History of Sexuality | Study Guide

Michel Foucault

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History of Sexuality | Summary

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Summary

Volume 1: An Introduction

This volume was originally designed, like Foucault's previous studies, as a single self-contained book with a highly focused historical theme. In it, Foucault questions the "repressive hypothesis": the idea that in Western history sexuality underwent a rapid and largely negative shift in the way it was discussed and thought about. In the 18th century, the story goes, sex was a familiar and casual topic of public discussion, but by the Victorian era (the mid to late 19th century) it was seen as taboo and shameful. Even in the 1970s, the hypothesis suggests, people are still struggling to liberate themselves from the effects of this repression. Foucault argues that this hypothesis drastically oversimplifies, and in some ways completely ignores, the way sexual discourse actually evolved. Instead of an era of repression, Foucault describes the Victorian Age as a period in which speech and writing about sexuality grew much more frequent and verbose.

Foucault questions why people in the modern West are so insistent that sexuality has been repressed in public life and is just now being rescued from this repression. It begins, he suggests, with the medieval Church, in which confession of one's sins involved relating one's sexual history. As confession became a more frequent part of Western Christian life, these recitations of sin—sexual and otherwise—grew into minute examinations of conscience. Not only acts, but desires and urges, came to be talked about and ruminated on. In the 17th and 18th centuries, this discourse about sex was extended to the field of education, and efforts were made to police and discipline the sexuality of minors. From then on, sexuality became an object of importance in medicine, and eventually, by the late 19th century, in psychology as well. Far from refusing to talk about sex, people were talking about it almost everywhere: in confessionals, in schools, in hospitals, on fainting couches, and in print works in a variety of genres.

What purpose, Foucault then asks, would such an explosion of sexual discourse serve? In the repressive hypothesis, the repression of sexuality is usually linked to the demands of industrial capitalism. In order to create a population of healthy, docile workers—so the hypothesis goes—society's political and economic leaders cracked down on anything other than intramarital, procreative sex. Foucault, however, has argued that sexuality was not repressed from above but became the almost obsessive focus of a wide range of social activity. Rather than being imposed by the ruling classes, this outpouring of sex talk came about as the result of a variety of social forces. The bourgeoisie, who could not claim the same ancestral "blood" as the nobility, were a main driving force of modern sexual discourse. In their care to preserve their physical vigor, to produce robust offspring, and to cement their place in society, the 19th-century middle class largely invented the concept of sexuality, as it is known today, where sexuality is tied to an individual's identity.

Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure

In this volume, Foucault shifts gears in preparation for a larger historical project, set at an earlier date in Western history. He proposes to examine the history of the early Christian concept of sexual ethics as it emerged from, and responded to, classical Greek and Roman ideas. Here, he focuses on the sexual ethics of the Greek Golden Age (c. 500–300 BCE). During this roughly two-century period, Athens flourished as a cultural, political, and economic leader among the Greek city-states. Accordingly, the Greek philosophers whose works Foucault examines are mainly Athenians. Socrates (c. 470–399 BCE) and his student Plato (c. 428–347 BCE), often regarded as the founders of Western philosophy, are given special attention, as is Socrates's student Xenophon (c. 430–350 BCE).

Sexual ethics in ancient Greece were not, Foucault asserts, the same as those in the early Christian world. Nor were they merely a disguised or incomplete version of later Christian ethics. Rather, the Greeks had their own way of framing the moral and ethical problems surrounding sex. Athenians of the Golden Age considered sexual desire as one of a range of appetites, akin to hunger and thirst. The ideal of self-mastery, or enkrateia, required a man to be moderate in his pursuit or "use" of sexual pleasure, just as in eating or drinking. This was especially important if he had ambitions of leadership within the city-state, as self-control was considered a prerequisite for governing others. The focus of Greek sexual ethics, at least as far as free men were concerned, was not in which acts or partners were permitted or forbidden. Rather, what was truly important was a person's ability to choose sexual pleasures moderately, rather than being ruled by them.

This interplay of self-control and desire manifested in three major areas, which Foucault describes as dietetics, economics, and erotics. Dietetics, as used here, concerns not only diet in the modern sense but also the entire regimen of diet, exercise, and other behaviors that preserve health. Foucault shows that, from a dietetic standpoint, the ancient Greeks considered sex to be an activity with its own proper timing. Excessive or ill-timed sexual activity was deemed bad not because it violated a moral code, but because it weakened the body and promoted illness. Sex was also closely tied to the idea of death, since procreation (in the ancient Greek view) was nature's way of letting an individual attain a kind of immortality. For these reasons, sex was viewed ambivalently: it brought the individual closer to death but also offered him a limited means of overcoming it.

Economics, too, is discussed in the original Greek sense of the word: "household management." Here, Foucault draws another line between classical Athenian thought and that of the Christian world. For the ancient Greeks, he says, sexual exclusivity in marriage was an ideal to be admired, not an expectation imposed by laws or rules. Moreover, the reasons for preferring sexual exclusivity came from the social status of the husband, and not from the relationship of the couple. In other words, a man was encouraged to limit sexual activity outside of marriage because of the consequences it might have for him as a citizen and head of household. Husbands were expected to respect their wife's social status and not reduce her to the level of a slave or servant. The more entangled one got with concubines, mistresses, or even one's own servants, the harder this balancing act became.

Foucault's chapters on erotics deal with Athenian pederasty, the custom of erotic relationships between upper-class male citizens and adolescent boys. This custom, Foucault says, does not match the modern idea of homosexuality, since its practitioners often had wives as well. Again, there was an ideal of restraint: Plato and others praised erotic friendships in which the man was more interested in cultivating the youth's mind than in enjoying his body. Nonetheless, sexual activity was a widely accepted part of these relationships: its absence was an ideal, not an imperative. The youth in such relationships occupied a challenging position, since being "passive"—sexually or otherwise—was considered dishonorable. He thus had to find ways of resisting the advances of potential lovers to show his masculinity and mettle before ultimately "granting his favors" to a worthy partner.

Golden Age Greece and Christian Europe, Foucault concludes, shared some fundamental concerns about sex, but their ways of conceptualizing those issues were worlds apart. In some philosophical texts, Foucault admits, the faintest outline of the Christian sexual ethic seems to be evident. Plato's Symposium (360 BCE), for instance, anticipates later Christian texts in praising spiritual rather than physical types of love. Nonetheless, it would take centuries until identifiably "Christian" traits—a valorization of purity and virginity, a rejection of sexual experiences outside of heterosexual monogamy—became prominent in Western thinking about sex.

Volume 3: Care of the Self

Foucault now jumps ahead to a turning point in the development of Western sexual thought. Drawing on a series of texts from the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, he highlights several trends that seem to prefigure the rise of Christian sexual ethics in later centuries. Compared to their Golden Age predecessors, writers from this era—roughly the first half of the Western Roman Empire—were more interested in promoting marital exclusivity. They were also more likely to frame such exclusivity in terms of a bond between the couple, rather than a social obligation. In addition, these authors were more skeptical about the ethics of pederasty—the sexual relationship between a man and a boy—and the special virtues claimed by its advocates.

As in Volume 2, Foucault illustrates this shift by drawing from selected authoritative texts in a variety of fields. He begins the volume with a detailed analysis of The Interpretation of Dreams, a 2nd-century Greek work about a practice that was then extremely popular. Such a book, Foucault suggests, can offer some clues to the values—sexual and otherwise—of the contemporary culture. The dream interpretation manual alludes to many sexual scenarios, but little is said about what acts are good or bad, permitted or prohibited. Instead, the author focuses on the relative status of the dreamer and the person he is having sex with. Whether the dream is a good or bad omen depends on who is the active (i.e., penetrative) partner and who the passive. Foucault concludes that this era, like the Golden Age, valorized the active/masculine/penetrative and looked down on men who were socially or sexually passive.

In other ways, however, Greco-Roman culture had changed substantially, and the philosophy of "the self" had changed with it. Instead of many city-states vying for regional influence, large empires consolidated and subordinated local political systems. Marriage, meanwhile, became less about ensuring the succession of property and more about building a shared life together. In light of these developments, Greeks and Romans of the early imperial period still looked to philosophy to tell them how to live, but their needs were different now. Golden Age texts preached self-control as a prerequisite to control over others. In the chutes-and-ladders world of imperial politics, however, self-cultivation became a response to—and in some cases an alternative to—the uncertainties of one's career. Elite males of this period turned to the idea of self-cultivation in order to find a measure of stability and adapt to change.

This new ethos of self-cultivation, however, extended well past the traditional territory of philosophy. In medicine, too, the imperial Romans came up with increasingly detailed regimens of self-care and increasingly complex systems for diagnosing sexual illnesses. They also engaged in more frequent debates about the virtues of marriage, both for the ordinary man and for the philosopher, and about the treatment due to wives. Sexual exclusivity was upheld as something that could strengthen the conjugal bond, and not just as something that would demonstrate a husband's self-control or protect his social standing. It was not, however, elevated to the status of a universal rule all were expected to obey, as it would be in Christian cultures. Pederasty was still considered "common" and "natural," but it ceased to be associated with the lofty values of classical Greek philosophy. Sexual mores in the time of Greek writer Lucian (c. 120–80 CE) and Greek physician Galen (c. 129–216 CE) were developing in a direction similar to their later Christian counterpart, but they lacked the underlying framework of sin and redemption. Thus, Foucault concludes, it is more accurate to speak of an "analogy" between the sexual ethics of the two eras than to see a true continuity between them.

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