The History of Sexuality

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The essay below combines the work of students within English 242 at the University of Washington. 
Other than transitions, punctuation changes, and formatting, it is wholly derived from their work. 
Please cite them if you draw upon their essay. 

English 242A (2008). Keywords Collaboratory: Sexuality. Keywords for American Cultural Studies. 28 Apr. 2008 <>.

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The Vintage edition of History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault’s philosophical examination The History of Sexuality provides a theoretical basis and historical account of transitions: transitions of the manifestations of sexuality and the transitions of power over sexuality.

Foucault on the Repressive Hypothesis

In the first three chapters of The History of Sexuality, Foucault focuses primarily on the idea of the “repressive hypothesis” and how he disagrees with its claims. This common sense ideology reports a shift in sexuality—a shift that is closely tied with the emergence of modernity in Western culture. According to the repressive hypothesis, sexuality transitioned from one aspect of public life to a supremely private affair, and it supposedly remained confined solely to reproduction for nearly three centuries.

Foucault offers three initial challenges to the assumptions of the “repressive hypothesis.”

  1. He first asks if sexual repression is accurately attributed to the rise of the bourgeois in the late-eighteenth century. He suggests that perhaps this is not a historically credible account of the nature of sexual repression within society.
  2. He then challenges the notion that the primary expression of power within a society such as our own is in the form of repression. This largely reflects Foucault’s notion that power is not concentrated in the hands of a few individuals, but distributed amongst the members of society. He argues that discourse in which everyday people participate is a powerful force within society.
  3. Lastly, and perhaps most controversially, Foucault questions whether the modern discussion of sexuality actually liberates or simply serves as a historical continuation of the regulation of sexuality.

Countering the ‘repressive hypothesis,’ Foucault argues that sex has not been repressed at all; in fact, it has intensified and proliferated in terms of the context and manner in which words and ideas are exchanged. Foucault’s way of describing this proliferation is simply a spread in discourse about sexuality. That is to say, rather than a silence or prohibition on the topic of sexuality, there is instead an alteration of language, or “discourse,” as well as a change in who is required to speak and who prompts them to speak.

Power as Productive

Thus exploring power beyond just prohibition and censorship, Foucault claims that power produces things. It produced categories one can identify with, like heterosexuality and homosexuality; but it also produced changes within major social institutions. The first and most prominent institution was the church, which had the power to announce proper codes around personal conduct. Public morality then translated these spiritual codes into a secular, universalized ethic. This produced transitions in the sciences: from psychology and psychiatry, to medicine and biology. Foucault makes the argument that these scientific fields were actually created to maintain the norm as it pertains to sexuality: anyone who deviated from the norm had to be diagnosed as ill or unlawful. He asserts that these sciences, as new domains of knowledge, were both a product of and conducive to power. One could add that even politics underwent a transition by using these other institutions to justify what it dictates as the norm.

Evaluating The History of Sexuality

Important Concepts

Foucault’s usage of certain terms is not the same as one might encounter in every day discourse. By rarifying these definitions, he simultaneously transforms the argument of the repressive hypothesis and defines a new framework for an analysis of human sexuality.

  • The term “sexuality,” according to Foucault, is a recent invention: a social construct created in response to the ‘discursive explosion’ which arose in the mid-to late-seventeenth century (17). Until the eighteenth century, sex only meant “sexual practice” but “sexuality” has become more than that. It becomes personal identity, and is viewed as a part of the public interest.
  • “Power,” according to Foucault, cannot be embodied in an institution, but rather is diffuse and multiplied.
  • “Repression,” therefore, does not derive from legal sanctions or penalties, but rather is the result of social forces of “prohibition, nonexistence, and silence” (6).
  • His meaning of “discourse” involves who does the speaking, what position they take, and what prompts them to speak.

The Power of Critique

Foucault poses many challenges to thinking about sexuality—not only as a concept that is constantly changing, but also as one that has incredible durability in shaping ideology and social norms. Through this essentially philosophical examination, Foucault shows, that as a theorist or critic, what is most important is the questions one asks, not necessarily the answers one arrives at. He leads us to critique norms that regulate society: to understand their emergence and evolution rather than merely assuming that we can get beyond them. What is pushed outside the norm? How did the norm become something publicly known? Why did a particular norm come about at the time that it did?

As this summary suggests, Foucault presents a provocative outline for the discussion of sexuality in historical, sociological, and political contexts. To keep Foucault’s theories centered on literature, it’s important to concentrate on textual elements such as characters, plots, thematic elements, and point of view or narrative voice. Foucault’s theory also opens onto a historical analysis of sexuality and the power associated with sexual discourses. That is to say, the ‘discourse’ with which he is preoccupied can certainly include literature as a reflection of the nature of the discussion surrounding sexuality in a particular time and place. Even the shift in the writing style of fictional works that approach topics of sexuality can be indicative of attitudes regarding the ways in which sexuality may or may not be talked about.

Other Resources:

Class Talking Points: A power point presentation that walks through the first three chapters. [1]

Class Questions: A list of questions that are carried over from The History of Sexuality and Keywords for American Cultural Studies. [2]