The History of Sexuality


The mere breadth of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality and it’s influence on such a diverse array of scholarly fields is a testament to the impact of a now canonical text in the understanding of sexuality. Moreover, it is important to recognize this work not only as an analysis of the historical creations of sexuality, but also as an evaluation of the discursive knowledges necessary to produce and reproduce power relations that inform an understanding of that contemporary sexuality. In this way, we can see that overtly generalized notions of a society’s sexuality are not only misinformed, the all-encompassing foundations they are predicated on is faulty. Needless to say this text brought about a sea change in both the humanities and social sciences particularly in the way in which we view the construction of sexuality and on a more macroscopic level the construction of identity.

Foucault rose to acclaim from a distinct school of French thought that sought to distance itself from the tenets of existentialism. These structuralists believed that an understanding of the complex relationships in any given field, such as linguistics, sociology or history serve as better explanations than any given singular event on its own. This ideological base and his later acquisition of post-structuralist ideals, namely that the structural systems inherent in creating identity and consciousness are continually transformative and reliant on understandings of the present. In these broad frameworks we can see the foundation for Foucault’s History of Sexuality, most particularly it’s reliance on a constant historicizing of a particular concept, namely in this instance, sexuality.

It is also instructive to look to the works of philosophers such as Kant and Nietzsche, from whom Foucault also built his ideological framework. More specifically, Foucault draws upon ideals questioning the modern human sciences , undermining their proportions to universal scientific truths and summarily historicizing them. Similarly, his genealogical method approach to sexuality based upon Nietzsche’s “On the Genealogy of Morality”, attempts to illustrate a fluid nature of sexuality, one as a product of multiple forces.

The foremost conception prevalent before The History of Sexuality that Foucault seeks to specifically address in his work is the repressive hypothesis. The main body of historical, psychoanalytical and sociological work up until that time had accorded the 19th century a distinct aura of repression of sexuality. This was evidenced by the multitudes of laws, medical discourses, gender classifications and supposed scientific truths that permeated Victorian society. Foucault, however, argues that regardless of a regulatory and exclusionary system present within these societies, those sexual policings served to propagate sexual discourse rather than stifle it. In fact, he argues that “ a multiplication of discourses concerning sex in the field of exercise of power itself: an institutional incitement to speak about it”#. This explosion of discourse serves not only as a marker of the presence of sexuality in the 19th century, but one facilitated by agents of power.

There are three primary doubts of the repressive hypothesis that Foucault wishes to address, each of which serving not just to undermine the hypothesis itself as established fact, but to question the very framework that created them. His first doubt is in questioning sexual repression as an established historical fact. The second addresses the workings of power and whether they belong to a category of repression and the third doubt investigates whether the critical discourse repudiating a supposed repression acted effectively to liberate sexuality or instead served the same historical purposes of repression. Foucault’s goal therefore, is not a comprehensive narrative of a history of sexuality and its modes of production, but rather the discursive elements prevalent in creating a certain form of knowledge, one that drives the creation and transformation of power.
Foucault places a significant importance on the interrelations and disseminations of “instances of discursive production”, “the production of power” and “the propagation of knowledge”#. It is through his understanding of their historical operation and intersection that he lays a framework for dismantling the repressive hypothesis as an overarching understanding of 19th century sexuality. In doing so, he also infers that any supposed liberation from repression is also a fallacy. This is not to say that he does not acknowledge the transformation of 19th Century society to 20th century society. What is important, however, is not the escape from prohibitions on pornography or the advent of free sexual license, but rather the prevalent knowledge that facilitates alternative power relations and thus accomplishes essentially a similar goal.

The aforementioned explosions of discourse served (and he would argue continue to serve) a fluid will to knowledge that became institutionalized in both the family and the state. Sexuality became a crucial instrument, through which, state and patriarchal aims could be facilitated. Political and economic drives became anchored in modern conceptions of population control increasing the need for the ability to control the sexual habits of the citizenry. This was not solely a phenomena of the rising nation state, however, but a utility applicable in a myriad of power relations. The household too was a forum for discourses of sexuality, though at times subtle, that embodied a means to cement patriarchal hierarchy. Foucault would not argue, however, that these are by any means the only implementations of a discourse on sexuality, nor that the power relations created through a discursive knowledge were by any means concrete. He very explicitly specifies these discourses to illustrate the fluidity and transformative nature in which they can be implemented.

Foucault sees the function and form of this discursive power exerted over sexuality in a plethora of methods and contexts in the 18th and 19th centuries. To be sure, Foucault certainly does not discount the effect of supposedly repressive actions by communities, families or the state. He instead views them through a different lens, one that demonstrates that a discourse of exclusion and repression effectively creates a “will to knowledge” regarding sexuality. Continually other practices that may have been viewed as repressive can be seen as proliferating a concept of sexuality. The advent of persecuting peripheral sexualities, for example, entailed an incorporation of perversion and an explicit specification of individuals and though demonized this effectively solidified their existence in a collective consciousness as realities. One of the most evident cases of these created sexual deviants was the “creation” of the 19th century homosexual, effectively medicalized into a sexual personality. Homosexuality was just one such variance and together this complex network of sexualities, normalized and deviant, served to illustrate the saturation of sexuality as opposed to its dearth.

Foucault eventually moves beyond the example of the repressive hypothesis into a more comprehensive understanding of discourses of sexuality in the format he has created. One instructive interest is the means through which sex is incorporated into orders of knowledge. In this he utilizes the 19th century to display the adaptability and historical necessity of its understanding. Both through the advent of a biology of reproduction and a medicalization of sex, he argues this incorporation unfolds. From these rational understandings of sex and sexuality emerges a binary of sex as a matter of truth and falsehood, thus truth must be derived either from pleasure or from a knowledge to power. It is from this knowledge to power, in 19th century scientific rationality and medicalization of the truths of sexuality that a distinct myriad of sexualities emerges.
Foucault continues in this vein in an analysis of power and sexuality that exists throughout The History of Sexuality. It is the social construction of sexuality throughout the formative years of the previous several centuries that has served as a means of power distribution. His own definition of power states that it is a multiplicity of force relations in their sphere of operation; power is everywhere and constantly being reformed. Because of this conceptualization of power that Foucault posits there are several key tenets that must also reign true. First, that power is not an external force but internal to the relationship in question. Second, power can and does come from below. Third, that power is both intentional and non-subjective. And finally, where there is power there is resistance that is internal to that power. For these reasons, Foucault argues that power must be analyzed locally and specifically and that within any given framework there is a multitude of such force relations that are constantly fluid. #

The relevance and eventual impact of Foucault’s History of Sexuality cannot be understated. It spawned not only an alternative lens through which to view sexuality historically, but also entirely new fields of study, such as queer theory. The History of Sexuality also emboldened other disciplines to examine their own understandings, not only of sexuality, but of identity and its construction. Continually, the legacy of Foucault’s was one that sought the elimination of monolithic conceptualizations of power and monopolistic ideologies of the interrelations of power and its ascendancy through discourse and a will to knowledge as static entities. More specifically, The History of Sexuality posited the constant creation and recreation of sexuality, not as a linear binary from repression to liberation, but instead as an evolving network entrenched in the locus of specific and local powers.

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