The History of Sexuality

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This article is about the book by French philosopher Michel Foucault. It is not to be confused with History of human sexuality.
The History of Sexuality
History of Sexuality, French edition, volume one.jpg
The first volume of the French edition
Author Michel Foucault
Original title Histoire de la sexualité
Translator Robert Hurley
Country France
Language French
Subject History
Genre Non-fiction
Publisher Éditions Gallimard
Publication date
1976 (vol. 1)
1984 (vol. 2)
1984 (vol. 3)
Published in English
1978 (vol. 1)
1985 (vol. 2)
1986 (vol. 3)
Media type Print (hardback and paperback)
Pages 168 (English ed., vol. 1)
293 (English ed., vol. 2)
279 (English ed., vol. 3)
ISBN 0-14-012474-8 (vol. 1)
0-14-013734-5 (vol. 2)
0-14-013735-1 (vol. 3)

The History of Sexuality (French: Histoire de la sexualité) is a three-volume study of sexuality in the western world by the French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault. The first volume, The Will to Knowledge (La volonté de savoir), was first published in 1976 by Éditions Gallimard, before being translated into English by Robert Hurley and published by Allen Lane in 1978. It was followed by The Use of Pleasure (l'usage des plaisirs), and The Care of the Self (le souci de soi), both published in 1984.

In Volume I, Foucault explores the "repressive hypothesis", the idea that western society suppressed sexuality from the 17th to the mid-20th century: he argues that this hypothesis is an illusion, and that in actuality, discourse on sexuality proliferated during this period. He goes on to argue that at this time, experts began to examine sexuality in a scientific manner, classifying different types of sexuality and encouraging people to confess their sexual feelings and actions, all in the desire to learn the "truth" of sex.

Foucault was interested in the creation of the subject and how the individual was constituted.[1] In The History of Sexuality, he argues that in the western world during the 18th and 19th centuries, people's identities became increasingly tied to their sexuality.[2]


According to Foucault, by the 19th-century, when capitalism and industrialisation had allowed for the development of a dominant bourgeois social class, discourse on sex was not suppressed, but in fact proliferated. Bourgeois society "put into operation an entire machinery for producing true discourses" surrounding sex, perhaps believing that it harboured a "fundamental secret" that had to be learned.[3]



Three volumes of The History of Sexuality were published before Foucault's death in 1984. The first volume, The Will to Knowledge (previously known as An Introduction in English—Histoire de la sexualité, 1: la volonté de savoir in French) was published in France in 1976, and translated in 1977, focusing primarily on the last two centuries, and the functioning of sexuality as an analytics of power related to the emergence of a science of sexuality, and the emergence of biopower in the West. The work was a further development of the account of the interaction of knowledge and power Foucault provided in Discipline and Punish (1975).[4]

The second two volumes, The Use of Pleasure (Histoire de la sexualité, II: l'usage des plaisirs) and The Care of the Self (Histoire de la sexualité, III: le souci de soi) dealt with the role of sex in Greek and Roman antiquity. The latter volume deals considerably with the ancient technological development of the hypomnema which was used to establish a permanent relationship to oneself. Both were published in 1984, the year of Foucault's death, the second volume being translated in 1985, and the third in 1986.

In his lecture series from 1979 to 1980 Foucault extended his analysis of government to its "wider sense of techniques and procedures designed to direct the behaviour of men", which involved a new consideration of the "examination of conscience" and confession in early Christian literature. These themes of early Christian literature seemed to dominate Foucault's work, alongside his study of Greek and Roman literature, until the end of his life. However, Foucault's death left the work incomplete, and the planned fourth volume of his History of Sexuality on Christianity was never published. The fourth volume was to be entitled Confessions of the Flesh (Les aveux de la chair). The volume was almost complete before Foucault's death and a copy of it is privately held in the Foucault archive. It cannot be published under the restrictions of Foucault's estate.[5]

Volume I: The Will to Knowledge[edit]

Part I: We "Other Victorians"[edit]

Part One, entitled "We “Other Victorians”", opens with a discussion of what Foucault calls the "repressive hypothesis", the widespread belief among late 20th-century westerners that sexuality, and the open discussion of sex, was socially repressed during the late 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, a by-product of the rise of capitalism and bourgeois society. Arguing that this was never actually the case, he asks the question as to why modern westerners believe such a hypothesis, noting that in portraying past sexuality as repressed, it provides a basis for the idea that in rejecting past moral systems, future sexuality can be free and uninhibited, a "garden of earthly delights".[6]

Part II: The Repressive Hypothesis[edit]

"We must... abandon the hypothesis that modern industrial societies ushered in an age of increased sexual repression. We have not only witnessed a visible explosion of unorthodox sexualities; but –and this is the important point – a deployment quite different from the law, even if it is locally dependent on procedures of prohibition, has ensured, through a network of interconnecting mechanisms, the proliferation of specific pleasures and the multiplication of disparate sexualities."

Foucault, 1976.[7]

Proceeding to go into further depth in Part Two, "The Repressive Hypothesis," Foucault notes that from the 17th century to the 1970s, there had actually been a "veritable discursive explosion" in the discussion of sex, albeit using an "authorized vocabulary" that codified where one could talk about it, when one could talk about it, and with whom. He argues that this desire to talk so enthusiastically about sex in the western world stems from the Counter-Reformation, when the Roman Catholic Church called for its followers to confess their sinful desires as well as their actions. As evidence for the obsession of talking about sex, he highlights the publication of the book My Secret Life, anonymously written in the late 19th century and detailing the sex life of a Victorian gentleman. Indeed, Foucault states that at the start of the 18th century, there was an emergence of "a political, economic, and technical incitement to talk about sex," with self-appointed experts speaking both moralistically and rationally on sex, the latter sort trying to categorize it. He notes that in that century, governments became increasingly aware that they were not merely having to manage "subjects" or "a people" but a "population", and that as such they had to concern themselves with such issues as birth and death rates, marriage, and contraception, thereby increasing their interest and changing their discourse on sexuality.[8]

Entering the second chapter of this section, "The Perverse Implantation", Foucault argues that prior to the 18th century, discourse on sexuality focuses on the productive role of the married couple, which is monitored by both canonical and civil law. In the 18th and 19th centuries, he argues, society ceases discussing the sex lives of married couples, instead taking an increasing interest in sexualities that did not fit within this union; the "world of perversion" that includes the sexuality of children, the mentally ill, the criminal and the homosexual. He notes that this had three major effects on society. Firstly, there was increasing categorization of these "perverts"; where previously a man who engaged in same-sex activities would be labeled as an individual who succumbed to the sin of sodomy, now they would be categorised into a new "species," that of homosexual. Secondly, Foucault argues that the labeling of perverts conveyed a sense of "pleasure and power" onto both those studying sexuality and the perverts themselves. Thirdly, he argues that bourgeoisie society exhibited "blatant and fragmented perversion," readily engaging in perversity but regulating where it could take place.[9]

Part III: Scientia Sexualis[edit]

Part three, "Scientia Sexualis", explores the development of the scientific study of sex, the attempt to unearth the "truth" of sex, a phenomenon which Foucault argues is peculiar to the West. In contrast to the West's sexual science, Foucault introduces the "ars erotica" which he states has only existed in Ancient and Eastern societies. Furthermore, he argues that this scientia sexualis has repeatedly been used for political purposes, being utilized in the name of "public hygiene" to support state racism. Returning to the influence of the Catholic confession, he looks at the relationship between the confessor and the authoritarian figure that he confesses to, arguing that as Roman Catholicism was eclipsed in much of Western and Northern Europe following the Reformation, the concept of confession survived and became more widespread, entering into the relationship between parent and child, patient and psychiatrist and student and educator. By the 19th century, he maintains, the "truth" of sexuality was being readily explored both through confession and scientific enquiry. Foucault proceeds to examine how the confession of sexuality then comes to be "constituted in scientific terms," arguing that scientists begin to trace the cause of all aspects of human psychology and society to sexual factors.[10]

Part IV: The Deployment of Sexuality[edit]

Part four, "The Deployment of Sexuality," explores the question as to why western society wishes to seek for the "truth" of sex. Chapter one, "Objective", lays out Foucault's argument that we need to develop an "analytics" of power through which to understand sex. Highlighting that power controls sex by laying down rules for it to follow, he discusses how power demands obedience through domination, submission, and subjugation, and also how power masks its true intentions by disguising itself as beneficial. As an example, he highlights the manner in which the feudal absolute monarchies of historical Europe, themselves a form of power, disguised their intentions by claiming that they were necessary to maintain law, order, and peace. As a leftover concept from the days of feudalism, Foucault argues that westerners still view power as emanating from law, but he rejects this, proclaiming that we must "construct an analytics of power that no longer takes law as a model and a code," and announcing that a different form of power governs sexuality. "We must," Foucault states, "at the same time conceive of sex without the law, and power without the king."[11]

The second chapter, "Method", explores what Foucault means by "Power", explaining that he does not mean power as the domination or subjugation exerted on society by the government or the state, but instead remarks that power should be understood "as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate." In this way, he argues, "Power is everywhere . . . because it comes from everywhere," emanating from all social relationships and being imposed throughout society bottom-up rather than top-down.[12]

Part V: Right of Death and Power over Life[edit]

Part five, "The Right of Death and Power over Life," asserts that the motivations for power over life and death have changed. As in feudal times the "right to life" was more or less a "right to death" as sovereign powers were able to decide when a person died. This has changed to a "right to live" as sovereign states are more concerned about the power of how people live. Power becomes about how to foster life. For example, a state decides to execute someone as a safe guard to society not as justified, as it once was, as vengeful justice. This new emphasis on power over life, is called Bio-power, and comes in two forms. First, Foucault says is "centered on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls."[13] The second form, Foucault says emerged later and focuses on the "species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that cause these to vary.[14] Bio-power it is argued is the source of the rise of capitalism, as states became interested in regulating and normalizing power over life and not as concerned about punishing and condemning actions.

Scholarly reception[edit]

The History of Sexuality has been seen by Dennis Altman as representative of the position that homosexuals emerged as a social category in 18th and 19th century western Europe.[15] Historian Peter Gay writes that Foucault is right to raise questions about the "repressive hypothesis", but that "his procedure is anecdotal and almost wholly unencumbered by facts; using his accustomed technique (reminiscent of the principle underlying Oscar Wilde's humor) of turning accepted ideas upside down, he turns out to be right in part for his private reasons."[16] Classicist David M. Halperin writes in One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1990) that the appearance of the English translation of the first volume of Foucault's work in 1978, together with the publication of K. J. Dover's Greek Homosexuality the same year, marked the beginning of a new era in the study of the history of sexuality.[17] He suggests that The History of Sexuality may be the most important contribution to the history of western morality since Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality (1887).[18] Literary scholar Camille Paglia rejected Halperin's view of Foucault's work as uninformed, calling The History of Sexuality a "disaster" and claiming that much of it is fantasy unsupported by the historical record.[19] Literary critic Alexander Welsh criticizes The History of Sexuality for Foucault's failure to place Sigmund Freud in the context of 19th century thought and culture.[20] Historian Roy Porter calls The History of Sexuality, "a brilliant enterprise, astonishingly bold, shocking even, in its subversion of conventional explanatory frameworks, chronologies, and evaluations, and in its proposed alternatives."[21] Philosopher Roger Scruton dismissed The History of Sexuality as "mendacious", and called his book Sexual Desire (1986) an answer to Foucault's work.[22] Foucault's argument that the scientia sexualis belongs to modern Western culture while the ars erotica belongs only to Eastern and Ancient societies has been criticized by Romana Byrne, who argues that a form of ars erotica has been evident in Western society since at least the eighteenth century.[23]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Foucault 1982. pp. 777-778.
  2. ^ McGee 2011.
  3. ^ Foucault 1976. p. 69.
  4. ^ Bernasconi 1995. p. 289.
  5. ^ Foucault 1999. pp. 34, 47
  6. ^ Foucault 1976. pp. 1–14.
  7. ^ Foucault 1976. p. 49.
  8. ^ Foucault 1976. pp. 15–36.
  9. ^ Foucault 1976. pp. 37–49.
  10. ^ Foucault 1976. pp. 53–73.
  11. ^ Foucault 1976. p. 77–91.
  12. ^ Foucault 1976. p. 92–102.
  13. ^ Foucault 1976. p. 139.
  14. ^ Foucault 1976. p. 139.
  15. ^ Altman 1982. p. 48.
  16. ^ Gay 1985. pp. 468-9.
  17. ^ Halperin 1990. p. 4.
  18. ^ Halperin 1990. p. 62.
  19. ^ Paglia 1993. p. 187.
  20. ^ Welsh 1994. p. 128.
  21. ^ Porter 1996. p. 248.
  22. ^ Scruton 2005. p. 55.
  23. ^ Byrne 2013. pp. 1-4.


  • Altman, Dennis (1982). The Homosexualization of America. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-4143-2. 
  • Bernasconi, Robert (1995). Honderich, Ted, ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-866132-0. 
  • Foucault, Michel (1979) [1976]. The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. London: Allen Lane. ISBN 0-7139-1094-1. 
  • Foucault, Michel (1999). Religion and culture: Michel Foucault. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-92362-X. 
  • Gay, Peter (1985). The Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-503728-6. 
  • Halperin, David M. (1990). One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-90097-2. 
  • Macey, David (1993). The Lives of Michel Foucault. London: Hutchinson. ISBN 978-0091753443. 
  • McGee, R. Jon; Warms, Richard L. (2011). Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. New York: McGraw Hill. ISBN 0078034884. 
  • Miller, James (1993). The Passion of Michel Foucault. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0671695507. 
  • Mills, Sara (2004). Michel Foucault. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415245692. 
  • Paglia, Camille (1993). Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-017209-2. 
  • Porter, Roy (1996). Keddie, Nikki R., ed. Debating Gender, Debating Sexuality. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 0-8147-4655-1. 
  • Scruton, Roger (2005). Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life. New York: Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-8033-0. 
  • Smart, Barry (2002). Michel Foucault. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415285339. 
  • Welsh, Alexander (1994). Freud's Wishful Dream Book. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-03718-3. 
  • Byrne, Romana (2013). Aesthetic Sexuality: A Literary History of Sadomasochism. New York: Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1-4411-0081-8. 
  • Foucault, Michel (1982). "Critical Inquiry, 1982, Vol 8, No. 4". 

External links[edit]