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The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1

Michel Foucault

Part Two, Chapter 2

Part Two, Chapter 1

Part Three


Foucault brings up the possible objection that though there has been an increase in discourse on sex, this discourse has been directed at reducing non- reproductive sexual practices and rendering sex economically useful and politically conservative. Foucault replies that modern discourse has certainly not reduced the forms of non-reproductive sexual practices: on the contrary, this era has seen a multiplication of different kinds of sexual "perversion."

While discourse on sex had previously dealt solely with marriage—what one could and could not do within and without the bonds of marriage—discourse on sex came increasingly to focus on those who fell outside the category of marriage: children, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and so on. A distinction arose between violations of marriage bonds, which were seen as violations of the law, and violations of what was considered natural practice, which were seen as sick or demented.

Since the 18th century, there has been a concerted effort to distinguish and classify various non-marital sexual practices. The power exerted in making these distinctions, however, is not directed toward repressing these practices. Foucault identifies four operations involved in this exertion of power, all of which are directed more toward proliferating sexual "perversion."

First, Foucault identifies a very different motive than simple repression at work in the study of child sexuality. The scrutiny of children's sexuality effectively serves as a launching pad for a more general examination of sexuality. It alerts parents, teachers, and doctors to the dangers of child sexuality, and traces the origins of child sexuality in family relationships. What is made to seem like a boundary—excluding children from the realm of sexuality—is essentially a means to expand the study of sexuality to a number of different realms.

Second, Foucault sees the modern concept of homosexuality arising from a desire to see sexuality as a fundamental aspect of who we are. Before the 19th century, sodomy was simply regarded as a criminal act. Since the 19th century, sodomy has been regarded as just one manifestation of a person's homosexuality. "Homosexuality" ceased to be associated with certain acts, and became associated with a person's identity, with his soul. One's sexuality became a key to interpreting one's personality and one's behavior. Rather than work to eliminate homosexual acts, the growing discourse around homosexuality saw these acts as constitutive of a person's identity.

Third, Foucault sees the increased scrutiny on different forms of sexual behavior as part of what he calls "spirals of power and pleasure." The close scrutiny that accompanies the "medicalization of sexuality" draws observer and observed into intimate contact. On one hand, the observer exercises power in examining and drawing out his subject's sexual pleasures, and this exercise of power gives him a kind of pleasure. On the other hand, the observer's scrutiny isolates and highlights his subject's pleasures, thus encouraging them. Both observer and observed find power and pleasure intermingled in this intimate game of examination.

Fourth, Foucault notes that all this scrutiny has led sex to saturate society. All sorts of aspects of family life are now seen through the lens of sexuality. Rather than set up boundaries to contain sexuality, this scrutiny has made us see everything in terms of sex.

Foucault concludes, contrary to the repressive hypothesis, that this age has seen a greater proliferation of discourse on sexuality than any other. This has also led to a specification and proliferation of the very so-called perversities that the age purports to condemn.


The conclusions of this chapter are founded on the observation that, since the 18th century, greater attention has been paid to different forms of sexual "perversions" that took place outside the confines of marriage. This observation is relatively straightforward, but the conclusions Foucault draws are not.

For Foucault, power, discourse, and knowledge are linked. Knowledge is never a neutral accumulation of facts. There is always a "will to knowledge," a drive to gain knowledge of certain things, and to gain it in a particular way. The more we know about something, the more power we have over it. Further, in coming to know new things, we make use of what we already know, and so learning is also an exercise of power. For instance, in scrutinizing and classifying different forms of sexual perversion, we are using our powers of analysis while also gaining new knowledge, and hence new power. Discourse works its way in here as well, since what we know of something, and how we know it, is directly related to how we can talk about it.

What Foucault sees in the scrutiny placed on sexual "perversions" is a particularly intense will to knowledge. This scrutiny leads to detailed study and careful classification. We come to know, in clinical detail, the different ways in which different people find sexual pleasure. Suddenly it matters a great deal exactly how different sexualities manifest themselves. For instance, we have learned to distinguish between "transsexual," "transvestite," and "transgendered" identities, where earlier generations would have lumped them all together.

The example of the concept of "homosexuality" shows us how the depth of discourse on sexuality has increased over time. One's sexual proclivities were once just a fact about oneself, like any other. Now they are the key to unlocking one's character. Earlier generations might have thought of sexual habits the way they thought of eating habits: no one would have thought to classify a person according to what they eat. Even today, when we have categories such as "vegetarian" or "vegan," we don't try to understand a person's entire character based on his or her dietary preferences. And yet, we think the tone of voice, the taste in music, or the political affiliation of a person can all be explained by reference to that person's "homosexuality."

Foucault connects this deepening of discourse directly to the exercise of power. In it, there is not simply a drive to know more about sexuality; there also is a drive to create sexuality, to discover it in places that it was not previously thought to exist. The scrutiny that has been placed on non-marital sexual practices has not simply discovered a whole array of different habits. To a large extent, it has been responsible for creating them and multiplying them.

Foucault is claiming that observation is not a neutral act. That is, the object of study—in this case, perverse sexuality—is not an objective and immovable thing that will not change under scrutiny. The intense scrutiny on our sources of sexual pleasure gives us a new awareness of those pleasures, an awareness that is largely shaped in response to that scrutiny. A person's sources of sexual pleasure become secrets that a careful observer must discover. The person thus becomes more aware of these pleasures, and comes to value them more. This heightened awareness and sense of value leads him to discover sexual pleasure where before he might not have noticed it, just like a person who is told that slight stomach cramps are the first sign of terminal cancer might develop an acute sensitivity toward her stomach.

A person's sexual pleasures are closely linked to the power being exercised to draw these pleasures into focus. The more we scrutinize, the more there is to find. Foucault describes this relationship between pleasure and power as a spiral: they pursue one another in a circular pattern, power seeking pleasure and pleasure drawn to power. The powers of analysis we have directed toward perverse sexuality have not acted to repress it but to help it flourish.

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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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