The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1

The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 Summary and Analysis of Part 2, Chapter 1: The Incitement to Discourse

Foucault begins Part Two by reiterating the gist of the repressive hypothesis: since the end of the 17th century, we have found ourselves forced into silence about sex. We have become censored. But Foucault moves immediately to rebuke this idea. While he acknowledges that western bourgeois society has certainly “expurgated” (purified) the words used to acceptably talk about sex, he notes that the historical record reveals the very opposite: a “veritable explosion” of discourse about sex. Foucault suggests that new rules of appropriate speech were being codified, pertaining to what could and could not be acceptably said. This insight allows Foucault to examine the way that new limits, prohibitions, and euphemisms restricted sexual discussion, without agreeing with the repressive hypothesis that sex was silenced. The definition and enforcement of codes of sexual discourse is itself a form of sexual discourse.

Foucault suggests, moreover, that at the highest level of institutional power, the very opposite phenomenon to that of bourgeois restriction was taking place. Foucault notes that institutions of societal power were increasingly forcing people to talk about sex, increasingly interested in listening to people talk about sex, and increasingly inclined to make sex “speak for itself” through scientific inquiry and empirical observation.

For one useful example, Foucault points to the history of the Catholic confessional. Before the 17th century, it was commonplace for priests to ask extremely precise and sexually explicit questions during confession, even asking for details about exact sexual positions and the timing of the climax. Towards the onset of modernity, priests resorted to far less explicit lines of questioning, preferring vague and roundabout expressions. So far, the history of the confession seems consistent with the repressive hypothesis. And yet, since the time of the Counter Reformation during the 17th century, the scope of the confessional’s interest in sexual sins drastically expanded, taking into account everything from sex acts, to sexual fantasies, daydreams, and any other so-called impure thoughts. The vagueness of the priest’s language corresponded to a far more expansive category of what needed to be confessed, to be put into discourse.

Foucault suggests a direct line of development between these newly invasive confessional practices, and the development of a highly confessional mode of libertine fiction. Foucault’s most in-depth example of this genre is My Secret Life, by an anonymous English libertine (which refers to a sexually licentious single man, usually an aristocrat), who recounts his many sexual adventures. While the confessional and the practice of libertine personal writing were both tied to the ethics of Christian spirituality, Enlightenment discourse managed to maintain the compulsion to talk about sex without the element of religion. Rational society secularized the incitement to discourse about sex, by rethinking sexual morality in terms of the public good. What followed was the development of more scientific, statistical, and analytics approaches that asserted the need to talk about sex. Sex became a “police matter”—that is to say, a matter of concern for institutions of government—as modern society came to believe that it was necessary to regulate sexual behavior. One example of this discourse of regulation is the modern field of population studies, which emerged in the 18th century. Societies suddenly found it necessary to analyze birth rates, marriage rates, and rates of sexual intercourse, in order to regulate the health and continuity of their population.

Such practices made the sex lives of individuals into issues at stake for the good of the whole society, and it made it important for population scientists to be able to talk about sex, and for common people to be prepared to account for their sex lives. They constituted a “taking account” of sex in early modernity. Institutional incitements to sexual discourse can, paradoxically, accompany what appears to be silence. Foucault offers the example of children’s sexuality, which we tend to think of as historically ignored—even something that past centuries considered nonexistent. To the contrary, Foucault points to the ways that dormitory arrangements, sleeping timetables, and protocols of supervision in European boarding schools make sex a clear and constant preoccupation. Foucault uses the example of a particular German school, which, by ensuring that pupils were unable to have sex with each other or to masturbate, tried to get these pupils to think and talk about sex in the clearest and most technical way possible.

Foucault offers one final example to illustrate his point. He looks to a young man named Jouy, a somewhat mentally handicapped farmhand of the 18th century, who lived in rural France. In short, a person whose life and circumstances supposedly carried little significance to the state at large. The young man was discovered obtaining sexual favors from a local underage girl, whose parents reported the incident to the village mayor. The mayor in turn called the police, and in a snowballing sequence of events, Jouy was arrested, tried by a judge, examined by a medical panel and a report on his mental condition was published.

Foucault takes this story as an opportunity to remark on the multiplicity of discourses on sexuality that proliferated during the 18th century: the law, the police, and the medical establishment all felt it necessary to seek the truth of what Jouy had done. His sexual indiscretion, converted to discourse, then became an object of knowledge for science and medicine, and thus an opportunity to learn more about mental delinquency. Even the sexual exploits of an illiterate peasant in the borderlands of France, Foucault argues, could be made the business of the entire nation. Foucault thus closes this chapter by remarking that what is so peculiar about this period is not that society supposedly confined sex to a shady existence that needed to be illuminated by reasoned discourses. Instead, Foucault notes that all these new discourses of sex, by treating sex as the ultimate secret to be discovered and analyzed, effectively made sex into the ultimate secret to be discovered and analyzed.


As the first chapter of a section on the repressive hypothesis, “The Incitement to Discourse” strives to refute the idea that sex was forced into silence, while still dealing with certain evident historical facts about how the discussion of sex was stifled and controlled over the last three centuries. Of course, for all of Foucault’s provocations about how we see ourselves as children of the repressed Victorians, it still seems abundantly clear that “Victorianism” entailed a strict sense of sexual morality and forced sex into a vocabulary of euphemisms and allusions. Foucault’s solution to this problem is subtle and sophisticated: while sex was forced into vague language and was generally avoided in polite company, he claims, the very codification of a new vague language of sexual discussion itself reflected a need to bring sex into discourse. It merely shifted the authority of talking about sex away from common people and onto figures of institutional power.

One of the more interesting elements of Foucault’s history of the bringing-into-discourse of sex is the pleasure that speaking about sex imparts. For Foucault, confessing sex to one’s sexual indiscretions offered a means of experiencing a more socially-sanctioned form of pleasure. The pleasure of confessing one’s sexual exploits in My Secret Life, for example, is not only about reliving the moments it records; it is also the pleasure of releasing oneself from the weight of a secret. Similarly, the Catholic confessional was also charged with an intense pleasure, even if it amounted to taking enjoyment in suffering at the recognition of one’s own sinful sensuality. In Foucault’s view, the language of sexual confession since the 17th century became vague and euphemistic to match an increasingly vague and roundabout sense of what needed to be confessed. One result of this paradoxically mystifying treatment was that sex became seen as the deepest secret of our whole being, something that needed to be brought to light through discourse. But another effect was that sexual pleasure came to find itself expressed, transformed and transmuted, in the slightly different pleasures that discourse provided.

When Foucault reviews the change from a sexual ethics informed by Catholicism to one informed by enlightenment rationalism, detachment and calm reflection take the place of pleasure. Towards the 18th century, it became important that scientists of various kinds be able to talk seriously and shamelessly about sex, but Foucault also suggests that the language of sex had to be purified (“expurgated”) in order to become adequately scientific. The example of the German boarding school showcases a group of students brought into sexual maturity precisely by being made detached and calculating about their own sexuality. Although Foucault does not say this explicitly, a similar logic of suppressing pleasure (but not explicit speech!) can be found in the case of the rather prudish school.

This detached, rational approach to making sexuality speak for itself anticipates what Focuault calls a Scientia Sexualis, or a “science of sex,” later on in his book. With this chapter, Foucault sketches the early history of how sex has become an object of intense discursive attention. Once again, we note the persistence of hypocrisy at the heart of sexual discourse: while various 18th century sciences sought to talk calmly and shamelessly about sex, their very meticulousness maintained sex as something to be endlessly interrogated, as though it were something sensational and all-important.