The History of Sexuality

Michel Foucault. 1976. The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction.


The History of Sexuality Volume 1 is largely an engagement and critique with the psychoanalysis of sex, a la Freud, and how sex has become a mechanism for analyzing the very soul of human individuals. Further, Foucault disagrees with the Repression Hypothesis, which positions the discourse of sex in the 18th and 19th century as inherently repressive; instead, he argues sex was constantly discussed, analyzed, pathologized, regulated, etc. The power of discourse shaped sex into interlocking powers of institutions, and created othered and perverse categories with which to compare the marital heterosexual couple. Sex became a site of economic production, centered on the conjugal family but also beyond, in every institution from medicine to schooling to demography. Power, not solely the repressive "juridico-discursive" form of punishment, is multiple, intertwined, and omnipresent; power exists at micro-levels and macro-levels and is inescapable. Sexuality, as a discourse, is aimed at creating and regulating a very specific form of societal life. He disagrees with the 20th century notion that the best way to liberate ourselves from the repression of sex is to openly talk about it; he believes this is following the path of sexuality as a bio-power, synthesized through the numerous social and economic institutions of the Western world. Instead, he argues for a move away from sex, and a move towards "bodies and pleasures" - for which there are no clear answers or directions.

Part One: We "Other Victorians"

Foucault opens the book by comparing the frankness of sexual discussions of the 17th century to the restrained and rigid prudishness of the Victorian 19th century. Here, sexuality moved into the home, where the conjugal family absorbed it into the function of reproduction. Sex became silent and utilitarian. Illegitimate sexuality was pushed out of society and into either the brothel or the mental institution. The age of repression coincides with capitalism, becoming integrated into the bourgeois order. Sex is incompatible with a work imperative, except to reproduce new labor. The relationship between sex and oppression is one of power. Foucault focuses on unearting discursive productions, productions of power, and propagations of knowledge around sexuality.

Part Two: The Repressive Hypothesis

The Incitement to Discourse

Many view the 17th century as a repressive age of the bourgeois societies we likely still have not left behind. To control sex, it had to be "subjugate[d] at the level of language," free circulation of speech controlled (pg. 17). He discusses the ramping up of the yearly confession amount the Catholic church, particularly as it attributed sin to the desires of the flesh. This discourse was the opposite of silence, focused on naming all of the potential sins of the ody and soul that had to do with sex. He writes: "The Christian pastoral also sought to produce specific effects on desire by the meter fact of transforming it ... into discourse" (pg. 23). Moralism actually required the speaking of sex, but in specific ways. It was not simply to be condemned, but managed, made useful, and regulated.

In the 18th century, governments began thinking of the management of their subjects beyond people and families to populations. Populations come along with birth and death rates, life expectancy, fertility, and health. The sexual conduct of a population became a unit of analysis and an intervention. A new regime of discourse did not result in total silence; instead, "things were said in a different wau; it was different people who said them, from different points of view, and in order to obtain different results" (pg. 27). The control of the sexuality of children largely presumed such a sexuality existed and it could be controlled in the punishments, lessons, spacial distrbituions, and bedtime monitoring. Science also produced power discourse on sex: "First there was medicine, via the 'nervous disorders'; next psychiatry, when it set out to discover the etiology of mental illnesses, focusing its gaze first on the 'excess,' then onanism, then frustration, then 'frauds against procreation'" (pg. 30). He also discusses criminal justice and its obsession with crimes against nature and indecency.

The repression of sex was not with the absolute silencing of it, but rather, a specific discourse that made it taboo. "What is peculiar to modern societies ... is not that they consigned sex to a shadow exisgtence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret" (pg. 35).

The Perverse Implantation

Foucault states that reduction of sexuality has not been the primary form of formulating discourse; instead, it has been the dispersion of sexuality, focusing on disparation and difference, and imagining multiple types of perversions. Three explicit codes of the 18th century described licit versus illicit sex: canonical law, Christian pastorial, and civil law. Their focus was on matrimonial relations: "the marital obligation, the ability to fulfill it, the manner in which one complied with it, the requirements and violences that accompanied it, the useless or unwarranted caresses for which it was a pretext, its fecundity or the way one went about making it sterile, the moments when one demandded it (dangerous periods of pregnancy or breast-feeding, forbidden times of Lent or abstinence), its frequency or infrequency, and so on" (pg. 37). The marriage relation between husband and wife was constantly under surveillance.

Oppositionally were the rule breakings and condemnations: "debauchery (extramarital relations), adultery, rape, spiritual or carnal incest, but also sodomy, or the mutual 'caress'" (pg. 38). Prohibitive acts of sex were judicial in nature, viewed as crimes against the law but also against nature. Even "hermaphrodites" were considered criminals, or crime's offspring, as their anatomy was viewed as confounding the law of binary sexes that also prescribed the union of man and woman. The marital couple, though under constant and stritch watch, had more rights to everyday discretion. It was children, "mad" people, criminals, and homosexuals who became objects of scrutiny.

Foucault argues that the level of indulgence in sexuality or the quantity of repression of it was not the most important aspect; it was instead the form of power exercised over sexuality. When the range of sexualities was labeled, it was less about erasing them and more about exerting power over them. He names four operations of this power:

  • Lines of penetration. In other words, the purposeful forcing of certain sexualities into hiding (e.g., children's curiosity) made possible their discovery and treatment or analysis.
  • Incorporation of perversions and a specification of individuals: The scientific definition of homosexuality in the late 17th century led to a new "species" to be analyzed. Further, this "species" was defined through perversion, which was incorporated into every single aspect of the pscyhe and body. Perversions were made into a principle of classification and ascribed to a natural order of disorder.
  • Perpetual spirals of power and pleasure. "The oddities of sex relied on a technology of health and pathology ... Power operated as a mechanism of attraction; it drew out those peculiarities over which it kept watch" (pg. 44-45).
  • Devices of sexual saturation. The 19th century was "a network of pleasures and powers linked together at multiple points and according to transformable relationships" (pg. 46). Polarization between groups proliferated: the heterosexual couple and the others, boys and girls, adults and children. The 19th century bourgeois society did not exclude sexuality, but "included it in the body as a mode of specification of individuals" (pg. 47). Sexuality was solified and saturated into the body.

While the 19th century and modern industrial societies are seen as repressive, in actuality, there was an explotion of sexuality. Though prudish, these societies feign ignorance, all the while more centers of power around sexuality had never existed before.

Part Four: The Deployment of Sexuality


Foucault briefly retraces his argument that sex in Western societies has been "repressed" in the sense that it has been more discussed and rationalized than ever. Psychoanalysists have felt the perspective on repression is too simple, as repression and rebellion are too simplistic for analyzing the relationships of power and desire. His goal in the rest of the chapter is to develop an analytics of power (not a theory of power) "toward a definition of the specific domain formed by relations of power" (pg. 82). Both theory and analytics rely on a common representation of power that leads to two contrary results: the promise of liberation, "if power is seen as having only an external hold on desire," or the problem of always being trapped, if power "is constitutive of desire itself" (pg. 83). Some of the principle features of analyses of power are:

  • The negative relation. Connections between power and sex are always negative (e.g., rejection, exclusion, concealment, etc.). Power can only say no to sex and pleasure.
  • The insistence of the rule. Sex is carefully placed in a binary system (e.g., licit and illicit, permitted and forbidden). Power prescribes an order for sex that is deciphered based on law. Power's hold on sex is maintained through discourse from the very fact it is articulated as a rule of law.
  • The cycle of prohibition. Power employs the silencing and suppression of sex, and its instrument is the threat of punishment towards anything other than the suppression of it.
  • The logic of censorship. This happens through three forms: affirming sex is prohibited, preventing it from being said, and denying it exists.
  • The uniformity of the apparatus. Power is exercised in the same way at all levels. Power is juridicial in form and obedience is required. It happens at scales large and small, through law, cultural taboo, at the level of state and family. There is a legislative power on one side and obedient subject on the other (e.g., a parent vs. a child).

He describes how such jurisdicial power succeeds, despite its only condition being the imposition of limitations: "power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms" (pg. 86).

He states that theories of power are often stuck "under the spell of monarch" (pg. 88). However, new methods of power beyond the state are at play, ensured through technique, normalization, and control operating beyond the state. "It is this image that we must break free of, that is, of the theoretical privilege of law and sovereignty, if we wish to analyze power within the concrete and historical framework of its operation" (pg. 90).


The objective of this work is to analyze knowledge regarding sex, "not in terms of repression or law, but in terms of power" (pg. 92). Power here is not a group of institutions for governing citizens of a state, nor a general system of domination of one group over another, but as "the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization; as the process which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them; as the support which these force relations find in one another, thus forming a chain or a system...; and lastly, as the strategies in which they take effect, whose general design or institutional crystallization is embodied in the state apparatus, in the formulation of the law, in the various social hegemonies" (pg. 92-93). Power is "the moving substrate of force relation which, by virtue of their inequality, constantly engender states of power" (pg. 93). Power is "produced from one moment to the next, at every point, or rather in every relation from one point to another. Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere" (pg. 93). While power foregrounds the existence of resistance, resistance is never external to power: "there is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions ... instead there is a plurality of resistances" (pg. 95-96).

The specific research questions Foucault asks are: "In a specific type of discourse on sex, in a specific form of extortion of truth, appearing historically and in specific places (around the child's body, apropros of women's sex, in connection with practices restricting births, and so on), what were the most immediate, the most local power relations at work? How did they make possible these kinds of discourses, and conversely, how were these discourses used to support power relations? How was the action of these power relations modified by their very extercize, entailing a strenghtening of some terms and a weakening of others, with effects of resistance and counterinvestments, so that there has never existed one type of stable subjugation...? How were these power relations linked to one another according to the logic of a great strategy, which in retrospect takes on the aspect of a unitary and voluntarist politics of sex?"

He proposes four rules of cautionary prescriptions:

  • Rule of immanence. "If sexuality was constituted as an area of investigation, this was onlu because relations of power had established it as a possible object; and conversely, if power was able to take it as a target, this was because techniques of knowledge and procedures of discourse were capable of investing it" (pg. 98).
  • Rules of continual variations. "We must not look for who has the power in order of sexuality (men, adults, parents, doctors) and who is deprived of it (women, adolescents, children, patients); nor for who has the right to know and who is forced to remain ignorant ... Relations of power-knowledge are not static forms of distribution, they are 'matrices of transformations'" (pg. 99). The roles of different actors in regards to sex is constantly shifting.
  • Rule of double conditioning. No local center of power could function if it did not enter into an overall strategy, and no overall strategy could achieve comprehensive effects if it did not gain support from a local center. He argues that the gather is not a representation of a sovereign state, and the state is not a projection of the father on a larger scale. The family is not a duplicate of society, and society is not an imitation of family. However, the "family organization" supports larger economic and state powers.
  • Rule of the tactical polyvalence of discourses. Through discourse, power and knowledge are joined. There are a multiplicity of discursive elements to form various powers. Discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance and a point of resistance to it. There is not a discourse of power on one side and a discourse of resistance on the other. Several different and contradictory discourses might exist within the same strategy, though what strategy a discourse stems from may be impossible to discern.

Part Five: The Right of Death and Power over Life

Foucault opens by discussing the sovereign powers of life and death in the classifcal age, such as the Roman father having the "right" to kill his slaves and children. He describes this power as a power of "deduction," where the only power is to take away something, or otherwise let something be (live). He starts with this to point out that deduction is only one form of power in the modern west. He says that the right of the sovereign has reversed, into developing and maintaining its subjects' lives. "This formidable power of death ... now presents itself as the counterparrt of a power that exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavours to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations" (pg. 137). The power of death in war is now waged on behalf of the "livelihood" of state populations. He writes of genocide: "If genocide is indeed the dream of modern powers, this is not because of a revent return of the ancient right to kill; it is because power is situated and exercised at the lebel of life, the species, the race, and the large-scale phenomena of population" (pg. 137). Modern western society went from an ancient sumbolics of blood to an analytics of sexuality (pg. 148).

I find his argument that the weakening of the death penalty has little to do with humanitarian feelings, and everything to do with the power of adminstering life, in the context of prison populations being used for electoral districts.

He discusses how the 17th century brought about a power over life which evolved in two, linked forms:
  • Discipline and the anatomo-politics of the human body: The body as a machine, its disciplining and optimization of captabilities and usefuless. Its integration into systems of economic efficiency.
  • Regulatory control and the biopolitics of the population: The species body, imbued with the mechanics of life. A focus on the basis of biological processes like propagation, birth, mortality, health, and longevity. Managed by population regulations, like demography, evaluations between resources and inhabitants, analyses of wealth.

Bio-power was integral to the development of capitalism, as the bodies was inserted into the ",achinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes" (pg. 141). It required the growth of bodies, but also their docility and availability. The instruments of the state as institutions also ensured the maintenance of production relations through techniques of power at every level of the social body and institutions (family, army, school, police, medicine). Further, bio-power acts as a segretory tool, creating relations of domination and hegemony. Bio-history is thus the intersection between the movements of life and the processes of history, determined by pio-power. The law, far from disappearing into the background, becomes a norm that is inserted into many institutions (medicine, administration, etc). "Sex was a means of access both to the life of the body and the life of the species" (pg. 146).

More concretely, Foucault begins to name how disciplining the body and regulating populations showed up. The disciplining of children around issues of sex, to ensure the future of the species. The hysterization of women, due to the responsibility they owed the family, their children, and the health of society. Birth control and psychiatric evaluations as regularly interventions for applying constraint to unwanted sexuality. Eugenicists and their attempt to perfect the species through an exacting administration of sex. Racism as a biological politic shaped family, marriage, education, social hierarchization, property, conduct, and health all around the "mythical concern with protecting the purity of the blood and ensuring the triumph of the race" (pg. 149). As he reiterates of his thesis, "the purpose of the present study is in fact to show how deployments of power are directly connected to the body" (pg. 151). Sex is in the body, but sexuality is the deployment of powers relevant to the sex of the body. He argues that "we must not refer to a history of sexuality to the agency of sex; but rather show how 'sex' is historically subordinate to sexuality. We must not place sex on the side of reality, and sexuality on that of confused ideas and illusions; sexuality is a very real historical formation; it is what gave rise to the notion of sex ... We must not think that by saying yes to sex, one says no to power; on the contrary, one tracks along the course laid out by the general deployment of sexuality ... It is the agency of sex that we must break away from ... The rallying point for the counterattack against the deployment of sexuality ought not to be sex-desire, but bodies and pleasures" (pg. 157).