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Foucault's Sexuality

Foucault's Sexuality

10 Mins
February 27, 2011

This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " The Continental Origins of Postmodernism ."


As I understand it, Foucault is one of the widely recognized creators of Postmodernism. He was influenced by Hegel and Nietzsche, and he retains Hegel’s concern with a combination of both philosophical and historical theorizing. In particular, two elements were of primary interest to Foucault: to understand the relationship of general history to the philosophical history, and to understand humans as epistemological beings. He rejects, from this same tradition, the idea of history having an orderly, logical progression and “meaning” as well as the idea of a science (or set of sciences) about human nature.

Foucault wrote about the intellectual uses of certain words over various historical periods on particular themes such as medicine, penal practice, psychiatry, and sexual conduct. He likes to discuss the “historical constructs” through which we come to view various ideas over time, and to describe the power relations and social norms which he believes define such terms over time.

Professor Hicks includes Foucault among the four philosophers in his definition of Postmodernism as a philosophy characterized by metaphysical antirealism, epistemological collective subjectivism, social constructionism in human nature, and value collectivism. Following a summary reading, I will use this proposed definition to see if the material permits the inclusion of Foucault in the proposed definition.

The caveat I offer for the reader is that I had a difficult time understanding this text, and I suspect my difficulties will be evident. It was frustrating for me to try to empathize with Foucault’s conceptual distinctions because I couldn’t identify entities to be included in many of the concepts he offers. I felt as if the terms being used were words I recognized, but the underlying conceptual distinctions being made were utterly alien to me. I was left simply quoting in much of what follows and offering speculative comments on what the quoted material might mean. I offer sympathy to the readers for the following summary and analysis as I struggled to be objective in my reading of Foucault.


Foucault begins by contrasting our current “Victorian Regime” toward sexuality, which has reigned since the beginning of the 17th century, and the formerly open regime prior to then. This prudish Victorianism treats sex as “restrained” and “hypocritical,” and it labels all sexual activity outside of a married, heterosexual couple’s bedroom characterized by being related to reproduction, silence, and monogamy to be abnormal. Other sexual practices are consigned via repression to “the brothel” or to mental hospitals. They are given “a sentence to disappear,” as well as an “injunction to silence” and an “affirmation of non-existence.” Only in their permitted realms, they are given “a right to...forms of reality” and a “clandestine, circumscribed, and coded type of discourse.” Thus, Foucault presents the essence of his analysis to follow: a discussion of the history of sexuality to highlight the relationships between sex, repression, power, and knowledge.

According to Foucault, one of the first attempts to liberate humanity from sexual oppression came from Freud.

According to Foucault, one of the first, albeit unsuccessful, attempts to liberate humanity from sexual oppression came from Freud and his introduction of psychoanalysis. However, this liberation was an illusory one because is was “medicalized” and therefore implicitly accepting of the repressive order through relegating the subject of sexuality to a safe discourse--sanitized science. This relegation failed to address the “fundamental link” between power, knowledge, and sexuality. Truth, Foucault suggests, is inextricably tied to politics, and Freud fails to address this in his scientific analysis of sexuality. In Foucault’s words, “the least glimmer of truth is conditioned by politics.” Foucault moves quickly to politics by linking the repression of sexuality to capitalism, calling this repression an “integral part of” capitalism which is asserting its ugly head at the time of the rise of Victorianism. Exploited workers can’t be allowed to have pleasure except in the service of reproduction.

One possible source for the link of sex and power via repression might be the “speaker’s benefit” provided. This is because speaking about the prohibited, i.e., unacceptable sexuality, is a disruption of the established order and challenging the power implied by the repression. An implicit support for the established, repressive order comes from those wishing to have a voice of opposition within it. But Foucault discounts this idea. Instead, he suggests that a discourse on sexuality linked to power via repression is characterized by: 1) truth revelation, 2) overturning of global laws, 3) the proclamation of a new day, and 4) a promise of felicity.

Following this prelude describing the current situation, Foucault presents his purpose in this discourse on the history of sexuality. He intends to present a means or method for examining the discourse on sexuality. In particular, he wants to understand why contemporary society feels so guilt-ridden over making so much of the discourse about sexuality “a sin.” He is setting out to “examine...a society castigating itself for hypocrisy,” a society that “speaks verbosely of its own silence,” that “relate(s) in detail the things it doesn’t say,” that “denounces the power it exercises,” and “promises liberation from laws making it function.” He is not interested in the repression of sexuality, he is interested in the protest about that repression.

He quickly considers, and rejects, the “repressive hypothesis” that the loud protesting is a result of the difficulty entailed in overthrowing the established, stifling, reigning order. His three-fold objections are formulated as questions. First: Is sexual repression an established historical fact? Second: Are power and its mechanisms really repressive? Third: Is the “critical discourse” of repression really an example of the “power mechanism” or “historical framework” it claims to denounce? Foucault, perhaps oddly, is not interested in answering these questions. Instead, the objections are to serve as a means for focusing the discussion, for reorienting the debate, a debate he intends “putting back within a general economy of discourses on sex.” He wants to “define the regime of power-knowledge-pleasure that sustains the discourse on human sexuality” and to understand “the way in which sex is ‘put into discourse.’”


In this section, Foucault sets the stage for offering his “analytics of power.” He does this by exposing what he sees as the conventional account of power, a flawed account he exposes in order to dismiss it in favor of his own alternative. He first asserts that, contrary to the usual account, power is not repressive in nature, it is not used as an outside force or authority which restricts the expression of “primal urges” of sexuality from the outside. Rather, he invokes a “theory of desire” which says any time desire is present (presumably including sexual desire) the “power relation is already present.” Thus, power relations are inexorably tied to any discourse on desire/sexuality. How are they so tied?

Power should be understood through an “analytics” which defines “the domain formed by relations of power,” and Foucault offers to elucidate the “instruments” that make this analysis possible. That will have to wait until the next section. First, he insists on the importance of rejecting the idea of power of the “juridico-discursive” type. He rejects the usual conception of power as manifest in the laws of society written up as the legal code. This usual conception has at least five features, and these features can be understood by applying them to the case of sex. First, the “negative relation” in which it “negates” sex if and when sex might be enacted. Second, the “insistence of the rule” in which power dictates an order to sex via language--i.e., the dictate of a (prohibitive) legal code of restrictions. Third, the “cycle of prohibition” in which sex is forced to “renounce itself” through either self-abnegation or via explicit external suppression. Fourth, the “logic of censorship” in which (unacceptable) sex is not permitted, its expression is prevented, and its existence is denied. Finally, the “uniformity” of power--that it has a general character that functions equally in all situations involving power relations with only variation in the scale of its strength. This general character is the “law of transgression and punishment.” Foucault summarizes the conception he opposes as relying on “the force of the negative” and “nothing more than the statement of the law and the operation of taboos,” and he explicitly rejects the appropriateness of the “rule of law.”

Foucault then tries to account for the widespread appearance of power in this form he rejects. The reason for its success is a tactical one--because it is general in operation and silent in expression, its true nature as an oppressive force is hidden. The establishment of this “discourse,” this juridico-political power manifest in legislation, hid the operation of the true underlying “facts and procedures of power.” In doing so, true power was consolidated behind the scenes. Despite efforts to separate executive power (i.e., “monarchy”) from judicial power, they remained tightly bound together--as they must, Foucault insists. Critics have been unable to change this state of affairs precisely because they accept the impossible separation as a worthy goal. Not to despair. Modern society has developed new “power mechanisms” not captured by this standard model. If we can now discard the notion of “power-law,” we can understand the working of power in society, which is the subject of the next section.


Foucault says power is “the name [of a] complex strategical situation in a particular society” which is exemplified by the “multiplicity of force relations in the sphere in which they operate.” This multiplicity is “coded” in two forms: war and politics. To understand the difference of this conception from the one he opposes, he offers a series of contrasts. Power is not a thing to be obtained and/or manipulated; instead, it is the interplay of complex relationships. Power is not a simple separation of binary relationships into the controller and the controlee; instead, the relationships are part of other relationships such as economic, knowledge, and sexual relationships. Power is not a “top-down” phenomenon emanating from those above and dictating to those below; instead, it is manifest throughout society.

He further characterizes power relations as intentional, but nonsubjective. While they are intentional in being directed in a particular “direction,” they are not the intention of individual people. In this way, they are like Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” or Hayek’s notion of the coordination of the market through human action, but not by human design. Furthermore, the “points of resistance” in the network of power relations are also everywhere, like resistors in a large electric panel.

This characterization of power as a flux of shifting relations between spheres of force and resistance is the sought-for “escape” from the judicial model of power. In understanding the history of the discourse on sex, one is to apply this conception to find the power relations that influence the discourse. In doing so, there are four “rules” to be followed. The rule of immanence directs one to search for the shifting forces allowing an inquiry to take place. In any subject of inquiry, including sexuality, one must seek the relations of power which permit the subject to be opened as an object of inquiry. The rule of continual variations seeks for patterns of shifting forces (i.e., “matrices of transformations”) within the discourse, rather than “static” relationships. The rule of “double conditioning” admits there are complicated, but reinforcing, relationships between small, local power centers in the flux and the more global strategies and power relations. Finally, there is the rule of tactical polyvalence of discourses, in which any discourse must be conceived as involved in many different of the constantly shifting force relations.

Applying these rules requires two standards for evaluating any discourse, including one into sexuality. The first standard is tactical productivity--what are the effects of the discourse on power and knowledge in society? The second is strategic integration--what force relationships make the use of the discursive elements necessary in any given instance?

Foucault intends to use these rules and standards to evaluate the discourse on sexuality since the 17th century. Having laid this groundwork, he’s ready to present his analysis of the relevant discourse about sex, power, and knowledge.


Foucault begins his “analytics” with a description/definition of sexuality as “a dense transfer point for relations of power...endowed with the greatest instrumentality” and a “linchpin for the most varied strategies.” To interpret this a bit, he seems to be distancing his discussion from a reference to biological and psychological phenomena such as drives and centering it on the discourse of sexuality over time. This discourse forms the metaphysical ground from which “sexuality” emerges as an important location for the interplay of power and knowledge. “Sexuality” is an arena for the playing out of power and knowledge relationships among multiple actors.

Four “strategic unities” emerge from the two century discourse on sexuality, according to Foucault. These unities formed “mechanisms” within the flux of power and knowledge. These unities “gained an effectiveness” in power relations and showed “productivity” in knowledge relations, thereby becoming the “privileged objects of knowledge.” The unities each have a prototype representative--1) The hysterical woman, 2) the masturbating child, 3) the Malthusian couple, and 4) the perverse adult.

The Hysterical Woman is manifest in discourse in three ways. The first is as a body “saturated with sexuality,” or what today might be called the “objectification” of the female body. The second is “medical pathology,” in which medicine incorporated women into practice for conditions “intrinsic” to it; Foucault doesn’t say, but I assume he means the development of fields like gynecology and obstetrics. The third is an “organic communication” into the “social body” via fecundity, the “family space,” and the life of children.

The Masturbating Child enters discourse in a complicated way via two opposing forces. The first is the “natural” indulgence of children in sexual practices (presumably like masturbation), or at least the desire to so indulge. This is considered “unnatural” and therefore dangerous for these “pre-sexual” beings. Given this conflict between two contrary forces, there is a focus on controlling them by multiple actors such as parents and doctors.

The Malthusian couple also lies at the center of multiple forces, this time of “socialization.” There are fiscal/economic pressures to limit one’s sexuality to a monogamous, heterosexual relationship. There is the political “responsibilization” for birth control, perhaps as evidenced by China’s policies to limit couples to one child if possible. There is the medical socialization which places “pathogenic value” on birth control, thus discouraging population growth.

Finally, there is the Perverse Adult, created through the identification of a “sexual instinct” with biological and psychiatric components. Various “abnormalities” of sexuality were clinically isolated, and thus made open to (medical) treatment(s), primarily psychoanalysis.

But why these unities and not others? The issue, Foucault suggests, is “the...production of sexuality.” This production is generated by the discourses of the time period analyzed, and the discourse is governed by the power and knowledge structures of that time period. Those structures which gain strength in the ebb and flux of multiple forces attain significance, and sexuality is one of these constructions. Sexuality is “the name...given to a historical construct.” This construct, as identified by the “unities” described above, is described/defined as:

“...a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse, the formation of special knowledges, and the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another, in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power.”

The construct continues to evolve, gradually replacing an older order with the new one. The previous order was an order characterized by: 1) a system of marriage and kinship ties, 2) the transmission of names and possessions, and 3) containing rules defining acceptable sexual behavior mostly to maintain reproduction. This order, the “deployment of alliance,” lost strength to economic and political forces and was superseded by a new apparatus, the “deployment of sexuality.” This new order, in contrast, “exists to proliferate, innovate, annex, create, and penetrate bodies in a detailed way” and for “controlling populations is a comprehensive way.” This is not a hostile takeover of one culture by another, rather it is the evolution of one “alliance” or comprehensive strategy out of a former one. The new order operates through the “family cell” via the twin axes of husband-wife and parents-children, and its role is to “anchor” sexuality and provide support for it.

Through the remainder of the essay, Foucault describes the evolution of the new sexuality out of the older order of alliance. He describes a “deployment” of sexuality. As the older, restrictive order attempted to suppress the emerging sexuality, a number of unfortunate conflicts arose within the cultural focus point, the family, resulting in the colorful emergence of “the nervous woman, the frigid wife, the indifferent mother--or worse, the mother beset by murderous obsessions--the impotent, sadistic, perverse husband, the hysterical or neurasthenic girl, and the young homosexual who rejects marriage or neglects his wife.” To control the “saturating sexuality” invading the family, it turned to medicine and was rewarded with psychoanalysis via Charcot and Freud.


First, a psycho-epistemological gestalt on the reading. Foucault is an entertaining, sensually engaging writer. The images of the hysterical woman and perverse husband caught in the vortex of societal forces beyond their understanding or control, or of a Faustian sexuality running rampant through the repressive Victorian society and demanding medical attention to subdue it, were entertaining and fun. Amazingly, he combines these vivid, metaphorical characters with an image of a deeply mechanistic view of the world, particularly its human actors. The recurring themes are about impersonal, physics-like “forces” such as “power” and “knowledge” which “operate” throughout society. These forces, having a kind of Will of their own, shift about, creating confluences and resistive points, acting via individuals and institutions which are passive bodies being pushed and pulled through history. Understanding these “forces” seems to entail interpreting the “discourses” evident in a society, and it is these expressive, discursive elements which form the most basic material from which social life emerges.

Returning to Professor Hicks’s definition of Postmodernism, does Foucault fit?

In metaphysics, Postmodernism is exemplified by antirealism. I’m not sure, based on the above, what sort of metaphysics Foucault would endorse. It seems that he believes in “discourse” as the basic material of life. To understand sexuality, one does not start by observing human beings and comprehending human nature in creating a theory of sexuality. Instead, one looks at the “forces” which dictate the discourse on sexuality in a particular historical context. I don't think that the “discourse” is to be seen as a means for understanding human nature; Foucault doesn’t see human nature as the issue. Instead, the discourse is the basic material out of which the important “forces” in society emerge to effect the course of events. It seems to me this acceptance of “discourse” is, in Objectivist terms, an example of the primacy of consciousness rather than the primacy of existence metaphysics.

Foucault is an entertaining, sensually engaging writer.

In epistemology, Postmodernism accepts a collective subjectivism according to Professor Hicks. Foucault would seem to fit comfortably into this category. He relies on the socio-historical agreement on terms as the standard for epistemology, rather than focusing on the individual conceptualization of percepts into concepts. “Sexuality” has shifting meaning over time, a meaning that is completely dependent on the discourse from that time and place. This shift cannot be understood as right or wrong, I don’t believe, depending on how accurately a phenomenon is characterized. Rather, there is no right or wrong outside the agreement at the time of the accepted meaning. He endorses the idea that truth depends importantly on power, with avenues of knowledge only attainable with the “permission” of authority. I find it nearly impossible to try and reduce Foucault’s elaborate descriptions of his key terms such as sexuality into perceptible concretes; they exist, in Objectivist terms, as floating abstractions which he doesn’t try to ground in perception. Of course, I don’t believe such an identification is of concern to Foucault--that’s not his standard for truth.

In the realm of human nature, Postmodernism accepts social constructionism, and Foucault is an exemplar of this. People as individual actors are basically irrelevant to Foucault; the “forces” acting in a society act through people, but the people themselves are not actors. The clearest expression of the social constructionism in Foucault are his striking prototypes for the “unities” in society; these vivid characters are built by the “alliances” acting on them. Finally, in the realm of values, Postmodernism endorses value collectivism, Professor Hicks says. I’m not sure if Foucault fits here, only because I don’t know what his ethical-political positions would be based on this writing. The one thing he clearly rejects is the “rule of law” in some form. He sees the “judicial” view of power, as exemplified by legislation, as wrongheaded and dangerous. Its “prohibitive” character is antithetical to a proper understanding of power, an understanding based on its permeating all aspects of society as a universal force like gravitation.

Michael Foucault. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley, Vintage/Random, 1980. Part One, “We ‘Other Victorians,’” pp. 3-13; Part Four, Chapters 1-3, pp. 81-114.
Stephen Hicks. “ Defining Post-Modernism .” Fall 1999 CyberSeminar in Objectivist Studies, Oct. 5, 1999.
J.O. Urmson JO and J. Ree. The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers, 3rd Edition, 1989.

Response by Jason Walker

Back to Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality

William Dale
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