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Category: Philosophy : Philosophers

The History of Sexuality

Michel Foucault's "The History of Sexuality" pioneered queer theory. In it, he builds an argument grounded in a historical analysis of the word "sexuality" against the common thesis that sexuality always has been repressed in Western society. Quite the contrary: since the 17th century, there has been a fixation with sexuality creating a discourse around it. It is this discourse that has created sexual minorities.



In "The History of Sexuality", Foucault attempts to disprove the thesis that Western society has seen a repression of sexuality since the 17th century and that sexuality has been unmentionable, something impossible to speak about. In the 70ies, when the book was written, the sexual revolution was a fact. The ideas of the psychoanalyst Wilhem Reich, saying that to conserve your mental health you needed to liberate your sexual energy, were popular. The past was seen as a dark age where sexuality had been something forbidden.

Foucault, on the other hand, states that Western culture has long been fixated on sexuality. We call it a repression. Rather, the social convention not to mention sexuality has created a discourse around it, thereby making sexuality ubiquitous. This would not have been the case, had it been thought of as something quite natural. The concept "sexuality" itself is a result of this discourse. And the interdictions also have constructive power: they have created sexual identities and a multiplicity of sexualities that would not have existed otherwise.

Confession is the basis of sexuality

Historically, there have been two ways of viewing sexuality, according to Foucault. In China, Japan, India and the Roman Empire, it has been seen as an "ars erotica", "erotic art", where sex is seen as an art and a special experience and not something dirty and shameful. It is something to be kept secret, but only because of the view that it would lose its power and its pleasure if spoken about.

In Western society, on the other hand, something completely different has been created, what Foucault calls "scientia sexualis", the science of sexuality. It is originally (17th century) based on a phenomenon diametrically opposed to ars erotica: the confession. It is not just a question of the Christian confession, but more generally the urge to talk about it. A fixation with finding out the "truth" about sexuality arises, a truth that is to be confessed. It is as if sexuality did not exist unless it is confessed. Foucault writes:

We have since become an extraordinarily confessing society. Confession has spread its effects far and wide: in the judicial system, in medicine, in pedagogy, in familial relations, in amorous relationships, in everyday life and in the most solemn rituals; crimes are confessed, sins are confessed, thoughts and desires are confessed, one's past and one's dreams are confessed, one's childhood is confessed; one's diseases and problems are confessed;...1

This forms a strong criticism of psychoanalysis, representing the modern, scientific form of confession. Foucault sees psychoanalysis as a legitimization of sexual confession. In it, everything is explained in terms of repressed sexuality and the psychologist becomes the sole interpreter of it. Sexuality is no longer just something people hide, but it is also hidden from themselves, which gives the theological, minute confession a new life.

"Coming out" as a concept did not exist when Foucault wrote "The History of Sexuality", but this process of confessing homosexuality can surely be interpreted as an expression of this urge to confess. There seems to be a compulsion to reveal one's sexuality to confirm its existence in our society. In ars erotica, a very different view is held, and people are content to let it remain a secret in the positive sense of the word.

The reason sexuality should be confessed is to be found in the Christian view of it. It was not, as it is today, seen as a strong, obvious force, but as something treacherous, something only to be found by careful introspection. Therefore every detail had to be laid forth in confession; every trace of pleasure experienced had to be examined to find the traces of sin.

In this attention to details the reason sexuality is given such importance in our society is to be found. Making sexuality something sinful did not make it disappear. Quite the contrary: it was reinforced and became something to be noticed everywhere.

Power relations

There was also an element of social control in this. A power relation was created between the preacher and the confessant, between the psychoanalyst and his patient. Power relations are to Foucault central to any analysis of society, and this is especially true for sexuality. Power relations are formed in all relations where differences exist.

What Foucault means by power is not necessarily what is ordinarily meant by the word. It is something ubiquitous and cannot be thought of as dual, as creating a division between those dominating and those being dominated. Power in Foucault's meaning of the word is not an exclusively negative force. He claims that we have had a juridical view of power in our society; we tend to see it as something negative, oppressing, defining what is not to be done.

Instead, power is the basis of Foucault's analysis of society. Common power relations related to sexuality are, in addition to the ones mentioned between the one who confesses and the one that receives the confession, those between teacher and pupil, between parent and child, and between doctor and patient.

Sexuality in the 19th century

Go to Thomas Kuhn is a philosopher of the history of science, who claims we should understand how what is now seen as prejudice could be accepted as science.
With enlightenment, the view of sexuality as something sinful to be confessed mutated. It was adapted to modern demands of rationality by turning itself into a science. Foucault makes a strong distinction between what we would still today call science and a prejudicial doctrine on human procreation.

Comparing these discourses on human sexuality to those from the same epoch on animal and vegetal reproduction, the difference is surprising. Their weak tenability - I won't even say in scientificity, but in elementary logic, places them apart in the history of knowledge.2

The doctrines on sexuality postulated several "unnatural" sexual behaviors. In the 16th century, the focus was on regulating the sexuality of the married couple, ignoring other forms of sexual relations, but now other groups were identified: the sexuality of children, criminals, mentally ill and gays.

"The perverse" became a group, instead of an attribute. Sexuality became seen as the core of some peoples' identity. Homosexual relations had been seen as a sin that could be committed from time to time, but now a group of "homosexuals" emerged. Foucault writes: "The sodomite was a recidivist, but the homosexual is now a species."

The homosexual of the 19th century became a person: a past, a history and an adolescence, a personality, a life style; also a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mystical physiology. Nothing of his full personality escapes his sexuality. 3

Seeing gays as a group is now taken for granted, but before the 18th century the idea would never had occurred to ask the question whether homosexuality is a function of heredity or of upbringing. It was simply not seen as being a fundamental part of the person, but instead as an action, something s/he did.

But homosexuality was not the only object of study for the medical "science". Foucault identifies four reoccurring themes:

Foucault emphasizes that the aim of these new moral codes was not to abolish all forms of sexuality, but instead to preserve health and procreation. Many forms of sexuality were seen as harmful and they wanted to protect health and the purity of the race. A mixture of ideas on population growth, venereal diseases and heredity ("degeneration" was to be avoided) created the idea that many forms of sexual conduct where dangerous.


Now that sexual actions were being identified and their naturalness and healthiness was analyzed, the concept of "sexuality" was created. Foucault comments on the four phenomena mentioned above:

What are these strategies about? A struggle against sexuality? Or an attempt to control it? ... Actually, it is rather the production of sexuality. It should not be conceived of as a distinction founded in nature that power attempts to subdue, or as a dark domain that knowledge attempts to gradually uncover. It is the name that can be given to a historical measure... 4

Go to An essay on the debate constructivism-essentialism that attempts to refute the thesis that "the homosexual" as a category should not have existed during antiquity.
This view makes Foucault one of the first constructivists in this area, claiming that sexuality and sexual conduct is not a natural category, having a foundation in reality. Instead it is a question of social constructions, categories only having an existence in a society, and that probably are not applicable to other societies than our own.

This is why we should not speak of "homosexuality" in for example antique Greece. What we now call homosexuality cannot exist outside our specific cultural context. The same goes for all sexuality. Sexual intercourse is necessary for procreation, but that does not mean that sexuality, comprising and theorizing about all erotic behavior, is a natural or necessary category. Sexuality is more than sexual behavior. The largest part of its meaning lies in its cultural connotations.

It is this view that has given "The History of Sexuality" its significance. For the first time, sexuality is analyzed as a social construction, a perspective making it possible to study the origins and the development of our view of sexuality in a totally new way.

Quotes in the original language:
Nous sommes devenus, depuis lors, une société singulièrement avouante. L'aveu a diffusé loin ses effets: dans la justice, dans la médecine, dans la pédagogie, dans les rapports familiaux, dans les relations amoureuses, dans l'ordre le plus quotidien, et dans les rites les plus solennels; on avoue ses crimes, on avoue ses péchés, on avoue ses pensées et ses désirs, on avoue son passé et ses rêves, on avoue son enfance; on avoue ses maladies et ses misères;...
Quand on compare ces discours sur la sexualité humaine, à ce qu'était à la même époque la physiologie de la reproduction animale ou végétale, le décalage surprend. Leur faible teneur, je ne dis même pas en scientificité, mais en rationalité élémentaire, les mets à part dans l'histoire des connaissances.
L'homosexuel du XIXe siècle est devenu un personnage: un passé, une histoire et une enfance, un caractère, une forme de vie; une morphologie aussi, avec une anatomie indiscrète et peut-être une physiologie mystérieuse. Rien de ce qu'il est au total n'échappe à sa sexualité.
Dans ces stratégies, de quoi s'agit-il? D'une lutte contre la sexualité? Ou d'un effort pour en prendre le contrôle? D'une tentative pour mieux régir et masquer ce qu'elle peut avoir d'indiscret, de voyant, d'indocile? Une façon de formuler sur elle cette part de savoir qui serait tout juste acceptable ou utile? En fait, il s'agit plutôt de la production même de la sexualité. Celle-ci, il ne faut pas la concevoir comme une sorte donnée de nature que le pouvoir essaierait de mater, ou comme un domaine obscur que le savoir tenterait, peu à peu, de dévoiler. C'est le nom qu'on peut donner à un dispositif historique: non pas réalité d'en dessous sur laquelle on exercerait des prises difficiles, mais grand réseau de surface où la stimulation des corps, l'intensification des plaisirs, l'incitation au discours, la formation des connaissances, le renforcement des contrôles et des résistances, s'enchaînent les uns avec les autres, selon quelques grandes stratégies de savoir et de pouvoir.

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