Peppermint (inki) wrote,

Foucault's "A History of Sexuality Volume 1"

I wrote this up as notes for a presentation for the poly theory group I have been running. However, it stands on its own as a nice summary of Michel Foucault's greatest work, with some embellishment of my own.

Michel Foucault's
A History Of Sexuality: Volume 1

Foucault's Approach

Foucault's books are shelved in the Philosophy section of the bookstore or library, but they have generally been miscategorized. Foucault was more of a historian than he was a philosopher. Specifically, he was a historian of ideas. So his history of sexuality is not a history of the act of sex, or a history of how people expressed their sexuality. Rather, it is a history of the idea of sexuality. Foucault's other books follow a similar pattern: Madness and Civilization is a history of the ideas of insanity and mental health, The Order of Things is a history of the idea of science, and so on.


Discourse is the set of ways that people talk, think about, and communicate an idea or a conceptual framework. Discourse is not just communication, but the entire social and cultural context where the communication is happening. So a "discourse on homosexuality" includes not just what people say about homosexuality, but also their motivation for saying it, the motivation of the listeners for listening to it, the forum it is said in, and any underlying concepts that the speaker assumes.

Silences on a subject are equally important in any study of discourse. So it is important to consider the things that are not said, why they are specifically omitted, denied, or ignored, and the social constraints under which the silence occurs. For example, the discourse on homosexuality has always included a purposeful silence that we refer to as "the closet".

Discourse at the individual level has a circular relationship to the discourse of the culture as a whole, embodied in media, books, and social interaction. This is to say, people often borrow their discursive techniques from media, the larger culture, or "common sense". At the same time, the media, common sense, and indeed the culture is constantly being produced and reproduced by individuals. To properly analyze discourse, we need to consider both the cultural assumption and the individual's conceptual framework.

Power Relationships

Power relationships are relationships between people which are generally conceptualized to have an imbalance of power. For example: teacher and student, parent and child, psychiatrist and patient, priest and parishioner, boss and laborer, husband and wife. Foucault sometimes calls these "force relationships", when they include the threat or presence of physical force. In these relationships, both members have influence over each other, but one has much greater influence over the other.

It is possible to abstract these relationships somewhat, and use the term "power relationship" for pretty much any interaction between people where one person has influence on another. However, pretty much any interaction between humans includes some kind of influence, so we can analyze all of human social interaction and culture in terms of these micro-level influences. Power is therefore inescapable in human interaction, but the intensity, nature, and effect of power can be alleviated or altered.

In this view, cultural and social forces act at the very micro level, between people. In other words, you don't wear certain clothing because the culture or television has brainwashed you into doing so. Instead you wear it because your parents, girlfriend, or boss wanted you to. Each person sits at the center of a small web made up of their interactions with other people, tugged this way and that by various influences. Therefore, the position of the individual is strategic: they are constantly making decisions by balancing social influences, and their actions are determined by their particular situation and its attendant influences.

In this book, Foucault lays out a technique for analyzing this kind of power, and then applies the technique to the history of discourse on sexuality. It was this technique and the conceptualization of social power as much as the subject matter (sexuality) that made the book famous.

Discourse and Power

Discourse is the medium through which this power is exerted. Not only is discourse the communication channel between people, but discourse is also used to determine what actions are promising, productive, or acceptable, by determining the manner in which people think on a subject. I call this determination a "discursive framework". Discursive frameworks do not conflict at the level of Western rationalism - it is perfectly possible to simultaneously hold frameworks which are logically inconsistent. Instead, they conflict at the level of action, and I call this conflict "discursive struggle". Discursive struggle can be internal to a person or external (or both), and it is both specific to a particular situation and strategic.

Some discourses are more useful for power than others, depending on the particular historical culture and power relationship situation. These discourses spread quickly throughout a population, in a manner that invokes viral analogies. However, these virus-like conceptual frameworks do not hurt their hosts, but are rather advantageous to their hosts, and this is the force behind their spread. Polyamory is currently one such discourse. Coming out as homosexual is another recent discourse, one which has perhaps reached the limits of its spread and is thoroughly ensconced in the cultural imagination.

Foucault's History of Sexuality is the history of one particular viral discourse, namely the discourse of sexuality. In Volume 1, he tracks the invention of its form and charts its spread to the modern era. In Volumes 2 and 3, he goes back through history, delving into the precursors of sexuality: Christian asceticism and Greek and Roman models of sex.


Prior to the 1800's, sexuality as we know it did not exist, which is not to say that people did not have sex, or that people did not think about sex and its effects on the body. Rather, a person's sexual habits were just habits, akin to food preferences. There were judgments on some of these habits as immoral, but the offense of that immorality was against the law, religion, and society. It was not evidence of infirmity, degeneracy, or perversion.

Much of the ordering of society which is now done through sexuality was then accomplished through what Foucault calls a deployment of alliance, namely wealth marriage, kinship ties, legitimacy, possession, and inheritance.

The roots of sexuality are in Catholic penance and the dynamic of confession that it produced. Confession of sins of the flesh was originally created to manage and reinforce the system of alliance that already existed, in other words to guard against illegitimacy and adultery. Confession came to focus more on the sensations of the body: transgressions of the flesh. This was a definite strategy of power, as confessions of bodily sins simultaneously provided restriction and incitement, both of which were effective for control. In this strategy, sexuality was born.

It spread next to schools for boys, where the administrators were enjoined to be aware of the possible sexual adventures of the students, in a dynamic that was not much different from that between the priest and parishioner. The goal was to produce healthy young men, keeping them from the temptations of desire or onanism, which were seen as physically and morally corrupting.

From there, it moved on to the family, enlisting parents and relatives to be on guard against the precocious sexuality of children, and they in turn enlisted doctors and educators in the project. However, soon the entire family was implicated in sexuality. A theory of hereditary degeneracy took hold, where parents could be blamed for the sexual sins of their children, and in turn parents who practiced a healthy or moral sexuality could expect their children to do the same. Healthy or uncorrupted sex became a mark of pride for the bourgeois, similar to "blood" for the noble class.

This focus on proper family relations quickly produced a number of studies of aberrations, which were necessary to its development. Foucault puts it better than I can:

"Then these new personages made their appearance: the nervous woman, the frigid wife, the indifferent mother - or worse, the mother beset by murderous obsessions - the impotent, sadistic, perverse husband, the hysterical or neurasthenic girl, the precocious and already exhausted child, and the young homosexual who rejects marriage or neglects his wife."

Medicine took over as the authority under which this regime was maintained. The family was put under surveillance to protect it from degeneracy - it was required to give a full and complete accounting of itself to doctors, psychiatrists, and other experts.

As part of this process of pathologization, medicine turned its gaze away from the heterosexual monogamous couple, focusing instead on deviations from the norm, the sexuality of criminals, the insane, children, and those who did not like the opposite sex. The homosexual was conceptualized (in 1870) as a person who sexuality suffused his entire being, and his condition was permanent, embodied, and dire. Along with the homosexual came a number of other perversions that have since been forgotten:

"The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species. So too were all those minor perverts whom nineteenth-century psychiatrists entomologized by giving them strange baptismal names: there were Krafft-Ebing's zoophiles and zooerasts, Rohleder's auto-monosexualists; and later, mixoscophiles, gynecomasts, presbyophiles, sexoesthetic inverts, and dyspareunist women."

This ongoing practice finished up with the creation of the general category of the fetish, which could conveniently be applied to any object, body part, or situation. In this manner the circle was closed around normative sexuality, by the pathologization of everything else. Foucault referred to this production of sexually perversity as the perverse implantation.

Around the turn of the century, the theory of sexual repression was born. This theory neatly reversed the terms of the debate. The pathology and danger which had historically been associated with an unrestrained sexuality were blamed on the repression of that sexuality. The confessions, perversions, and incessant questing after a healthy sexuality all continued, of course. However, the theory of sexual repression operated as a more effective power technique, because it required people to produce potentially endless sexual discourse in order to claim a healthy sexuality. Before, the interviews and confessions had been in the pursuit of a malady that could theoretically be found, cured, and forgotten. Now, the same production of discursive sexuality was the sign of health itself.

The Construction of Sexuality

Foucault uses the term sexualization to describe the spread of sexuality through power relationships and subsequently through culture. Sexuality can infect not just relationships but also spaces (the dorm, school, or workplace), stages of life (the sexuality of children), and certain practices (the sexuality of the invert, fetishist, or homosexual).

The insertion of sexuality into these media often seems to be an essentially repressive act. For example, you are not supposed act sexually in the classroom, workplace, or with people of the same sex. However, constantly being on guard against sexual behavior in fact places sexuality squarely in the forefront of our brains, which is an effective creation of sexual discourse, and often desire itself. So the bans on sexuality in these spaces are always ineffective, not because sexuality bubbles up and wins out over this repression, but because the prohibition itself is in fact sexual. The purpose of the sexual bans is not to stop sex, but rather to insert a certain kind of power into the situation, space, or person.

This is the heart of Foucault's argument: sexualization is not a repressive regime, but rather it is a creative and indeed productive technique of power, which uses sexuality as its conceptual bedrock, and spreads sexuality when it is able, according to the dictates of power. To put it plainly, the sex that people have, desire, and discuss is a production of discursive power, not solely the expression of a natural sexuality that bubbles up from the unconscious physical drives. Foucault uses the word implantation to describe this process of sexual creation.

Therefore, the perverse implantation was not just a process of categorizing or ferreting out perversions that had already existed, but rather a process of imagining and finding that behavior in people as part of a mechanism of exerting power, a process that actually produces, incites, or encourages those perversions as a side effect. As we will see in the examples section below, this process has continued through to the current day.

"Reverse" Discourse

Any particular discourse is not necessarily good or bad, oppressive or liberatory. Rather, discourse is just a medium through which power flows, and this flow can often be reversed via the discourse without challenging the fundamental assumptions or concepts on which the discourse relies. Foucault was excited by the possibility of these "reverse" discourses (which should not be confused with a complete reversal, or overturning, of discourse) for their liberatory potential.

The simplest example of reverse discourse is the reclaiming of terminology. In the last half century, we have seen the purposeful reclaiming of gay, dyke, queer, slut, pervert, and witch, among many others. Reclaiming a word does not significantly change the word's meaning, even though that meaning was typically created as a mechanism of repression. Rather, reclaiming borrows its power from the vagueness and force of the term without altering those qualities. It only seeks to change the value judgment or connotation of the term.


The Hysterical Woman

Hysteria and a complete catalog of similar vague afflictions, while pathologizing, represented a turning point for the sexuality of women, who have historically been seen as asexual or sexual objects rather than subjects, and who have generally been enjoined from touching themselves by various moral and health authorities. Doctors were put in charge of fully managing the sexuality of hysterical women, a duty which included producing a "hysterical climax", something that we might call an orgasm. To alleviate the wear and tear on their suffering wrists, the doctors introduced water spray devices, minor electrocution devices, and eventually the vibrator in 1880. The vibrator eventually escaped the office, and by 1920 was showing up in erotic films. (I got this information from Rachel P. Maines, who lays out the entire history of the vibrator in her book "The Technology of Orgasm", in which she borrows Foucault's historical analysis techniques.)

The female clitoral orgasm was "discovered" in 1905, perhaps not coincidentally. It was of course immediately dismissed as unimportant compared with vaginal orgasm. Freud considered clitoral orgasm to be immature and unhealthy. It was not until the 1970's that clitoral orgasm was widely valued by the culture.

The vibrator is a great example of the productive power of the discourse of sexuality. It was directly created by an assertion of power (the doctor's power over a woman's sexuality). It represents a physical technique derived from the power arrangements of sexuality, though of course to this day they are still sold as "muscle massagers". It should be noted that similar advances in women's sexual technology have also been side effects of the exercise of power: most forms of birth control were actually produced as aids to eugenics or "population control" and were not intended for white women.

Also, it is possible to make the argument that the flowering of women's sexuality in the 1970's was a direct result of the earlier exertions of medical power on hysterical (or frigid) women, because they produced a discourse on women's sexuality, which could eventually be subverted.

The Homosexual

Foucault was a part of the gay rights movement, and his book is really geared towards that same movement. The examples are numerous:

Gay and lesbian civil rights movements are of course the penultimate examples of a reverse discourse. One hundred years ago, the discourse on homosexuality was used to produce torture, submission, and heterosexual conformity. Now the same discourse, with very few modifications, is producing real civil gains, and fundamentally altering the culture.

The closet is a good example of one the silences that discourse requires to be effective. The closet historically has not been a happy place for queers. It is at the same time the requirement to hide a shameful secret ("the love that dare not speak its name") and an "open secret", a stain that leaves its mark on the body, behavior, and attitude so that medical or other authorities can diagnose it.

Coming out established a reverse discourse to the closet. Coming out presupposes all the conditions of the closet: a secret desire that will not be contained, a permanent condition, a confession required for absolution, and so on. The only differences are that people who come out are self-diagnosing instead of being caught or exposed by an authority, and the stigma of homosexuality exposed is relinquished in favor of pride. Coming out formed the backbone of the gay civil rights movements, essentially enlisting new members of the community as foot soldiers and linking their own self-worth to the aims of the entire community. A brutal process for some, rewarding for others, but always effective for the movement.

Foucault theorized that perhaps the deployment of sexuality would eventually fully replace the deployment of alliance, which is to say that people would build power networks around sexuality instead of kin, blood, or property ties. We have already seen examples of this, in the lesbian-feminist communes and gay urban cultures of the 70's.


Poly people are imagining and creating new family structures that are further examples of the continuing creep of the deployment of sexuality. These are based more around emotional investment and physical intimacy than around the structures of the deployment of alliance. Like sexuality itself, these structures are contingent, adaptable, strategic, and diverse, but no less powerful for being so. The emergence of the explicit rethinking of the family should come as no surprise. If you look at the history of nonmonogamous concepts over the last half-century, they have generally tended towards more flexibility over time, from wife-swapping to swinging to open marriages to polyamory, with side trips through the queer cultures I have mentioned. At the end of this slow merging of the sexual and the familial lies structures like polyamory.

The Perverse

BDSM represents a reverse discourse for the entire perverse implantation. Instead of being the various shameful secrets that must be hunted out and then cleaned out, it is the various dark desires ("kinks") that freely speak of themselves. It is perhaps no accident that BDSM originally emerged from gay male communities. While only some perversions have lasted the entire history (fetish being the most important), many of our current kinks are new, and many of the old perverse categorizations are forgotten. However, the framework is the same: a general mechanism for producing diverse sexual peccadilloes. The difference is that the power involved has changed. Originally, perversion was created to enhance medical or psychiatric power and to fortify normal sexuality. Now, it is a self-reflective task, for the personal production of power, pleasure, and understanding.

  • Post a new comment


    Comments allowed for friends only

    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic