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The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1

Michel Foucault

Part Two, Chapter 1

Part One

Part Two, Chapter 2


Foucault agrees that, starting with the rise of the bourgeoisie in the 17th century, tighter controls were placed on discourse about sex, and on discourse about this discourse. There was an effort to control sex at the level of speech. On the other hand, though, this effort to control sex also intensified the discourse on sex.

Confessing sexual misconduct had long been an important part of religious confession, and while the Christian pastoral of the 17th century led these confessions to be less explicit, the range of confession became much wider. People no longer confessed only sexual deeds, but were also expected to confess desires, thoughts, dreams—the slightest inclination toward sex. People were made to be constantly aware of their sexuality and to talk about it in all its aspects. There was an effort to transform sexual desire into discourse. Foucault identifies this aspect of the Christian pastoral with the scandalous literature of later centuries that describes sex in exacting detail.

Around this time, however, discourse on sex was also extended far beyond the realm of the religious confession. First, it became a matter of public interest: sex became something to be studied rationally, to be analyzed and classified and understood as a statistical phenomenon. In the 18th century, people began to study demographics as a means of regulating the population. The sex lives of citizens became an important object of public scrutiny, as statistics regarding birth rates, fertility rates, illegitimate births, and so on became important for public use.

A second instance of the widening discourse on sex appears with regard to children's sexuality. Foucault takes as an example the secondary schools of the 18th century, which were designed and regulated with a constant regard to preventing sexual contact between students: boys and girls were separated, and strict curfews were enforced. In a wider context, children's sexuality became the subject of a great deal of public interest. Even children themselves were taught to speak about sex in a way that would show they had a proper, non- perverse understanding of sex.

Though frank and jovial discussion of the sex lives of youths was no longer acceptable, Foucault sees this silencing as a necessary aspect of the way discourse about children and sex was changing. This crude and course discourse was replaced with a number of complex discourses that employed technical language and expertise that placed a stronger control on their subject matter.

Foucault identifies other centers of discourse in medicine, psychiatry, and criminal justice. Laws prohibiting certain kinds of sex became tighter, studies of sex became more frequent, and the general awareness of sexuality was heightened leading to even more talk about sex. Foucault cites an example of a simple-minded villager who paid young girls for sexual favors being arrested, and passed through the law courts and subjected to numerous psychological studies. An activity that once would have been overlooked was now being written about copiously: more and more, sexual matters were being put into discourse. Whereas in the Middle Ages, discourse on sex was confined to the realm of confession and Christian morality, the 18th century saw a flowering of many different kinds of secular discourse.

Foucault offers a possible objection to his analysis: couldn't we say that this explosion of discourses on sex reflects the fact that sex is a matter of secrecy, to be kept under wraps? Foucault replies that this notion of secrecy is itself a part of the discourse on sex: our talking about it as if it were a secret, as something hidden, is what drives us to uncover it, to learn about it.


If we recall, the repressive hypothesis states that the relationship between power and sex is one of repression: power is exercised to keep sex under wraps, not spoken about, and not thought about. In this chapter, Foucault tries to convince us of the contrary: power has been exercised to bring sex increasingly into discourse, into wider and more analytic focus.

Foucault does not deny some of the basic facts that inspire the repressive hypothesis. He agrees that there has been a stronger effort to control sex and that sex has become increasingly something to be ashamed of. He identifies a free and easy attitude toward sex in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, where there was less shame in thinking of sex as an object of pleasure. He also agrees that this free and easy attitude was suppressed, and that it was a result of the controlling power of the rising bourgeoisie.

Where Foucault disagrees with the repressive hypothesis is regarding how and why this open sexuality was suppressed. The repressive hypothesis sees only the silencing of an earlier form of discourse. Foucault sees this silencing as being a necessary result of a growing "will to knowledge" regarding sex. That is, as it has become more important to know about sex, the ways we can speak about sex have become more tightly controlled.

Foucault's main argument in this chapter is that instead of being prohibited, talk about sex has only increased since the 17th century. However, Foucault also shows that the way people talk about sex has also changed. The raucous humor and the explicit confessions of the renaissance have next to nothing in common with the analytical studies and the controlled awareness of the 18th century and later. The word "sex" has taken on an entirely different meaning in the past three centuries.

This change in meaning is a direct result in the changing relationship between power and sex. In the past three centuries, sex has become more and more an object of knowledge. As such, it has been subjected to the kind of disinterested scrutiny used in the sciences. Sex ceases to be something we can laugh about and pursue with reckless passion and becomes something we must approach with calm and control. It ceases to be the domain of the simple-minded and the passionate, and becomes the domain of the social scientist and jurist.

The suggestion, then, is that the crude and coarse discourse on sex has not been prohibited because it is wrong, but because it must make way for a new form of discourse. As sex becomes increasingly an object of knowledge, the people who control this knowledge become increasingly important. The people who exercise this control are generally those who are tied to the governing institutions of society. For instance, Foucault shows how sex became an important object of study because governments became increasingly interested in the vital statistics of their populations.

Foucault's example of the villager who paid young girls for sexual favors is an excellent example of this point. The villager's form of discourse, his commerce with young girls, was seen as contemptible, but it was not simply silenced. Rather, it was replaced with a technical discourse, where he was studied, examined, and analyzed, so that his behavior could be understood and classified. It would seem, then, that the authorities were primarily interested in controlling the discourse itself. It was not that such sexual acts were not to be talked about—it was that they were only to be talked about in a certain, sanctioned manner.

Another point Foucault emphasizes in this chapter is the multiplicity of discourses on sex. There are demographic studies, medical studies, psychiatric studies, criminal codes, school codes, and so on. These different discourses arose for different reasons, so it would be difficult to assign them all to a single "cause." The repressive hypothesis wants to associate the change in discourse regarding sex with the rising bourgeoisie's need to increase productivity, but the multiplicity of discourses contradicts this aspect of that hypothesis. There is no neat causal explanation that can place this change in discourse within a wider historical context. The will to knowledge that drives the rationalization of sex cannot be reduced to economic causes.

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The Repressive Hypothesis

by anon_2223156517, March 05, 2015

I have to say after reading Folcot and what he is referring to brought back memories to my childhood. When I was born it was in the mid 70's Vietnam was ending , protests were raging, drug use on the rise, and along with that came prostitution and exploitation.
President Nixon issued a speech with the famous quote "War on Drugs" and Nancy Reagan moved forward with a huge campaign for prohibition against drugs,sex, and Rock N Roll.
I was raised by a fairly young mother of 19 and a father 24 both born in the 50's and definitely had... Read more

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