University of Minnesota
Communication Studies

Communications Studies' Home Page

The History of Sexuality: An Introduction

The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. (New York: Vintage Books, 1990)
Michel Foucault (trans. Robert Hurley)

Focus of the Book

The History of Sexuality: An Introduction is the first of a promised (but not completed) six-volume study of discourses on sexuality. In this volume, Foucault develops an "analytics of power"—the conceptual instruments that make possible the analysis of sex in terms of power. In addition, Foucault argues that power operates not through the repression of sex, but through the discursive production of sexuality and subjects, emphasizing that the power mechanisms of sexuality are socially constructed, unstable, and historically situated.

Part One

We "Other Victorians"

In this section, Foucault explains, and then, raises doubts to the "repressive hypothesis." Foucault begins by illustrating the difference between seventeenth century sexuality, where "codes regulating the coarse, the obscene, and the indecent were quite lax" (3), and nineteenth century sexuality, where "sexuality was carefully confined; it moved into the home" (3). Foucault argues that this Victorian concept of sexuality influences us today, and "the image of the imperial prude is emblazoned on our restrained, mute, and hypocritical sexuality" (3).

Foucault shows that Victorian sexuality required repression which "operated as a sentence to disappear, but also as an injunction to silence, an affirmation of nonexistence" (4). Such "halting logic" was forced to make a few concessions for illegitimate sexualities. These "Other Victorians" were regulated to a separate space of tolerance—"the brothel and the mental hospital" (4).

Repression is the "fundamental link between power, knowledge, and sexuality" (5) and so its disruption comes at considerable cost. Foucault argues that sex is not easily deciphered, but by reconstructing repression we can analyze it. In other words, repression is a factor which brings sex into discourse so we can talk about it. By speaking about sex, one has the appearance of a "deliberate transgression" that places the speaker, to a certain extent, outside the reach of power (6).

Foucault points out that others have argued that repression coincides with the development of capitalism. Sex is repressed because it is incompatible with the work imperative. However, Foucault believes, "the essential thing is not the economic factor, but the existence of a discourse in which sex, the revelation of truth, the overturning of global laws, the proclamations of a new day to come, and the promise of a new felicity are linked together" (7).

Foucault plans to explore the self-awareness of the individual as the subject of sexuality. In his own words, Foucault's aim is "to examine the case of a society which has been loudly castigating itself for its hypocrisy for more than a century, which speak verbosely of its own silence, takes great pains to relate in detail the things it does not say, denounces the powers it exercises, and promises to liberate itself from the very laws than have made it function. I would like to explore not only these discourses but also the will that sustains them and the strategic intention that supports them" (8).

Foucault raises historical, historico-theoretical, and historico-political doubts to the "repressive hypothesis" (10). Foucault writes that his goal is "aimed less at showing it to be mistaken than at putting it back within a general economy of discourses on sex in modern societies since the seventeenth century" (11).

Foucault outlines his plan for this book; he will define the regime of power-knowledge-pleasure that sustains the discourse on human sexuality. Foucault is interested in the "over-all 'discursive fact,' the way in which sex is 'put into discourse,'" and the "'polymorphous techniques of power'" that influence its formation propagation (11).

Part Two

The Repressive Hypothesis

Chapter One

The Incitement to Discourse

Foucault argues that the seventeenth century was "the beginning of the age of repression" (17). He shows how the steady proliferation of discourses about sex became increasingly precise, especially during confession. Foucault writes, "under the authority of a language that had been carefully expurgated so that it no longer directly named, sex was taken charge a discourse that aimed to allow it not obscurity, no respite" (20).

By transforming desire into discourse, the act of confession gained power over sex. One example Foucault gives is the Christian pastoral which changed desire into discourse; the effect of which was mastery, detachment, and spiritual reconversion of turning back to God (23).

Foucault believes that verbalizing sexual matters might have remained tied to Christianity if it had not been supported and perpetuated by other mechanisms. A "policing of sex" began in the eighteenth century through "useful and public discourses" (25). Foucault discusses this policing through the emergence of "population" as an economic and political problem where society affirmed, through constant observation of the increasing or decreasing population, that "its future and fortune were the manner in which each individual made use of his sex" (26). Foucault also discusses the policing of children's sex where "the sex of the schoolboy became...a public problem" that institutions must regulate through space and through discourses (28). Medicine, criminal justice, and couple's sexuality also "radiated discourses aimed at sex, intensifying people's awareness of it as a constant danger" (31). This created a greater incentive for people to talk about sex.

Instead of something to do, sex became something to say. This talk, over three centuries, formed a diverse, regulated, multi-centered network (34) for discourse. Power operated not through the repression of sex, but through these discursive productions of sexuality and subjects.

Chapter Two

The Perverse Implantation

Foucault asks if the ultimate objective of the proliferation of discourse on sex has been to constitute a politically conservative, economically useful sexuality. He answers this question by writing "I still do not know if this is the ultimate objective. But this much is certain: reduction has not been the means employed for trying to achieve it" (37). Instead, Foucault argues that the nineteenth century has been the "age of multiplication: a dispersion of sexualities, a strengthening of their disparate forms, a multiple implantation of 'perversions'" (37).

Up to the end of the eighteenth century, marriage was the central entity "under constant surveillance" (37) and there was little distinction between breaking the rules of marriage and homosexuality, sodomy, incest, etc. This shifted during the next century: "to deceive one's wife or to violate cadavers, became thing that were essentially different" (39). Offenses were divided between infractions against the legislation (morality) and offenses against the regularity of a natural function.

Instead of prohibiting peripheral sexualities, these sexualities were highlighted, isolated, and incorporated by power different mechanisms, such as medicine, pedagogy, and the law (41). Foucault argues that forms of power were exercised on sex and the body in the following ways:

  • Questionable sexualities, such as children's sexuality, that were "forced into hiding so to make possible their discovery" (42). Surveillance became a device for regulating when illegitimate sexualities appeared.
  • The mechanisms of power that focused on peripheral sexualities "did not aim to suppress it, but rather to give it an analytical, visible, and permanent reality" (44).
  • The "gaze" that resulted in "perpetual spirals of power and pleasure" (45).
  • Places of "maximum saturation" were provided in the family and institutions (47).

Foucault ends this section by restating that instead of agencies of power feigning ignorance and avoiding sexuality, these agencies of power have resulted in multiple centers of power as well as increasing attention, circular linkages, and more site sites of pleasure for sex.

Part Three

Scientia Sexualis

Foucault summaries his argument which is by speaking about sex so much and "by discovering it multiplied, partitioned off, and specified precisely where one had placed it, what one was seeking essentially was simply to conceal sex; a screen –discourse, a dispersion-avoidance" (53, italics mine). Also, the discourse on sex has been marked by the neutral viewpoint of "a science of evasions" that did not speak about sex itself, but instead spoke about aberrations and perversions. This science constructed sexual "morality" as the medical norm.

Throughout the 19th century, sex has been incorporated into two distinct orders of knowledge: a biology of reproduction and a medicine of sex (54). There was no exchange, no reciprocal structuration, between these two orders. Foucault believes that this disparity indicates "that the aim of such a discourse was not to state the truth but to prevent its very emergence" (55). Therefore, discourse on sex had a double function: to sustain "systematic blindnesses" and to give "a paradoxical form to a fundamental petition to know" (55). Foucault gives the example of Charcot that shows they immense apparatus around sex for producing truth, "even if this truth was to be masked at the last moment' (56). Foucault argues that this "interplay of truth and sex" has perpetuated into present day (57).

Foucault argues that their historically has been two procedures for producing truth about sex. Many societies use ars erotica, or erotic art, whereby truth is drawn from pleasure itself. Western society, however, is the only civilization to practice a scientia sexualis, which develops procedures for telling the truth of sex that are geared to a form of knowledge-power found in the confession. Confession is one of the main rituals used for the production of truth; "Western man has become a confessing animal" (59). Foucault writes that "the obligation to so deeply ingrained in us, that we no longer perceive it as the effect of a power that constrains us; on the contrary, it seems to use that truth, lodged in our most secret nature, 'demands' only to surface" (60).

Foucault explains how confession works. Unlike the ars erotica, confessional discourse does not come from above "through the sovereign will of the master" (62) but instead from below. On the other hand, the agency of domination does not reside in the one who speaks, but in the one who listens, says nothing, and questions. Then, this discourse of truth takes effect, "not in the one who receives it, but in the one from whom it is wrested" (62).

Foucault believes that the confession remains "the general standard governing the production of true discourse on sex" (63) although, as time has passed, it has spread and been employed in many different relationships, including pedagogy, family relationships, medicine, and psychiatry.

Foucault argues that this extortion of the sexual confession during the 19th century came to be constituted in scientific terms through:

  1. A clinical codification of the inducement to speak.
  2. The postulate of a general and diffuse causality.
  3. The principle of a latency intrinsic to sexuality.
  4. The method of interpretation.
  5. The medicalization of the effects of confession.

As a result, 19th century society did not refuse to confront sex, but instead, talked about sex a lot and "set out to formulate the uniform truth of sex" (69). Because of this, sex became suspicious and something to be feared. A new form of pleasure emerged—"the pleasure of analysis" and of discovering and exposing the truth about sex (71).

Foucault argues that a hypothesis of a power of repression exerted by our society on sex for economic reasons is inadequate for explaining the proliferation of discourses tailored to power, the solidification of the sexual mosaic, the mandatory production of confessions, and the establishment of a system of legitimate knowledge and of an economy of manifold pleasures. He goes on to argue that the deployment of power and knowledge and truth and pleasure are not secondary and derivative to repression (72-73). Foucault plans to investigate how these mechanisms emerge and operate and "define the strategies of power that are immanent in this will to knowledge" (73).

Part Four

The Deployment of Sexuality

Foucault restates his argument that the West has paradoxically "placed a never-ending demand for truth: it is up to us to extract the truth of sex, since this truth is beyond its grasp; it is up to sex to tell us our truth, since sex is what hold it in darkness" (77).

Foucault points out the historical break between sex as Physics, an activity or dimension of life, and a Logic of Sex, a more recent development where sex became established as an identity (78). Foucault explains sex's link to identity, writing "Whenever it is a question of knowing who we are, it is this logic that henceforth serves as our master key....Sex, the explanation for everything." (78).

Foucault asks a series of questions, that center around the question "Why this great chase after the truth of sex, truth in sex?" (79).

Foucault states that this section, that discusses the objective, the method, the domain, and the periodizations, will situate the investigations that follow.

Chapter One


Foucault sets out the parameters of the discussion that follows, writing that "the aim of the inquiries that will follow is to move less toward a 'theory' of power than toward an 'analytics' of power: that is, toward a definition of the specific domain formed by relations of power, and toward a determination of the instruments that will make possible its analysis"" (82). This analytics can only be constituted if it frees itself from the "juridico-discursive" (82). The principle features of this power are

  1. The negative relation. The connection between power and sex is always negative.
  2. The insistence of the rule. This means that sex is placed by power in a binary system, power prescribes an order for sex and power's hold on sex is maintained through language.
  3. The cycle of prohibition. The objective of this prohibition is that sex renounce itself through the threat of a punishment that is the suppression of sex.
  4. The logic of censorship. This takes three forms: affirming that such a thing is not permitted, preventing it from being said, and denying that it works.
  5. The uniformity of the apparatus. "Power over sex is exercised in the same way at all levels" (84).

Foucault wants to be freed from juridical and negative representation of power, and cease "to conceive them in terms of law, prohibition, liberty, and sovereignty" (90). He writes that "we must construct an analytics of power that not longer takes law as a model and a code" (90).

Instead Foucault plans to works toward a different conception of power through a closer examination of an entire historical material and through a way of thinking that can "conceive of sex without the law, and power without the king" (91). That is, Foucault assumes that modern societies have not governed sexuality through law, but through a "technology of sex" (90).

Chapter Two


Foucault's analysis of knowledge regarding sex is in terms of power, not in terms of repression of law. This analysis must not assume the sovereignty of the state, the form of the law, or the general system of domination of one group over the other. These are only the terminal forms power takes.

Instead, Foucault believes that "Power must be the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization" (92). Foucault establishes the omnipresence of power, writing that "Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere....power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society" (93).

Foucault advances five propositions of power, which are:

  1. "Power is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared, something that one holds on to or allows to slip away; power is exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations" (94).
  2. "Relations of power are not in a position of exteriority with respect to other types of relations (economic, knowledge, sexual), but are immanent in the latter" (94). Relations of power are also "not in superstructural positions, with merely a role of prohibition or accompaniment; they have a directly productive role, whenever they come into play" (94).
  3. "Power comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations" (94).
  4. "Power relations are both intentional and nonsubjective" (94). They are "imbued with calculation: there is no power that is exercised without a series of aims and objectives" (95) yet at the same time, "this does not mean that it results from the choice or decision of an individual subject" (95). The logic of power can be clear but oftentimes the inventor or formulator cannot be identified.
  5. "Where there is power, there is resistance and yet this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power" (95).

Foucault argues that this sphere of force relations much serve as the basis for analysis of the mechanisms of power. He restates that this analysis should decipher power mechanism "on the basis of strategy that is immanent in force relationships" instead of trying to identify a specific source (97).

Foucault states that the important question for sex and the discourses of truth is: "In a specific type of discourse on sex, in a specific form of extortion of truth, appearing historically and in specific places, what were the most immediate, the most local power relations at work? How did they make possible these kinds of discourses, and conversely how were these discourse used to support power relations?" (97).

Foucault does not want to identify a "great Power," but instead wants to "immerse the expanding of production of discourses on sex in the field of multiple and mobile power relations" (98). With this goal in mind, Foucault advances four rules to follow, which are the:

  1. Rule of immanence. Foucault believes that we should not look for one certain sphere of sexuality for scientific inquiry. Instead, start an inquiry with the "'local centers' of power-knowledge" (98).
  2. Rule of continual variations. Foucault argues that we should not look to who has the power in the order of sexuality and who is deprived of it, but rather to "the pattern of the modifications which the relationships of force imply by the very nature of their process" (99). Relations of power-knowledge are not static forms of distribution, they are "matrices of transformations" (99).
  3. Rule of double conditioning. Foucault believes that "No 'local center' or 'pattern of transformation' could function if it did not eventually enter into an overall strategy. And inversely, no strategy could achieve comprehensive effects if it did not gain support from precise and tenuous relations serving as its prop and anchor point" (99).
  4. Rule of the tactical polyvalence of discourses. Foucault wants to see discourse as "a series of discontinuous segments whose tactical function is neither uniform nor stable" (100). He does not image discourse divided between accepted discourse and excluded discourse, but instead as a "multiplicity of discursive elements that can come into play in various strategies" (100). Foucault believes that discourse can be an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a point of resistance, and a starting point for an opposing strategy.

Foucault writes that we need to question the discourses on sex, not on the model based on law, but on two other levels: tactical productivity and strategical integration.

Chapter Three


Foucault argues that sexuality is a dense transfer point for relations of power: "between men and women, young and old, parents and offspring, teachers and students, priests and laity, and an administration and population" (103). Beginning in the 18th century four strategic unities have formed specific mechanisms of knowledge and power centering on sex:

  1. A hysterization of women's bodies
  2. A pedagogization of children's sex
  3. A socialization of procreative behavior
  4. A psychiatrization of perverse behavior

Four figures emerged form this mechanisms: The hysterical woman, the masturbating child, the Malthusan couple, and the perverse adult.

These strategies also led to the "production of sexuality" (105). Relations of sex thus gave rise to two systems: the deployment of alliance (a system of marriage, a fixation of kinship ties) and the deployment of sexuality. Foucault distinguishes the two, writing "The deployment of alliance is built around a system of rules defining the permitted and the forbidden...whereas the deployment of sexuality operates according to mobile, polymorphous, and contingent techniques of power" (106). The deployment of alliance works toward producing the interplay of relations and maintaining the law that governs them. One the other hand, "the deployment of sexuality engenders a continual extension of areas and forms of control" (106). Foucault argues that the deployment of sexuality was constructed on the basis of a deployment of alliance (107).

Foucault goes on to show that "the family is the interchange of sexuality and alliance: it conveys the law and the juridical dimension in the deployment of sexuality, and it conveys the economics of pleasure and the intensity of sensations in the regime of alliance" (108). Foucault writes that "the family is the most active site of sexuality" (109) giving it a necessary, paradoxical relationship of solicitation and refusal with incest.

Since the 17th century sexuality has moved from the fringes of the family to the focus of the family. Foucault argues "parents and relatives became the chief agents of a deployment of sexuality which drew it outside support from doctors, educators and later psychiatrists" (110). The family was a major part of sexualization. Abnormal figures of sexuality emerged. Experts, who would listen, developed.

Charcot offers a tension to this process because, upon receiving patients, he separated them from their families in an effort to deal with sexuality scientifically. Psychoanalysis used a similar method. Yet these efforts reaffirmed alliances to the family.

Chapter Four


Foucault argues that the chronology of the techniques relating to sex in the fields of medicine, pedagogy, and demography do not coincide with "the great repressive cycle" of sexuality between the 17th and 20th century (115). Instead, Foucault's first argument is that there was a perpetual inventiveness, a steady growth of methods and procedures in pedagogy, medicine and economics.

Secondly, Foucault argues that the deployment of sexuality was not established as a principle of limitation of the pleasures of others by the ruling classes. Rather the first deployment of sexuality occurred within the upper classes; Foucault writes, "the most rigorous techniques were formed and, more particularly, applied first, with the greatest intensity, in the economically privileged and politically dominant classes" (120). For a long time, the working classes escaped the deployment of "sexuality" although they were subjugated to the deployment of alliances.

Foucault uses these "chronological reminders" to show that "the primary concern was not the repression of the sexuality of the classes to be exploited, but rather the vigor, longevity, progeniture, and descent of the classes that 'ruled'" (123). Foucault writes, "It was a question of techniques for maximizing life" (123). A political ordering of life was formed, "not through the enslavement of others, but through an affirmation of self" (123).

Foucault goes on to link sexuality with the 18th century bourgeois. He argues the aristocracy asserted the special character of the body through blood; "the bourgeoisie's 'blood' was sex" (124). Foucault traces sexuality to the proletariat through "economic emergencies" and then shows how that body and sexuality was kept under surveillance (126). Foucault concludes the discussion, writing "Sexuality then is originally, historically bourgeois, and in its successive shifts and transpositions, it induces specific class effects" (127).

Foucault summarizes his argument on the deployment of sexuality in the final paragraphs, highlighting the theory of repression (which expanded the entire deployment of sexuality, framing it as taboo) and psychoanalysis (which linked law and desire, and relieved the effect of the taboo).

Part Five

Right of Death and Power Over Life

Foucault begins by historicizing the right to decide life and death as one of the characteristic privileges of the sovereign power, and then traces a shift from "the old power of death that symbolized sovereign power" (139) to "the administration of bodies and calculated management of life" (140). Foucault summarizes this shift when he writes "the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death" (138).

Starting in the 17th century, Foucault argues that the power over life evolved in two basic forms, which are not antithetical: an anatomo-politics of the human body (the body as a machine) and a bio-politics of the population (regulatory controls on the body) (139). Anatomo-and bio-politics of power created techniques of power that were present at every level of the social body and used by diverse institutions.

Foucault goes on to distinguish "bio-history" from "bio-power" which designates what "brought life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations and made knowledge-power an agent of the transformation of human life" (143).

Foucault uses this train of evidence to argue that sex became a political issue. He writes that sex was located "at the pivot of the two axes long which developed the entire political technology of life" (145) with a whole series of tactics combined in different ways. These axes are the disciplines of the body and the regulation of populations. Sex offered access to the life of the body and to the life of the species.

The politics of sex revolved around the four issues, or "four great lines of attack" (146), discussed in Part Four, Chapter Three. These issues (of the hysterical woman, the sexualization of children, etc.) lay at the juncture of the ''body'' and the ''population.'' At this juncture, "sex became a crucial target of a power organized around the management of life rather than the menace of death" (147).

Foucault argues that "the blood relation long remained an important element in the mechanism of power" because "blood was a reality with a symbolic function" (147). However, over time our societies have gone from "the symbolics of blood to an analytics of sexuality" (148).

Foucault offers possible counter-arguments to his position, writing that his critics might say that he offers "only groundless effects, ramifications without roots, a sexuality without sex" (151). Foucault refutes this argument, stating that his purpose in this study is to "show how deployments of power are directly connected to the body" (151), and by arguing that sex is not an autonomous agency that produces sexuality, but instead "sex is the most speculative, most ideal, and most internal element in a deployment of sexuality organized by power in its grip on bodies and their materiality, their forces, energies, sensations, and pleasures" (155). Foucault states that in order to work against the deployment of sexuality, the rallying point "ought not to be sex-desire, but bodies and pleasure" (157).

Foucault ends his discussion by emphasizing that the power mechanisms of sexuality are socially constructed, unstable, and historically situated. He muses of a day when another civilization will emerge that will not understand how a civilization could be so intent and patient in exacting the truth of sex. In this "different economy of bodies and pleasures, people will not longer quite understand how the ruses of sexuality, and the power that sustains its organization, were able to subject us to that austere monarchy of sex, so that we became dedicated to the endless task of forcing its secret, or exacting the truest confessions from its shadow" and from "having us believe that our 'liberation' is in the balance" (159).

Critical Commentary

Kurzweil, Edith. A Review of "The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction" by

Michel Foucault. Theory and Society. Vol. 8, No. 3. (November 1979): 422-425.

"Many of Foucault's insights and epigrammatic formulations help convince us not only that he is correct, but that his ideas may initiate change. Still, unlike the French, we are unaccustomed to 'hear' silent discourse, or to find secrecy in 'unwritten' texts. Nor are we disposed to think of sex as an especially dense transfer point for relations of power, as an intractable element in such relations, or as a linchpin for the most varied strategies.

The reader's acceptance of The History of Sexuality then, will depend upon his [sic] tolerance for structuralist textual analysis and abstractions. Undoubtedly, Foucault alliterations and metaphors at times make better sound than sense. Brillant insights are mixed with mystifications" (425).

Vera, Hernan. A Review of "The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction." By

Michel Foucault. Contemporary Sociology. Vol. 8, No. 4. (July 1979): 589-590.

"The approach he follows—that of raising issues and then shunting them aside as beside the point, non-crucial etc.—coupled with a decentered, and at times playful, writing style may tend to be confusing. This idiosycratic tactic, however, also serves to highlight the originality of Foucault's conceptulizations and provacative speculative insights.

....Even though Foucualt's methods ('archival' as he calls them in The Archeology of Knowledge) defy conventional canons of research, this speculative essay deserves serious reading" (589-590).

Prepared by Jennifer Novak

December 3, 2003