Skip over navigation

The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1

Michel Foucault

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Analytical Overview

Quiz

What is the "repressive hypothesis"? What sort of reading does it give to history? What are the biases inherent in that reading?

The "repressive hypothesis" states that the relationship between power and sex has been expressed for the past three hundred years as repression. That is, sex has been treated as something unwanted, something not to be spoken about, not to be enjoyed, something that does not exist. It associates this repression with the rise of the bourgeoisie, who saw sex as a waste of precious energy that should be expended more productively. The repressive hypothesis concludes that we must liberate ourselves from this repression by being more open about sex, by speaking about it, doing it, and enjoying it. This reading espouses a Marxist view of class repression. It also bears a rather simple reading of history that places sexual liberation in a position of political significance. More problematically, it conducts a reading of history that sees power as solely repressive, and sees the call for sexual "liberation" as being outside the confines of this repressive power.

What points does Foucault share with the repressive hypothesis? Why and how does he diverge from it?

Foucault agrees with the broader historical perspective of the repressive hypothesis. He agrees that sex has been treated as something shameful in our modern age and he agrees that in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance there was a more open and easy attitude toward sex. He also agrees that the disappearance of this open and easy attitude coincides with the rise of the bourgeoisie. However, Foucault disagrees with the repressive hypothesis in its claim that the bourgeoisie attempted to silence discourse on sex, and did so in the interests of economic productivity. He suggests, on the contrary, that there has been an increase and expansion of the discourse on sex, and suggests that this explosion of discourse, coupled with a certain prudishness about sex itself, has more to do with the association of sex with a wider political context.

Why does Foucault see the confession as a central characteristic of the modern West? What evidence does he use to support this claim? What facts might he be ignoring that would contradict this claim? Do you agree with this characterization?

Foucault asserts that the confession, once simply a Christian confession of sins of the flesh, has filled every aspect of our society. We are expected to divulge information not just to priests, but also to government agents, teachers, doctors, parents, etc. Confession has become so common that we no longer think of it as something extracted from us, but think of it rather as therapeutic or liberating, something we even pay to do. He also associates the rise of the confession with our modern concept of subjecthood: we have become an object of study, something worth talking about. Foucault is often highly selective about his facts. For instance, in discussing the turn in modern philosophy toward the subject, he ignores a great deal of analytic philosophy and pragmatism that has followed the opposite trend. He is also perhaps bending the facts a little when he asserts that confession as it exists in our society is unique to our society. He emphasizes the heroic epics of earlier ages, and their focus on deeds rather than subjectivity, but he also ignores a wealth of literature and poetry that does not follow the heroic vein.

What is Foucault's genealogical method? How does he use it in this book? What are its strengths and weaknesses? Do you agree with the conclusions he draws from it?

What are the main features of the "juridico-discursive" conception of power? What about this conception does Foucault disagree with?

What is distinctive about Foucault's conception of power? How does he use it to overturn older notions about the history of sexuality (e.g. the repressive hypothesis)?

What is the distinction between the "deployment of sexuality" and the "deployment of alliance"? How have the two been related, and how have they evolved together since the seventeenth century?

What reading does Foucault give to the history of sexuality? How would you evaluate it? Does it fit the historical facts? Does it interpret them in a reasonable way?

What is "power over life"? Do you agree with Foucault that this is how power manifests itself today? Can you feel its influence in your own life?

What does it means to say that "sex" and "sexuality" are social constructs? What ideas does this assertion contradict?

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us