The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1

The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 Summary and Analysis of Part 4, Chapter 3: Domain


In this chapter, Foucault talks about what the "domain" of a history of sexuality would be: what kinds of phenomena would need to be studied. Continuing the point that he established in Chapter 2, Foucault insists that sexuality is not something foreign to power, not something that power simply represses, controls, or manages. To the contrary, sex is a “transfer point” for relations of power between a strikingly diverse variety of subjects. In other words, sex is the focus of flows and exchanges of power between men and women, the young and the old, teachers and students, parents and children, administrators and the general population. For this reason, sexuality has been an especially useful tool for the exercise of power, as a “linchpin” of relations characterized by inequality or imbalance.

Despite the multiplicity of possible strategies that could use sexuality to leverage power, Foucault names 4 particular “strategic unities” that he considers fundamentally important to the history of modern sexuality:

1. The hystericization of women’s bodies: a triple process of moral, medical, and sociological treatment claimed firstly that women’s bodies were excessively sexual, then pathologized this excessive sexuality as a medical issue (hysteria), and then construed the pathological sexuality of women as an issue of concern to to society at large. Society demanded the proper control of women’s sexuality, in order to maintain a healthy reproductive population.

2. A pedagogization of children’s sexuality: children were similarly considered excessively sexual, although they were also thought to be “sexually preliminary” in a way that saw them as not truly sexual (any sexuality in children might thus be seen as inherently excessive). The sexuality of children was therefore considered a danger to society, if not properly managed by adult experts through pedagogical means.

3. A socialization of procreative behavior: the sex lives of married couples were subject to the intervention of new discourses on the socially and economically-responsible way to procreate. Foucault cites birth-control practices as an example.

4. A psychiatrization of perverse pleasures: as psychiatric medicine became the authority on sex, sexual “anomalies” became classified as mental pathologies. It then became the work of psychiatry, and other disciplines within medicine, to pursue ways to correct or treat perverse behavior. While it may seem that these strategies sought in various ways to suppress sexuality—the sexuality of women, of children, of the married couple, or of the so-called pervert—Foucault argues, to the contrary, that these strategies are what produced sexuality. Their interactions gave rise to a way of organizing and experiencing sexual desire and pleasure that we now call “sexuality” today. Foucault argues that sexuality should not be thought of as an objective part of ourselves, but as a historical (or social) construct. Rather than an elusive element of life that power tries to control, sexuality is the product of a dense network of forces and relations, including the incitement to discourse, the formation of specialized knowledge, and the intensification of certain pleasures. Sexuality is the product of a discourse that organizes this network of forces and relations, according to its strategies of knowledge and power. Foucault defends his claim by making a distinction between the “deployment of alliance” and the “deployment of sexuality.” Every society in history has had a “deployment of alliances,” which is to say, a set of codes that organize and govern acceptable relationships between people. The ban on incest and the codification of marriage laws can all be seen as part of a deployment of alliances. Since the 18th century, however, our society has formed a deployment of sexuality—a complex and multivalent set of codes that shape and control how we understand and talk about our sexual desires and actions. While the deployment of sexuality has taken precedence over the deployment of alliance, the deployment of sexuality is based on the latter. The two converge most visibly within the family, beset not only by the old codes and prohibitions, but also by the anxieties of sexuality. As what Foucault calls the “crystal” of sexuality, the family is the site in which sexuality emerges, charging relationships between family members. Contrary to commonplace expectations, then, the family is not a context in which sex is suppressed, but a site where sexuality is at its most intense. The demand for proper conduct between husband and wife, between parents and children, and between the family and the rest of society make the family an especially dense incubator of modern sexuality.

Foucault closes this chapter by linking the growing importance of sexuality in the 19th century to a shift in modern capitalism. Industrial capitalism depended on alliance, which is characterized by taboos and restrictions. This form of power was appropriate to the strict control of a labor force. Sexual relations were tightly controlled in order to properly nurture a working public, with minimal waste. By the late 19th century, Foucault suggests that a newer form capitalism (Spätkapitalismus, or “late capitalism”) required less direct control over people’s reproductive capacities, but rather a more diffuse circulation of energies and desires within the capitalist system.


Chapter 3 is the first chapter in which Foucault explicitly states the most essential argument of this book: that sexuality is a social construct. This argument might strike current readers as relatively simple, even obvious, but it remains an occasionally contentious point. Certain prominent voices in LGBTQ advocacy, for instance, take an “essentialist” position on sexuality, which means that they hold sexuality to be an innate aspect of human subjectivity that has existed across all of history. These people might, for example, argue that there was homosexuality in ancient Greece. As it turns out, Focuault himself offered his own account of Greek erotics in Volume 2 of The History of Sexuality, where his history of the complexity of desire and pleasure in the Ancient World makes it very difficult to understand it according to the modern terms of “sexuality” as such.

People have always experienced attraction to one another, they have always experienced desire for one another, and they have always experienced and pursued sexual pleasures. They have also always reproduced, and they have always held preferences for certain kinds of bodies over other kinds of bodies. Implicit in Foucault’s point, however, is that these facts alone do not constitute “sexuality.” Rather, to talk about "sexuality" is to point to a deep-rooted aspect of our identity—something that we consider a fundamental truth about ourselves. To be a society with a sexuality is to subscribe to the notion that our consistent desires and sexual habits are important and prominent enough to become part of ourselves in this particular way. And this idea about the relationship between sex and selfhood is a distinctly modern phenomenon. For contrast, we do not believe that we should classify ourselves and understand ourselves through the prism of what food we most consistently desire and enjoy.

This chapter is called “domain” largely because it identifies 4 main sites, or domains, in which the power-knowledge of sexuality was consolidated. This chapter continues the historical work of Foucault’s project by identifying women’s bodies, children’s sexuality, procreative couples, and perversity as the places in which the discourse of sexuality articulated and intensified its power. What these 4 “strategic unities” demonstrate is a constant outward movement, whereby matters of private concern are constantly made out to be matters of interest to all of society. Oversexed women and children, improperly reproductive couples, and sexual perverts suddenly threatened the wellbeing of everybody.

Foucault’s argument that the deployment of sexuality has not altogether replaced the deployment of alliance is important to bear in mind. Foucault is sometimes thought of as a philosopher-historian who identifies massive historical shifts in thinking and perception, but the core of his historical analysis looks at smooth transitions. In the upcoming chapter, for instance, Foucault suggests that the origin of institutional contexts for sexual confession extend even further than the counter-reformation, citing the 13th century Lateran Council that established confession as part of Christian doctrine in the first place.

Here, Foucault’s emphasis on the family as a “crystal” of sexuality helps us to note the shifts as well as the overlap between 2 ways of organizing relations between people. Indeed, honing in on the bourgeois family allows us to note the ways that the deployments of alliance and sexuality reinforce one another: the psychiatrization of perverse behavior allows for a scientific, and far more invasive, approach to reinforcing the same bans on incest that had been of utmost important to historical deployments of alliance.