The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1

The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 Themes

The myth of repression

Throughout this book, Foucault tries to dispel the myth that we are sexually repressed. However, Foucault does acknowledge that expressions of sexuality have been subject to a great deal of control since the dawn of modernity. The aim of Foucault's study is not so much to reject repression outright, as to find a more nuanced way to think about what it means to exist as a subject of sexuality under capitalist modernity. Foucault counters the charge that we have been suppressed into silence by noting the incitement to discourse. Furthermore, he suggests the term "control," which gives a more complex picture of the myriad power relations that constitute the deployment of sexuality, instead of the one-way power dynamic of "repression."

The rise of capitalism

The rise of modern capitalism, as we understand it today, underpins Foucault's long history of the political changes that gave birth to modern sexuality. Foucault's attention to the political histories of population sciences, the growing power of the medical establishment, and the birth of biopolitical society, all illustrate the rise of capitalism. The deployment of sexuality, especially in the industrial 19th century, was a new way of understanding and managing human bodies during a time in which the human potential to produce (and to reproduce) was newly important.


Foucault is initially very skeptical of the ways in which our society has both proclaimed, and struggled for, sexual liberation. Through his analysis of the dynamics of power, Foucault suggests that liberation is itself always wrapped up in power, and that one can never exist truly outside of power. In place of fighting for sexual liberation, Foucault suggests in Part 4 that we might develop strategies and tactics that begin by acknowledging what sexuality is and how it works. We will do more for ourselves, Foucault suggests, if we are informed about how we have become subjects of sexuality. If we better understood the historical conditions of sexuality, we would not fall into the trap of assuming that sexuality is a universal aspect of ourselves that needs liberation from repression.

The rise of the sciences

Central to Foucault's study of the history of sexuality is the rise of the sciences as institutions of political power. Throughout this book, Foucault shows how the medical establishment, psychiatry, and population sciences have worked in intersecting ways to shape how we understand ourselves. Without rejecting the validity of scientific methods, Foucault shows throughout this book that the sciences have gained political influence since the 18th century, and have shaped modern understandings of what counts as truth and what counts as knowledge.