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Concepts in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Essay

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Updated: Jul 9th, 2021


The French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault laid groundbreaking work and ideas in the field of human sexuality studies. As a result, this led to shifting power dynamics and segregation which had its basis in sex but extended to areas such as race and gender. This will be explored in this essay by exploring Foucauldian theories in works by Collins and Martin.

Concept Definitions

The first concept that will be outlined is dividing practices, which refers to institutional procedures and objectives to divide individuals, most often into normal and “pathological” subjects. This is often done in education, healthcare, prisons, and other places as well as broader social concepts such as segregation. The concept of normal and abnormal is highly subjective, based on societal criteria and when the division occurs, it becomes an incident of social engineering (Étienne, 2011). This can have profound impacts on individuals and society alike but categorizing humans and classifying sexual behavior has become central to the modern regimes and social forces.

Building on this, the second concept is disciplinary power, a characteristic of modern society with power being decentralized and omnipresent. Instead of an aristocratic ruler demonstrating power, it comes from below, the entire social body which operates itself and sets its own boundaries and contexts. It results in the microphysics of power, with disciplinary power not being a possession but rather manifested through diverse tactics and strategies (Étienne, 2011). The power dynamics in society are important to consider in the context of sexuality as they directly influence behavior, norms, and perceptions.


The principle of divisive practices can be seen as applied in the work by Hill Collins (2009) exploring the foundations of segregation. She argues that sexuality management is inherent to population management, suggesting that sexuality is prominent within the population. Divisive practices are evident in social trends and institutions. For example, there is a divide between heterosexual and queer individuals. Hill Collins (2009) then connects the concept of heterosexism to race. As an example, the African-Americans are portrayed as hyper-sexed individuals who are associated with heterosexuality. Meanwhile, whites are considered to be part of the LGBTQ community in some way. The divisions of racism and heterosexism are similar in many ways, such as establishing mechanisms of sexual hierarchy and eliminating any mobility. Furthermore, the social institutions play a role in this by not offering adequate protection, not punishing hate crime, and continuing to divide the normal from the pathological through various mechanisms.

Meanwhile, Martin (1991) presents an application of disciplinary power which has constructed social stereotypes between female and male roles. Social norms and values are being built through perceptual schematic. Therefore, menstruation is seen as wasteful, failing, and negative, while sperm is more positive. Sex is a topic which must be discussed from an aspect of management rather condemnation or tolerance. Therefore, it is a matter of utility which exists in institutional power dynamics. In a way, the sexuality had been heavily repressed until modern times and now through disciplinary power, there is an incitement to disclose and confess. It is a normalizing power which seeks to discipline, stimulate, manage, and promote cooperation in conversations of a sexual nature (Martin 1991).

Better Understanding

The application of divisive practices allows to better understand that these self-forming social norms have been present for decades and closely interrelated with contentious issues of racism and homophobia that have become more apparent in modern times. As the transition occurred between repressive power and disciplinary power of modern times, it became evident that the social divides are based in some mechanism of sexual hierarchy which is being guided by institutional and social practices. The concepts of race, sexuality, and others are labeled and stereotyped to fit into categories of normal and abnormal. However, modern culture demonstrates an evolution of discourse as society is gradually accepting the complexity and fluidity of many groups no longer fitting the predetermined stereotypes (Hill Collins, 2009). Meanwhile, the disciplinary power application helped to realize the essential connection between social processes and sexual repression. The identified roles of males and females are guided by society. Sex is an inherently a multiple epistemological power with dominant discourses being focused on psychiatry, sexology, and demographics. Through disciplinary power came the concept of modern confessional which reconstituted the conversation regarding sex and allowed for greater detail and openness to begin social changes on a variety of topics.


The work by Hill Collins (2009) seems to apply Foucauldian principles more effectively, incorporating into the discussion of racism and heterosexism both dividing practices and disciplinary power. She is able to relate to how one inherently leads to the other in the context of modern racial and sexual relations. It is important to consider that Foucauldian theories are inherently intertwined in demonstrating the social contracts and institutional practices of segregation. Hill Collins demonstrates these concepts of the microphysics of power and the way it plays out in social networks and relations.


Foucauldian concepts of dividing practicing and demonstrating power play a significant role in social theory. They can be applied to the sexual behavior and racial-gendered classification of individuals. The concepts contribute to understanding the intricacies of complex social-sexual relationships.

Masculinity and its subsequent sexuality have historically been defined by archetypes and social perceptions. However, with the rise of the heteroflexibility concept, male masculinity begins to shift to accept same-sex acts as an interactive process which can help to define or leverage heterosexual masculinity.

Kimmel’s Claim

As seen by the characteristics of hegemonic masculinity portrayed by Kimmel (2009), it is very exclusive of other groups such as women, racial minorities, and the queer community. This leaves men having to prove their worth and manhood in front of other men. While one may think it is important to prove manhood to women, Kimmel (2009) argues that women have been low on social ladders as a result of sexism and rather used as “currency” for competition among men. Therefore, masculinity is a homosocial endeavor where men compete and demonstrate the willingness to take risks to prove to other men that they are worthy of recognition and respect.

This leads to the greatest emotion for men, fear of being seen as non-masculine. The psychology of social roles is that from early childhood, men are being raised as not to disappoint the male role models in their lives. Men must embody the definition of masculinity or fear of being ashamed in front of other men. As a result, men are afraid of other men which leads to homophobia, a cultural definition that goes beyond fear of homosexuality. The pressure from role models and peers which threatens boys from a young age to uncover their feminine side, synonymous with gay in the masculine culture, leads to extreme cases of homophobia. Homosexual men in such a culture drop down the social ladder and their whole identity or even possibilities of attaining masculinity and social recognition are evaporated. Therefore, at all costs do men avoid being identified with stereotypical “gay” characteristics, take enormous risks to prove their masculinity, and publicly demonstrate homophobia.

Ward’s Claim

Ward (2015) argues that engaging in homosexual acts is an investment into heteronormativity. However, only when white men approach the homosexual act in a socially acceptable way such as making a show of it by tolerating or imposing it. The anecdotal evidence which Ward offers is the elephant walk and other hazing rituals in frat houses. Heteronormativity is the “investment in sexual normalcy,” an almost fetish for straight people who support the straight culture at all costs (Ward, 2015, p. 30). Heteroflexibility inherently supports but technically goes against heteronormativity as it serves the function of masking homosexual attachments, at times as far as homosexual sex. It hides the homosexual desires under rituals such as hazing or “trying new things” which lack the stigmas regarding gay identity. Ward suggests that homosexual polymorphous desires are confined to the unconscious. Publicly and on a conscious level, a straight male would completely disidentify with such sexual fantasies by drawing upon heteronormative narratives that would support his normal sexuality, Heteroflexibility becomes a dual identity of heterosexuality and its foil of queerness as the concept becomes both supportive and resisting of heteronormativity.


Kimmel (2009) builds his argument that masculinity is inherently and socio-political construct which through history has been defined by certain terms of power and wealth. He refers to the concept of marketplace manhood, where masculinity is defined by material possessions, competitions, and the desire to become a “self-made” man. Manhood must be proved constantly and relentlessly, particularly to other men. Therefore, the definition of masculinity which is defined by aggression, competition, and anxiety and fits certain social parameters of married, employed, educated, heterosexual, and white becomes something that can be referred to as hegemonic masculinity. It is a concept of power, and those who fail to qualify are viewed by themselves and society as inferior and unworthy of manhood.

The evolving cultural narrative inherently suggests that straight white men engage in homosexual acts. Ward (2015) bases her argument that homosexual contact for heterosexual white men is a pervasive occurrence in culture, far from circumstantial which the men themselves may want to believe. These instances of sexual fluidity have been defined by the term heteroflexibility which highlights that sexual identity is not defined by sexual behavior. Therefore, when white middle class “explain away” the homosexual acts which don’t align with the heterosexual culture, it is more acceptable due to their social privilege.

Contrasting these arguments, both Kimmel and Ward view masculinity as an interactive process which is defined through relationships to other men. However, while Kimmel states that men are inherently homophobic and fear being identified as queer in any capacity, Ward argues that men actually use homosexual relations to leverage their own manhood and heterosexuality. A significant difference may be in the time period as Kimmel discusses a more historic approach while Ward builds upon trends of heteroflexibility and queer acceptance which have only been a product of the past decade. This suggests that the masculine culture is currently undergoing significant shifts and changing its narratives


Masculine sexuality is a complex topic, which is based on a number of social factors and perceptions. However, it is a process which depends strongly on relations, both sexual and not, with other men. Kimmel and Ward present vastly different approaches to the topic, but contrasting the perspectives helps to create a comprehensive picture of masculinity.

Sexual function and embodiment are critical and symbolic to a person’s sexuality, and in turn, identity. There are complex cultural politics and social perspectives of erectile dysfunction and the female orgasms. This essay will examine the works by Potts as well as Jackson and Scott in contrasting these radically differing but inherently intertwined concepts of erectile dysfunction and the female orgasm.

Dominant Discourses

The social constructs of male hegemony see sexual stamina and the penis as a symbol of sexual health and masculinity. The notion puts an emphasis that male sexuality revolves around genital health and serves as the only measure of success in sex. The penis is a symbolic representation of manhood and holds significant importance in culture. Thus, erectile dysfunction is viewed as a man being “broken” and reflected upon his character traits through social perspectives, thus the disproportionate investments in drugs for the issue as a method to “repair” the problem. Erectile dysfunction is viewed as a metaphorical death sentence and represents dysfunctional male sexuality, centered around the phallus. Thus, the socially dominant phallocratic perspectives of male sexuality directly interfere with any actions and thoughts of the male, affecting their masculinity (Potts, 2000).

In heterosexual relations, the female orgasm has always been considered more problematic and elusive in comparison to men. This private and physical experience is also a social one as the experiential gendering of the orgasm occurs. Unlike men, female libido and orgasm are viewed as less physical and more mental, thus limiting medical intervention. Traditionally, the female orgasm is presented is mysterious and difficult to capture through psychoanalysis, being beyond any knowledge or language. Therefore, the theme of cultural and social understanding of the orgasm is based on physical responses, which cannot be easily seen in women, unlike men. In social representations, male ejaculation is less about physical pleasure but rather dominant power. Meanwhile, the female orgasm is a response to the male orgasm and the man is responsible to the woman achieving this state. The definitions of male and female orgasm, although recognizing the physicality of the body, are derived from social contexts of domination and mystery. In turn, to compensate the lack physical demonstration of the female orgasms, there is an idea that women must enact a performance of it as an “appreciation” of male sexuality (Jackson & Scott, 2007).

Changes in Understanding

The discourse of sexual optimization where men are encouraged to discuss sexual problems in contrast to hegemonic masculinity is allowing for more open and changing conversation regarding erectile dysfunction. These discussions allow for society to understand the inherent complexity of erectile dysfunction which may reach beyond the physical embodiment that society portrays it to be. Potts (2000) wants to move beyond this masculine and phallocentric culture that would consider that men can experience a wide range of sexual pleasures in bodily zones extending beyond the penis. It is inherently difficult where the penis is considered almost symbolic in society for not just sexuality but masculinity, arousal, and non-sexual productivity as well. However, the key to challenge the cultural notion of the erect penis and hegemonic culture to inform the socialization of men, even those with forms of impotence.

If the orgasm, particularly for females, is a practical objective, then it is necessary to acquire the cultural competence to understand it and recognize it. Sex and orgasm is a collective endeavor and thus requires a transcendence of the gender and sexual divisions which have been enacted by society. Learning to recognize an orgasm falls under interactionist tradition by examining not only cultural definitions but “reflexive decoding of our own sensate embodiment” (Jackson & Scott, 2007, p. 107). There need to be more common discussions regarding the sexual act and pleasure, learning its perceptions and defining them for the popular culture. The everyday experiences are where physical encounters take place and embodied experiences are negotiated, offering a platform for change in the collective understandings and balanced heterosexual relationships.


Despite covering these widely differing topics of erectile dysfunction and orgasm, Potts (2000) as well as Jackson and Scott (2007) present similar arguments on the symbolic nature of these concepts in sexuality. Both recognize the meaning and cultural perceptions that the concepts hold in the portrayal of a masculine or feminine character in regard to sexual performance or pleasure. While Potts (2000) argues the masculine symbol of the phallus and certain expectations society has of it in the culture of hegemonic masculinity, Jackson and Scott (2007) draw similar parallels regarding the female orgasm and certain expectations which are held from women. The conclusions that can be drawn from both suggest that sexual pleasure can be complex and widespread beyond the two concepts and a lack of orgasms or presence of erectile dysfunction does not anyhow reflect on the character traits or libido of individuals.


Erectile dysfunction and the orgasm are both sexual concepts in a society which hold symbolic meanings and stereotypes. The cultural understanding of both strongly impact the dynamics of sexual relationships and perceptions of femininity and masculinity. It is important to promote change in the embodiment and social embedment of these concepts by encouraging discussion and changing the narrative.


Jackson, S., & Scott, S. (2007). Faking Like a woman? Towards an interpretive theorization of sexual pleasure. Body & Society, 13(2), 95-116. Web.

Potts, A. (2000). “The Essence of the Hard On”: Hegemonic masculinity and the cultural construction of “erectile dysfunction.” Men and Masculinities, 3(1), 85-103. Web.

Kimmel, M. S. (2009). Masculinity as homophobia: Fear, shame, and silence in the construction of gender identity. In A.L. Ferber, K. Holcomb & T. Wentling (Eds.), Sex, gender, and sexuality: The new basics (pp. 51-70). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Ward, J. (2015). Nowhere without it: The homosexual ingredient in the making of straight white men. In J. Ward (Ed.), Not gay: Sex between straight white men (pp. 1-52). New York, NY: New York University Press.

Étienne, M. (2001). Michel Foucault and the history of sexuality.

Hill Collins, P. (2009). “Prisons for our bodies, closets for our minds: Racism, heterosexism and black sexuality.” In A.L. Ferber, K. Holcomb & T. Wentling (Eds.), Sex, gender, and sexuality: The new basics (pp. 115-136). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Martin, E. (1991). The Egg and the sperm: How science has constructed a romance based on stereotypical male-female roles. Signs, 16(3), 485-501.

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