When attempting to trace a history of sexuality (studies), many scholars in the field often consider Michel Foucault (1926-1984), French philosopher, historian of ideas, social theorist, and literary critic, a key figure. He published many important works, among them The History of Sexuality (1976), which consists of three volumes:  Vol I: The Will to KnowledgeVol II: The Use of Pleasure, and Vol III: The Care of the Self as well as Birth of the Clinic (1963), The Order of Things (1966), and Discipline and Punish (1975). As a typical post-structural thinker, he didn’t believe it was possible to find “Truth.” Rather, Foucault sought to expose or “render visible” how it is that ideas of what is true are produced – whether that be through the church, through science, or through education (or the connections between them). Instead of seeking Truth, he would ask: where do our ideas of what is ‘true’ come from?

Watch time: 8:16 min

As already mentioned in the Introduction to Sexuality Studies, Foucault paid close attention to language – or discourse ­– and how it doesn’t merely describe the world, but shapes it. Discourse, so Foucault, is any ‘running argument’ or systematic communication (e.g. psychoanalytic theory; procedures of the Catholic confession) or a network of statements that makes a particular object or idea knowable (e.g. childhood; motherhood; sexuality). Through discourse, humans understand the world available to us. Thus, our experiences, selves, and what we can know is limited by the words and gestures that are accessible to us.

For instance, PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) wasn’t put into the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Manual) until after the Vietnam War. After the war, people were experiencing symptoms that did not yet have a name. Through the work of doctors and psychiatrists, PTSD became a legitimate category of experience, which people could then use to describe and understand themselves and those around them. That is not to say that after Vietnam was the first time in history that people experienced what we now understand as PTSD or that PTSD is limited to the North American context. Rather, this specific time was the right moment when historical and institutional forces came into play to construct the category.

The question remains why Foucault is such an influential figure for the field of sexuality studies? Foucault demonstrated that institutions created the concepts of illness, crime, insanity, or sex, and that even the notion of “man” – humanity, or human nature – is a discursive construction. As already pointed out in the introduction of this course, this does not mean that the experience of these things does not exist, but that we can only understand them based on historically and socio-culturally specific norms. These norms structure how we make sense of our experiences.

The question remains what it means to say that sexuality is constructed? Sexuality is shaped by cultural expectations within a specific historical context. Foucault is considered to be one important scholar for the study of gender and queer theoretical concepts because his scholarly contributions explore historical moments and engage critically with the idea that one’s sexuality is the truth of who a person really is. He rejected this link between sexuality and truth as well as essentialist views of sexuality that sexual desire is deemed to be a naturally or biologically driven phenomenon. Instead, he advanced an understanding of sexuality as constructed and responded to the development of Scientia Sexualis (see module 1), which is the scientific linkage and proliferation of sexuality through psychoanalytic, political, and scientific discourses. Because of the linkage of sexuality to truth, sexuality developed into a marker of identity, which impacted how people understood not only heterosexuality, but also homosexuality. Tthe fact that homosexuality was pathologized inevitably led many to conclude that homosexuality is a naturally occurring phenomenon. Homosexuals are, as Lady Gaga would put it, “born that way” and cannot be villainized, shamed, or made responsible for their abnormal sexuality. This particular understanding of homosexuality as natural paved the way for the emergence of a reverse discourse: that is, precisely because of how sexuality was linked to biology and identity and because of the circulation of discourse, modes of resistance surfaced.

Foucault points out that “the sodomite had been a temporary aberration, the homosexual was a species” (43) and draws a clear distinction between sex acts (sodomite) and identity politics (homosexual). Using the pathologizing discourse for their own cause, homosexuals were able to advocate for their own rights. Although people labeled as homosexuals had to deal with negative effects due to the pathological nature of their categorization, it also allowed for these individuals and communities to have a voice. Homosexuality thus began to defend itself as a legitimate mode of existence, demanding its social and cultural recognition.


In The History of Sexuality, Foucault associates power with the state, law, institutions, and the domination of one group over another and describes power as follows:

… power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization

Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, 1976, 92.

… power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society

Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, 1976, 93.

Power can best be characterized with the following parameters in mind:

  • it exists in different forms depending on the particular local context
  • it is always moving; it is mobile rather than static
  • because it is local, unstable, and mobile, power is omnipresent (not top-down)
  • its existence depends on particular relations and on its exercise. 

Power is not something that is held or possessed, but it emerges in the encounter (power relations or force relations). There is no question that on the one hand the appearance in the nineteenth-century psychiatry, jurisprudence, and literature of a whole series of discourses on the species and subspecies of homosexuality, inversion, pederasty, and “psychic hermaphrodism” made possible a strong advance of social controls into this area of “perversity.” On the other hand, however, it also made possible the formation of a reverse discourse, which allowed folks to speak and to demand that homosexuality’s legitimacy or “naturalness” ought to be acknowledged. They often did so using the same vocabulary and the same categories by which homosexuality was medically disqualified. 

Foucault clarifies as follows:

These points of resistance are present everywhere in the power network.  Hence there is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead there is a plurality of resistances that are possible, necessary, improbable; others that are spontaneous, savage, solitary, concerted, rampant, or violent; still others that are quick to compromise, interested, or sacrificial; by definition, they can only exist in the strategic filed of power relations.

Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, 1976, 95–96.

Now, head on over to the assigned resources to familiarize yourself even further with Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality.