Literature Study GuidesHistory Of SexualityVolume 1 An Introduction Summary

History of Sexuality | Study Guide

Michel Foucault

Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "History of Sexuality Study Guide." Course Hero. 12 Apr. 2019. Web. 7 Aug. 2020. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2019, April 12). History of Sexuality Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved August 7, 2020, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2019)



Course Hero. "History of Sexuality Study Guide." April 12, 2019. Accessed August 7, 2020.


Course Hero, "History of Sexuality Study Guide," April 12, 2019, accessed August 7, 2020,

History of Sexuality | Volume 1: An Introduction | Summary



Part 1: We "Other Victorians"

Foucault begins his study by recounting, and challenging, a common narrative about the role of sexuality in Western culture. According to this narrative, society shifted from "frankness" and freedom regarding sex in the 17th century to outright repression in the 19th. The aftereffects of this stifling Victorian morality, the story goes, are still being felt today. Under this regime, sexuality was confined to the home and restricted to procreative, marital sex. "Illegitimate sexualities"—those not fitting this mold—were either stamped out or pushed to the margins of society. This is an easy story to believe, Foucault asserts, but its accuracy is far from self-evident. Moreover, the people of today have their own clear motives for presenting themselves as victims of repression who must speak out against it. There is something almost utopian, he says, about the insistence that a new age of sexual liberation is just about to begin. Foucault argues that we should ask not "Why are we repressed?" but "Why do we say ... that we are repressed?"

Part 2: The Repressive Hypothesis

In these chapters, Foucault continues his interrogation of the repressive hypothesis—the historical claim that " prudishness" at some point took hold of Western culture and has yet to let go. He suggests that, far from being unspeakable, sex underwent a "discursive explosion" between the 17th and the 20th centuries. That is, people spoke about sex much more often, and in much greater detail, than they had in times past. Foucault identifies the beginnings of this explosion in the practices of the medieval Church, which from the 13th century onward urged its adherents to confess their sins regularly to a priest. As time went on, these confessions involved more and more extensive descriptions of sexual "sins against purity." Meanwhile, Christians were also encouraged to review their thoughts and desires regularly in what is called an "examination of conscience." This too led to an increase in speech and writing about sex. Here, Foucault proposes, are the beginnings of the scandalous "tell-all" literature found in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The modernization of Western societies also played a part in this "discursive explosion." As political, medical, and scientific thinkers began to discuss "populations," sex—as a necessary element in population growth—became an unavoidable topic of discussion. In schools, the sexual behaviors and inclinations of minors were increasingly taken into account in the curriculum, the disciplinary practices, and even the design of the buildings. Far from silencing discussion of children's sexuality or looking the other way, a variety of institutions—medical and psychological as well as educational—avidly discussed the issue. As the discourse grew more extensive and more complicated, different types of sexual practices were cataloged, classified, and claimed. Far from simply prohibiting sex outside of a monogamous heterosexual unit, this discourse brought many previously overlooked types of sexuality into the cultural spotlight. "We must," Foucault concludes, "abandon the hypothesis that modern industrial societies ushered in an age of increased sexual repression."

Part 3: Scientia Sexualis

Foucault describes the evolution of a scientia sexualis—a "science of sex"—in the modern West. He concedes that scientific and medical discourses surrounding sex were "evasive" and "furtive" in some ways, but he denies that these discourses functioned "simply to conceal sex." Far from repressing sexual "perversions," the biology of reproduction and the medicine of sex served to stoke anxiety and inflame public interest.

This scientia sexualis, however, was only one way of "producing the truth of sex." In several non-Western cultures and in ancient Rome, Foucault instead identifies an ars erotica (erotic art) aimed at heightening the artistry and pleasure of sex, and to pursue truth through sexual experience rather than through clinical examination. The lack of a modern Western ars erotica can be seen, Foucault says, in the long line of confessional rituals—from the literal retelling of one's sins to psychoanalysis—that Westerners have used to access the "truth of sex." Medicine, education, psychology, and scientific research are vehicles by which these "procedures of confession" spread to other areas of life. The result of these confessional discourses was that sexuality came to be seen as something inherent in a person. It was something that drove their behavior, and whose truth had to be teased out through interrogation and interpretation.

Part 4: The Deployment of Sexuality

Why then, Foucault now asks, is there "this great chase after the truth of sex, the truth in sex?" In order to understand the nature of the modern preoccupation with sex, he says, it is necessary first to understand how power operates. The idea that sex is "repressed," in Foucault's view, stems largely from a tendency to confuse law with power. If one considers all power in a society to reside in its government and laws, Foucault suggests, it would indeed seem that sex is being repressed. It is, he concedes, easy to find examples of laws that directly prohibit certain kinds of sexual behavior or censor certain kinds of sexual expression. However, the law is only one manifestation—not necessarily the strongest manifestation—of power within a society. The more one recognizes the "dense, entangled, conflicting powers" that pervade Western society, the harder it is to accept a simple narrative of repression and liberation. But most people, including academics and philosophers, give undue weight to the law when they are really trying to talk about power. Thus, Foucault proposes, people persist in the belief that sexuality has been repressed and is now being liberated from this repression.

Sexuality, Foucault continues, is not a rebellious "drive" that has to be contained by power relations. Rather, it is an element of many different types of power relations, from those of the couple and family to those of the state and the Church. Each of these power relations has created its own varied use of sex and sexuality. Within these relations, sexuality has not been so much repressed as "deployed." As an example of such deployment, Foucault cites the uses of sexual discourse—especially the science of sex, procreation, and heredity—by the 18th- and 19th-century middle class. Unable to claim aristocratic "blood," this group used sex to affirm and defend its position in society. It accomplished this in several ways. Morally, the bourgeoisie embraced a conservative view of sex that distinguished them from the carefree aristocrats and the "degenerate" poor. Socially, they insisted on marriages that would not only preserve socioeconomic status but also protect potential children from hereditary diseases. Only later, around the turn of the 20th century, did this come to be seen as a wholesale repression of sex.

Part 5: Right of Death and Power over Life

Foucault concludes Volume 1 with reflections on the broader interplay of sex and power. Sex, he says, has been a pivotal area in the modern transformation of power. For millennia, power—and specifically sovereignty—consisted largely in the ability "to decide life and death." In the modern era, however, power more often manifests itself as the ability to "generate forces, make them grow, and order them." Rulers think as much or more about growing their populations as they do about subduing them. Even the death penalty, once treated as a manifestation of the sovereign right to take away life, is now couched in terms of protecting the rest of the population from dangerous criminals. As "bio-power"—power over people as organisms—became increasingly prominent, sex itself was invested with new importance. It became a culture-wide preoccupation, subject to endless moral and psychological theorizing. It is in this sense, again, that Foucault can say sexuality was "deployed": it was not repressed, nor channeled exactly, but upheld as a "mirage" capable of distracting individuals to the point of obsession. Thus, attempts to "liberate" sexuality represent a misunderstanding of its role in power relations: "We must not think that by saying yes to sex, one says no to power."


Confession and Christian Pastoral Care

Foucault's alternative history of Western sexuality has its roots in the medieval Church. The reason Foucault confidently identifies the early 13th century as a turning point in his tale is that, in 1215, the Catholic Church held one of its most important ecumenical councils. These councils were great meetings overseen by the pope, during which bishops, abbots, and other high-ranking clergy debated changes in Church policy. As a result of the council's deliberations, the pope would issue decrees announcing new rules and judgments, along with clarifications on controversial points of doctrine.

The council held in 1215, known as the "Fourth Lateran Council" or "Lateran IV," covered a huge range of doctrinal and political issues, from the crusades to the proper wording of the Nicene Creed. Of greatest interest to Foucault, however, is the papal edict obligating Christians to confess their sins annually. This is not quite the birth of the Catholic sacrament of confession: in some parts of the Christian world, a similar practice had been carried out for centuries. It is, however, the first formal, Church-wide pronouncement making regular confession a requirement for the faithful.

As confession (formally, the Sacrament of Penance) became an ongoing part of religious life in Western Europe, literature was developed to instruct both penitents and priests. Priests were taught how to help their penitents identify and root out various sins, including sexual ones. Penitents themselves, meanwhile, were urged to prepare for the sacrament through an "examination of conscience." This is a ritual of self-scrutiny in which different types of moral failings—urges and thoughts as well as actions—are highlighted and considered, one at a time. The manuals written to assist with this task addressed every subject of moral interest to Christians, including sex. Thus, Foucault claims, as people went over their sins in greater depth, frequency, and formality, they wound up talking and writing about sex more frequently than ever.

The Medicalization of Sexuality

The rise of modern medicine went hand in hand with the development of what Foucault calls the scientia sexualis. On this topic, Foucault cites primarily French medical authorities whose work may not be well known to English speakers. An exception—an internationally known figure about whom Foucault says a great deal—is the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–93). Best known today for his work on such illnesses as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease, Charcot has a complicated legacy among historians of medicine. This is partly because, in addition to researching and proposing treatments for those disorders, he was intensely interested in the treatment of an illness known as hysteria.

Today, the word hysterical is sometimes used to mean "extremely funny": "I thought her standup set was just hysterical." An older usage, still sometimes heard in the 21st century, is "wildly and excessively emotional": "Stop that; you're being hysterical." The noun hysteria, meanwhile, is used to refer to this wild emotionality, either in an individual or in a crowd. The origin of both words, as Foucault hints but does not fully explain, is medical: hystera is Ancient Greek for "womb," which is why the surgical removal of the womb is called a hysterectomy. From the Middle Ages onward, physicians had posited a connection between the supposed emotionality of women and the presence of a womb. King Lear, the titular character of English playwright William Shakespeare's (1564–1616) play King Lear (1605–06), refers to his madness as hysterica passio. This shows that by the 17th century, this stereotypical linking of wombs and madness had already "escaped" from medical discourse and entered popular culture. In the 18th and especially the 19th centuries, doctors aimed to treat mental illness in women by performing procedures on the womb and other reproductive organs. To be "hysterical" under these conditions was a much more serious matter than the word might imply today.

Charcot was one of the physicians working on hysteria, which was then widely perceived as an important but mysterious medical issue. At his clinic at the Salpêtrière, a renowned Paris hospital, Charcot proposed treatments for hysteria that involved isolating young women from their families and subjecting them to hypnosis and pressure-point manipulations. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Charcot did not believe hysteria was exclusive to women—he treated male patients with similar symptoms. Nonetheless, in lending his professional credibility to hysteria and the quest to treat it, he became a key figure in what Foucault calls the "hysterization of women's bodies," the medical establishment's long tendency to view women as physiologically wired for emotionality and mental illness because of their sex. The great attention paid by Charcot's peers to the problem of hysteria shows how theories of sexuality in medicine came to influence culture well beyond the hospital walls.

Psychoanalysis and Modern Sexual Thought

The rise of psychoanalysis forms the other "endpoint" in the period under study in this volume. Perhaps the best-known figure in this regard is Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), often described as the "founding father of psychoanalysis." Freud, too, was intrigued by the problem of hysteria, but his methodology was different from Charcot's. Instead of using hypnosis and other quasi-medical techniques, Freud asked his patients to talk through their thoughts and feelings in great detail. In doing so, he hoped to get at the neuroses—the underlying anxieties and obsessions—that he felt were at the root of hysteria and other recognized mental illnesses of his time. The stereotypical scene of a patient lying on a couch comes from the psychoanalytic tradition, which encouraged patients to hunt through repressed memories as a clue to their present troubles.

Like confession and hypnosis before it, the psychoanalytic technique had the net effect of encouraging people to open up about their sexual histories, their urges and desires. It thus constituted another installment in the history of sexual discourse—and more proof that sex was far from unilaterally "repressed" during the Victorian era. Freud is a central figure for Foucault not only because he pioneered the practice of psychoanalysis, but also because he forms a turning point in the history of psychology. For much of the 19th century, psychology was a controversial and loosely organized discipline whose credibility was challenged by philosophers, scientists, and religious authorities. At the turn of the century, however, Freud and his students helped to propel psychology to greater respectability. Their work spurred the acceptance of psychological treatments by the middle and upper classes and, importantly for Foucault, gave people yet another vocabulary for discussing sex and sexuality.

Looking Ahead, Looking Back

In Volume 2 Foucault will take a seemingly abrupt turn from modern to ancient history. It can be helpful, before turning the page and jumping back 2,400 years, to review the key arguments of Volume 1. Perhaps the central contention of this volume is that sexuality is a social construct. Although sex and sexual behavior are certainly older than civilization, sexuality is more than a value-neutral way of describing sex. It is a cultural way of thinking about sex in which certain urges and inclinations are deemed to be deeply embedded in one's personality. Because sexuality is considered such a deep part of a person's psychological makeup, modern Western culture tends to view it as a source of essential truths not just about what a person wants, but who that person is. In Volume 1, Foucault has tried to show the artificial nature of this perspective by suggesting how it came about in the first place. Volumes 2 and 3 will take this exercise much further by describing the different ways in which ancient Western civilizations viewed sex. In those cultures, as Foucault will show, there was no concept of "sexuality" as such, but this did not prevent people from talking, thinking, and opining about sex.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about History of Sexuality? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!

Stuck? We have tutors online 24/7 who can help you get unstuck.
A+ icon
Ask Expert Tutors You can ask You can ask You can ask (will expire )
Answers in as fast as 15 minutes