History of Sexuality | Study Guide

Michel Foucault

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History of Sexuality | Quotes


The image of the imperial prude is emblazoned on our restrained, mute, and hypocritical sexuality.

Narrator, Volume 1: An Introduction

The "imperial prude" sums up the stereotype of Victorian repression against which Foucault builds his argument. He suggests that the idea of strict decorum, often associated with Queen Victoria and her reign, still haunts people in the late 20th century. He does not, however, believe that Victorian "prudery" is as influential as most seem to think. Instead, he attempts to show that modern sexuality was never as "restrained" or "mute" as it might seem to be.


We demand that sex speak ... the deeply buried truth ... about ourselves.

Narrator, Volume 1: An Introduction

The "we" invoked here is modern society and its members, who have bought into a view of sexuality as an essential and often "deeply buried" part of oneself. If one accepts this view, it becomes easier to understand the whole range of techniques modern society has developed to try to get at the truth of a person's sexuality. In this volume of the History, psychoanalysis is Foucault's favorite example of such a technique.


Is sex hidden from us ... kept under a bushel ... ? On the contrary, it shines forth.

Narrator, Volume 1: An Introduction

A central point of The History of Sexuality is that sex was far from a secretive, "repressed" topic at any point in modern Western history. Thus, it makes little sense to construe modern culture as attempting to "liberate" itself from such repression. Even in the staid, middle-class-dominated society of the Victorians, Foucault says, sex "shone forth" in many different areas of discourse.


In political thought and analysis, we still have not cut off the head of the king.

Narrator, Volume 1: An Introduction

One of Foucault's objections to mainstream historical scholarship is its tendency to hold onto old-fashioned ideas of power. By "cutting off the head of the king," Foucault is referring to dispensing with the idea of a single, centralized power that rules everyone else from above.

The "king" here is figurative, not literal; Foucault's remark applies to political and historical analyses of parliamentary and congressional states as well as monarchies. Historians, he argues, tend to treat these political systems as though they were monarchies, just with a few more people at the top.


We must ... conceive of sex without the law, and power without the king.

Narrator, Volume 1: An Introduction

The way a historian construes power will, Foucault asserts, color their thinking on other subjects as well, including sexuality. In order to truly understand how sexuality as a concept evolved, he argues, historians need to adopt a broader and more nuanced view of power. More specifically, they need to dispense with the model that places a single dominating force (a literal or figurative "king") at the top of the political food chain.


Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.

Narrator, Volume 1: An Introduction

Instead of the monarchical model of power, in which a single ruler or ruling body dominates society, Foucault proposes what might be called a "network" view of power. He suggests that, even in societies where there is an identifiable political or economic elite, power is not a simple top-down arrangement. Instead, he argues, all sorts of relationships, including private ones such as marriage or the family, are invested with power. Individuals are caught up in a web of power relations that cannot be reduced to a simple hierarchy.


Here everything was a matter of adjustment, circumstance, and personal position.

Narrator, Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure

One of Foucault's aims in Volumes 2 and 3 is to contrast classical Greco-Roman sexual ethics with the sexual morality that emerged in the Christian era. He does this by showing how, in the pre-Christian West, sexual ethics were heavily based on circumstance and context. In the Christian era, Foucault suggests, everyone was—at least in principle—held to the same standard of sexual conduct. Rules and laws, he asserts, replaced flexible, circumstantial guidelines.


Sexual activity was located within the ... parameters of life and death, of time ... and eternity.

Narrator, Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure

Another point of comparison between pre-Christian and Christian sexual ethics emerges here. For the ancient Greeks, Foucault argues, sex was a part of life closely intertwined with the concepts of death and immortality. This naturalistic view of sex is a partial match for the medieval Christian view, which insisted on procreative sex as the only suitable kind. On the other hand, in Christian thought, the idea of immortality is referred to the soul rather than the body, diminishing the importance of sex as a vehicle for self-perpetuation.


Mistresses we keep for ... pleasure ... but wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians.

Demosthenes, Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure

This famous quotation comes from Athenian orator and statesman Demosthenes (384–22 BCE), who uttered these words during a legal case about a man's inheritance. Foucault uses it to set the stage for his discussion of sex and marriage in Golden Age Greece. As an elite Greek male speaking in a public forum, Demosthenes shows that no stigma is attached to the keeping of sexual partners other than one's spouse. At the same time, he shows that wives held a special status: certain privileges and prerogatives were understood to apply only to marriage.


When one played the role of subordinate partner ... one could not be truly dominant.

Narrator, Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure

Male-male relationships were not frowned upon in classical Athens. However, popular views on gender roles created an important ethical problem for the participants in these relationships. Being passive, sexually or socially speaking, was regarded as weak and unmanly behavior. A man who let himself be sexually "possessed" by others was viewed as lacking in virility and unfit for public leadership.


Breaks, radical changes, emergence of a new form ... ? No, this was clearly not the case.

Narrator, Volume 3: The Care of the Self

One of Foucault's prevailing concerns in The History of Sexuality is to show how gradually Western attitudes toward sex have changed through the centuries. He frames the developments in the first two centuries CE not as "breaks" with earlier tradition, but as an "inflection" of preexisting themes. Some aspects of sexual behavior were given greater importance in 200 CE than in 400 BCE, but the shift was far from sudden.


A[n] ... attitude of severity was manifested in the thinking of philosophers ... in the ... first two centuries.

Narrator, Volume 3: The Care of the Self

One development Foucault traces to the imperial era is the increasing "severity" with which ethical problems—and not just those of sexual ethics—were treated. It's important to note, however, that philosophers in this period were still not in the business of issuing strict, one-size-fits-all moral codes. They were critical of overindulgence in all areas of life, but they wished to persuade people to change, not to outlaw bad behavior.


When a man takes care of his body and ... his soul ... his condition is perfect.

Seneca, Volume 3: The Care of the Self

During the first two centuries CE, Foucault argues, the elite members of Greek and Roman society became intensely interested in the "cultivation of the self." He cites several thinkers on this subject, including doctors and statesmen as well as philosophers. Roman statesman Seneca (c. 4 BCE–65 CE), as quoted here, captures what Foucault describes as the general cultural attitude of the era. Happiness, for him, was to be found by and within the individual and not in external circumstances.


Medicine was not ... a technique of intervention, ... It was ... supposed to define ... a way of living.

Narrator, Volume 3: The Care of the Self

Medicine became more prestigious and professionalized in the Roman imperial period than it had been in earlier centuries. One consequence of the upper classes' growing interest in medicine was that they were often willing to submit to complicated regimens of self-care. In this era, medicine encompassed not only pharmaceutical and surgical treatments administered by a doctor, but also habits of diet, exercise, and recreation.


Intramarital sexual relations are no longer ... a right. They must be ... characterized by affection, attachment, and reciprocity.

Narrator, Volume 3: The Care of the Self

Here, Foucault describes an important shift between Golden Age and imperial-era philosophies of marriage. For the Athenians of the Golden Age, marriage was essentially a property arrangement designed to preserve households and perpetuate families. Concepts of "affection, attachment, and reciprocity," which modern Western cultures would construe as essential components of marriage, were evidently given little attention by philosophers. By the imperial era, this had changed, and sexual ethics thus had to address marital relationships as well as marital status.

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