The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1

by: Michel Foucault

Plot Overview

Our thinking about sexuality is largely informed by the "repressive hypothesis," which claims that the history of sexuality over the past three hundred years has been a history of repression. Sex, except for the purposes of reproduction is taboo. The only way to liberate ourselves from this repression, according to this hypothesis, is to be more open about our sexuality, to talk about sex, and to enjoy it.

Foucault disagrees with the claim that sex has been repressed and silenced. He argues that Discourse about sex has only intensified and proliferated since the eighteenth century. Priests expected confessions to divulge the smallest temptation or desire, and sexual behavior became an important object of study for demographic and statistical analysis. With this intensification and proliferation of discourse, the emphasis moved from married couples to cases of sexual "perversion": child sexuality, homosexuality, etc. One's sexuality was also thought to explain a great deal about one's character.

Increasingly, sex became an object of knowledge. Other cultures have treated sex as an object of knowledge, as an ars erotica: an art of sensual pleasure. Our culture is distinct, however, in treating sex as a scientia sexualis: an object of distanced, scientific investigation. Scientific discourse mixed with the form of confession has shaped our discourse on sex. Subjects were expected to confess, to divulge their darkest secrets, and these confessions were codified into a quasi-scientific form.

Foucault asks how it is that we have come to see sex as the key to explaining us, as holding the truth about us. The answer has to do with the relationship sex has with power and knowledge. Foucault criticizes the "juridico- discursive" conception of power as something that simply represses and restricts, always taking a law-like form. He suggests instead that power is as productive as it is repressive, that it is multi-faceted and omnipresent. Power is everywhere and working in all directions. Sexuality, then, isn't something that power represses, but a great conduit of power. Foucault identifies four major focus points: the sexuality of children, women, married couples, and the sexually "perverse." The deployment of sexuality through these four points allows power to spread itself into the family and throughout society. This deployment took place with the rise of the bourgeoisie, who saw sexual deviance as hereditary and dangerous to the continued survival of their class. The controls they placed on sex were thus primarily intended to ensure their own health and longevity.

The "right of death" of the age of absolutism has been replaced with a "power over life." Power is primarily exercised in the interests of fostering and preserving life. Tight normalizing controls have been placed on the discipline of the body and the regulation of population. Sex and the deployment of sexuality have been essential to this power over life, as we have accorded ourselves with these controls in the interests of a "healthy" sexuality. We think of sexuality as our essence, as the thing that makes us what we are, when in fact, it is just a social construct that makes us easier to control.