The History of Sexuality Summary

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

Michel Foucault's three-volume study ''The History of Sexuality'' upended traditional notions of sexuality by arguing that prior centuries did not repress sex but instead discussed it constantly, albeit in highly regulated fashion.

A New History of Sex

Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality is a three-volume study that examines and attempts to reconsider the history of sex in Western societies. In particular, Foucault is interested in questioning The Repressive Hypothesis, the widely accepted idea that from the 17th to the early 20th century, sexuality was repressed, or forcibly subdued and restrained.

Foucault published Volume 1, subtitled The Will to Knowledge, in France in 1976. The first English translation appeared in 1978. Many English translations replace the subtitle The Will to Knowledge with simply An Introduction. Volume 1 focuses on sexuality from the 17th to the 20th centuries and directly questions The Repressive Hypothesis. Volume 2, The Use of Pleasure, and Volume 3, The Care of the Self, were both published in 1984. These volumes focus on Greek and Roman sexuality and are generally less read than Volume 1.


Foucault was a philosopher and literary critic whose work focused on the relationship between power and knowledge. He examined the ways in which knowledge was created and circulated in communities and societies, a process known as discourse, and how those in power control and regulate this discourse.

Foucault primarily wrote in the 1960s and 1970s against a backdrop of massive social change as young activists rebelled against the politics and social mores of the older generation. These rebellions were active in both the United States and Foucault's home country of France, as well as other places. One of the major movements of this period was the Sexual Revolution, which rebelled against what was seen as the sexual repression of previous generations.

It was largely out of the Sexual Revolution that arose what Foucault would call 'The Represssive Hypothesis,' the idea that from the 17th to the 20th centuries sexuality had been repressed in western societies in service of capitalism and bourgeois, or middle class, ideology.

Book 1: The Will to Knowledge

In Volume 1, Foucault directly challenges the Repressive Hypothesis. He does not deny that previous centuries had heavily regulated sexual behavior through both official and unofficial means. Rather, he argues that this relationship was much more complicated. He also questions the tendency to see the current (at the time) Sexual Revolution as an actual break from the history of repression, instead positing that it might be just another chapter of it.

Foucault's argument is based on the fact that, while sexuality was heavily regulated in the centuries he is focusing on, discussion of it, or discourse, was rampant. Much of this discourse took the form of official or moral channels, such as Catholic confession, but the discourse existed nonetheless. Far from repressing their sexuality, Foucault argues, people in these centuries were in fact obsessed with sex.

Foucault Widens the Notion of Sex

Foucault argues that in the 18th and 19th centuries, discourse around sex moved from discussions of married couples to sex outside of marriage and various forms of perversion, or sexuality that deviates from the norm. Along with this came the categorization of people as 'perverts.' For example: Earlier generations would have seen a man engaging in a same-sex encounter as committing a sin, whereas, he's now categorized as a particular type of pervert, giving rise to 'homosexual' as a category of identity.

Foucault then examines how sexuality moved from a moral to a scientific question in the 19th and 20th centuries, starting with the categorization of groups like 'homesexual.' He calls this Scientia Sexualis. In the final section, he examines how governments have become increasingly interested in regulating all aspects of the citizens' bodies, including sexuality, in order to subjugate them and extract the most value from them. Foucault terms this biopower.

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