History of Sexuality, Foucault-an Overview

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The History of Sexuality
Will of Knowledge, Vol. 1
Michel Foucault, 1976

About Foucault

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) is one of the prominent sociologists in the contemporary world. He held a chair at the prestigious Collège de France with the title "History of Systems of Thought," and also taught at the University at Buffalo and the University of California, Berkeley.

Some of Foucault’s major contributions have been in the area of power and knowledge. He wrote frequently for French newspapers and reviews. Among his major publications are Madness and Civilization (1961); The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972); The Birth of the Clinic (1973); and three volumes of The History of Sexuality (1976, 1984). Some of Foucault’s works were published after his death in 1984.

The History of Sexuality- Will of Knowledge, Vol. 1


In his book The History of Sexuality, Will of Knowledge, Vol. 1, Foucault refutes the widely accepted notion that before the 17th century sexuality was more open and naturally expressed. The code of conduct regarding the obscene, illicit and indecent was not so rigid. However, post 17th century with the rise of the bourgeoisie especially in the Victorian era, sexuality is constrained and repressed. Even at the level of speech censorship became the norm when talking about sex itself in the bourgeois society.

Foucault’s interpretation of history however disputes this narrative and claims otherwise. Through the course of the book he shows that instead of being repressed the discourse on sexuality has been “subjected to a mechanism of increased incitement” (pg 12). Moreover, Foucault’s main concern in this book is to understand that how did sexuality come to be a discourse, and object of discussion, a kind of knowledge and the power we find in that knowledge.


Foucault is influenced by Nietzsche’s understanding of genealogy and origin. By origin Nietzsche means something that has a fixed starting point from which it evolved whereas in genealogy there is no fixed starting point, current state of the thing is seen to have taken a random path to reach where it is today. Nietzsche uses the genealogy model to trace the evolution of morals and shows that our current sense of right or wrong are the result of random evolution of human society. Foucault borrows this concept to trace the genealogy of sexuality to show that the concept of sexuality evolved in the nineteenth century with the coming together of scientific discourse and confession. Before the nineteenth century, there was no such thing as "sexuality," as such. What is Repressive Hypothesis?

The ideology of “repressive hypothesis” guides the current belief that over the past three hundred years the history of sexuality has been repressed. Silence became the rule in matters related to sex which was seen as legitimate only between a conjugal family, for the purpose of reproduction.

Repressive hypothesis is based on the premise that for the bourgeois sex is incompatible with the intensive work imperative logic of capitalism. So spending time and energy in sexual pursuits was seen as wasteful. It is then seen as a private affair which is legitimate and permissible between husband and wife. Sex outside this conjugal relation is repressed. However, the improper sexual feelings could be released safely through prostitution and psychiatry which were outside the confines of conventional morality.


The term discourse is used in the course of the book at various places. For Foucault in a discourse it is vital to understand who is speaking, in what context, about what and from what perspective. Whoever does the talking also determines what can be known and how the listener should think. In this sense he relates power with knowledge.

Disagreement with Repressive Hypothesis

Foucault agrees with the basic premise of the repressive hypothesis that there have been efforts to control sex and even its...
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