History of Sexuality | Study Guide

Michel Foucault

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History of Sexuality | Main Ideas


Sexuality as a Social Construct

Throughout The History of Sexuality, Foucault attempts to dissuade the reader from thinking of sexuality as a "natural" concept whose meaning is obvious. To the contrary, Foucault says, the idea of sexuality—in the modern sense of the word—arose relatively recently. This does not mean that Foucault thinks sex itself is a recent invention, or that cultures have only recently started to discuss sex. In fact, one of his points in Volume 1 is that even supposedly "repressed" cultures produce a huge variety of discourse about sex. What is modern here is not sexual behavior or the act of talking about sex, but the assertion that people are defined by their sexuality (what today would be called a "sexual identity"). Treating sexuality as a fundamental attribute of the individual is, as Foucault tries to show throughout his History, a modern practice. For most of Western history, sex was discussed in terms that did not presuppose such a central, underlying trait.

To take a small but significant example, modern Western discourse on sexuality often divides people into groups based on their sexual orientation—heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual, for instance—and invests these categories with the status of an identity. It is a common and accepted usage to say that a person is or identifies as gay, straight, or bisexual, to name just the most widely acknowledged examples. Either way, it is framed as a question of the identity one has and expresses. To people living in the 21st century and raised with these ideas, this way of framing sexuality can seem so obvious as to need no further comment. But the identity view, as Foucault argues in his History, is only one way of thinking about sexual behavior and the ethics that surround it.

In Volume 1 Foucault shows how the modern idea of sexuality is supported by a whole roster of institutions that shape daily life. The discipline of psychoanalysis, for example, assumes the existence of sexuality as a thing that can be accessed and investigated on an individual basis. In its view, sexuality is more than a sum of acts and urges—it is an enduring part of a person. This idea, in turn, comes from medicine, which in the 19th century evolved a largely pathological view of sexuality and created such categories as the "pervert." Prior to this, there were systematic attempts to guide and control the sexual behavior of minors through education. These attempts contributed to the notion that adolescents, and other individuals for that matter, have a sexuality that needs to be tended and protected from negative influences. Foucault takes this chain all the way back to the medieval Church—meaning, primarily, the Catholic Church from the 13th century onward—where confessional practices encouraged people to reflect on their sexual actions, desires, and thoughts in great detail.

A similar idea undergirds Volumes 2 and 3, which provide much earlier points of historical reference. The ancient Greeks and Romans, Foucault contends, did not have a concept of sexuality as such—despite the frequent presence of sexual themes in their art and literature. In their philosophy, they were more focused on the ethical implications of sexual behavior than they were on who did what with whom. There was no division of society into heterosexual and homosexual categories; nor did feeling attraction to both men and women place one into a distinct "bisexual" category. The Golden Age Greeks who practiced pederasty—erotic relationships between adult and adolescent males—were seen as engaging in a particular kind of conduct, not expressing a deep truth about themselves. What really mattered from the point of view of this period's philosophers was not the gender of one's partners, but how one conducted oneself in such relationships. Marriage to a woman could bring a man honor if he treated his wife with moderation in all things, sex included—but a pederastic relationship could also be conducted honorably. Even in the age of Imperial Rome, when same-sex relationships were less esteemed, there was no attempt to create and enforce categories of sexual identity. Different sexual behaviors were, again, treated as a matter of conduct rather than as a window into some more abiding sexual nature.

Power Is Decentralized

Power relations form a recurring theme throughout Foucault's writings, including those published well before the History of Sexuality. In Discipline and Punish, for example, Foucault was interested in the relationship between the modern prison system and the numerous power structures "embedded" in daily life. A core insight of this work, one which Foucault also expresses in his History, is what might be called the multiplicity of power. The nature of modern justice and punishment, he says, was shaped not just by legal authorities, but by systems of education, military training, and religious observance. Likewise, in the History of Sexuality, Foucault does not identify a single top-down authority that "invented" sexuality in its modern form. Instead, he aims to illustrate the confluence of social forces that led to this outcome. Power—including the power to get people to define and regulate their sexual behavior in a specific way—"comes from everywhere."

Volume 1, the source of the above quotation, describes the intersection of numerous systems of social and institutional power in the modern era. Crucially, these systems were not coordinated in pursuit of a single, overarching goal; there was no systematic plan to make people view sexuality in a given way or to act accordingly. The medieval Church induced its members to confess their sins more frequently and in greater detail. Doctors, educators, and eventually psychotherapists collected more and more information about the sexual histories of the people in their charge. Secular policymakers sought to manage the sexual behavior of the populations they governed in order to ensure fertility and productivity. These different forces—ecclesiastical, medical, educational, governmental—were not "on the same team" except on a temporary, contingent, and constantly shifting basis. Sexuality for the modern individual is defined within a network of different and often competing power structures, which can be understood on scales as small as a romantic relationship or as large as a global religion.

The decentralized nature of power is important because it is a major element of Foucault's political thought. However, the concept also holds a special significance for The History of Sexuality. The idea of "repression" generally assumes the existence of some kind of monolithic power that imposes itself on the common people from above. To the extent that power doesn't actually work this way—and Foucault thinks it generally doesn't—repression cannot exist in the typical sense. There's no single figure or institution sitting at the top, no Queen Victoria–like mascot repressing people's sexuality or forcing them to repress it themselves. Instead, Foucault posits the more complicated interplay of forces described above. In a given time and place, some of these forces favor free sexual expression, both in discourse and in actual sexual behavior; others don't. The result, as Foucault frames it, is a virtual web of influences tugging the sexual discourse, and the individual, in different directions at once.

The Same Rules for Different Reasons

Throughout The History of Sexuality, but most noticeably in the latter two volumes, Foucault points out parallels between pre-Christian and Christian sexual ethics. As he does so, he is careful to remind readers that two cultures can have similar customs for very different reasons. The fact that, in the first two centuries CE, Greeks and Romans increasingly idealized sexual austerity, which is strictness or self-denial, does not mean they thought sexual excesses were sinful. Nor does the fact that Christian authorities sometimes cited pre-Christian philosophers mean that there was a perfect continuity or agreement between the two traditions. To understand this distinction, it helps to review what Foucault says about marital exclusivity in the two ancient eras he examines, and to contrast it with his more limited remarks about the Middle Ages (c. 500–1500), when Christian thought predominated. (Foucault has much more to say about Christian sexual ethics in the unfinished fourth volume of his History. However, this was not published until 2018 and, as of early 2019, it is still awaiting a full English translation.)

In the Middle Ages, Foucault points out, Christian philosophical views held sway over all areas of Western European life, including sex. From the medieval Christian viewpoint, sex was an occasion of sin: an activity that, unless great care was taken, would almost inevitably involve sin. Sex was a symbol of humankind's fallen nature. Lust, meaning any improper or excessive sexual desire, was a cardinal sin. In this system of thought, marriage was a way of "rescuing" sex for the legitimate purpose of procreation, in the same way baptism was a way of "rescuing" the soul from the effects of the Fall. It followed that the only legitimate context for sexual activity was a lawful marriage.

The Greeks of the Golden Age and the Romans of the imperial era likewise upheld marital exclusivity as a virtue. However, they reached this conclusion via a very different route than the Christian fathers, and they did not attempt to enforce marital exclusivity as a strict requirement. To the Golden Age Athenians (covered in Volume 2), it was natural and not at all illegitimate for a free man to seek sexual gratification outside of marriage. Doing so, however, had a number of potential ill effects. Indulging one's sexual urges every time they arose would undermine one's self-control and weaken one's character. Moreover, if a married man was unwise in his choice of partners, extramarital affairs could also stir up strife at home, thus weakening his control of the household and destabilizing his place in society. The philosophers of Imperial Rome (discussed in Volume 3) likewise acknowledged that, in their culture, sex outside marriage was widespread. Like their Greek predecessors, they did not make a concerted effort to outlaw extramarital sex or expose it to legal sanctions. Instead, they appealed to the better judgment of their readers by arguing that marital exclusivity would be a worthy test of self-control (an old idea) and a way of strengthening the marital relationship itself (a relatively new idea). Thus, what seems from a distance to be a contiguous pattern—"intramarital sex is good, extramarital sex is bad"—turns out to be the result of three distinct yet overlapping systems of ethics.

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