The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1

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


The Introduction to “The Deployment of Sexuality” begins with a discussion of Les Bijoux Indiscrets (The Indiscreet Jewels), a fable recounted in a book published anonymously in 1748 by the French philosopher Denis Diderot. Les Bijoux Indiscrets is the story of the fictional Prince Mongogul, of the Congo, who is given a magical ring by a genie. The ring has the peculiar ability to make women’s vaginas speak and give accounts of their past sexual experiences, much to the surprise and embarrassment of the women who own them. The Prince’s ring also has the ability to make him invisible, allowing him to listen to the secrets of various women (or of their sex, as Foucault would say) without being seen.

Foucault considers this story a parable of our own society, which “wears the emblem of the talking sex.” Diderot’s story illustrates the way that society has placed a demand for the truth of sex partly by separating us, as conscious subjects, from the subconscious secrets our sexuality. In the modern west, sexuality exists under the pressure of a “double petition to know”: because we consider sex to lie at the root cause of so much of our behavior and our problems, we simultaneously struggle to speak the fullest truth of our sexuality, and to witness our sexuality speak the full truth about us. We tell the authorities what they don’t know about our sexuality, while our sexuality is able to disclose to the authorities what we didn’t know about ourselves.

Within the title of Les Bijoux Indiscrets is a double-entendre: in 18th century French, “discreet jewels” was a euphemism for the vagina. Foucault, however, is more interested in the prince’s ring, which is the more literal discreet jewel of the story. The ring causes others to speak indiscreetly of their sexuality, while itself remaining discreet and opaque concerning the mechanism of its own power. Metaphorically, Foucault asks what ring compels us at once to hear our sex talk, and to listen pruriently to the sex of each other. That is to say, he asks what are the underlying logic and power dynamics of the process by which we have come to make such heavy demands of the truth of sexuality—including the demand that expressing our sexuality will lead to our personal liberation from repression. The rest of Part 4, “The Deployment of Sexuality,” lays out the issues of objective, method, domain to be covered, and the historical periods that need to be addressed in order to properly answer out this question. The 4 chapters of the section break down accordingly.

Chapter 1, “Objective,” begins with a refinement of what Foucault claims to be new about his study. He notes that his refutation of the Repressive Hypothesis is not altogether new, since psychoanalysis has for a long time doubted the idea that repression is the predominant characteristic of the relationship between power and human desire. To the contrary, psychoanalysis famously theorizes the ways that power plays a role in the constitution of our desires, which it understands to be ruled by laws or drives. Wherever there is desire, there is already a power relation of some kind. It would be vain to think that fighting against sexual repression will allow us access to experiences of desire that are beyond the scope of power.

Foucault asserts that we need an “analytics of power,” more than a theory of power, to understand the complexities and nuances of power’s relationship to sex and desire. He points out that, ultimately, the psychoanalytic theory of the laws of desire and the repressive hypothesis hold to the same understanding of power, which he calls “juridico-discursive” (that is to say, based in the relationship between the law and discourse). Foucault wants to move away from the juridico-discursive concept of power, which leads to two problematic outcomes: either we mistakenly think we can liberate ourselves from power, or we resign ourselves to the dead end that we are always-already trapped by power’s hold over our sexuality. He sketches out the five principal features of the juridico-discursive understanding of power, specifically in relation to sex:

-The negative relation: power is essentially understood as a force of restraint and negation in relation to sex. Faced with pleasures and desires, power only enforces constraints, limits, and prohibitions.

-The insistence of the rule: power dictates laws to sex, constituting what counts as acceptable and what counts as unacceptable. Power imposes binaries onto sexuality, including the licit and the illicit, the natural and the unnatural, etc.

-The cycle of prohibition: power forces sex to silence itself by threatening it with punishment. This is different from the negative relation, which more broadly asserts that power operates as a general force of restraint and suppression. The cycle of prohibition refers more specifically to the paradoxical “two nonexistences” envisioned by the juridico-discursive model of power: either sex renounces itself and makes itself quiet, or it risks being suppressed through various kinds of institutional action.

-The logic of censorship: By forcing us not to talk about sex, power also states that it does not exist. Another paradox: denying sex its very existence becomes the end goal, and the effect, of the idea that it is forbidden and unspeakable.

-The uniformity of the apparatus: power always works the same, across all levels of society. From king to pauper, the relation between power and sex is always that between institutions of power and obedient subjects.

Foucault roots this understanding of the relation between sex and power in the long history of Western government, which has always insisted on the rule of law. He argues that the juridico-discursive representation of power is essentially based in a monarchical understanding of government. That is to say, he suggests that we have never gotten over the idea that power represents the expression of a sovereign’s will, in accordance with laws that are themselves expressions of sovereign will. Foucault points out, however, that this representation of power is no longer accurate. It does not explain the ways that modern power is exercised not by right, law, and punishment, but by far subtler and apparently softer operations such as technique, control, and normalization.

The attempt to formulate a history of sexuality reveals the need for a model (representation) of power that takes into account all these subtle operations. Foucault suggests that the key to this concept of how power and sex relate to each other lies in the notion of a “technology of sex.” Understanding sex as technology—which is to say, as a complex set of practices and discourses that are always producing new knowledge, and newer practices—could bring us closer to a refined concept of how power operates in modern times. This would be a concept of power as positive and productive, not merely as negative, or restrictive.


Foucault’s discussion of Diderot’s Les Bijoux Indiscrets playfully offers a useful metaphor for sexuality in the figure of the king’s ring. At first glance, we might want to treat Les Bijoux Indiscrets as a reflection of the way that sexual secrets and innermost truth had become intertwined by the middle of the 18th century. But the book also offers a surprisingly complex illustration of how sexual secrets and innermost truth related, in turn, to the operations of state power.

It is ultimately the king who has the power to provoke sex to speak simultaneously for itself and about other people. But the king’s power to provoke so much talk nonetheless maintains the secret of its own mechanics. The ring is much like the discursive operations that construct sexuality: it induces talk, it reveals secrets, and it probes deep into people’s psyches; but it says reveals about how it has the power to do all of this.

Part 4 of The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 focuses on the “deployment of sexuality.” Moving past his refutation of the repressive hypothesis, Foucault intends to look at how sexuality has been put into practice, strategically, in the exercise of power-knowledge. In other words, Foucault aims to explore the ways that sexuality has been “deployed” as part of a complex range of political practices since the beginning of the modern era.

In order to do this, however, Foucault continues to refine his position in relation to the repressive hypothesis. Foucault concedes that he is not the first thinker to refute the repressive hypothesis because it allows him to define his project more specifically. Foucault states that he is not only trying to argue that the repressive hypothesis is a myth; he is rather making a claim about the ways in which power can work productively, producing and provoking new objects of knowledge as part of how it exercises influence and control.

In other words, Focuault’s problem with the repressive hypothesis is not just that it's inaccurate, but also that it can't explain how power works. In order to undertake an adequate history of sexuality in the modern west, Foucault therefore suggests that we need a new methodology and a better representation of power than the juridico-discursive model.

The distinction between a “theory” and an “analytics” of power is difficult to grasp. One might be tempted to argue that Foucault’s work, despite its strong analytical acuity, still aims to provide a “theory of power.” However, given that one of Foucault’s most important points is that power suffuses everything that we do, we can understand the difference between theory and analytics to lie in the kinds of assumptions that either one makes about the nature of power. Foucault would urge us to reject theories of political power that see power as something exerted over people, and independent of social practices unrelated to matters of the state. An analytics of power, on the other hand, could allow us to track how power unfolds at every level of social interaction, finding plays of power within the family, at school, between patient and therapist, etc.