46 pages • 1 hour readMichel Foucault
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Michel Foucault was a French philosopher and theorist whose most significant works were first published in the 1960s and 1970s. Throughout his career, he examined the mechanisms of power and challenged accepted historical narratives, working to show how institutional power shapes the field of possible knowledge to its own advantage. The History of Sexuality, published in three volumes between 1976 and 1984—with a fourth volume published posthumously, in draft form, in 2018—examines the development of the modern discourse around sex and sexuality, creating a timeline of sexuality from the 17th to the late 20th century. This guide covers The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction. Volume I sets out to debunk the widespread notion that the Victorian age was a time of sexual repression. In this era, Foucault argues, there was an explosion of sexual discourse and a refining of categories and variations of sexualities that, while often framed in stigmatizing or pathologizing ways, nonetheless represented a collective act of creation. As an epistemologist, Foucault is primarily concerned with how knowledge is produced and who gets to decide what constitutes knowledge. Power, he argues, can only produce—never destroy. As such, he sets out to trace the production of knowledge around sexuality in this famously conservative era.
This guide uses the 1990 Random House Vintage Books Edition.
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Content Warning: Foucault’s work and this guide address issues within the areas of sex and sexuality, including sexual violence and child abuse. Some of Foucault’s ideas are contextualized in Cultural Context: Criticisms of Foucault’s Personal Life.
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The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction traces the shifting cultural attitudes about sex and sexuality throughout Western history. Michel Foucault challenges accepted rhetoric surrounding what he calls “the repressive hypothesis”: the widespread myth that the Victorian age brought a wave of repressive power that treated sex as something to be monitored, prohibited, and reduced to its most basic function. Foucault, whose career centered on understanding and breaking down how power works, argues that power is not repressive; instead, it is omnipresent and manifests in many ways. Rather than place limitations on sexuality, Western society’s cultural shifts increased dialogue about sex and created an expansion of sexualities. While some may have attempted to repress sex, the pervasive nature of power means that sex is explored and discussed in all areas of Western society. This beginning of an extensive three-part series by Foucault explores three major themes: Sex and Power, The Myth of Repression, and The Effects of Societal Norms.
In Part 1, Foucault introduces the basic structure of the repressive hypothesis. He reveals how the Victorian age changed the sexual landscape of Western culture. Prior to the 18th century, sex was less inhibited or scrutinized. The Catholic Reformation led to a puritanical attitude about sexuality, placing a greater emphasis on confession. However, Foucault challenges the repressive hypothesis. He suggests that power and sex have always been intrinsically linked, and that power manifests through creation rather than oppression. The Catholic sacrament of confession, in which the believer is encouraged to speak about their sexual acts, thoughts, and fantasies in great detail in order to receive absolution for supposed sins, is an example of the power-knowledge relationship, showing how power increases discourse about sex even as it ostensibly forbids sexual activity.
Part 2 details some of the historic shifts in power relations that contributed to modern-day attitudes about sex and sexuality. A focus on population and labor transformed sex into a concern of governmental power; the marital bedroom occupied by a man and a woman was held up as the ideal because of its potential for reproduction. Meanwhile, sexual discourse exploded. While churches obtained confessions about sex, the medical field spread its net of influence over all matters of the body. Certain sexual acts or types of sex were considered taboo, sinful, or unhealthy. Foucault explains how all these cultural elements were the result of strategies of power.
In Part 3, Foucault explores how revealing the truth about sex became the central aim of power. He explores the power-knowledge relationship and how it manifests. Western attitudes about sex and sexuality are centered on the law, while other cultures emphasize pleasure. Foucault criticizes the medical field for stripping sex of its properties of pleasure and for falsely aligning certain sexual desires and tendencies with perversion and illness.
Part 4 outlines Foucault’s theories about the history of sexuality, built upon his refutation of the repressive hypothesis. Rather than repressing sexuality, he says, power deploys sexuality for its own purposes. Foucault systematically refutes accepted hypotheses about how power functions. Rather than working through limitation, power expands its influence by offering freedom. Replacing the repressive hypothesis is a model of power that harnesses and deploys sexuality for its own purposes. According to this model, aristocratic families first developed a relationship between sex and power in the 17th century as they sought to preserve their hereditary privilege. This relationship then spread through the working classes in three stages, solidified by the invention of birth control, the development of the conventional family, and the medicalization of sex.
In Part 5, Foucault explores the historical relationship between sovereign rulers and life and death. For centuries, sovereign powers used control of death—by waging wars and by executing criminals and rebellious subjects in spectacular fashion—to advance their reign. The modern age brought a new technique: the control of life. Rulers found that by exercising power over the creation of life they increase their wealth and control. The philosopher relates the control of life to the control of reproduction and sex. Contemporary states improved the quality of their subjects’ lives while increasing their control over the production of life through control of knowledge around sex and sexuality. Foucault argues that it is a mistake to view the explosion of sex and sexualities of the 20th century as a form of liberation. Instead, it is another example of how power expands to guarantee its endurance.
By Michel Foucault