The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1

The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 Summary and Analysis of Part 2, Chapter 2: The Perverse Implantation

In this chapter, Foucault continues his critique of the Repressive Hypothesis. Whereas the previous chapter had focused on the inducement to put sex into discourse, however, “The Perverse Implantation” addresses the assumption that Victorian sexuality sought a homogenous sexuality, where everyone would be monogamous and have only reproductive sex within the confines of marriage. To the contrary, Foucault finds that the discourses of sexuality over the last 300 years brought a drastically increased number of “perversions” into existence. Foucault even suggests that perversion itself is a modern invention. Distinct from a simple violator of the law, the pervert is someone whose sexual aberration is a defining fact about his or her personality.

Until the end of the 18th century, Foucault argues, sexual relations were governed by three distinct codes: canonical law (Christian religious law), the Christian pastoral (religious morality as enforced by more personal contact with one’s local priest or pastor), and civil law. While these codes prohibited many sexual crimes that took place outside of marriage, such as bestiality or sodomy, their main point of focus was the heterosexual married couple. These other crimes were defined partly by their exclusion from an acceptable matrimony. Foucault suggests that the law made few important distinctions between the various ways that one could violate the rules of proper (i.e. married) sexual conduct. Moreover, the married couple had to deal with the intrusion of authorities, who probed married people to ensure that their relationship was wholesome and proper, as well as adequately reproductive.

The “discursive explosion” of the 18th and 19th centuries that Foucault writes about in “The Incitement to Discourse” changed this order of things. For one thing, it increasingly left the married couple alone and granted it privacy. But in return, it turned its attention to “unnatural” expressions of sexuality, and found the need to compile rich and detailed taxonomies of all the different forms of perversion. Once again, the discourses of modern sexuality were less interested in what people did, and more interested in what they were, defining a new range of kinds of person centered on their aberrant sexuality. Included among these “peripheral sexualities” were figures like the homosexual, along with more general types, such as oversexed children, degenerates, and others.

But Foucault is careful to insist that the reason for classifying so many kinds of perversion was not merely to better prohibit them from expressing themselves. He draws up a list of “operations” of power involved in the proliferation of perversities:

1. The discourse of perversity sought greater control over subjects precisely by casting the control of perversity as impossible. This is especially true in the case of childhood sexuality. While earlier discourses against incest seemed oriented towards stamping it out, discourses of child sexuality seem to do the opposite: by identifying more and more dangers related to the sexual development of children, anxious discourses about their sexuality seem designed to fail—designed not to stamp out child perversity, but simply to bring child perversity ever-increasingly to light. In doing so, however, institutions such as the medical establishment, correctional facilities, and schools were able to expand their “lines of penetration” into the autonomy and privacy of the young.

2. Medical discourse increasingly saw perverse behavior at the root of a person’s entire personality, drawing up corresponding personages to match habitual perverse behavior. In place of sodomy, which was a single act punishable under the law, 19th century sexology introduced the figure of the homosexual, whose every act seemed to point back to his or her sexuality. The effect of this was not only that the homosexual could be subject to a far more invasive and far longer regime of institutional control than the convicted sodomite, but also that the categorization of species of pervert entailed a far more diffuse policing of sexuality that was able to find sexuality in actions that were not themselves explicitly sexual. Foucault refers tongue-in-cheek to the resultant kinds of “entomologized” minor pervert that no longer make sense to us, such as “zoophiles,” “zooerasts,” “presbyophiles” and so on (entomology is the scientific study and classification of insects).

3. Rather than demanding the suppression from view of so many new kinds of dangerous perverts, 19th century science required perverts to be close-at-hand for their study. The examination of these subjects was very physical, coming into close contact with perverted bodies whose skeletal structure, physical peculiarities, and skin lesions (among other traits) were studied in intimate detail. This is one of Foucault’s subtler points in this chapter: that the constant and invasive medical study of perverts was almost erotic in the way it “caressed” the bodies of those it studied. Foucault suggests here, provocatively, that pleasure is an integral and important part of the dynamics of power in such forms as the medical examination, psychiatric evaluation, school discipline, and parental control. However, this pleasure is wrapped up with the exercise of power, effectively shifting access to pleasure away from subjects in danger of abusing it (not only categorical perverts, but children and others at risk of corruption or seduction) and onto those in positions of discursive authority. It is the pleasure related to the successful production of knowledge.

4. Although 19th century society tended not to treat bourgeois married couples with the same suspicion as earlier centuries, the proliferation of perversities cast a shadow over the organization of the normative family. Foucault notes that the 19th century is the time when children generally started sleeping in rooms separate from their parents, activities such as breastfeeding came to be troubled by strict codes of conduct, and activities like masturbation were subject to surveillance. Here Foucault argues against the notion that modern society has attempted to suppress the existence of perversity by reducing sexuality to the married couple and their conventional family. On the contrary, Foucault shows how the family was itself cut up by the ever-present threat, even the specter, of perversity. The implantation of perversions, Foucault concludes, is an “instrument-effect” of a political power exercised through the regulation of sex: the emergence of perverts occurs in tandem with, and as an effect of, the extension in society of a power tied to the discourse of sex. In other words, the more institutions of power claim authority through appeals to the dangers of renegade sex, the more forms of perverse sexuality appear in society.


As a complement to “The Incitement to Discourse,” “The Perverse Implantation” closes Foucault’s outline of the Repressive Hypothesis. Here, we see that categorization is a distinct means of putting something into discourse, alongside the practices of provoking confession that he had examined in Chapter 1. The categorization of perverts puts perversion into discourse by creating and elaborating an entirely new language for perverse behavior. And, as Foucault argues, the problem of perversion seemed to demand an especially intricate set of categories to understand it. It is almost as though categorization strove to match the pervert’s supposedly infinite imagination for transgressive behavior: whatever the pervert might be capable of dreaming up, science needed a term by which to understand it.

The title of Part 2, Chapter 2 is provocative: “implantation” suggests not only that perversion was invented in the modern era, but also that it was specifically projected onto the population. Victorian society did not only create these new concepts by which to understand non-normative behavior, in other words; it created perverts themselves, and demanded the ready example of those who fit these new discursive models. This chapter thus also offers an especially clear illustration of the ways in which the suppression of something can make it even more visible, and can make it feel even more present within society. Doctors could not only create perverse classifications, but also had to maintain specimens, in the form of patients and objects of study. This point implies that the practices by which so-called perverse behavior was suppressed never did, and never could, aim to eradicate such behaviors. On the contrary, they required them.

One especially important aspect of Foucault’s argument here is its emphasis on the concept of nature. The categorization of perverse behavior represents a shift from a legal understanding of sexual misconduct, to a medical and scientific one. The object of institutional scrutiny thus changes accordingly, from moral questions of conformity to the law, to the supposedly more objective question of conformity to the laws of nature. Throughout this book, Foucault will continue to draw attention to the ways in which the apparently morally neutral stance of a discursive power grounded in science can act as a supremely effective force for enforcing normative behavior.

This chapter also showcases one of Foucault’s most effective rhetorical strategies. Much of this book shows Foucault presenting a commonplace view, and then arguing the exact opposite. In a way, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 consists of a protracted refutation of the Repressive Hypothesis. Of course, the end of Part Two hardly signals Foucault’s abandonment of the topic. Foucault’s polemic strategy of reversal can be observed especially acutely in the 4th point in his list of “operations” by which perversity is established: here, he hopes to show that, in spite of our belief that the wholesome Victorian family was held up as a paragon of acceptable sexuality, the family was a crucible of anxiety about perversity and corruption. Indeed, we still habitually believe that a troubled childhood or family life is the source of our adult anxieties, sexual or otherwise.