Foucault interprets sexuality as a social construction that has largely been used to bring the human body under tighter political control. We have come to see our sexuality as something buried deep within us, and as manifesting itself in all aspects of our life. This is the result of a long history that has associated sexuality with the need to confess and has seen sex as a valuable social commodity.


For Foucault, power is not simply a repressive, law-like force that controls and prohibits. For Foucault, power is productive as well as repressive. Power does not just come from those in authority: it manifests itself in many ways and from many different points at once. Power directs the transmission of knowledge and discourses and shapes our concepts and self-image.


Discourse is the context and way words and ideas are exchanged. The significance of an idea largely depends on the context in which the idea is being discussed and what other ideas it is being related to. This wider context is what Foucault means when he talks about "discourse."

Repressive Hypothesis

The repressive hypothesis is the argument that power has repressed sex for the past three hundred years. Since the rise of the bourgeoisie, sex has been condemned as a waste of energy. As a result, it has been repressed, silenced, and confined to reproductive purposes. According to this hypothesis, we can achieve political liberation and sexual liberation simultaneously if we free ourselves from this repression by talking openly about sex and enjoying it more frequently. Foucault finds this hypothesis to be deeply flawed.

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. (When The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 was originally published in France in 1976, its subtitle was VolontZ de Savoir, which is French for "the will to knowledge.")

Ars erotica

A knowledge of sensual pleasure. The truth it contains is the truth about pleasure itself: how pleasure can be experienced, intensified or maximized. A mystique and secrecy evolves around this knowledge, and it can only be passed from an experienced master to an initiated novice. There is no question of what pleasures are permitted and what are forbidden: only a question of the pleasures themselves.

Scientia sexualis

Knowledge dealing with confessions extracted from the unlearned rather than secrets passed down from the learned. Scientia sexualis highlights the inhuman aspect of sex, the fact of sex as a form of reproduction that we indulge in much the same way as animals, and it speaks from the perspective of a distanced observer.


A concept that Foucault originally borrowed from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. A genealogy is an attempt to consider the origins of systems of knowledge, and to analyze discourses. It attempts to reveal the discontinuities and breaks in a discourse, to focus on the specific rather than on the general. It aims to show that there have been other ways of thinking and acting, and that modern discourses are not any truer than those in the past. Most importantly, it aims to show that many modern ideas are not self-evidently “true,” but the product of the workings of power. Foucault borrows this genealogical method from Nietzsche to trace, in this case, the genealogy of our concept of sexuality.


A power over life that takes two main forms. First, the discipline of the body, where the human body is treated like a machine: productive, economically useful, etc. This form of bio-power appears in the military, in education, in the workplace, and seeks to create a more disciplined, effective population. Second, the regulation of population, which focuses on the reproductive capacity of the human body. This form of bio-power appears in demography, wealth analysis, and ideology, and seeks to control the population on a statistical level.

Popular pages: The History of Sexuality, Volume 1