The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: The Will to Knowledge is Michel Foucault’s landmark 1978 study, originally published in French, of the historical and political circumstances under which sexuality, as we know it, was formed. The book largely consists of a sustained engagement with what Foucault calls the Repressive Hypothesis, a term that refers to the influential notion that sexuality is somehow repressed and silenced in modern society, and that we must fight to liberate ourselves from sexual repression. Disagreeing with this hypothesis, Foucault aims to show the ways that, on the contrary, modernity has forced us to talk about sexuality more than ever before.
The History of Sexuality was originally intended to take up 7 volumes. Only 3, however, were published, and only Volume 1 was published during Foucault’s own lifetime. The subsequent 2 volumes, The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, which focus on Greek and Roman sexuality, respectively, were published in 1984 shortly after Foucault’s death. Written during a period of intense student activism, in the wake of the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and during the rise of gay and lesbian liberation in the 1970s, the book undertook a critical approach to the ways in which sexuality and identity become intertwined. Provocatively, Foucault comes to argue that sexuality is a social construct, the result of a complex play of political forces.
The History of Sexuality has a considerable influence on the rise of queer theory, which rose to prominence in the 1980s with the publication of works by Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Leo Bersani (among others). Taken up, rejected, or critically contested, Foucault’s ideas in The History of Sexuality continue to be indispensable to the participation in contemporary academic and political debates about the place of gender and sexuality in modern society.