The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1

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

In Chapter 4, Foucault turns to the question of how to identify the right time-period for the shifts in sexuality that he is discussing. According to the old "repressive hypothesis," we should see the history of sexuality as marked by two major ruptures: firstly, the end of the 17th century introduces the range of discursive prohibitions and inducements of modesty that the repressive hypothesis describes; secondly, the 20th century brought about the end of all these prohibitions, the advent of liberal sexual freedom, and the frank acceptance of sex and sexual diversity that we live with today. First come two centuries of repressive mechanisms, and then one century in which we start becoming freer and the grip of these mechanisms on the sex lives of the public loosens.

While Foucault does not wholly disagree with this proposition, he suggests that it does not tell the whole story. He begins by arguing that the chronology of sexual restrictiveness goes back farther than we typically think. Foucault notes that the imposition of strict controls over what could be said about sex originated in the Lateran Council of 1215, which introduced the confession into Catholic practice. Foucault had argued in Part 2, Chapter 1 that the confession has always functioned as a means of inducement to discourse, and that the Catholic confession required increasingly detailed admissions of sexual sins during the Counter-Reformation period. Here, Foucault reminds the reader that 17th century Catholicism transformed the confession into a “technology of the flesh,” whereby carnal sins were brought to light; with a new focus on “concupiscence” (sexual desire, lust), the confession brought sexual transgression into the domain of thoughts and feelings that had to be put into words instead of actions.

Beginning at the end of the 18th century, the religious demand for putting sex into discourse became secular, treating sexuality as a matter of state concern. Foucault sees this as a “major transformation,” but he notes that it has some continuity with the older, religious incitement to discourse. He argues that such medical concepts as hysteria and nervous illness have at least an important basis in Christian doctrines of demonic possession and other dangers of spiritual corruption. Nonetheless, the modern age configured sex in relation to the medical establishment and the insistence on normality. Foucault argues that by the turn of the 19th century, the subjects of a newly secular regime of sexuality feared deep-rooted illness where earlier societies had feared eternal punishment in Hell.

The 19th century saw the flourishing of technologies of sex in light of the medicalization and normalization of sexuality. One of these was the “medicine of perversions” (i.e. theories of and treatments for perversion), but another related technology was eugenics. Theories of degeneracy across generations (“degenerescence”) fit neatly with the medicine of perversions, and made unchecked sexual pathology into an issue for all of society. Society now risked becoming degenerate if the rampant sexuality of individuals wasn’t submitted to the scrutiny and control of experts. This did not only mean that society feared the consequences that might follow if perverts reproduced; it also meant that society began to see the prevention of hereditary diseases, such as rickets, as lying in the management of reproduction.

Foucault remarks on a peculiar aspect of how sexuality was deployed as a means of societal control. If sexuality was controlled in order to manage the reproduction of a labor force, Foucault suggests that we would expect to see sexual repression exerted most strictly against the working classes. However, this does not appear to have been the case. To the contrary, psychiatric assistance was restricted to the bourgeoisie, meaning that only people with privilege were able to explore and learn the truth of their own sexuality in order that it might be treated. Being psychologically or sexually pathologized was a strange privilege, insofar as the privilege of being treated could only accompany the privilege of being examined and receiving diagnoses.

Foucault suggests that the unexpected reason for this is that the bourgeoisie of the modern era—especially during the 19th century—began to treat its sexual health as a thing of great importance. Given that everyone had a deep sexual truth that could only be brought to light by a professional, the bourgeoisie turned to psychiatry and other technologies of treatment to conserve and purify their own sexual wellbeing. This strategy allowed the bourgeoisie to treat their sexual health as something analogous to aristocratic blood: whereas the pre-modern aristocracy used blood as a marker of inalienable physical difference from the common public (in general, an aristocrat is someone born to another aristocrat), the 19th century bourgeoisie used exclusive practices of sexual health to distinguish themselves from the masses. The modern West was, Foucault suggests, divided along an axis of knowledge about sexuality. On one hand, there was an anxious and delicate self-examining bourgeoisie that searched for the truth of themselves; on the other, a much more general and undifferentiated workforce that served as an object of knowledge for technologies of population management that were controlled by the bourgeoisie.

Foucault concludes this chapter by suggesting that sexual repression had the opposite strategic effect to what the Repressive Hypothesis typically claims. Rather than allowing institutions of power to suppress everyone, it allowed the bourgeoisie to maintain its difference from the working class. A repression of desires and instincts allowed the bourgeoisie to refine its sexual health and psychological integrity, in distinction to a working class whose sexuality was treated as a constant problem. Foucault thus suggests that the desire to overcome repression, which took shape alongside the development of psychoanalysis, has a strategic function within the deployment of sexuality. Introducing new ways to understand the subconscious sexual relationships at the heart of the family, psychoanalysis attached sexuality to the deployment of alliance.

But psychoanalysis also made the overcoming of taboos into an important aspect of the struggle for sexual and mental wellbeing. Foucault insists that this struggle took place within the deployment of sexuality, and not outside it. One strategic effect of a widespread reaction against sexual repression is that it treats repression as generalized, obscuring how the weight and effects of repression were different according to class, gender, and age. The struggle against sexual repression leads us to forget that sexuality is not an objective category of human experience, and tricks us into seeing sexuality as a primordial thing that needs to be freed from the power that constrains it.


Foucault’s argument that sexuality replaced the function of aristocratic blood is one of his more provocative assertions. It is also one of his most important, because it does a few things for his project in general. One thing the blood argument does is to reaffirm the relationship between the rise of sexuality and the social and political reorganizations that characterize contemporary capitalism. The use of sexual health as a guarantor of class-derived status not only reflects the rise to prominence of the middle class (bourgeoisie) at the expense of the aristocracy; it also indicates the gradual onset of a far more invasively controlling social order, suitable to the demands of an increasingly-industrialized and specialized workforce.

In many ways, sexual health (as mental and emotional health) remains a middle class preoccupation. Having a therapist and discussing the origins of one’s emotional issues is often associated with a bourgeois sensibility in movies and TV; for a contrasting example, think of the distrust and antipathy towards psychotherapy demonstrated by the working-class Tony Soprano and his family in the HBO series, The Sopranos. We associated those who seek out therapy, as well as the language they use to talk about themselves, with a relatively educated class of people with time and resources to invest in their health.

Such an imbalance of privilege is the keystone of Foucault’s critique of the way that Westerners, since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, have sought to liberate themselves from sexual repression. As we have seen elsewhere, Foucault’s rejection of the repressive hypothesis makes it difficult for us to understand brazen acts of sexual discussion to truly challenge the operations of sexuality as a discursive power, largely because the inducement to discourse is one of the primary means by which this power exercises itself. But in this chapter, the argument for sexuality as a kind of bourgeois “blood” also suggests that our efforts to liberate ourselves, by getting in touch with our true sexuality, also reaffirms a profound class-based power imbalance.

It is perhaps for this reason that, in a move that might seem surprising, Focuault returns to the Repressive Hypothesis. In this chapter, he almost seems to agree with it. He notes, once again, that many sexual activities truly were restricted, and that middle-class respectability truly did prohibit many forms of open discussion about sex. But he also notes that the Repressive Hypothesis has a major blind spot, in the form of class inequality (we might also add racism, which was aided by 19th century theories of eugenics and degeneration). The Repressive Hypothesis might correctly note the ways in which a certain kind of prudishness was imposed on a population. But we must also recognize that the Repressive Hypothesis itself serves a strategic function: since about the end of the 19th century, it has allowed the bourgeoisie to pursue elite modes of personal improvement, at the expense of those who were denied it or could not afford it.