The History of Sexuality

by Michel Foucault

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.


The History of Sexuality, Volume I: The Will to Knowledge is the first volume of a four-part series written by French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault. One of his last major works, the book was first published in 1976 and translated into English in 1978. While the first volume covers the history of sexual discourse in Western civilization from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, volumes two and three focus on Greek and Roman antiquity. The fourth and final volume, subtitled Confessions of the Flesh, was an incomplete draft published posthumously and covers concepts of pleasure in early Christian societies.

Part one of The History of Sexuality, Vol. One is entitled “We Other Victorians”—a reference to Steven Marcus's The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England. Through this small nod, Foucault challenges the widespread assumption that modern Western civilization has been sexually repressed since the Victorian age, an assumption endorsed by Marcus and his contemporaries. This assumption led to what Foucault calls the “speaker’s benefit,” in which speaking of and hearing about sex gives the appearance of transgression or revolt—as it holds the promise of liberating sex from its supposedly repressive shackles.

Part two, entitled “The Repressive Hypothesis,” is split into two chapters. The first asserts that the endless multiplication of conversations about sex in the eighteenth century occurred because of—and not despite—repressive controls such as censorship and regulation. Institutions such as psychiatry, pedagogy, and political criticism were incited to speak of sex precisely because of the belief that it was a great secret to be forced out of hiding. In the second chapter, Foucault traces how the focus of these debates about sex shifted from matrimonial relations to “perversities,” such as the sexuality of children, homosexuals, and mentally ill individuals. Even though new restrictions were put in place by those in power to eliminate such perversions, these restrictions instead ensured their continuation—and, indeed, growth.

In part three, “Scientia Sexualis,” Foucault presents two prominent modes of production regarding sexual discourse: ars erotica and scientia sexualis. While the former can be found in Eastern and ancient societies, the latter is a Western invention. The main difference between the two is that ars erotica approaches sex as a discipline, while scientia sexualis looks at it as an object of knowledge. Scientia sexualis relies on the confession as a ritual of discourse, whose origins can be traced back to the Christian sacrament of penance in the Middle Ages. This “confessional science” took hold of institutions, which extracted confessions from its subjects, codified them in scientific terms, and formulated the meaning and necessity of sex.

Part four, “The Deployment of Sexuality,” is divided into four chapters. In the first and second, Foucault criticizes the legal representation of power and sex, maintaining there should exist a model of power that extends beyond law and sovereignty. He then defines power in his own terms, seeing it as a fluid and broad-reaching strategy of influence that is located in situations rather than institutions. Chapter three establishes how power relies on sexuality and clarifies this point through four examples: women's bodies, children's sexuality, procreative behavior, and perverse pleasure. Finally, chapter four traces how sexuality first appeared through the lens of the church and then progressed into pedagogy, medicine, and demography.

The last part, “Right of Death and Power over Life,” establishes the principal motivation for deploying sexuality as a device—”bio-power,” a term describing the relegation of our biological existence into a social, political, and economic project. Bio-power consists of bio-politics—the power over life exercised at the population level—and anatomo-politics—and the usefulness of the individual body. One of Foucault’s final points is that the development of capitalism itself was aided by bio-power:

The adjustment of the accumulation of men to that of capital, the joining of the growth of human groups to the expansion of productive forces and the differential allocation of profit, were made possible in part by the exercise of bio-power in its many forms and modes of application. The investment of the body, its valorization, and the distributive management of its forces were at the time indispensable.

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Chapter Summaries