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The History of Sexuality

The History of Sexuality

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Add This - The History of Sexuality

Written by Michel FoucaultAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Michel Foucault

  • Format: Trade Paperback, 176 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • On Sale: April 14, 1990
  • Price: $15.00
  • ISBN: 978-0-679-72469-8 (0-679-72469-9)
Also available as an eBook.
about this book

In the History of Sexuality (Volume1) Foucault traces the history of sexuality in Europe from the Classical period to modern times in terms of shifts in the control of sexual practices.  He offers a brilliant analysis of how the merely "unlawful" became the "un-natural," relating this change to his theory of power/knowledge, i.e., how specific forms of knowledge are complicit with particular forms of power.  Exploring the relation of power to sex, Foucault asserts that this relation does not essentially lead to the repression of sexuality, but rather causes the production of ever-increasing discourses on sexuality.  

In the Classical period, a new, stricter code governed the sexual vocabulary.  Yet conversely there occurred a proliferation of discourse on sex, an incitement to discourse by the organs of power themselves. The degree of detail considered necessary to a true confession in the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages was now regarded as improper. The language was carefully purified so that sex was no longer directly named.  However, the task became endless, for the more one tries to hunt down impure thoughts the more one is flooded by them.  What seems to be a mechanism of restriction is in fact a mechanism of production.  

From the mid-eighteenth century the secular power, too, became concerned with sex.  Sex entered the public domain with the population problem: population as wealth and manpower, analyzed in terms of the birthrate, the age of marriage, legitimate and illegitimate births, the precocity and frequency of sexual relations, the nature and extent of contraceptive practices.  In the nineteenth century, society developed mechanisms for policing the individual's behavior. The sexuality of schoolchildren was of immense importance to all those concerned with education, from those who designed the buildings to those who taught in them.  Soon other kinds of discourses also turned to sex.  Medicine sought the origin of mental illness in sexual excesses, onanism, "frauds against procreation", sexual perversions. The law that earlier observed only the more blatantly "unnatural" crimes, now extended its interest to minor acts of indecency and insignificant perversions.

In the last hundred years, a whole body of social controls manifests itself in many forms, screening the sexuality of its citizens of all ages, in every form of relationship, warning, protecting, and condemning, calling for diagnoses, piling up reports, organizing therapies.  Until the end of the eighteenth century, sexual practices were governed by three major codes: canon law, Christian pastoral teaching, and civil law.  All the three were interested in the distinction between the lawful and the unlawful.  In the nineteenth century, a new conception of the "unnatural" was distinguished for the first time from the merely "unlawful," which was condemned less and less.  The medical report, the psychiatric inquiry, the school report, and family controls all shared a negative attitude to the "unnatural", "abnormal" or unproductive sexualities functioning as a dual mechanism of pleasure and power.  

Power decides the laws by which sex is to function.  It operates on the individual subjects and their sex through their very acquisition of language.  There are four principles or rules in this regard.  First, it is not possible to separate the knowledge of sexuality and the power exercised within it.  Sexuality became an area accessible to knowledge only when power relations established it as a possible object.  Second, we must not treat the power at work in sexuality in terms of those who possess it and those who are deprived of it.   Power/knowledge relations are not given forms of distribution, but "matrices of transformation."  Third, power/knowledge could not function at a local center without a series of particular relations converging to form an overall strategy.  Conversely, no strategy could ensure overall effects without particular relations that gave it points of application.  Fourth, discourse transposes, produces, and reinforces power; but it also undermines, exposes and even blocks it.

Translated by Robert Hurley.