George Orwell (English 246: Fall 2011)

Sex, Law and Power in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four

December 19, 2011 · Leave a Comment

In the world of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four sexual regulation is an integral part of the government’s ability to control the population of Oceania. Orwell presents a critique of the sexual regulation imposed on the subjects of Oceania in his presentation of a dystopian society and makes an argument for sexual privacy. West argues that there are two standard ways of establishing laws regulating sexual behavior. The first is to establish these laws according to the rules of morality, which favor a high degree of sexual regulation. The other is sexual regulation according to a more liberal ideology that encourages people to autonomously decide what kinds of sexual behaviors are socially acceptable. West also indicates two nonstandard ways of establishing laws regulating a society’s sexual practices. The first considers sexual regulation in terms of the political consequences and how a certain degree of sexual regulation benefits social organizations. The other is the humanistic regulation of sexual practices that is concerned with how sexual regulation can produce a good quality of life for the individuals of a community.
In his argument for sexual privacy Orwell assumes two things about power. First that “power is the willingness and ability to kill, control manipulate, oppress, humiliate and torture other human beings” (244). Second that power is most dangerous in the form of a concentrated state power. West outline two contradictory ways to respond to unconstrained state power: foundational faith in the protective properties of the law and rebellion, “unregulated, naturalistic, animalistic, erotic, hedonistic, pleasure-for-pleasure’s-sake sex [that is] a politically rebellious act and, particularly, a political act of defiance against states, state power, and state authority” (247). These two reactions to unchecked state power are usually mutually exclusive but in Nineteen Eighty Four Orwell suggests that both rational law and irrational sex are effective responses to a concentrated, and therefore dangerous, state power.
West goes on to challenge Orwell’s assumption that power is most dangerous in the form of concentrated state power. West proposes that perhaps private power is the most dangerous form of power. In this sense though sex can certainly be an expression of malignant private power it also represents an intimate reprieve from the rampant struggle between private powers in the public realm. As such, state laws become necessary to regulate the malignant use of sexual power, but these laws must also allow for the possibility of an intimate sexual bond between individuals that represents a detachment from the power struggle in the public realm.
West distinguished between Orwell and Michel Foucault and their views on power. Whereas Orwell considers power to be characteristically destructive and censorial, Foucault insists that power “is neither destructive or controlling, but affirmative and creative, and comes from all sorts of social pores, as well as from the whims of states or political sovereigns” (256). But unlike Foucault Orwell believed in something beyond power: our natural inclinations towards love and intimacy. As such, Orwell proposes a humanistic method of considering law and the regulation of sex. And though Orwell did not successfully predict our political future he urged us to “measure the worth of our political institutions we create…in Nineteen Eighty Four and elsewhere, by reference to their effect of the quality of our individual and communal lives” (260). Unlike Foucault, Orwell held that “Neither we, our sex, our experiences, our truths, our loves, our laws, or our nature is exclusively a product of power. And because they are not, they can be destroyed by it” (260).
Works Cited
West, Robin. “Sex, Law, Power, and Community on Nineteen Eighty-Four.” In On Nineteen Eighty-Four: Orwell and Our Future. Edited by Abbott Gleason, Jack Goldsmith, Martha C Nussbaum and Barbara S Kirschner. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2005.

Categories: Sexuality
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