The first volume of History of Sexuality is arguably Foucault’s most influential work. In it, he attempts to trace those historical moments when human sex and sexuality were studied and the ways these studies on sex were key to producing the “truth” of who people are. Foucault’s work seeks to uncover if this “truth” about an individual can be linked to their sexual identity. As such, Foucault critiques the idea that identity is natural and true, and instead thinks through the ways these identities are constructed at specific historical points within particular institutions with bodies of knowledge such as during confession at church or by doctors. 

Michel Foucault, “Part 1: We ‘Other’ Victorians” from History of Sexuality

For a long time, the story goes, we supported a Victorian regime, and we continue to be dominated by it even today. Thus the image of the imperial prude is emblazoned on our restrained, mute, and hypocritical sexuality.

Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol 1, 1976, 3.

In the first part of History of Sexuality, Vol 1, Foucault argues that at beginning of 17th century people talked openly about sex and sexuality and many were relatively tolerant of various sexual acts and practices. There were few laws related to the practice of sex acts and most were not overly harsh. And then “…twilight soon fell upon this bright day, followed by the monotonous nights of the Victorian bourgeoisie” (3). Sexuality was confined, moved into the private sphere of the home, and contained within the bedroom. Silence became the rule and all kinds of sex were absorbed into the sole function of reproduction.  The procreative heterosexual couple became the norm and law; the model to follow. People stopped talking about sex in the name of being proper and decent and it became necessary to “control [sex’s] free circulation in speech, expunge it from the things that were said, and extinguish the words that rendered it too visibly present” (17). Sexual transgressions were punished or denied. Discussions of child sexuality were forbidden. Illegitimate sexualities were integrated into circuits of profit – this is where we see the emergence of brothels and the first mental hospitals. The “other Victorians” (those who displayed illegitimate sexualities and sexual practices such as prostitutes, johns, pimps, hysterics) were housed in those spaces and surreptitiously allowed to act. Outside of these spaces, however, modern puritanism imposed the rules of silence, taboo, and denial. Since this shift to silence and the emphasis of the heterosexual couple, Western society has been trying to free its sexualities and its members. This notion of there being a repressive era has carried on to this day.

Michel Foucault, “Part 2: The Repressive Hypothesis” from History of Sexuality

Why do we say, with so much passion and so much resentment against our most recent past, against our present, and against ourselves, that we are repressed?

Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol 1, 1976, 8–9.

Foucault’s answer to his own research question and the objective of History of Sexuality, Vol 1 can be best characterized as follows: “Briefly, my aim is to examine the case of a society which has been loudly castigating itself for its hypocrisy for more than a century, which speaks verbosely of its own silence, takes great pains to relate in detail the things it does not say, denounces the powers it exercises, and promises to liberate itself from the very laws that have made it function” (8). Rather than our sexuality being repressed, people were told that their sexuality is repressed. This particular discourse of repression caused and continues to fuel a “discursive explosion” on sex and sexuality. Indeed, everyone talks about it and it is everywhere. 

There is correlation between the discourse of repression and the ways in which power circulates. What is crucial to keep in mind here is that those who control when, where, and especially how we talk about sex and sexuality inhabit a position of power and determine what counts as proper (and productive) and what is deemed abnormal and needs to be disciplined. In other words, the construction of knowledge regarding normal sex, sexuality, and sexual identity (e.g. normal sexual development, normal sexual behavior, normal sex faces, normal desire, normal fantasies, normal acts) works to simultaneously produce abnormal sexualities. These abnormal sexualities exist in comparison to the normal ones and are thus marginalized. Once marginalized and deemed abnormal, they require treatment and/or punishment through courts, churches, schools. Furthermore, the idea of what is an acceptable family structure is also determined by our understanding of what counts as normal sexualities. Western societies deem (white, heterosexual) monogamous coupledom the most normal and privilege this form of familial configuration by awarding socio-cultural benefits (recognition, access, etc) and financial benefits (taxes, social security, health, etc).

Related to the question of who determines what is deemed to be the norm is the question of who gets to set the rules for the parameters when speaking is acceptable. Those who hold the power to allow others to speak about sex (e.g. physician, priests, psychiatrists) often benefits from people speaking about sex in a variety of ways: their position of power is affirmed, they control how people speak about sex, and they sometimes gain financially from people’s need or desire to speak. Even today, knowledge about sex is sold to us and a variety of options are available for us to speak about sex such as sex therapists, magazines, advice columnists, and doctors.

When we think about sex as silenced and being repressed, it gives us the sense that when we talk about it, we engage in something that ought to be considered subversive. Foucault suggests that “[w]hat sustains our eagerness to speak of sex in terms of repression is doubtless this opportunity to speak out against the powers that be…” (7). In this sense, it can be seen as an act of resisting those powers and institutions that determine of which we are allowed to speak. 

The discourse of repression is the condition of possibility for speaking and for the circulation of discourses of sex. Thus, it has the opposite effect: through speaking about sex, knowledge about it is being created.
For instance, a patient who confesses their sexual history, fantasies, and desires to a therapist is giving the therapist (and by extension the psychiatric profession) data for their studies and theories about human sexuality. The therapist and the profession can then produce and disseminate that knowledge through academic articles, newspapers, and magazines.

As you read:

  • Consider what the function of this narrative of repression is?
  • Be ready to define and describe the following term: discourse
  • Pay attention to the ways that Foucault describes the ways in which discourse operates and how discourse is related to power

Find the Foucault reading in the supplementary resources block on eClass. (NOTE: we are reading only Part 1 and the first section of Part 2 of History of Sexuality)