Michel Foucault on History of Sexuality


According to Michel Foucault, by the 19th-century, when capitalism and industrialisation had allowed for the development of a dominant bourgeois social class, discourse on sex was not suppressed, but in fact proliferated. Bourgeois society “put into operation entire machinery for producing true discourses” surrounding sex, perhaps believing that it harboured a “fundamental secret” that had to be learned. It is extremely hard if not impossible to study the history of sexuality. Sexuality can be traced back as far as the birth of the man itself. His decisions, general demeanour and the ability to have sex with both the sexes make man a curious animal.

258px-Foucault_Michel_The_History_of_Sexuality_1_1978The History of Sexuality is a three-volume study of sexuality in the western world by the French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault. The first volume, The Will to Knowledge was first published in 1976. It was followed by The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self both published in 1984. In Volume I, Foucault explores the “repressive hypothesis”, the idea that western society suppressed sexuality from the 17th to the mid-20th century: he argues that this hypothesis is an illusion, and that in actuality, discourse on sexuality proliferated during this 258px-Foucault_Michel_The_History_of_Sexuality_2_1985period. He goes on to argue that at this time, experts began to examine sexuality in a scientific manner, classifying different types of sexuality and encouraging people to confess their sexual feelings and actions, all in the desire to learn the “truth” of sex. It was a five part volume which opened with the other Victorians and then progresses towards the repressive hypothesis. Part three explores the science behind sex and the attempts to unfold the truth regarding the same. An interesting take by him is how the state promoted state racism by utilizing the name of “public hygiene”. Part 4 talks about the deployment of sexuality and asks the question as to why the western society wishes to find out the truth about sex. The fifth part asserts that the motivations for power over life and death have changed.

The History of Sexuality has been seen by Dennis Altman as representative of the position that 258px-Foucault_Michel_The_History_of_Sexuality_3_1986homosexuals emerged as a social category in 18th and 19th century Western Europe. Historian Peter Gay writes that Foucault is right to raise questions about the “repressive hypothesis”, but that “his procedure is anecdotal and almost wholly unencumbered by facts; using his accustomed technique (reminiscent of the principle underlying Oscar Wilde’s humour) of turning accepted ideas upside down, he turns out to be right in part for his private reasons.” The book broke the traditional misconceptions about sex and sexuality as a whole. The book is highly informative about one of the most popular things in world. It’s a must read for people who wish to explore sexuality’s origin and the way it’s changed over the years.

Written by

Vaibhav Sharma

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