The first volume of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality is one of the most influential philosophical works of the twentieth century. As Jana Sawicki and Shannon Winnubst write,
“Historian of sexuality David Halperin half-jokingly dubbed Foucault the patron saint of this nascent critical project. If Foucault was its saint, The History of Sexuality, Volume I became its bible. To put it inaptly, Foucault was a seminal figure in queer theory.”Editors’ introduction to a special topics issue of Foucault Studies on Foucault and Queer Theory
Similarly, in Mad for Foucault, Lynne Huffer argues that queer theory has been little more than a fusion of Foucault’s History of Sexuality and Freud. More recently, Foucault’s analysis of normalization in The History of Sexuality has been appropriated by Critical Disability scholars and his comments on racism and eugenics in part V of The History of Sexuality have been taken up by postcolonial and Critical Race scholars. Beyond the impact of this book on various liberation movements and their theorists, Foucault’s History of Sexuality is read and continues to influence scholarship in a range of disciplines beyond Philosophy, offering political philosophers, political theorists, social theorists, and students of history and culture generally crucial insights into modern power and its relation to knowledge.
In 1976, Foucault’s intention was to write four more volumes of The History of Sexuality, and in the first volume, presented as an introduction, he laid out four domains of analysis that he intended the remaining volumes of the series to study. These were: the hysterization of women’s bodies, the pedagogization of children’s sex, the control of fertility, and the psychiatrization of perversions. Foucault would abandon this plan, publishing volumes 2 and 3 of The History of Sexuality on sexual ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome, while Volume 4 concerns the early Christian period. Although we will thus never read complete books by Foucault on the subjects of the hystericized woman, the sexualized child, the reproductive couple, and the pathologized pervert, Foucault does map out the argument that he would have made in each of these cases in his introductory volume, and we can see quite well the arguments that he was forming with respect to the child and the so-called pervert in particular. Foucault’s thesis was that, for each of these subjects:
“Sexuality must not be “thought of as a kind of natural given which power tries to hold in check, or as an obscure domain which knowledge tries gradually to uncover. It is the name that can be given to a historical construct.”Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality
When power tried to know about sex in the case of the woman, the child, the heterosexual couple, and the pervert, what it in fact did was to construct their sexualities. For instance, in the case of the child, once adults began to inquire into children’s sexuality, to monitor and prohibit it, adult-child relations were eroticized. While the ostensible objective of monitoring children’s sexuality was to protect children from sexual interference from adults and from the supposed health risks of their own autoerotic activities, new forms of infantile sexuality were produced through these interventions. Children were eroticized as objects of particular kinds of desire and took up this eroticized role in unpredictable and unintended ways. For Foucault, the family became perverse and incestuous in the modern era: precisely because the modern family is hyper-concerned to protect its children from molestation, incest, and pedophilia, it continually sees children in the light of these dangers, as sexual prey and, consequently, as sexual objects. In this way it sexualizes children, producing new and tenacious desires for children and on the parts of children through the very ways that it aims to protect children from these desires. This is just one example of Foucault’s thesis that modern power does not so much control a pre-existing sexuality as it constructs new forms of sexuality.
The History of Sexuality is not a history of sexuality. Rather, as its French subtitle, La volonté de savoir (or The will to know), suggests, it is a history of how we came to want to know about sex. Beyond this, the first volume of The History of Sexuality is a history of the discourses and practices that we produced to satiate this desire, and the power effects that these discourses and practices have had. These power effects are significant; they include the constitution of sexualities, new relations toward death, and modern forms of war. Foucault’s French title, The Will to Know, is intended to call to mind Friedrich Nietzsche’s Will to Power: as Foucault will argue, the will to know about sex is intricately caught up with power relations and their effects.