had done before and seen done by the village urchins round about him; for, at the edge of the wood, or in the ditch by the road leading to Saint-Nicholas, they would play the familiar game called “curdled milk.” So he was pointed out by the girl’s parents to the mayor of the village, reported by the mayor to the gendarmes, led by the gendarmes to the judge, who indicted him and turned him over first to a doctor, then to two other experts who not only wrote their report but had it published. What is the significant thing about this story? The pettiness of it all; the fact that this every day occurrence in the life of village sexuality, these inconsequential bucolic pleasures, could become, from a certain time, the object not only of a collective intolerance but of a judicial action, a medical intervention, a careful clinical examination, and an entire theoretical elaboration. The thing to note is they went so far as to measure the brainpan, study the facial bone structure, and inspect for possible signs of degenerescence the anatomy of this personage who up to that moment had been an integral part of village life; that they made him talk; that they questioned him concerning his thoughts, inclinations, habits, sensations and opinions. And then, acquitting him of any crime, they decided finally to make him into a pure object of medicine and knowledge- an object to be shut away till the end of his life in the hospital at Mareville, but also one to be made known to the world of learning through a detailed analysis.
(Foucault, 1978, pp. 31-32)

Although we may disagree whether a bit of caressing may be inconsequential or not, it must at least be recognized that such activities had occurred regularly in the town of Lapcourt, France in 1867. We may call it pedophilia. They would likely not have developed a word for what happened. Indeed, human history is ripe with examples of sexuality between adults and children- such as those which occurred between men and young boys in ancient Rome- that no matter how much it might offend our sensibilities today, we must at least concede that however heinous, it is far from unusual.

Why then, go to all the trouble of studying the farm hand to such an extent? Foucault claims that the repression of sexuality in adults and children alike led to not only a criminalization of sexual behaviors, but that such behaviors were seen as signals of mental illness. Consequently, it is not difficult to understand Sigmund Freud’s errors in psychoanalysis when he wanted to assign every motive back to something sexual. Tucked under the bed, put under lock and key, sex itself was found to be so abhorrent a thing that people were pushed very far out of their comfort zones by any other human being who happened to be nearby. Thus, women exposing bare ankles were perceived as scandalous.

There is another lesson to learn from the farm hand, however. Rather than assuming that the incidents between the farm hand and the little girl were simply the whim of a passing moment, a temporary situation, just about the whole of French society concluded that there must be something about the farm hand’s essential nature as an individual which caused him to behave in the manner in which he did. This is the only reason for the measuring of his brainpan- the assumption that the size of a person’s brain has something to do with his personality for good or ill. This idea was prevalent in the 19th century as researchers attempted to establish links between biology and behavior.

Even today, in the midst of humanity’s greatest period of enlightenment, we have still not been able to separate biology and behavior. Instead of brain size, today we blame genetics. A person may inherit a mental disorder genetically which causes them to act in a certain way. It is hardly even noteworthy to find a criminal being labeled mentally ill. This is especially the case for those who, using their own powers of reasoning, decide to engage their energies in a fight against the state.

Though it is perhaps easier for researchers, judges, and government officials to slap the mental illness tag on everything, it is by no means an explanation that fits the facts in every single instance. Mental illness itself is not as easily defined as a physical dysfunction. A person may be unhappy with their circumstances, which may lead to depression. A person may be angry as a result of an incident they experienced, which may lead to violent behavior. In order to successfully conflate behavior with the essential nature of an individual, free choice must be taken out of the equation.

What then, does this say about the farm hand from France? Perhaps he was not a pedophile after all. Perhaps he simply had never learned that there are certain things which are socially impermissible. As a man who never received a proper education, it may be doubted whether he could even read or write. If this were the case, he would simply be instructed not to continue receiving caresses from little girls. The parents of the girl in question might be admonished for not looking after their child better. If it was understood that free choice is the driving force behind all human decisions, this may have been the case.

As Foucault reports, though, all of that did not happen. The researchers did their research and published their papers. The farm hand was locked away in a psychiatric facility for the rest of his life. The only reason to do this would be an assumption on the part of French society that a person’s essential nature drives all their decisions. Such reasoning does away with free will: a man’s choices are not his own, for he is compelled against his will to choose whatever his nature compels him toward. This means that criminals cannot be reformed, the mentally ill must always remain ill, and idiots can never be educated.

Fortunately, the majority of our knowledge today points towards the opposite conclusion: criminals may be reformed, the mentally ill may be cured and idiots can be educated. Free choice, then, does exist, no matter how much an entire country may disbelieve in it.