History of Sexuality | Study Guide

Michel Foucault

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History of Sexuality | Context


The Other Victorians

Michel Foucault begins Volume 1 of his The History of Sexuality with a chapter titled "We 'Other Victorians'" and proceeds to relate many of his ideas to the customs of England's Victorian age. Strictly, the "Victorian" label refers to the reign of Queen Victoria (1819–1901), who ruled the British Empire from 1837 to 1901, though it is sometimes extended to describe the entire 19th century. Many myths have circulated about "Victorian morality," which is popularly seen as fussy, prudish, and repressive. Queen Victoria herself is often portrayed as a killjoy whose attitude is summed up by the quotation "We are not amused." Whether or not she ever uttered this phrase, Victoria has been continually caricatured in modern British comedy as a dour figure with no tolerance for anything risqué. Films and TV shows such as Victoria & Abdul (2017) and The Young Victoria (2009) engage audiences partly because they show a more vulnerable side to this forbidding figure.

The 20th century produced many historical studies focused on the flip side of the coin: the defiance of Victorian morality by people of various social classes. An important example of such work is American writer Steven Marcus's The Other Victorians (1966), the likely source of Foucault's chapter title. Marcus's study focuses on Victorian pornography, which circulated in secret and prompted moral panics from doctors and churchmen. A key text in Marcus's study—one mentioned by Foucault as well—is the anonymous memoir titled My Secret Life. This explicit and detailed sexual biography, whose author is known only as "Walter," was first published anonymously in secret in 1888.

In The History of Sexuality, Foucault goes even further than Marcus. He challenges not only the all-encompassing nature of Victorian morality but also the dichotomy that presents Victorian society as a starched, stuffy elite with a seamy underside. Foucault was not the first scholar to argue against the traditional view of Victorian sexuality. Around the same time as Foucault's writing, feminist scholar Linda Gordon broached the subject, and historian Carl Degler (1921–2014) was also engaged in the topic. However, Foucault's writings have continued to have a lasting impact. He addresses the topic from a unique vantage point using his genealogical method and a philosophical perspective that aimed to expose the mechanisms underpinning the then modern views of sexuality. The upper classes and their institutional representatives, he will argue, were never truly the "imperial prudes" they are made out to be. Nor was the obsession with sex limited to the shadowy or disreputable parts of society. Instead, Foucault argues, sex was a common—even constant—topic in Victorian medical, religious, and scientific writing. Pornographic literature may have been suppressed, but discourse about sex proliferated during this period as never before.

The Sexual Revolution

If the "repressive hypothesis" construed the Victorian era as a period of sexual repression, it also considered the modern era to be one of "liberation." In the 1970s, when Foucault began his work, the rhetoric of sexual liberation was widespread because of recent, far-reaching changes in Western sexual culture, including Europe and the United States. The so-called sexual revolution, which lasted throughout the 1960s and beyond, was no doubt on Foucault's mind when he investigated the ideas of repression and freedom that frame Volume 1. Few would deny that cultural mores, or accepted norms, surrounding sexuality loosened somewhat during these decades, but in what way—and to what extent—had people been liberated from the strictures of the past? A pair of Time magazine editorials suggest that, in some ways, the claims of liberation may have been overstated.

The first of these two essays, written in 1964, was titled "The Second Sexual Revolution"—a title that itself points to the cyclical nature of sexual "liberation." The first revolution to which the author alludes took place during the Jazz Age, in the immediate aftermath of World War I (1914–18), and was relatively innocent compared with the "erosion of morals" taking place in the 1960s. The Jazz Age had been a sensible reaction to the extreme strictures of the Victorian age—strictures which, as Foucault points out, were not as pervasive as commonly thought. But this time, the Time editor insisted, young people had completely lost their moral compass, and with it, their sense of shame. This editorial represents a broader truth about the sexual revolution: though now usually seen in a favorable light, it was viewed with extreme skepticism by the moral and cultural authorities of the time. Sexual mores had changed before, but there was a widely shared—and, Foucault would argue, illusory—sense that this time was different.

Of the many changes that constituted the sexual revolution, perhaps none sparked more interest—and more controversy—than the development of oral contraceptives, or "the pill" for short. First approved by the FDA in 1960, oral contraception for women was available only on a restricted basis well into the 1960s. Still, it would be hard to argue that the pill did not "liberate" women in a concrete way: those who could access effective contraception could decide for themselves when and whether to have children. About this, the 1964 editorial has relatively little to say: its focus, like Foucault's, is on sexual discourse rather than sexual behavior as such. Novelists, psychiatrists, and other modern thinkers were, the article asserted, "burdening sex with too much deadly importance."

Throughout The History of Sexuality, Foucault suggests that this is nothing new: sex has been accorded a "deadly importance" for centuries. A Time magazine retrospective by Rachel Hills (2014), written in part as a follow-up to the 1964 article, seems to corroborate this belief. She suggests that the revolution did not so much stoke the public's preoccupation with sex—which, at least in the United States, needed little stoking—as change the ways in which it was acceptable to discuss sex. (Elsewhere, Hill posits that there was no "revolution" of how sex was discussed publicly per se, but an "incremental evolution.") This pattern of superficial change and underlying stability has, Hills says, continued into the 21st century: "America hasn't transformed into the 'sex-affirming culture' TIME predicted it would half a century ago." "For all our claims of open-mindedness," she continues, anxiety about sex is "still alive and well today—and that's not just a function of either excess or repression."

In many ways Hills's essay and that of her predecessor seem almost designed to prove Foucault's point: over a half century after the sexual revolution began, discourse about sex is as lively and contentious as ever. The terms and venues have changed, but beneath them exists a fundamental continuity. Beyond the battle lines of morality and propriety, sex and sexuality remain topics of culture-wide obsession.

The Archaeological and Genealogical Methods

Foucault's methods are fundamental to how he structures his argument throughout The History of Sexuality. Foucault is well known for his use of the archaeological method and his later development of the genealogical method, both of which have been used as a method of criticism in numerous academic fields since, including philosophy and history. Foucault used the archaeological method first in his innovative The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966), in which he "excavated" the origin of the social sciences. He argues that underlying the sciences are discourses—or methods of communication—that structure what is or is not deemed acceptable as a subject of study. Using the archaeological method, Foucault focuses on understanding how systems of knowledge are constructed over the course of history. It focuses largely on understanding how these systems of knowledge create rules within society, not from a top-down perspective—which focused largely on the power of a king or kinglike entity in history—but rather from the bottom up—through the everyday communication, or discourse, between individuals.

In The History of Sexuality Foucault uses the archaeological method as well as the genealogical method to construct his argument. Originally conceptualized by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) in On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), Foucault expanded on the genealogical method in this text as a response to inadequacies he perceived in using the archaeological method alone. Specifically, he was interested in understanding not only how systems of knowledge and discourses developed, but also on understanding the underlying causes. Foucault's goal in this was to show that specific systems or discourses did not develop lineally through time, but were the results of specific historical events. Literally, a genealogy is the tracing of a person's family history through successive generations of ancestors—the construction of a family tree or pedigree. In the sense used by Nietzsche and adopted by Foucault, a genealogical approach involves critically investigating the origins of ideas, truth claims, and cultural prejudices. It entails the idea that ideas, even ones regarded as deeply held truths, "come from somewhere." A worldview or philosophical outlook, like a person's family tree, is the outcome of many different historical events, and the genealogical method tries to call attention to these contingencies.

This is apparent in Foucault's treatment of the development of sexuality in The History of Sexuality. Throughout these three volumes, Foucault emphasizes that the modern understanding of sexuality—where sexuality is tied to an individual's identity—is not the result of a historical lineage of thought. Rather, it is through the transition into medieval Christendom that the modern concept of sexuality began to develop. It has become pervasive within modern society in part due to the fact that various Christian sects have been widely adopted worldwide; however, the modern concept of sexuality was not an inevitable outcome.

Critical Reactions

The History of Sexuality is among the most widely read—and hence the most widely critiqued—of Foucault's writings. Foucault himself argues that the incessant discussion of sexuality is a feature of modern culture, whether academic or popular. Still, at the time Volume 1 appeared, the idea of a multivolume history devoted to the subject was a novel one. In 1979 Professor Arthur N. Gilbert claimed that the book had "dramatically changed the field of sexual history."

At the same time, academics have voiced some dissatisfaction with both the methods and the style of The History of Sexuality. Associate Professor of Sociology Carol A. Pollis, a reviewer for the Journal of Sex Research (1987), criticized Foucault's use of "opaque vocabulary that defies easy translation" and voiced skepticism about his "rejection of accepted historiographic methods." She is not alone in wondering about Foucault's tendency to blend the methods of philosophy with those of history, or to construct entire—albeit provisional—cultural narratives on the basis of a few selected documents. Still, Foucault's approach has also been widely embraced, not least because it proposes a fundamental relationship between knowledge and power. The deep connection between these two traditionally distinct objects of study holds appeal for literary critics as well as historians.

Some of the most polarized reactions to Foucault's work have come from feminist critics. Perhaps the most serious charge laid against The History of Sexuality is that of "masculinism and male bias" in its account of gender relations. Shelley Tremain, writing in the feminist philosophical journal Hypatia (2013), notes that Foucault has often been taken to task for a particular episode in Volume 1 where he describes a middle-aged farmhand's sexual relations with an underage girl. Foucault has repeatedly been accused of trivializing this episode and excusing what is, in effect, the sexual abuse of a minor. Tremain, for her part, suggests that Foucault's point is more nuanced and merits greater consideration than the "accepted feminist interpretation" has accorded it.

A more general problem for feminists is what Aurelia Armstrong, in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, calls "the lack of normative guidance in [Foucault's] model of power and resistance." In other words, Foucault—in The History of Sexuality and throughout his other works—is concerned with describing how power relations function, not with prescribing how they ought to function. Feminist criticism, in contrast, is often fundamentally motivated by the desire for social change: it does not just describe the power structures that exist in society, but questions them. Foucault, who generally strikes a detached tone in describing social injustices, can seem as if he is accepting or endorsing what he does not bother to critique.

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