Foucault argues that the growing proliferation of sexual discourse in the 19th century made sex an issue of increasingly urgent and increasingly scientific knowledge. Moral concern about proper sexual conduct took place alongside scientific (and, by today’s standards, pseudo-scientific) speculation about degeneracy, aberrance, and other dangers to the wellbeing of society and even of the species. Knowledge about sex held the promise to help reverse these undesirable processes. Scientific interest in sex was full of errors and speculation, as evidenced by how little the study of human sexuality had to do with already-established biological sciences of animal and plant reproduction. Foregrounding sex as a matter of truth, the 19th century discourse on sex combined science with a strict morality. One of the effects of this is that the discourse on sexuality and the wellbeing of species ended up influencing 19th century racist theories that thought "racial" characteristics indicated moral worth.
Despite a widespread discursive commitment to revealing “the truth of sex,” however, 19th century science displayed a curious refusal to deal directly with sex. He gives the example of the Salpêtrière, a 19th century mental hospital in Paris. Doctors at the Salpêtrière produced many public studies, among other kinds of documents, explaining the various perversities that plagued their patients. The spectacle of madness, specifically as it was believed to be caused by or related to sexual aberration, added to a sense that sex was a truth to be discovered, the root of many (perhaps most) social evils. At the same time, Christian morality induced many of these doctors to redact crucial information in their published reports, including the questions they asked their patients, and the specific sexual inclinations or activities of the patients themselves. The Salpêtrière thereby presented a “vast apparatus for producing the truth” of sex, while nonetheless “masking it at the last minute” in the name of public morality.
The 19th century discourse on sex was therefore not just error-ridden, but also manifested a “will to non-knowledge” simultaneous with its apparent will to knowledge. Foucault suggests that we can only understand this contradiction by considering the context of earlier ways in which societies have tried to assert and understand the so-called truth of sex. Foucault ultimately establishes two key ways to organize a discourse on the truth of sex: an ars erotica (“erotic art”) or a scientia sexualis (“science of sexuality”). An abundance of societies across the world and across time, including the pre-modern West (ancient Greece and Rome in particular) developed an ars erotica. Only the modern West, however, has constructed a scientia sexualis.
The ars erotica arrives at the truth of sex through practices in the achievement and experience of sexual pleasure. It is an “art” in the sense that it achieves its aim through the refinement of practice. Across cultures, the ars erotica tended towards the production of very esoteric knowledge. It would be pursued by a master, who was very cautious about imparting his secrets to others. Because this knowledge had one foot in the delicate world of sexual practice, there was a sense that access to the truth would be hampered if it were shared with too many non-expert people. The ars erotica needed the truth of sex to have a secret and esoteric aspect to it, to be best understood through skillful practice. The scientia sexualis reverses the terms of the ars erotica. It is deeply suspicious of the idea that sexual knowledge can be obtained through practice.
Geared towards a much more institutionally-elaborated system of knowledge-power, the scientia sexualis positions an entirely different ritual at the center of its production of knowledge: the confession. Foucault outlines a history of the confession in the modern west, suggesting that confessing to one’s sins played an integral role in how modern individuality was formed. One’s individual confession, ratified both by the church and by the legal system, recognized one as an individual, with a truth accountable to the authorities. By virtue of confessions, modern subjects became individuals in response to power. Noting the multitude of domains in which confession became important over the course of modernity—including in legal, medical and psychiatric contexts—Foucault suggests that our society is a society of confession.
The confession is a type of discourse whose history can be traced to legal and religious disciplines. The scientia sexualis of the modern West developed by adapting the ancient ritual of confession to the rules of scientific discourse. Foucault acknowledges that this was a fraught project, resulting in a good deal of imprecision. But what is interesting to Foucault is not that the early science of sexuality was bad or inaccurate. Instead, what interests Foucault is the fact that the scientia sexualis has, at its very core, a ritual of putting sex into discourse that is characterized by a power imbalance. The confession always puts the patient (or the sinner, or the accused criminal) in a position of submission relative to the power of the person asking the questions.
The confession also puts the patient into a position of not only revealing his or her truth, but also of implicitly seeking forgiveness or consolation. This fact exists in tension with the goals of precision and disinterested objectivity that we normally associate with science. Foucault lists 5 ways in which the confession becomes adapted for a science of sexuality:
1. Through a clinical codification of the inducement to speak: through the ways that the need to talk about sex have become articulated by medical establishments.
2. Through the postulate of a general and diffuse causality: the idea that the consequences of sexual abnormality can be far wider-reaching than we might imagine, making sexuality very dangerous unless properly addressed by the right experts.
3. Through the principle of a latency intrinsic to sexuality: the idea that the truth of sexuality is so deep within a person’s psyche that a person might not be fully aware of his or her sexuality’s secrets. It would therefore take an expert, and a confession, to fully extrapolate the nature of this person’s sexual desires and motivations.
4. Through the method of interpretation: As medical experts increasingly become authorities on secret desires—desires so secret that even those who have them might not know about them—the confession created a space where experts were invested with the exclusive power to discover truth.
5. Through the medicalization of the effects of confession: As the 19th century came to understand sexuality less in terms of the proper and the sinful, and more in terms of the normal and the pathological, the confession became a therapeutic activity that sought to heal the sexually “abnormal,” in a process that began with disclosing a truth in need of treatment.
The scientia sexualis makes sex a matter of truth partly because a constitutive part of its method is drawn from religious and legal methods of extracting the truth from subjects, and partly because it reformulates the ars erotica by shifting the authority of who gets to produce the truth of sex. The scientia sexualis reroutes authority from the practiced master of the ars erotica, who obtains sexual knowledge personally, to the observant scientist of the scientia sexualis, who obtains knowledge about sex by examining others. At the same time, Foucault speculates that our scientia sexualis might involve an ars erotica of its own, grounded in the way that knowledge about the nature of pleasure can give way to “pleasure in the knowledge about pleasure.”
Part 3 establishes the concept of truth as an all-important theme in The History of Sexuality, Volume 1. In many ways, this is a book about how we have come to identify our sexual feelings and practices with the innermost truth about ourselves. Many people are familiar with the work of Sigmund Freud, whose theories about the formation of the ego place a supreme importance on the sexual development of children. Describing a somewhat theatrical world of various complexes and primal scenes, Freud’s theories propose that we become who we are through a complicated play of investing and re-investing our sexual (or "libidinal") energies.
In “Scientia Sexualis,” Foucault suggests that the roots of our habitual equation between personal truth and sexuality have a far longer history than the arrival of Freud’s theories. Indeed, in this chapter he introduces the provocative notion that even scientific practices of interrogating the truth of sex have their origin in the early modern Catholic confession. Foucault’s distinction between ars erotica and scientia sexualis encourages us to be skeptics about what it means to discuss the truth about sex. Within the history of both practices, “truth” is shown to be an elusive thing; it has a quasi-spiritual, even moral aspect to it. Foucault’s example of the medical theatre at the salpêtrière suggests that in the 19th century, scientific interest in sex pursued a notion of truth somewhere between objective knowledge and moral speculation.
It is certainly not the case that Foucault rejects scientific knowledge, or that he considers the results of scientific investigations into sex to be false or untrustworthy. Rather, Foucault emphasizes that we need to understand notions of truth to be historical—i.e., as social constructs that emerge under a complex set of historical circumstances. Foucault’s historical treatment of sexuality does not aim to refute science or scientific findings, but instead seeks to show that science is always wrapped up with power. Because knowledge and power are always linked, any discourse on truth, or scientific practice (like the scientia sexualis), or set of esoteric techniques (the ars erotica) is inherently political.
It is also important to keep in mind that, while Foucault often discusses the history of sexuality in terms of radical breaks and ruptures, he nonetheless insists that we look at unexpected continuities between old and new practices of power-knowledge. We must look at how the technique of the Christian confession, and the kind of relationship to oneself that it allows, maintains a strong influence on modern psychiatric practices like psychotherapy. Similarly, the argument that we are the first society to replace an ars erotica with a scientia sexualis does not mean that we no longer believe in refining techniques for increasing sexual pleasure. What it does mean, however, is that scientific institutions of knowledge-power about sex have more authority than discourses about the practice of increasing and maintaining pleasure.