Foucault and the Current Discourse of Sexuality

Foucault and the Current Discourse of Sexuality

The “History of Sexuality” as posited by Foucault, purportedly is an attempt to disprove the notion that westernized society has been inhibited and repressed sexually for centuries and that the notion of sexuality has become something determined unmentionable that is difficult to talk about (Patton 1998). Foucault argued that Western culture has for a long time been fixated on the notion of sexuality as a social convention resulting from a great deal of discourse, certainly making sexuality ubiquitous and seemingly appearing everywhere (McNay 1994). Foucault is described as politicizing sexuality and the role it has within the processes of the formation of self. Foucault bespeaks the notion of heterosexuality structuring and encoding individual’s daily lives and that it is a natural, a given. This is in stark contrast to many other theorists and some feminists on the notion of heterosexual relations. Many argue that through Foucaults’ work, sexual and the social become interconnected through the idea of normal behavior (Foucault 1990). During the time Foucault’s “History of Sexuality” was produced, the sexual revolution, particularly in many of the developed countries was prevalent. Many had ascribed to the ideas and ideologies of individuals such as psychoanalyst Wilhem Reich who asserted that ‘in order to conserve one’s mental health, it would be necessary to liberate his or her sexual energy’ (1986: 89). Following is a critical look at the work of Michel Foucault, and the strengths and weaknesses of his work in understand current discourse on sexuality.

Foucault and Sexuality

Some describe Foucaults’ “History of Sexuality” as originally intended as a relatively straightforward extension of the “Discipline and Punish”; a geneaological approach to the issue of sexuality (Han 2002). Accordingly, his ideas suggest that the numerous and differing modern bodies of knowledge regarding sexuality, inclusive of psychoanalysis, have a particularly intimate association with contemporary societies power structure and as such are considered prime candidates for this kind of analysis. The first volume of Foucaults’ work, published in 1976, purportedly had an expressed intention to introduce a collective of studies on certain aspects of current thought regarding sexuality and offered a historical perspective with explanations of the ideas and methodologies used.

Foucault posited that modern control of sexuality could be succinctly compared to modern control of criminals by associating sex as a crime, an object of posited scientific disciplines, which offer domination of objects and knowledge simultaneously. However, it becomes increasing clear that there is more to be understood regarding the power dimension as it relates to the “science of sexuality” (Gutting 1989; 2005; 2011). Control is exercised by way of an individuals’ knowledge of others as well as his or her knowledge of self; internalizing norms established by the sciences of sexuality and self-monitoring in an effort to abdicate to these established norms. As such, the individual is controlled not just as objects of this discipline but as self forming and self scrutinizing subjects as well (Flynn 2003).

According to Foucault, who couched heterosexual relationships in language described as naturalistic and set against institutional constraints that are deemed no legitimately challengeable, these relationships provide the grounding or foundation for understand any other form of sexuality. In his work, the issue of power and its direct connectedness to the most intimate components of the human body are correlated; particularly when viewed through the contextual framework of Foucault’s theories regarding power, resistance, and exclusion (Foucault 1992). He articulated the capillary model of power wherein he postulated an understanding of the relationships between power from the viewpoint of resistance and struggle: (1) Struggles are not restricted to any one individual or any singular; (2) struggles are concerned with the resistance of power’s effect on the body or the government’s role in the formation of the individual self; (3) struggles are concerned with making clear and revealing how power is used in an effort to change individuals as well as with the politics of self-formation and self identification, and that those political struggles are both personal and local in nature; and (4) struggles are concerned with resisting external standards of decency and taste being imposed (Foucault 1990: 139).

The power relationship maintained by Foucault was not posited as a negative and exclusive force. He offers that there is a juridical view of power in contemporary society with a propensity toward viewing power as oppressive, negative, and laying the foundation for those things that should not be done. However, power as defined by Foucault, is couched in sexual relationships, confessors and those that hear the confession, parent and child, teacher and pupil, and patient and doctor. For Foucault, power is present in all relationships where differences exist. Some scholars contend that this notion was mad evident in Foucaults’ assertion that traditionally, there have been two distinct viewpoints in looking at sexuality; seeing sex as art, such as in the Roman Empire, India, China and Japan where although private and considered special, it was not regarded as shameful or dirty (Hoy 1986). It was kept private because of the thought that the power and pleasure would be diminished if discussed. This is juxtaposed against what Foucault asserts as the westernized view of the science of sexuality or the confession. This bespeaks the need to talk about it and discuss it and a ‘fixation with finding out the truth about sexuality’; because if it was not confessed, it did not exist (Foucault 1990; 124).

We have since become an extraordinarily confessing society.

Confession has spread its effects far and wide: in the judicial system, in medicine, in pedagogy, in familial relations, in amorous relationships, in everyday life and in the most solemn rituals;

crimes are confessed, sins are confessed, thoughts and desires are confessed, one’s past and one’s dreams are confessed, one’s childhood is confessed; one’s diseases and problems are confessed (Foucault 1990: 145).

Extortion of the sexual confession, as explained by Foucault, during the period of the 19th century was significantly regarded in terms of science through: (1) clinical codification of speech inducement; (2) postulation of a diffuse and general causality; (3) latency principle determined to be intrinsic to sexuality; (4) mode of interpretation; and (5) medicalization of confession effects (69). There was no confronting of sex; but rather significant discussion of sex designed to “formulate the uniform truth of sex (Foucault 1990: 69).

Foucaults’ notions of confession and what that represents in contemporary society offers strong criticism of the scientific notion of confession as well as psychoanalysis. He assesses psychoanalysis as a sexual confession that has been legitimized wherein everything is explained in terms of how one’s sexuality is repressed and the sole interpreter is the psychologist. Contemporary thought regarding the notion of confession has been applied to the ‘coming out’ of homosexuals. Even though the concept was not outwardly existent when Foucault articulated the first volume of “History of Sexuality” surely, for many, this represents a kind of confession as well (Foucault 1990).

His discussion of peripheral sexualities elucidates the implication of power in the mechanisms of resistance and identity and how they are expressed and constructed (Hier 2005). Foucault posits that the concern regarding peripheral sexualities significantly shifted in the 19th century. The example of sodomy, as prohibited according to ancient civil code because of the categorization of forbidden acts and the emphasis on sin or wrongdoing that was targeted at the act vs. The actor who was seen as nothing more than an individual who participated in an act that was prohibited. Foucault argues that the classical vision of this prohibited act was revolutionized in the 19th century with legal subjectivity emerging that encompassed the perpetrator of the prohibited act. As such, the sodomite slowly became a kind of individual who acquired a case history, anatomy, morphology, subjectivity and a curious physiology: being deemed a “homosexual” (Hier 2005). “A new creature was born: the sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (Foucault 1980: 43).

Homosexuals considered the new species was “made intelligible through a variety of power knowledge strategies that objectified and subjugated” (Foucault 1980: 47). Homosexuals were not considered to be solely at the mercies of those that ascribed that description but was considered to be in a position to resist the discourse. Foucault maintains that once the homosexual asserts himself in his new lifestyle he has the ability to use his new “special” position and put forth his new identity any number of ways; scandalize, resist, show off, or resist passively accepting his prescription of ‘being sick’ (1980: 48). The unorthodox sexualities or growth of perversions is determined by Foucault to be “the real product of the encroachment of a type of power on bodies and their pleasures” (1980: 48). Foucault maintains that in this instance power is neither structure nor institution but rather the name attributed to a strategical and complex situation in a certain society (1980: 93).

When considering Foucaults’ ideologies regarding human sexuality from an individualistic perspective, he posits that a persons’ ability to do what they desire is predicated by the idea of subjectification which is concerned with: (1) how the individual is trained into particular ways of behaving, the extent to which an individual is made subject to power; (2) how an individual understands his or her capacity to the extent that a person is subject to an ethical frame of reference; (3) and how the individual relates to other individuals to the extent the individual accepts the relationship and presenting situation as true and authentic (Foucault 1990). Paul Patton (1998) maintains, “in this manner, the ways in which certain human capacities become identified and finalized within particular forms of subjectivity the ways in which power creates subjects may also become systems of domination (71).

Foucault contends that discourses on sex positioned at the end of the 18th century were not designed nor used in such a way to regulate or repress the people. Instead, these conversations, dialogues or conventions were designed by the emerging bourgeoisie as a strategy for self-affirmation. Through discourses on sexual relationships and sexuality, these groups slowly established itself as a class distinguished from the “ignorant masses and decadent aristocracy” (1980: 121).

It seems to me that the deployment of sexuality was not established as a principle of limitation of the pleasures to others by what have traditionally been called the ‘ruling classes’. Rather it appears to me that they first tried it on themselves… the primary concern was not the repression of the sex of the classes to be exploited, but rather the body, vigor, longevity, progniture, and descent of the classes that ‘ruled’. This was the purpose for which the deployment of sexuality was first established, as a new distribution of pleasures, discourses, truths and powers; it has to be seen as the self-affirmation of one class rather than the enslavement of another (Foucault 1980: 123).

It appears that his deployment of sexuality discourses failed to result in social control enhancement. Rather, he speaks about bio-power production; those mechanisms that problematize, invest and manage life so it can be lived to the fullest (Foucault 1980). The bourgeoisie, in so doing, through the elaboration and organization of power knowledge procedures on sexuality gave itself a body to be maximized and positively transformed itself. Through these efforts, the bourgeois subject preserved, cultivated, and maximized his or her body and protected it in order to retain status, value and specificity (Foucault 1980: 123).

Sexuality is a consolidate transfer point for power relations, according to Foucault “between men and women, young and old, parents and offspring, teachers and students priests and laity and an administration and population (1990:103). Four strategic alliances formed certain power and knowledge mechanisms on sex to include the psychiatrization of behavior deemed perverse, socialization of behavior for procreation, pedagogization of sex with regard to children and the hysterization of the woman’s body. Further, these mechanisms in Foucaults way of thinking led to the production of sexuality (105). He argues that the family is the interchange of alliance and sexuality and conveys the law in the categorization of sexuality; conveying the “economics of pleasure and the intensity of sensations in the regime of alliance” (108). Because there was movement in the 17th century from the outskirts of sexuality deployment with the family to being the primary vehicle by which sexuality was addressed, Foucault maintains that relatives and parents developed into the primary agents of the conveyance of sexuality which served to draw external support from educators, doctors and so on. The family became prominent in the notion of sexualization.

Foucault’s Critics

There are both strengths and weaknesses in Foucaults’ work. His critics have highlighted some of those areas determined as weaknesses. It is undeniable that Foucault’s writing has been significantly influential not only in the area of sexuality but also in many other areas across the social sciences and humanities, as well as many professional and applied disciplines and areas of study which is certainly a strength. He has readily criticized various societal institutions particularly medicine, the prison system and psychiatry and historical notions of sexuality. He is often referred to as emanating from the contextual frame of post structuralist or post modernist by many modern day critics and commentators. Furthermore, there have been a number of scholars, and those deemed critical thinkers who have criticized Foucaults’ work. One of the premises that some scholars highlight in their criticism is Foucault’s rejection of what they assert to be liberal philosophies and values associated with enlightenment while at the same time using it as a source to be relied upon. As such, Foucault can be seen as someone that no serious consideration needs to be given to because of his discounting of values determined to be normative and the very use of these same values to support his argument.

Additionally, there are historians who take issue with Foucault’s work because of the way he used history to frame his argument and then summarily discounted the importance of the historical perspective. Some historians maintain that he misrepresents the facts or created them entirely. Jacques Derrida is noted as one who has significantly criticized the work of Foucault as it relates to Foucaults use of “Meditations on First Philosophy” (Glenndinning 2011). Some discount the criticism posited by Derrida citing that his reputation had been tainted and was in decline thereby making his assertions invalid (Paglia 1998). It is important to note, on both sides of the criticism deriving from Foucault as well as from those who criticize him, there has been no universally accepted validity posited to any of it. Both sides have taken issue with the other at various points and both sides cite ‘facts’ to support their positions.

Although many have cited criticism from many feminists regarding Foucault’s work, others argue that there has been some level of convergence between feminism and Foucault. It has been argued that because power relations are central to much of the feminist perspective in understanding the issue of female subordination, that Foucault’s work on power relationships was not in opposition to what many feminists argue (Sawicki 1988). When one takes a critical view of historical notions of power and repression, there are some correlations between feminist theory and the repression and oppression of women in societies noted as being primarily patriarchal.

At the same time, within and amongst feminist theories, this notion is being questioned as many state it oversimplifies the facts and supports a general misconception of passivity in women who are powerless to protect themselves or stand up for themselves in a male dominated society. To that end, Foucault’s work is seen as aiding in the development of a heightened conception of the power relationship which lays to rest assumptions about men’s possessiveness and women’s passivity, in general. Foucault’s notion of power being exercised or used vs. something that is possessed and regarded as productive instead of repressive (Sawicki 1988: 164) has been positively argued by some feminist who challenge domination from the make perspective and victimization from the female perspective.

Nancy Fraser (1989) maintains that Foucaults work offers renewed vigor to what is frequently referred to as the “politics of everyday life” in as much as,

The empirical and conceptual basis for treating phenomena such as sexuality, the school, psychiatry, medicine and social science as political phenomena widens the arena within which

people may collectively confront, understand and try to change the character of their lives (26).

Some regard Foucault as being particularly insightful in addressing the micro-political level of sexuality and body as the locus of control of social control; insisting on historical body specificity. This focus is considered to be very attractive to many feminists’ theories both political and social. Fundamentally, the notion of the body as central to analysis according to the feminist perspective as it relates to female oppression because of her physical and biological differences are foundational to the argument of gender inequality. According to feminist theory, the woman’s body is judged and determined to be inferior as compared to the masculine physique and physical abilities and this has been subsequently translated to more than just biology. This line of thought has transpired to encompass the totality of the woman as inferior to the man. To this, Foucault posits an argument that suggests that reducing anyone to just his or her bodily and physical abilities is indeed an oversimplification (Foucault 1978).


Michel Foucault is regarded as an influential philosopher and his work, “History of Sexuality” continues to garner much critical review, scholarly discourse and examination. His analysis and work on the repressive hypothesis has engendered much debate as to whether or not his ideology is sound. Although he has a number of critiques, Foucault’s work continues to stand up under the scrutiny of historians and scholars. As outlined in the aforementioned, there are noted strengths and weaknesses within his argument in understanding current discourse on sexuality. He argues successfully that the repressive hypothesis gives revolutionary credence to discourse regarding sexuality noting the lack of necessity in shouting it from the rooftops. Why is it necessary to talk so much about what we are not supposed to talk about? Part of the strength of Foucault’s argument lies in his explanation of power relationships and how those relationships determine how the discourse on sexuality transpires.

Some argue the weakness of Foucaults argument is that very same ‘circular reasoning’; using history to dispel history with inaccurate facts and touting the negatives associated with the repressive hypothesis while at the same time using it as a critical component to his ideology. Foucault challenges modern day discourse on sexuality and questions whether it is really any different than the discourse of centuries past. Has the society really moved so far away from historical ideas of repression and sexuality into a new way of thinking?

Works Cited

Flynn, T. (2003) Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason, volume 2: A post-structuralist

Mapping of history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Foucault, M. (1978) The History of Sexuality, Penguin Books

Foucault, M. (1980) The History of Sexuality Vol 1: An Introduction. New York:

Vintage Books

Foucault, M. (1990) The History of Sexuality Vol 1, London: Penguin

Foucault, M. (1992) The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality Vol 2, London:


Fraser, N. (1989) Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse and Gender in Contemporary

Social Theory, Cambridge: Polity Press

Glendinning, S. (2011) Jacques Derrida: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford

Gutting, F. (1989) Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Scientific Reason, Cambridge:

– – (2005) The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, Cambridge: Cambridge

– (2011) “Michel Foucault” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

[online] E. Zalta (ed.) Available from / 10 January 2012

Han, B. (2002) Foucault’s Critical Project, Stanford: Stanford University Press

Hier, S. (ed.) (2005) Contemporary Sociological Thought: Themes and Theories,

Toronto, Canada: Canadian Scholars; Press Inc.

Hoy, D. (1986) Foucault: A Critical Reader, Oxford: Blackwell

McNay, L. (1994) Foucault: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge: Continuum

Paglia, C. What I hate about Foucault [online] Available from [10 January 2012]

Patton, P. (1998) Foucaults Subjects of Power, In J. Moss The Later Foucault. London:


Reich, W. (1986) The Sexual Revolution: Toward a Self-Regulating Character Structure.

London: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Sawicki, J. (1988) Foucault, Feminism and Questions of Identity, In G. Gutting, The

Cambridge Companion to Foucault, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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