So far in this course we have explored a number of philosophical questions about sex. In particular, we have asked what sex is, both with reference to sex as an act and to sex as a set of biological categories. We have also asked whether sex is a natural phenomenon or whether it is a social construct. How we answer this question has repercussions for how we think the study of sex should be approached: is this a matter that is best researched by scientists or by social scientists and social justice scholars? As we saw in the last three modules, the notion of sex, as well as philosophical and scientific explorations of this topic, date back to antiquity and continue into the present.

At this point in the course, we will shift our attention from sex to sexualities, and the latter, as we will see, are a much more recent concept or, arguably, a much more recent invention. That is, while sexualities, like sex, are usually assumed to be naturally occurring phenomena, in this module and those that follow, we will see arguments to the effect that sexualities are in fact social constructs that date only to the modern era. This does not mean that people in earlier historical periods did not engage in and enjoy all the same types of sex that modern people do. Rather, it suggests that they did not see these activities and pleasures as related to their identities. While today it is possible to have an “A – Z List of Sexualities” so that everyone can “find their label” – and knowing your sexual label is seen as crucial for understanding who you are – such a catalogue of identities only emerged with the invention of the sexual sciences in the late 18th and 19th centuries. As was mentioned in Module 1, sexual scientists such as Krafft-Ebing wrote the first catalogues of sexualities, which they called “perversions,” in works such as Psychopathia Sexualis. Today, while we have largely rejected the language of “perversions” or sexual pathology” to refer to many of the sexual identities in Krafft-Ebing’s catalogue, we have not rejected the idea that sex is something to be catalogued and taxonomized, and that each of us has a sexual identity or label.

The arguments that sexualities are social constructs and modern inventions of the sexual sciences will be introduced in this module through a detailed discussion of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Please note that as with Plato’s Symposium and Aristotle’s On the Generation of Animals, this is a difficult philosophical work, and you are not expected to understand everything about it or to retain every detail of the discussion and lectures. The idea is simply to give you a general overview and initial glimpse of some of the arguments in this book which has been central to the development of queer theory and sexuality studies.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this module, you should be able to:

  • Explain why sexuality studies scholars see sexuality as a social construct
  • Recognize the difference between sexual acts or behaviour and sexual identities
  • Understand Foucault’s theory of the repressive hypothesis