Knowledge and discipline – knowledge as discipline: aspects of the oral history of Irish sexuality


Department of Art History and Social History, University of Lleida, Pl. Víctor Siurana, n.1, 25003, Lleida, Catalonia (Spain).


This article examines the recent history of sexual morality in rural Ireland. My thesis is that this history can be defined as a process of structural change in which a normative model has been replaced by a cognitive model. Both models give rise to disciplinary systems but, I argue, they differ from each other in their respective objects: whereas a normative model has the body as its immediate object of discipline, in the cognitive model body discipline is mediated through the individual's self. Since the normative model is grounded in religious values, I consider that this transition can be also interpreted as an instance of the process of secularization.


L’auteur examine l’histoire récente de la moralité sexuelle dans l’Irlande rurale. Sa thèse est que cette histoire peut être définie comme un processus de changement structurel dans lequel un modèle normatif a été remplacé par un modèle cognitif. Les deux modèles donnent tous deux naissance à des systèmes disciplinaires mais, de l’avis de l’auteur, ceux-ci n’ont pas le même objet : alors que le modèle normatif définit le corps comme objet immédiat de la discipline, la discipline corporelle dans le modèle cognitif est médiée par le Soi de l’individu. Dans la mesure où le modèle normatif est ancré dans les valeurs religieuses, l’auteur considère que cette transition peut aussi être interprétée comme une manifestation du processus de sécularisation.

In this article I present a cultural analysis of some aspects of the recent history of sexual morality in rural Ireland. My thesis is that this history can be understood as a process of structural change in which a ‘normative’ model has been replaced by a ‘cognitive’ model. A normative model is that in which a set of more or less explicit moral principles rule the individual's sexual behaviour. A cognitive model, by contrast, does not contain, strictly speaking, moral rules; it is a model in which sexual behaviour is governed by the individual's knowledge of a certain kind. Both models give rise to disciplinary systems since both enforce a crucial distinction between ‘proper’ and ‘improper’ or ‘irregular’ forms of sexual conduct. But they differ from each other in their respective objects: whereas a normative model has the body as its immediate object of discipline, in the cognitive model body discipline is mediated through the individual's self.1 Furthermore, the normative model with which I am concerned is ultimately grounded in a distinctive set of sacred values, in such a way that its substitution by a cognitive model can readily be interpreted as an instance of the process of secularization or desacralization. I am also interested in assessing the effects of this process upon the evolution of certain types of sexual conduct.

My purpose is not so much to gather evidence concerning what actually happened in a particular period of Irish history, but rather to analyse the cultural framework in terms of which that evidence is currently being interpreted. Thus the data on which the article is based are oral narratives, obtained by means of ethnographic fieldwork carried out in a rural Catholic parish of western Ireland over more than ten years, intermittently, since 1990. My informants are mainly middle-aged men and women, most of them married, in their forties and fifties, sometimes older. The majority of men are full-time or part-time farmers and factory workers; most of the women are housewives, helping their husbands on the farm and a few of them with off-farm jobs. Nearly all of them have had a primary education and a few women, but fewer men, have gone to secondary school. The community lies on good farm land, even though for the last ten years several families have given up farming altogether. Those with off-farm jobs normally commute to the nearest town, only ten miles away. Tourism is practically non-existent. The reader can consult my monograph (Salazar 1996) for further data on this community.

Why deal with sexual morality in rural Ireland? What is or has been so distinctive about the history of Irish sexuality? Traditionally, ethnographers and social historians who have looked at sexual attitudes in rural Ireland invariably agree on the prevalence of a distinctively strict code of sexual behaviour. An astonishingly low level of illegitimacy, coupled with a no less astonishingly low marriage rate, is commonly seen as documentary proof of the widespread acceptance of a sexually inhibitive culture that lasted at least up to the mid-twentieth century. In the words of Irish demographer Brendan M. Walsh:

[S]o prevalent was the lack of enthusiasm for marriage and sexual activity in general that Ireland at mid-century may well provide an example of what Malthus called ‘a decay of the passion between the sexes,’ a phenomenon that he thought was rare in view of the evidence that ‘this natural propensity exists in undiminished vigour’ throughout the world (1985: 132).2

But perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of this traditional sexual prudery of the Irish is that it all now seems to be a thing of the past. And it is precisely the contrast between a ‘repressed’ past and a ‘liberated’ present that will constitute the main target of my analysis. Irish sociologist Tom Inglis has recently pointed out that ‘[t]he Republic of Ireland has become a good laboratory for the study of rapid social change, particularly in relation to changes in culture and morality’ (2002: 5). In what follows, I do not wish to scrutinize the historical accuracy of conventional images of Irish sexual attitudes, but rather to focus precisely on their alleged demise through the oral narratives of my Irish informants.

A morality on the wane

Sexual mores are believed to have evolved in recent decades in line with broader changes that have taken place in Irish society at large. For all the severity and harshness of the Church's sexual discipline, for all the sexual repression that for so long was such a salient feature of the Irish cultural landscape, it all appears now as belonging to a recent past against which current narratives can be contrasted. The past, with its characteristic repression and backwardness, has now become a backdrop which highlights, by means of the contrast it produces, the shapes and contours of the modern discourse. Modern views, therefore, always appear modelled as a sharp contrast against what are held to be the characteristic values and mores of bygone times.

In the subjective history of Irish sexuality with which I am concerned, the past/present dichotomy, despite its pre-eminent role, runs unevenly interlocked with a seriesof other conceptual dichotomies which provide it with form and content in a rather complex way. Freedom/repression, knowledge/ignorance, visible/invisible, pleasure/responsibility, control/lack of control, could be seen as examples of those dichotomies, sometimes cutting across, sometimes coextensive with, the dichotomy between the past and the present. None of them has sexual activity as its exclusive referent, but they all operate as cultural mediators in the local definition of sexual norms. In the following examination of the way in which this contrast between past and present is portrayed, I will use direct quotations from my informants as well as indirect speech and different forms of ventriloquizing. None of the views that I will present, however, should be seen as ‘representative’ of Irish society, not even of the farming community where I did my fieldwork. Ethnographic subjects are only representatives of themselves – even though it is my surmise that much of what I observed could be extrapolated to other similar contexts, in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe.

According to local narratives, sexual repression and ignorance of sexual matters originated in the all-pervasive power of the Church in the past. The power of the Church, in sexuality as well as in all other aspects of social life, was supported by people's generalized ignorance and fear. The Church is seen as responsible for keeping people ignorant of sexual matters in such a way that this ignorance appears as the justification for the very power that kept them in this ignominious mental darkness. My informants underlined, in different ways, how ignorance and fear fed on and reinforced each other. They told me that in the past people were highly religious because they lacked education; they did not enquire about things and just believed what the priests told them. They did not make enquiries because they were afraid to make choices and they were terrified of the priests and the hierarchy. Even those who did not believe would pretend that they did, such was their awe of the clergy (cf. Taylor 1995: 145ff.).

To respect a priest was to be afraid of him. In this context, a priest's chastity was seen by many as an indication of his superior status, as if by renouncing sexuality some kind of supernatural nature could be proved. In any case, the priest's image as an all-powerful, fearsome, and mysterious character is seen as belonging to the past. Recent discoveries of priests' sexual abuses and affairs have certainly contributed to their discredit.3 Everybody accepts that today people are too educated, too clever to believe everything they are told. They have knowledge, they are more ‘civilized’, they are more affluent. The more money they have, the less religious they are – thus linking their parents' poverty with their extreme religious zeal – and so they are more selfish and pleasure-seeking. The fears of earlier times have disappeared and along with them the kind of moral certainty and security they seemed to imply. No one actually wishes to turn the clock back, but people's depictions of the situation today are by no means devoid of nostalgia.

‘We didn't know nothing at all’, a woman commented to me, referring to her childhood,

and it was much better, you know, because now they [children] know everything and they want to try everything ... Now children are very bold, even my own. I admit that. They know too much. There is no respect and no manners. Now they even answer back to a priest! No way we would have done that ourselves; because we were afraid, and we were as better off. Now children know too much, I always say that. I've heard that a girl of 14 bore a child in the school, and her parents didn't even know that she was pregnant.

For this woman, the sexual ignorance of the older generation and the sexual precociousness of the younger generation form a single semantic configuration in which one element cannot be understood apart from the other. As I will argue, the irony here is that both ignorance and (surplus) knowledge about sex are thought to lead to the same result: unwanted pregnancies.

According to documentary evidence, the number of non-marital births in Ireland has historically been low. But things have changed: fertility outside marriage has risen from a moderate 5 per cent in 1980 to 32 per cent in the year 2000, slightly higher than the European average (Fahey & Russell 2001: x). This relatively rapid and rather remarkable increase in non-marital births figures prominently in people's descriptions of the current situation. My informants often emphasized priests' severe attitude to illegitimate births in bygone times. A farmer told me the following story. Years ago, a man was accused of getting a young unmarried girl pregnant. He was the son of one of the wealthiest farming families of the neighbourhood, whereas the girl came from a modest family of small landowners. There was a trial but nothing could be proved. Nevertheless, the parish priest, who was said to possess some sort of supernatural curative powers, publicized the affair. The man married another woman some years afterwards but he could never bring her to his house while his parents were alive because of their strong opposition to the marriage. Once they were dead the wife finally went to live with her husband, but he died soon afterwards, leaving a widow and two children. Nobody could affirm that the priest's mysterious powers lay behind this ill-fated story, but some definitely envisage some sort of connection.

So it was in the old times. But today it is different. A man admitted somewhat apologetically that today priests take no notice of unmarried mothers: they wouldn't be able to count them! But in the local worldview this does not make unmarried mothers any more legitimate. The schoolgirl got pregnant because she had ‘too much knowledge’ and too little sense of responsibility. In moral terms, knowledge and responsibility seem to be directly correlated, that is, responsibility appears as the desired ideal consequence of increased knowledge, in such a way that the lack of this desired ideal consequence turns the increased knowledge into ‘surplus’ knowledge, and thus becomes morally abhorrent. In the past a certain level of sexual laxity could be somehow condoned due to the generalized ignorance about sexual matters so characteristic of former generations.4 Only the priests, with their idiosyncratic severity, were an exception – a necessary exception, some might add – to this moderately compassionate attitude. But things have changed: everybody agrees that the Church has now lost much of its power, as people have lost much of their ignorance. Modern views on illegitimacy contain an implicit discourse on sexuality that links it with very basic definitions of the self as a knowledgeable agent and a responsible subject.

I shall deal with the relevance of modern conceptions of the self in the field of sexual morality in a while. But now I wish to bring in one last story. Shortly before the end of my first period of fieldwork in the summer of 1991, an unmarried 22-year-old girl who had been studying in England returned to the village with a baby. It was a great shock to her mother, who had a son about to be ordained and who was said to be a very holy woman. But then she accepted it, and she agreed to take care of the baby while her daughter went to Limerick to finish her degree. Neighbours pitied the girl for her distressing situation and her uncertain future. ‘She is only 22 and she will be stuck with the baby being so young’, a woman observed. Nobody could understand how it had happened to her, a girl ‘as educated’ as she was, said another on her way to pay a visit to the unwed mother. ‘You have to think of the day after and not only the night’, she asserted rather seriously. ‘That would have never happened in my family, if any of us had come home with a baby she would have been thrown out!’ Interestingly, the same woman told me some time afterwards that one of her sisters bore a child only three months after her marriage. She was recalling the fact in a joking mood that contrasted with the sadness and severity with which she had judged the previous event. But this time it was different: the pregnant woman married before giving birth. The funny thing was the advanced state of her pregnancy at the time of the wedding.

Unwanted pregnancies and fertility control: public symbols for private worlds

Quite paradoxically, lack of knowledge accounts for unwanted pregnancies of the past in the same way as too much knowledge (too much education) is the cause of the exorbitant number of unmarried mothers in the present. What has turned the knowledge differential of the present into surplus knowledge is the fact that it has not been matched by a corresponding degree of individual responsibility. In sexual matters, individual responsibility, which, it should be stressed, appears as a prominent characteristic of modern times, is culturally constructed by relating sexual conduct to the discourses of marriage and fertility. As I will try to show, insofar as discourses on marriage and fertility constitute the cultural symbols in terms of which an individual subject can be identified as a sexually responsible person, they can both be seen as idiosyncratic languages that make sexual behaviour apparent by defining a particular sexual norm. Stated otherwise, it is by talking about marriage, its meaning, its purpose, its moral value, and so on, and about marital fertility (specifically whether it should or it should not be kept under control), that sexual conducts are imaginable and, consequently, a particular view on sexual morality can take shape.

According to local ideology, marriage erases the immoral qualification of a previous sexual encounter. ‘Getting a girl in trouble is no longer a sin if you marry her’, a bachelor instructed me once while trying to illustrate the contrasting moralities between the old and new times. This does not seem to have been the Church's point of view. For, it is argued, the priests would consider as sinful any sexual activity involving two unmarried people, no matter what happened afterwards. And, as a result of the Church's power, my informants have no doubt that this is also how it would have been seen by the priest-ridden and brainwashed members of previous generations. But now people are more civilized, they add in a conciliatory mood, and they would condone the visible sexual incontinence of pregnant single women so long as they marry (see Salazar 1999; Silverman 1989: 114). Thanks to this moralizing capacity of marriage, a pregnant woman who marries removes the indecency of her sexual conduct by counteracting her ‘excess’ of sexual knowledge with a paramount act of moral responsibility: marriage – which prevents that differential knowledge from becoming ‘surplus’ knowledge.5

Marriage is a fundamental watershed in a person's life, marking the entrance into adulthood. Moral credentials accrue to married men and women, who are held to be responsible subjects. Bachelors, in contrast, despite their relative abundance, are pitied for being alone but censured as well for their allegedly irresponsible behaviour: they have a good time while they are young and then when they want to marry it is too late (cf. Curtin & Varley 1987). When asked about the pros and cons of non-marital unions, a middle-aged married woman expressed her support by arguing that ‘you can see how it works and then if you don't like it you just leave it’. She recognized that the Church would not approve of it –‘they say it is a sin’– but her attitude, always respectful and uncritical concerning religious matters, did not seem to involve a blind acceptance of the Church's prescriptions. Her support of a consensual union as a kind of trial marriage, however, is very far from a libertine posture as regards premarital sex, and it should be interpreted in connection with her firm rejection of the possibility of divorce (at the time of my fieldwork still unauthorized in the Irish Republic). It is important to note that rejection of divorce is very widespread among the rural population of the west of Ireland, especially among women, both young and old (see Coulter 1997). Thus my informant's positive views on consensual unions clearly resulted from her understanding of such a practice as a sort of antidote against marriage-breaking. A broken marriage was seen as a consequence of the spouses' lack of responsibility, all the more so if they had children; but in any case separation always appeared as morally abhorrent and the spouses were the only ones to blame.

The contrast between past and present again provides an appropriate framework to interpret local views on marriage as a supreme moral and moralizing act. Matchmaking practices were the prominent characteristics of marriage in bygone times (see Connell 1962). Now they are firmly condemned as backward, oppressive, and narrow-minded. Everybody agrees that parents should not have a say in their children's marriages; it is a matter solely for the young. Interestingly, however, this does not mean that marriage is seen as a bond exclusively linking two isolated individuals. ‘You marry a family, not just a woman’, a married man informed me. He was talking about a previous relationship he had had with a girl he was very much in love with. But eventually he broke it off because he felt he was not accepted by her family. People like to think of their marriage decisions as depending exclusively on their own free will. But the moral appraisal that those decisions will deserve seems to be contingent to a great extent upon family acquiescence. Thus, a young married woman had no doubts when in an informal conversation I asked her why she married her husband: ‘because they liked him at home’. Again, what needs to be stressed here is that the moral aspect of marriage is closely associated with modern notions about the self as a knowledgeable and responsible subject.

As has already been shown, sexuality outside marriage is not necessarily disapproved of and may even be advisable insofar as it may help in the building of a stable marital relationship afterwards. We will see later, however, that the moral evaluation of premarital sexual activity is slightly more complex than that. In any case, when these sexual contacts lead to an undesired pregnancy they definitely spur severe moral criticism, especially of the woman, because it shows that her conspicuous sexual knowledge surpasses her sense of responsibility. A subsequent marriage, if it takes place before the birth, can expunge the immorality of the premarital pregnancy, thanks to the moralizing capacity of the marriage act.

Does this mean that sexual activity within marriage lacks any moral constraints? Not at all. Here we come across the second cultural discourse that intervenes in the definition of a sexually responsible person: fertility or, rather, fertility control. High marital fertility is a well-known feature of traditional Irish demographic patterns. The decline of the birth rate in the last twenty years is taken as a clear indication of the modernization of Irish society as a whole. In 1955, 31 per cent of all births were fifth births compared with only 5 per cent in 1998; in 1962, there were 2,000 births to mothers with ten children and over, compared with 55 such births in 1998 (Kennedy 2001: 30; see also Fahey & Russell 2001: 30-2). Once again, people seem to be very much aware of this reduction in family size, and considerable moral and social significance is accorded to it. As I did for non-marital births, I shall now explore a little of the cultural context that surrounds the decline in fertility.

Until recently, in rural Ireland a very positive value was placed on having many children, viewed not only as an economic asset but also as a source of pleasure and status for both parents. And yet most of my younger informants invariably identified large families as a typical characteristic of bygone times. Thus, as with sexual repression, high marital fertility is associated with the ignorance and backwardness of the previous generations. On the one hand, I was told that families were very large in the past because people were ignorant of contraceptive methods. But, perhaps more significantly, they say that it was not only ignorance that prevented people from planning their families but also their blind obedience to the dictates of the clergy. As is widely known, one of the most prominent aspects of the Catholic Church's sexual doctrine is its opposition to contraception. The unavailability of contraceptive methods is thus seen as a result of both the Church's stern prohibition and the people's lack of knowledge. Several people reported that a priest could very well ask in confession how many children a couple had and for how long they had been married, so that a discrepancy between the number of children born and the years of married life would be harshly interpreted as a sign that some sort of contraception had been, or was being, practised. ‘They say you cannot have Holy Communion if you practise contraception, perhaps you cannot even go to church’, a woman told me while referring to the Church's bygone morality. ‘But all this is dying out’, she rushed to add (see also Sweetman 1979: 119-20). It was not only the priests who had this negative view of contraception; contraceptive methods could be obtained with a doctor's prescription, but prescriptions were only issued when pregnancy could seriously jeopardize the mother's health.6 A mother of twelve children was unable to obtain the contraceptives prescribed by her doctor, one of her daughters told me, because the doctor was an old man, the old-fashioned type, she explained. He continued to say that she was a healthy woman and could bear children with no problem.

There is one further explanation for large families, which points even more directly to people's understanding of sexuality. As Sicilians told the Schneiders, ‘sexual embrace is the festival of the poor’ (Schneider & Schneider 1984: 263). My informants understand that lack of education and backwardness, as the main reasons for large families, lie at the root of the sexual incontinency characteristic of former generations. They say that in the past people had so many children because they knew nothing of contraception; they were utterly dominated by priests and the Church and, on top of that, as a man said to me while talking about the obsolete attitudes of the old people, ‘they had no amusement other than sex at that time’. The conceptual opposition pleasure/responsibility now seems to be coterminous with that between past and present. Sexuality in the past, apart from being severely repressed, is seen very much as uncontrolled or boundless. In this context, people are now convinced that repression is what prevented their acquisition of the sexual knowledge necessary to become sexually responsible subjects and, as a result, the blind search for pleasure was the only force that informed their sexual behaviour. The way to reduce the dreadful effects of an entirely unbridled sexual activity was, alas, to increase repression. They think that modernity has enabled them to escape from this deplorable vicious circle. Now everybody agrees that sexual repression, especially that exerted by the Church authorities, has been substantially reduced and has made way for sexual knowledge. The clearest consequence of this appears to be the reduction of marital fertility.7 But notice that, as we saw earlier for premarital sex, the modern sexual morality that can be envisaged behind people's views on fertility is somewhat more nuanced than the mere opposition between sexual repression and sexual freedom.

Sexual morality and disciplinary systems

The cultural discourses that make sexuality visible by defining a particular sexual norm are the discourses of marriage and fertility. Marriage defines the socially sanctioned way of having sex, while marital fertility signifies the proper way of having sex within marriage. The discourses and ideologies of marriage and fertility are in this sense abductions of sexual acts. The interesting thing is that these signifiers can be used in different historical contexts to produce different meanings, specifically, different moral assessments. Sex outside marriage is evaluated differently ‘in the past’ and ‘in the present’, and the same applies to marital fertility.

Modern ideology that informs current sexual morality draws heavily on notions regarding individual sovereignty and responsibility. However, the apparently abstract character of these concepts should be qualified by their incorporation into local narratives that construct them in historical terms. Thus, they become the final stage of an evolutionary process that sets modern values against the bygone morality of the past. In what follows I would like to think about this transition towards modern conceptions of sexuality in more theoretical terms. Through the analysis of the idioms of marriage and fertility we have had a glimpse of a significant change in sexual mores, a change that divided the history of Irish sexuality into two fundamental periods. But what exactly do we mean when we talk about a change from ‘a past’ dominated by the Catholic Church towards ‘a present’ in which that dominance seems to be on the wane? My point is that this history of sexuality contains a change of disciplinary regime. A brief ethnographic snapshot will serve us as an introduction.

On one occasion, when I was sitting in a van with a middle-aged couple, we saw a group of youngsters coming out of the local disco. It was in the early hours of the morning and the disco had just closed. There was plenty of joking and laughing as they walked towards one of the bridges in the village. ‘There is going to be fun down the bridge tonight’, one of my friends remarked. It was obvious from their comments that those teenagers were going to have sex under that bridge. Needless to say, I did not go to check the veracity of my friends' suspicions. But I was naïvely surprised by the amused and humorous tone in which they made their observations. They did not seem to have any doubt as to the teenagers' intentions, and none of them seemed to place any importance on it.

I was surprised – somewhat ingenuously, I admit – because on another occasion these same people had lectured me on how important it is for young unmarried women not to let any man ‘walk on them’. They insisted on the crucial meaning of virginity for any single woman who wants to establish honest and respectable relationships. You have to keep sex out of your mind if you want an Irish girlfriend, they repeated to me several times. Apparently, these rigid standards of sexual morality did not apply to teenagers going to discos. I do not take my friends to be moral hypocrites, but at the same time their attitude seemed to be, at first sight, hopelessly contradictory. Yet, as I will try to show, it was perfectly coherent.

In rural Ireland, discos and dancehalls are the customary places where single people meet and have a good time. The difference between the two has to do with the average age of the customers. Whereas it is understood that discos are essentially for teenagers, dancehalls draw mainly adults from 20 or 21 onwards. At the same time, these age differences are directly related to the sort of relationships one is supposed to engage in while there. You go to a disco ‘to have fun’, ‘for the crack [a high-time]’, to enjoy yourself with your friends, and sex seems to be part of this enjoyment. This is what teenagers do. It is different in dancehalls. As Bourdieu (2002: 229) observed among the Béarnais, dancing is here the visible form of the new logic of the marriage market. In a dancehall the main objective appears to be to find a boyfriend or girlfriend, that is, to meet someone with whom you may have a long, stable relationship that normally leads to marriage. Sexual contacts would be improper in this context. Obviously, this distinction is far from rigid, but I could not fail to notice the divergent attitudes that prevail in one place or the other. Now the question is: on what grounds is the relatively free sexual activity enjoyed by youngsters in discos restricted and frowned upon as regards adults in dancehalls? Do these Irish teenagers enjoy a period of sexual licence similar to that reported by Malinowski for adolescent Trobrianders?

It all makes a bit more sense if we pay attention to the characteristics of the new disciplinary regime that prevails in rural Ireland now that the Catholic Church has lost its moral monopoly. I am certainly not trying to infer any deep ethnographic interpretation from what appears to be a rather shallow fieldwork anecdote; I merely want to use it as a springboard to introduce a brief conceptual excursus. In the history of sexuality in rural Ireland here depicted, we can see a transition from a sexual morality centred on the discipline of the body – which was essentially a female body8– to a sexual morality centred on the discipline of the self as a knowledgeable and responsible subject. Traditional Catholic sexual morality has very little concern with the vicissitudes of the faithful self in its modern meaning. Quite the contrary: ‘Christianity substituted the idea of a self which one had to renounce because clinging to the self was opposed to God's will for the idea of a self which had to be created as a work of art’ (Foucault 1983: 245). In fact, what traditional Catholicism required from its believers was the surrender of their bodies to the Church's dictates. This is why I define this moral regime as ‘obedience-sexuality’. To engage in moral, sexual behaviour simply meant to obey the Church. But with the demise of Catholic morality an entirely different situation has arisen. It is no longer the body that is the object of the new disciplinary regime but the self, and it is not merely obedience that is required from the self but knowledge and responsibility. Thus sexual conduct will be morally evaluated according to the ‘knowledge’ attributed to the subject. ‘One could not form oneself as an ethical subject in the use of pleasures without forming oneself at the same time as a subject of knowledge’ (Foucault 1985: 86). I call this new disciplinary regime ‘knowledge-sexuality’.

I shall elaborate on this claim by going back to the cultural idioms that, as we saw, make sexual morality explicit: marriage and fertility. In the system of obedience-sexuality, morally irregular sexual behaviour is simply ‘disobedient’ behaviour. This is epitomized in single mothers and small families. People who practise contraception and thus have few children, or unmarried women who have sex and get pregnant, are merely not doing what the Church says; they are ‘immoral’ because they are disobedient. In the system of knowledge-sexuality, in contrast, morally irregular sexual behaviour is explained either in terms of ‘ignorance’ or in terms of ‘irresponsibility’.9 Single mothers and large families from the past are a clear instance of this ‘ignorance’. In the past, following this knowledge-sexuality system, people had so many children because they were simply ignorant and blindly obeyed the dogmas of the Church. Similarly, this same ignorance also accounts for the existence of single mothers in the past. They had no knowledge of their own bodies, of their sexuality, of contraception, so they got pregnant without actually knowing what they were doing. That was the ignorance of past times.10

But this has changed now. A small family is no longer seen as indicative of morally irregular behaviour but, quite the contrary, it is the result of sexually responsible behaviour. Conversely, it is a large family that is defined nowadays as ‘irregular’, not so much because of ignorance but because of irresponsibility, since today people are no longer ‘ignorant’. The same applies to single mothers: they are no longer ignorant; they cannot be – remember the case of the ‘educated’ 22-year-old girl. They are simply irresponsible. This is how a regime of knowledge-sexuality categorizes current sexual behaviour that is morally irregular. But there is an exception to it; not all single mothers can be or should be as knowledgeable as that girl.

An adult woman with irregular sexual behaviour will never be classed as ‘knowing too much’ since adults are supposed to be knowledgeable, but in the case of teenagers the judgement can be more qualified. A pregnant, unmarried girl under 20, for instance, can be accused of either ‘knowing too much’ or ‘knowing too little’. In the first case, she will partake of the pejorative meanings associated with the adult woman but not for being irresponsible, since teenagers are not supposed to be responsible subjects (in the same way as adults are not supposed to be ignorant any more), but for being too knowledgeable. In the second case, in contrast, she will partake of the compassionate meanings associated with single mothers from the past and she will be seen as ‘ignorant’. A teenager can never be accused of being irresponsible –‘they're only kids’– but conversely they can be accused of either knowing too much or knowing too little, precisely for the same reason –‘they're only kids’.

As we saw earlier, in a knowledge-sexuality regime, irregular sexual behaviour originates in an imbalance between knowledge and responsibility, but the same imbalance is described from a different perspective according to whether it applies to teenagers or to adults. When knowledge and responsibility do not match in the case of adults, it is a problem of lack of responsibility; when they do not match in the case of teenagers, it can be a problem of excess of knowledge or, somewhat paradoxically, lack of knowledge. In the first case, the judgement will be harsh and severe, since teenagers are in the same cognitive and moral situation as current adults, that is, their knowledge goes beyond their responsibility. In the second case, in contrast, the judgement will be much more lenient precisely because they will be allocated to the same moral category as ignorant adults from the past. That would explain why my friends held those seemingly contradictory attitudes as regards young adults' and teenagers' hypothetical sexual relationships (especially those of women), that is, dancehall and disco-goers. In a dancehall one encounters only responsible adults, their sexual behaviour being, consequently, more strictly scrutinized since they are no longer ‘ignorant’. In a disco, in contrast, one finds only immature youngsters who hardly know what they are up to.11

I am certainly not saying that there is a generalized acceptance, much less encouragement, of youngsters' sexual activity. My contention is that in a disciplinary regime of knowledge-sexuality, sexually active adolescents are likely to be judged in much the same way as single mothers in the past: they all deserve the same kind of compassionate reprimand, they are all ignorant. But how can we know whether teenagers' irregular sexual behaviour will be seen as resulting from ignorance or from surplus knowledge? We cannot. The actual sense of the final judgement will be situationally determined according to the specific circumstances and characteristics of each particular case. My cultural analysis can only go as far as identifying the specific meaning of a particular course of action, but I cannot predict this course of action. In fact, I cannot even predict the actual moral sense that this particular course of action might take in each case – in a Kantian-Weberian fashion, it could be argued that moral judgements can never be induced or derived from facts. At any rate, this is the specific meaning provided by the disciplinary regimes I have analysed. The aim of this ethnographic investigation is not so much to slot adolescents' sexual behaviour into one or the other category, but rather to highlight the difference between those two disciplinary regimes that appear in the history of Irish sexuality and the way in which sexual behaviour acquires its meaning in each case.12

The actual conducts that can be understood as resulting from any of those disciplinary regimes might not be all that different, and the moral evaluation that these conducts deserve might also be the same. Take the case of single mothers: the same type of behaviour is considered morally irregular in both disciplinary regimes, but for different reasons. In other words, the history of people's actual conduct, as shaped by different forms of coercive instances, is not coterminous with the history of its meaning. Here we are not so much interested in what women may actually be doing in their sexual lives, or in whether it is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but in the reasons that account for it. In other words, we want to know what it means to be doing whatever they do. But some readers may argue that, even though we might not be interested in women's actual behaviour, there are some facts that can hardly be ignored. For instance, there is a higher percentage of non-marital pregnancies in the regime of knowledge-sexuality than in the other disciplinary regime; there is also a lower marital fertility rate in knowledge-sexuality than in obedience-sexuality. Can we explain these demographic facts by reference to this change of disciplinary regime?

The desacralization of sexual mores

When a priest denounced the existence of a non-marital pregnancy in the parish, or reprimanded a married man or woman for not having enough children, he was not interested in the problems that a young woman might have in rearing a child on her own, or in raising the population's birth rate; it was their respective sexual habits, imagined sexual habits, that he was concerned with.13 What is the situation in the new disciplinary system of knowledge-sexuality? Unmarried pregnant women can beequally reprimanded now, not for having had sex, but for having had it in the ‘wrong way’. And the same applies to large families.14 They also highlight and symbolize the existence of an irregular sexual activity. In this particular case, economic arguments might be utilized to reinforce their stigmatization; as a man said to me once, ‘nowadays a man with a lot of children is either very rich or very poor’. But my point is that implicit in that economic rationality argument is the idea that a ‘proper’ sexual conduct is missing. We can apply the economic rationality entailed in having a small family precisely because we know, as we all should in a regime of knowledge-sexuality, how sexual activity should be carried out. Stated otherwise, by means of the patent economic irrationality of a large family, we can imagine a latent and irregular sexual conduct. Yes, we can only imagine it, we will never see it, any more than priests of an earlier age could see the sexual misconduct that worried them so much (cf. Friedl 1994). In sexual behaviour there is a discontinuity between the sexual norm – a cultural structure – and the sexual act, a historical event, much more salient, I believe, than in any other kind of human behaviour.

Having said that, nothing prevents us from informed speculation concerning the relationship between observable demographic effects and the prevalence of particular cultural configurations. The intimate association between religious morality and the regulation of sexual conduct, in Christianity and in other religions, can be explained in functional terms. Owing to the critical importance that sexual behaviour has for the reproduction of the society, and taking into consideration that religion is, in the main, concerned with the protection of ultimate social values, it is understandable that the regulation of sexual conduct should be endowed with paramount moral significance, which, in most human societies, involves an explicit religious significance. Now, whatever explanation we choose to account for the process of secularization that has affected Western culture since the eighteenth century, there is no doubt that this process is responsible for the loss of the Catholic Church's moral monopoly in the regulation of sex, in Ireland and elsewhere. This is what I have defined in this article as the transition from obedience-sexuality to knowledge-sexuality. It is clear from this that sex has not gone unregulated as a result of the demise of Catholic sexual morality. But the new regulation enforced by the disciplinary regime of knowledge-sexuality has some remarkable characteristics which make it very different indeed from the former regime.

Strictly speaking, only obedience-sexuality was a moral system in that it contained a set of principles easily apprehensible through indoctrination. No special training and, more importantly perhaps, no special experience or maturity was required to understand Catholic sexual morality and to behave accordingly. In fact, this equally applies to any system of moral principles. It might be difficult to explain why the good is good and the evil is evil but it is much less difficult to actually apply this distinction to discriminate between types of conduct. But the situation is entirely different in the system of knowledge-sexuality. Knowledge can only be apprehended through a process which is likely to be relatively long and painstaking – that is what the difference between indoctrination and education is all about – especially, it could be added, when it is knowledge of such a subtle, complex, and elusive subject as sexual desire, feelings, attitudes, relationships, and so on. In other words, it is likely to be a process much longer than the sexual physical maturation of the human individual. Thus, while married adult people, we can surmise, may be able to acquire and apply this knowledge to control their fertility, it might be more difficult for adolescents to do likewise as regards the prevention of non-marital pregnancies.15


In this article I have attempted to analyse the character and the implications of a process of social and cultural change regarding sexual morality. This has not been done through archive research but by means of an ethnographic investigation into oral, historical narratives. In a way, therefore, it is the subjective awareness of social change that I have been looking at rather than some kind of historical objective process. My conclusion is that this process can be defined as a transition from a disciplinary regime centred on the body, which I call the regime of obedience-sexuality, to a disciplinary regime centred on the self, which I call the regime of knowledge-sexuality. I contrast the first regime, as being a normative model constituted by a set of moral behavioural principles, with the second regime, which I define as a cognitive model, made up of a particular kind of knowledge.

These disciplinary regimes are specific cultural configurations from which sexual conduct acquires its meaning. The relationship between a cultural model and historical conduct is an instance of the relationship between structure and event (Salazar 2003: 271-81). In other words, once we have identified the characteristics of a particular cultural model it is impossible to ascertain the behavioural consequences to be derived from it since these latter, as events, are always contingent. With this I wish to say that certain events in recent Irish demographic history, such as the increase in adolescent non-marital pregnancies and the decrease in marital fertility, can certainly be meaningfully related to those cultural models, but they cannot be seen as their effects in a causal sense. But precisely because there is a meaning-giving relationship between disciplinary regime and actual conduct, one can legitimately presume that one sort of behaviour is more likely to take place than another. It is in this sense, and only in this sense, that the above-mentioned demographic events can be linked with the disciplinary regimes I have identified.

Perhaps one further conclusion to be drawn from the previous analysis, a conclusion specifically related to the more adverse behavioural results that the regime of knowledge-sexuality seems to have produced – the increase in non-marital adolescent pregnancies – concerns the special characteristics of the knowledge that may be used to regulate one's individual sexual behaviour under this particular regime. I believe it is a complex blend of social, cultural, and experiential knowledge that can by no means be reduced to the biology of sexual reproduction, which is what very often goes under the label of ‘sexual education’– though not necessarily in the Irish case (see note 12). I am certainly not advocating for the return of the old regime of obedience-sexuality to prevent very patent sexual misconducts, in whatever way we wish to define them. I am only saying that the complexity of the notion of sexual knowledge, even making allowances for a non-biologistic understanding of sexuality, may explain why very often the more ‘sexually educated’ adolescents seem to be those more likely to commit sexual irregularities.


  • In parts of this article I have used ethnographic information from my book Anthropology and sexual morality: a theoretical investigation (Oxford: Berghahn, 2006). I am grateful to the publisher for permission to use this material. An earlier draft was presented in a seminar at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Maynooth in the Republic of Ireland. I wish to thank the organizers and participants for their constructive comments. I also thank three anonymous reviewers for helping me to clarify my ideas and N.M. Farré i Barril for her invaluable guidance and support. Last but not least, editorial comments by Simon Coleman are gratefully acknowledged.

  • 1

    This ideal-type distinction between a ‘normative’ and ‘cognitive’ model is rather abstract and perhaps a bit simplistic. Arguably, they do not stand for exclusive forms of morality, and all disciplinary systems are normative and cognitive to some degree. In this case, however, I believe it is a matter of relative stress upon either normative or cognitive factors, that is, the body/behavioural and cognitive/appreciative aspects of a given moral subject's actions.

  • 2

    Several well-known ethnographies of rural Ireland have endorsed this view. See, for instance, Arensberg & Kimball (2001 [1940; 1968]), Brody (1973), Leyton (1975), Messenger (1969; 1971), Scheper-Hughes (1983; 2001 [1977]), Stahl (1979). Cf. Hug (1999) and Inglis (1998a). I have explored the possible historical and structural origins of this distinctive moral ideology in Salazar (2006: 43-72) and in connection with Irish demographic patterns in Salazar (2003). Studies on traditional Irish sexual morality can be fruitfully compared with other European cases such as Sicily (Schneider 1971; Schneider & Schneider 1991), Andalusia (Collier 1997; Gilmore 1990), Portugal (O'Neill 1987; Pina-Cabral 1986; 2003), Greece (du Boulay 1974; Loizos & Papataxiarchis 1991). It should be noted that from this limited comparative perspective, restricted to the so-called ‘honour-and-shame’ cultures, the severity of Irish sexual mores turns out to be much less exceptional.

  • 3

    In one of my last visits to the community, in the summer of 2002, several people told me about the famous Channel 4 documentary Sex in a cold climate, which they had recently watched on Irish TV. This is a documentary on the experiences of unmarried mothers confined in the so-called Magdalene Asylums during the 1950s and 1960s, where they suffered from all kinds of abuses and maltreatments. It has also given rise to the film by Peter Mullan, The Magdalene sisters. The documentary is particularly explicit on the priests' sexual depravity. People's immediate reactions to it were invariably of extreme bitterness against the Church and the priests – stimulated, it seems to me, by the recurrent news concerning these latter's sexual scandals, which at that time appeared in the press practically every day.

  • 4

    In a renowned Irish memoir we read:
    No, I had to go and fall for a boozer with the charm, Peter Molloy, a champion pint drinker that had me up the pole and up the aisle when I was barely seventeen. I was ignorant, missus. We grew up ignorant in Limerick, so we did, knowing feck all about anything and, we're mothers before we're women (McCourt 1996: 69-70).

  • 5

    In their analysis of crisis pregnancy, Mahon, Conlon, and Dillon (1998: 23-4) found that in 1995 95 per cent of all births to women under 20 were non-marital births, whereas in 1957 the figure was only 26 per cent. But 27 per cent of the ‘legitimate’ births were born to women within zero to eight months of marriage. So the proportion of non-marital conceptions was 53 per cent: these were the so-called ‘shotgun’ weddings. ‘Thus the present increase in the proportion of single births’, the authors conclude, ‘is as much an indicator of a reluctance to marry at that age now as of premarital sex’.

  • 6

    A doctor in a working-class area of Dublin said to Sweetman: ‘I get hundreds of letters every year from women in rural Ireland asking for the Pill, saying their own doctors won't give it to them, and abuse them for it’ (Sweetman 1979: 137). Contraceptive devices remained virtually unobtainable in the Republic of Ireland until recently, with some women going as far as to visit the North in order to obtain contraception. Only in 1973 did the Supreme Court decide that married couples had a constitutional right of access to contraception. But under the relevant 1974 Act the purchase of contraceptives by an unmarried person was made an offence, even though the law was made unenforceable. Under the 1979 Act non-medical contraceptives, like condoms, could only be secured on prescription from a doctor. Not until 1984 did these become more freely available.

  • 7

    See the Schneiders's (1991) analysis of a Sicilian town for an interesting comparative reference.

  • 8

    I have put forward a possible explanation for this gender asymmetry, not directly (or necessarily) related to power imbalances between men and women, in Salazar (2006: 64-65; cf. Salazar 1998).

  • 9

    Disobedience, ignorance, irresponsibility: these are simply ‘experience-distant’ concepts (Geertz 1983: 57) that do not necessarily correspond to the terms used by informants. It is the meaning of certain attitudes that I am trying to make explicit with them, not the documentation of concrete linguistic usages.

  • 10

    This rather gloomy image of the past may not be historically accurate. But the correspondence between historical narratives and historical facts is always a moot point.

  • 11

    Significantly, there has been in the Republic of Ireland a noticeable increase in the number of pregnancies among unmarried teenagers over the last twenty to thirty years. This increase, according to the Dublin physician Dr Brennan, is due to the gap between ‘teenagers' knowledge of sexuality and the messages bombarding them from all sides to engage in sex’ (Sweetman 1979: 63). These observations were made in the mid-1970s, but data coming from later surveys are even more revealing. According to Tom Inglis, ‘While the number of births to women under twenty years has not changed significantly since 1972, the proportion of these which have occurred outside marriage has increased from three per cent in 1972 to 89 per cent in 1992’ (1998a: 11; see also Fahey & Russell 2001: 20; Mahon et al. 1998: 23-4). Nevertheless, it is interesting to point out that in the government's education campaign of the late 1980s and early 1990s to fight against the HIV threat it was still considered, according to one author, that young Irish people would not choose to have sex outside marriage (Smyth 1998: 670).

  • 12

    In 1997 the Irish Department of Education commenced the implementation of the Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) programme, the aim of which was to develop sexual education in national schools. As was to be expected, this project aroused all sorts of criticisms from the most conservative sectors of Irish society. Among these criticisms, I think it is worth quoting one particular commentator:
    The ideology at the root of RSE-1 is a closed individualism that places God at the outer fringe rather than the centre of life. The word ‘God’ doesn't appear once in RSE-1, but there's lots and lots of talk about ‘self’. ‘Self-esteem’ and ‘self-confidence’ are mentioned about thirty times, not to mention self-awareness and self-worth as well (cited by Inglis 1998a: 108).
    It couldn't be otherwise. As one of the participants in this programme, Irish sociologist Tom Inglis, admits: ‘Perhaps the most important aspect ... of the RSE programme for the teachers was that it concentrated on helping children and young people to develop a strong, independent sense of self which became the basis of forming good relationships’ (1998a: 136). I believe that this transition from obedience-sexuality to knowledge-sexuality, that is, from a disciplinary system centred on the body – again, mostly the female body – to a disciplinary system centred on the self, constitutes the major turning-point in the history of Irish sexuality, and probably of sexuality in other European countries.

  • 13

    ‘Rather than directly confront the social consequences attending extramarital sexual practice or sexual abuse, clerical witnesses focused their censure on visible manifestations of “sexual immorality” ’ (Smith 2004: 222).

  • 14

    ‘Sexual constraints have changed from being external under the supervision of priests and doctors, to more internalised forms of self-restraint. But internalised self-restraint may be more repressive than liberating’ (Inglis 1998b: 104).

  • 15

    The fact that ‘responsible adults’ in a knowledge-sexuality system have decided to reduce their marital fertility should also be related to an increased concern for individual development and a devaluation of family life in general.

Carles Salazar gained his Ph.D. degree at the University of Cambridge and is lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Lleida. His latest publications include Anthropology and sexual morality (Berghahn, 2006) and Kinship matters: European cultures of kinship in the age of biotechnology (Berghahn, 2008), edited with Jeanette Edwards.