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'Big Brother' bares all

By Wesley Metham - posted Tuesday, 23 August 2005

With the airing recently of the final episode of Big Brother Uncut, viewers watched perhaps the climactic moment in a debate that lasted for almost a month. The episode's attempt to engage the debate was clear: the opening sequence told us that the show's participants should be proud of their honesty, and of their ability to confront us with the truth of young people's attitudes to their bodies and their sexuality.

Looking back at the debate about whether there was too much nudity on Big Brother, we can recognise that the positions each party adopted aren't unfamiliar. On one side we had “conservatives”, those who argue that sex is not a matter for the public realm and that we have simply gone too far in tolerating it; the government should step in to censor television that takes us to this extreme; the law should act as our conscience, a proxy for what we, the public, should know is bad for us, but simply do not.

On the other side, we have what might be termed “liberationists”: those who argue that public discussion of sex and sexuality is entirely healthy, and those who seek to censor sexuality attempt to repress the public's, and perhaps also their own, honest sexual expression.


The confrontation between "conservative" and "liberationist" positions is a familiar one. Debates like this have been common since at least the 1970s. Similar positions have been adopted in debates around gay liberation, pornography and feminism. Perhaps over the past three decades the political landscape and the terms of the debates have changed somewhat, but in itself these debates aren't particularly new phenomena.

If this debate between conservative and liberationist positions is familiar, perhaps we need to take seriously some different perspectives, if there are any. In order to find some alternatives, we might turn to philosophy. In Australian political culture this isn't a very popular thing to do. But perhaps this is precisely why we need to do it.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault studied sexuality in modern Western societies. He produced some interesting conclusions, and they are relevant to debates like the one surrounding sex and sexuality on Big Brother.

In his History of Sexuality, Foucault critiqued a familiar theme for understanding sexuality: the theme of repression. Foucault argued that the idea of repression cannot explain the history of sexuality. He concentrated on the discourse of sexuality in the 19th century, since this is most often regarded to be the most “repressed” sexual age in the West. Contrary to the repression thesis, which argues that the regulation of sex requires that it be hidden from view, Foucault argued that the 19th century was a time when both the regulation of sexuality significantly increased, at the same time as there was an explosion of talk about sexuality in all spheres of life.

Foucault demonstrates how this simultaneous regulation and production of sexuality works in a number of different areas of regulation. For example, the church maintained its forms of regulation not simply by keeping sex hidden from view, but by prompting its members to continually confess their sins, to continually search out, and to produce, their sexuality. Similarly, in prosecuting sexual crimes, the state required its subjects to stand before them and speak of their sins. The law itself was full of tawdry details of what was and was not allowed. In “repressing” sexuality, these institutions of authority were obsessed with the details of sex, the ins and outs of who can do what, to whom and when.

The point Foucault makes is that the idea of a modern authority simply and only “repressing” sexuality is something of a myth. Rather, what actually occurs is that regulation of sex produces sexuality, in the sense of “making it visible”, precisely through the “repressive” institutions of regulation. In other words, to assume the simple opposition between "liberation" and "repression" is to assume a lot. Rather, often repression and liberation work simultaneously, entirely in tandem.


Foucault's work is critical to thinking about the regulation of sexuality in the 19th century. However, considering the contemporary context, an important amendment needs to be made to his approach. In our society, the institutions of public life in which people participate the most are no longer the church or the state. Rather, the place in which our public life largely takes place is in the mass media and culture; that is, in and around shows like Big Brother.

But though the place may have changed, and though the political instruments may also be different, are the patterns of public life really so different to the ones that Foucault describes? In the debates about the amount of sex in mass culture, don't we encounter the same patterns of discourse, at one time dominated by “repression”, the next by “liberation”, that emerge in the forms of the regulation of sexuality that Foucault describes? Is the debate between "the law" and "freedom of speech" really the most important one? Or is this just a continuation, in a different form, of the history that Foucault describes, the history in which the regulation of sexuality requires its continual expression?

Big Brother justifies itself by telling us that it is expressing "the truth" of young people's sexuality. But in doing so, isn't it adopting a similar position to the one adopted by those who hope to censor us: that is, the position of the one who knows and can speak the truth of whom we are, and who we should be? Why does Big Brother have any better access to "the truth" of sexuality than those who claim to censor it? Aren't they trying to tell us what our sexuality is, or what it should be, as much as the conservatives?

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About the Author

Wesley Metham is currently undertaking his PhD in cultural studies, under the supervision of Professor Catharine Lumby, at the University of Sydney.

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