The History of Sexuality is not a standard historical text, but rather what Foucault, following Friedrich Nietzsche, called a “genealogy.” For Foucault and Nietzsche, a genealogy is a counter-history, a refutation of a dominant story that we tell about an institution, a phenomenon, or a practice. Genealogies refute teleological versions of history – or history as stories of human progress – as well as universalizing histories – or histories that assume a fundamental human nature as driver of history, and that, underneath it all, everything has always been the same. In contrast to these types of histories, genealogies focus on discontinuities, contingencies, and power struggles to demonstrate that the past was different from the present, the present could have been otherwise, and the future may also be otherwise. Genealogies are political: they aim to disrupt, to open up spaces for social change.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality. Foucault gets his understanding of genealogy from Nietzsche. The Genealogy of Morals argues that Judeo-Christian morality are not universal values or even about morality, but that they are historically contingent and thoroughly political. Foucault would make similar arguments about the subjects of his genealogies: punishment, psychiatry, and sexuality

What is the dominant story about sexuality that Foucault’s History of Sexuality is disrupting? What are the current assumptions about sex that Foucault’s genealogy of sexuality challenges? Foucault identifies his target at the outset of The History of Sexuality as “the repressive hypothesis.” The “repressive hypothesis” is the topic of the first of three short video lectures for this module. This first video lecture covers Parts 1 and 2 of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (pages 3 – 49), which is the assigned reading for this module. While the entire book is available on the Assigned Resources page, you are not required to read parts 3 – 5 for this course. These parts of the book will be covered in the second and third video lectures for this module, so that you have a sense of Foucault’s over-arching arguments in the book.

Video Lecture: “Foucault: the Repressive Hypothesis” (10:19)

Virginia Woolf Anticipates Foucault

Virginia Woolf

In 1929 Virginia Woolf would write A Room of One’s Own, in which she anticipates Foucault’s argument that far from sex being silenced in her era, there was a proliferation of texts on sexuality, and of scientific texts in particular. Woolf describes going to the British Museum to do research on the female sex and being astounded by the number of books she found. Woolf draws attention to the fact that these books were being written about women and by male scientists. She would address her female audience by asking:

“Have you any notion how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many of them were written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe? [ . . . ] Sex and its nature might well attract doctors and biologists; but what was surprising and difficult of explanation was the fact that sex— women, that is to say— also attracts agreeable essayists, light-fingered novelists, young men who have taken the M.A.  degree; men who have taken no degree; men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women. Some of these books were, on the face of it, frivolous and facetious; but many, on the other hand, were serious and prophetic, moral and hortatory. Merely to read the titles suggested innumerable schoolmasters, innumerable clergymen mounting their platforms and pulpits and holding forth with a loquacity which far exceeded the hour usually allotted to such discourse on this one subject. It was a most strange phenomenon; and apparently [ . . . ] one confined to the male sex. Women do not write books about men—a fact that I could not help welcoming with relief, for if I had first to read all that men have written about women, then all that women have written about men, the aloe that flowers once in a hundred years would flower twice before I could set pen to paper.”

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
A Room of One’s Own combines two lectures that Virginia Woolf presented in the Fall of 1928 at two women’s colleges at Cambridge.

Woolf points out that both professionals and nonprofessionals, so long as they were men, felt authoritatively positioned to produce books on sex in her age. To some degree, simply belonging to the male sex made these authors feel like experts on the female sex. Woolf scoffs at men who do not have a graduate degree who nevertheless felt qualified to write about sex, however. In this attitude we see that sex has become the proper domain of academics, or that the legitimate discourse on sex in the modern West had become that of science. The reason women were not writing books on sex is that women were rarely academics at this time, as is clear from Woolf ’s account of being harassed on her way to the library. Today, when women have gained access to academe, they are writing books about sex. Since A Room of One’s Own, the proliferation of texts on sex has only grown, and Woolf might have been appalled to know that today we have departments of Sexology, Psychology, and Women’s and Gender Studies that are dominated by women. For Foucault, what this indicates is that sex has become something “to be put into words.”

Michel Foucault talking into a megaphone. Jean-Paul Sartre is the older man to his left.

Sexual Confessions

We have seen that Foucault argues in The History of Sexuality that rather than sex being repressed or something that we are silent about, sex has become something about which we talk endlessly and compulsively. Foucault will argue that these sexual confessions are significant because, although we believe we are revealing our sexual identities through what we say, in fact we are constructing those identities. The social construction of sexualities occurs through discourse, and these discourses include both the claims of sexual scientists and the confessional discourses on which those scientists rely. In writing a history of sexuality, Foucault thus also writes a history of sexual confession.

Confession and the Catholic Church

Although the “repressive hypothesis” assumes that the two great causes of our supposed sexual silence were Christianity and Victorianism, in fact, for Foucault, the Counter-Reformation and the 19th century were remarkable for having produced compulsory technologies of sexual confession. In the mid-16th century the Council of Trent ordered all Christians to confess to their local parish priest at least once a year. Confession had already been a practice of the Catholic Church for centuries, but outside of the monasteries it was not practiced frequently. When practiced at all, it was usually reserved for very serious sins or for a sacrament on one’s deathbed. Many Christians would never have confessed at all.

Depiction of a deathbed confession

The Counter-Reformation Catholic Church mandated annual confession at Lent; however, it responded to Reformation critiques of the practice by insisting that priests not use certain words and not inquire into specific acts and positions. Although we might be inclined to say that there was a censorship here, what this circumspection in language enabled was greater numbers of sexual interrogations and confessions. Censorship did not contradict the increase in sexual discourses, but rather facilitated that increase. Confession did not begin willingly. The Council of Trent decreed that anyone who did not confess annually be excommunicated. There was mass resistance to this order on the parts of priests, the laity, and even of theologians. Nevertheless, over generations and centuries, the habit of confession was successfully inculcated in most Catholics, to the extent that it became a desire.

The Council of Trent

For Foucault, this is how disciplinary power works: first a practice is forced on you, but if you repeat it enough, it becomes a habit, and eventually a habit becomes a desire. At this point, one ceases to see the act one desires as an effect of power. Thus, confession came to feel like a psychic need, and confession manuals came to complain of “scrupulous” penitents who confessed too often, who came every day, who could never confess enough.

Catholic confession

An important effect of the Council of Trent was that it shifted “the most important moment of transgression from the act itself to the stirrings—so difficult to perceive and formulate—of desire.” For the Church, it was not only adultery that was a sin, but even the glimmer of desire for an adulterous act. Such mental states are often difficult to perceive and to formulate. This means two things: first, the analysis of one’s mind can be endless; second, we require an expert to help us discover and interpret the truth of our inner states. This role of expert was first fulfilled by priests and later by doctors, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts. In these ways, sex became something complicated: it was no longer a matter of acts of which the actor was fully aware. Rather, sex became about subtle mental temptations that might come from the devil, desires that might be unconscious, or whose causality might have unconscious sources. In each case, a certain expertise in deciphering them was required, placing the sexual subject in the hands of priests and, later, of doctors.

Guiseppe Moltini, The Confession

Sexual Confessions Beyond the Church

Although the Catholic Church initially found confession difficult to enforce, once the compulsion to confess was internalized in Western subjects, it not only produced “scrupulous” confessants, but also spread to secular domains.

My Secret Life

Foucault writes of the confessional writings found in My Secret Life and the writings of Sade. Of the author of My Secret Life, he writes: “This nameless Englishman will serve better than his queen as the central figure for a sexuality whose main features were already taking shape with the Christian pastoral.” For Foucault, the author of this autobiographically pornographic work, offered up as a quasi- scientific contribution to human knowledge, supplants Queen Victoria as exemplary of the modern age. We are not so much “other Victorians” as we are beings who compulsively turn sex into discourse.

The famous couch as site of psychoanalytic confession

One explanation for the spread of sexual confession from a religious to a secular practice is that once Western subjects internalized the habit of confession, they would create new outlets for this habit as the Church became less central to their lives. Foucault argues, however, that the secularization of confession also occurred because of the creation of new technologies to elicit confessions outside the Church. These arose as a result of the vested interests that scientists and the state came to have in hearing people speak about sex. He writes that:

“Toward the beginning of the eighteenth century there emerged a political, economic, and technical incitement to talk about sex.”

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality

At this point, Foucault argues that sex became: “in the nature of a public potential; it called for management procedures.” For the first time, states needed to know how many children were being born within their borders, and in what contexts: how many are legitimate and how many are illegitimate? Who is raising them? Are people using birth control? How many people are having nonreproductive sex or are in nonreproductive relationships? At what age are people having children? What groups of people are having the most children? How many children are people having on average? How much perversity is there in the country? Is the population degenerating or decadent or in decline? All this was necessary to forecast labor and military power, or was caught up with political and economic concerns.

The census

The result of these concerns was a new fervor to gather information about sex. For the first time, demographers were sent out to ask people about their sexual practices and statistics were generated. Beyond these demographic inquiries, sexual confessions were elicited by scientists, by doctors, and in the realm of criminal justice. In all these cases sex was presented as dangerous, and this was why experts needed to know about it.

Much as the Church had used the sinfulness of sex as an excuse to inquire into it, so doctors used the potential dangerousness of sex to health and the population. Sex could endanger individuals in the form of diseases and unwanted pregnancies, and it could endanger populations should the wrong people reproduce. For all these reasons, doctors were justified to ask about sex so that they or others could intervene in it. Just like Catholics in the sixteenth century initially resisted the order to confess, however, so Foucault thinks that at first patients would have been wary of the obligation to confess to doctors. While we have today become used to doctors questioning us about our sexuality, nineteenth-century patients would not have immediately seen why such intrusive inquiries were justified. Foucault describes five methods that doctors developed to quell these suspicions.

1 First, doctors employed a “clinical codification of the inducement to speak,” which is similar to the “neutralization” of language in the Catholic confessional after Reformation critiques, and in the sexual education courses, of which Foucault also writes. Against allegations of sexual curiosity, priests were instructed to keep their interrogations into the sexual lives of confessants vague and couched in codified language. Similarly, patients were reassured that the questions were professional and of scientific interest by the use of technical terminology.

2 Second, medical interrogations into patients’ sex lives were justified through “the postulate of a general and diffuse causality.” As Foucault writes,

“Having to tell everything, being able to pose questions about everything, found their justification in the principle that endowed sex with an inexhaustible and polymorphous causal power.”

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality
Samuel Tissot’s treatise on masturbation, translated as: On Onania: A Treatise Upon the Disorders Produced by Masturbation

A striking example of such diffuse causal power being attributed to sexual acts is the case of masturbation. Beginning in the late 18th century and continuing well into the 20th century, parents and children were instructed by doctors that masturbation could cause paleness, sweating, trembling, bags under the eyes, difficulties in concentration, troubles in equilibrium, and eventually led to the softening of the brain, lesions to the bone marrow, epileptic fits, loss of consciousness, and premature death. For example, in his influential medical treatise on masturbation, Samuel Tissot declared:

“Frequent emissions of semen relax, weaken, dry, enervate the body, and produce numerous other evils, as apoplexies, lethargies, epilepsies, loss of sight, trembling, paralysis, and all kinds of painful affections.”

Samuel Tissot, On Onania: A Treatise Upon the Disorders Produced by Masturbation
A depiction of a man supposedly debilitated by masturbation (1845)
A man dying from “onanism” or “self-pollution” – two Victorian terms for masturbation (1845)

As a sin of youth, masturbation threatened to undermine the entire fabric of society, or was a serious threat to population. In this case as in others, private sexual acts took on enormous proportions in the modern imaginary. The positing of such dramatic dangers to a child’s health justified a doctor questioning a child about his masturbatory habits; just as, centuries earlier, the understanding of masturbation as a mortal sin permitted intrusive soliciting of sexual confessions from adolescents on the part of priests. As Foucault writes,

“The limitless dangers that sex carried with it justified the exhaustive character of the inquisition to which it was subjected.”

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality

Today we realize that nineteenth- century doctors were mistaken about the debilitating effects that they attributed to many sex acts, but by now we are so used to sexual confessions being required of us that we give them willingly, and the postulate of a “general and diffuse causality” has done its work.

Hiding sex

3 The third justification for inquisitiveness on the part of nineteenth- century doctors was “the principle of a latency intrinsic to sexuality.” Freud saw this, for instance, in the relegation of sexual impulses to the unconscious. Doctors and sexologists were required to extract confessions because sex was not only dangerous but had a tendency to remain hidden.

Freud and his followers, other early medical practitioners of the psychoanalytic method

4 Similarly, the fourth reason Victorian doctors had to extract sexual confessions was that sexuality was now known to be extremely complex, and to require experts to interpret it.

A 19th-century chimney sweeper

5 Finally, having doctors listen to sexual confessions was scientifically justified “through the medicalization of the effects of confession.” Patients came to believe that just talking about sex with an expert could be therapeutic not only for their sexual problems but for all the other problems to which sex was tenuously linked as well. This is an assumption that Freud and Breuer would elaborate when they wrote about the “talking cure” in their Studies on Hysteria. In this early work, Freud and Breuer thought that the act of patients confessing to them led to them being cured of their psychological and hysterically physiological ailments: confession served as “chimney sweeping,” and the psyche was clean afterward. Freud would quickly reject the notion of confession as magically cathartic, and would realize that talking could repeat rather than heal trauma within a relation of transference. The transference relation, and not mere confession, was also the means through which healing could occur. Despite Freud’s later and more nuanced view, it is the early and immature psychoanalytic notion of a “talking cure” that has remained influential in popular psychology: we believe that speaking is therapeutic and silence always indicates oppression.

The Talking Cure

The popularization of the notion of a “talking cure” is an enormous incitement to confessional discourse today, even though it was almost immediately rejected within psychoanalytic theory itself. As a result of these incitements, Foucault writes that there has been a “radiation” of discourses about sex throughout society. The effects of these radiating discourses are a medicalization of sex and a society convinced of the importance and dangers of sex, vigilant in the need to talk about sex, and to report anything abnormal to authorities.

Image from a bestiary

As a result, Foucault describes the modern, Western subject as a bête d’aveu. While this has been translated as “confessing animal,” Foucault’s use of the word bête rather than animal is significant, as it suggests a greater degree of passivity. In French bête is also used to mean “stupid,” and to be a bête with respect to something means that one cannot help but to do it or that it is compulsive.

Television talk shows are one example of the modern confessional

This transformation of the Western subject into a bête d’aveu has meant a change not only in how we talk to doctors and lovers, but transformations in literature, politics, and philosophy. We have invented confessional genres; we are prolific writers of autobiographies, memoirs, diaries and letters; we are consumers and producers of reality television, confessional talk shows, social networking and blogs; we are increasingly habituated to the public confessions of politicians. Even philosophers have turned inward to find the truth: we have ceased to seek answers about the cosmos, God, space, and time, and instead seek the truths of our selves. In the late 18th century, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau would write his Confessions, and these began with an exploration of his sexual masochism. As Foucault argues, sex is not what we are secretive about; on the contrary, sex has become what we confess. The second lecture for this module explores the power effects of sexual confession as Foucault understood them. It also discusses the most controversial part of The History of Sexuality, which has alienated many feminists from Foucault’s work. This lecture covers Part 3 of The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, which you are not assigned to read.

Video Lecture: Foucault: The Perverse Implantation (10:22)


Although Foucault has shown throughout the first three parts of The History of Sexuality that power is working not so much to repress sex as to constitute it, in Part Four he argues that we do not recognize power in its constitutive or socially constructive forms. Indeed, we tend only to recognize power when it occurs as discursive prohibition, censorship, or repression. We thus fail to see power as power when it does not come in the form of the law. For Foucault, this is because

“Power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms.”

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality

So far as power is successful, we are usually not aware of it, according to Foucault.

Discipline and Punish

In a book he published shortly before The History of Sexuality, titled Discipline and Punish, Foucault introduced a distinction between the form of power that had been dominant for most of Western history – what he calls “sovereign power,” since its most obvious manifestation was the power of sovereigns, kings, or rulers over their people – and a new form of power that he saw as having emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries, and which characterized the 20th century. He calls this new form of power “disciplinary power” and saw it functioning primarily through disciplinary institutions such as prisons and schools, and, importantly, through science and medicine.

Foucault argued that disciplinary power is more efficient than traditional, legal, juridical, or sovereign power precisely because it is not self-evident, is not expressed for all to see in the form of public laws or blatantly violent spectacles. Instead, disciplinary power is subtle, internalized, and hidden: very often it does not even seem like power. When we are disciplined to behave in certain ways, and have internalized this discipline, we may feel that, far from being subjected to power, we are acting of our own volition. Disciplinary power is not recognized as power because it is experienced as coming from within rather than without us, and because it works through relations with doctors, teachers, parents, social workers, and psychiatrists. In each case, we believe that these individuals are helping us, caring for us, educating us, or healing us—to some extent, they may be—and thus we submit to them voluntarily and do not see this submission as an effect of power. And yet, Foucault writes:

“To conceive of power on the basis of [sovereignty] is to conceive of it in terms of a historical form that is characteristic of our societies: the juridical monarchy. Characteristic yet transitory. For while many of its forms have persisted to the present, it has gradually been penetrated by quite new mechanisms of power that are probably irreducible to the representation of law.”

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality
Thomas Hobbes’ 17th-century philosophical book, The Leviathan, which theorizes sovereign power

For Foucault, philosophical descriptions of legal-juridical power (such as those of the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes’) are “useful for representing . . . A power that was centered primarily around deduction and death”; however, such descriptions are, in his words:

“utterly incongruous with the new methods of power whose operation is not ensured by right but by technique, not by law but by normalization, not by punishment but by control, methods that are employed on all levels and in forms that go beyond the state and its apparatus.”

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality

Thus, the sovereign model of power is not useful for understanding what Foucault calls disciplinary power and – in Part Five of The History of Sexuality – “biopower,” because these new forms of power are not legal or juridical, they do not operate primarily through law codes and the shedding of blood, but rather through the management of life and normalization. Consequently, Foucault argues that:

“We must construct an analytics of power that no longer takes law as a model and a code… We must at the same time conceive of sex without the law, and power without the king.”

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality

The third and final video lecture for this module explores in more detail how Foucault develops his arguments about power in the context of The History of Sexuality. This lecture covers Parts 4 and 5 of The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, which you are not assigned to read.

Video Lecture: Michel Foucault: Power (12:20)

Acknowledgement: This module draws on the instructor’s book, The Routledge Guidebook to Foucault’s The History of Sexuality (2016), a manual intended for undergraduate students that was itself written using lecture notes for earlier iterations of this course as a starting point.