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“The History of Sexuality” the Book by Foucault Essay

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Updated: Jun 23rd, 2021


Sexuality is linked to a range of social constructs, yet the concept with which it shares the closest connection is power. Being one of the most tabooed topics in a range of modern cultures, the phenomenon of sexuality remains wildly misinterpreted by several people, thus causing gender disparities and numerous conflicts in contemporary society. Because of the air of secrecy and indecency, which is falsely attributed to the specified issue, the discussion thereof is rarely open, which necessitates the importance of exploring the subject matter further.

While contemporary studies shed some light on the problem and its many facets, a 1984 book by Michel Foucault should also be seen as a way of studying the phenomenon of sexuality and sex in-depth and develop a healthy and profound understanding of the subject matter. The study posits that the relationships between sexuality, sex, power, pleasure, and gender roles are much more intricate than they had been previously assumed and that repressing the enthusiasm toward exploring one’s sexuality is fraught with significant psychological complications. By introducing the concept of the discourse on sex, Foucault creates the platform for altering the existing perception of the subject matter on not only personal but also social levels, thus prompting a gradual change in the interpretation of sexuality and the development of a self-directed exploration thereof. Consequently, the premise for subverting harmful myths and prejudices regarding sex and sexuality, as well as gender, in a broader sense, is created.


Foucault starts his book with an immediate subversion of myths associated with sexuality by introducing the concept of the repressive hypothesis. According to the author, by tabooing the specified topic, people contribute to the development of multiple psychological issues that are bound to complicate their further interpersonal relationships and inhibit the process of personal development. Therefore, Foucault launches the concept of Scientia sexualis or the discourse on sex and the related issues. By depriving the topic of sex and sexuality of its acquired sense of a social taboo, the author purports the creation of an uninhibited discussion thereof. As a result, people can develop a healthy attitude toward the issue and engage in a meaningful analysis of sex and sexuality. Consequently, a profound understanding of how the specified topics are exploited to usurp power and manipulate people’s fear of being ostracized due to their exploration of sexuality and sex. According to Foucault, the deployment of sexuality is the desired stage that will allow approaching the specified issue from a sensible perspective and subvert a range of harmful myths that dominate the identified area nowadays (p. 21).

Goals and Methods

The author’s decision to encapsulate sexual discourses and the intentions to express personal sexuality is not an attempt to prohibit or permit sex. It is a chance for Foucault to “discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak it and which store and distribute the things that are said” (p. 11). The main issue is to understand who the author of sexual discourse is and if it is reasonable to trust this source as the only one where the truths about sex are formulated. The narration of the story occurs from the point of view of the repressive hypothesis. Foucault admits that sex was defined not only as the part of the body to “disqualify or nullify” but an aspect which “troubled and preoccupied… cultivated with a mixture of fear, curiosity, delights, and excitement… a mysterious and undefined power” (pp. 123-124). As soon as the bourgeoisie gained power, the decision to treat sex as a purely private issue was made. Sex was not simply prohibited, but it was repressed, meaning that speaking and thinking were also undesirable.

Relationship Between Sex, Power, Pleasure, and Discourse

The relationship between sex, power, pleasure, and discourse is investigated in the text. Foucault supports the ideas of the 17th century and uses “the regime of power-knowledge-pleasure that sustains the discourse on human sexuality” (p. 11). This regime considerably determines human actions and behaviors. People use power to receive pleasure, enjoy pleasure because of power, and make sexuality continue flourishing. It is wrong to believe that all these concepts may be dependent or independent from each other. Foucault suggests linking these terms and uses Scientia sexualis as a mechanism with the help of which proliferation of discourses about sex and sexuality is possible (p. 58). This procedure, as well as ars erotica, aims at studying the art of erotics, sexual pleasure, and norms that may characterize sexuality.

There are several approaches to explain the relationship between power, pleasure, and sex. On the one hand, there is the negative relation developed by Foucault according to which “power can do nothing but say no” to the situations when sex and pleasure are concerned (p. 83). On the other hand, there is the insistence of the rule when power is used to dictate certain laws to sex, meaning that sexual relations are formed by power in a certain system. As a result, sex becomes an object of knowledge that people can gather and control with time. The more people know the more power they can use to meet their routine needs and desires.

Truths About Sex by Foucault

Scientia sexualis is also the method with the help of which Foucault evaluates the truths about sex. Confession is used as the main method to produce truth. It plays an important role in everyday life and relationships people may develop in medicine, education, justice, families, and love affairs. Power may be used to find out the truth. Still, Foucault underlines that it also may create new “falsehoods designed to conceal that truth” (p. 11). Therefore, truths about sex are better to receive through confession and personal knowledge instead of imposing power or some forms of violence. Still, the production of truth can never be separated from power and knowledge.

Liberation in Sex Talks

The author raises several interesting topics and approaches. One of the best practices in this book is the intention to understand if sex talks may liberate people. Foucault says that “our eagerness to speak of sex in terms of repression is doubtless this opportunity to speak out against the powers that be… to link together enlightenment, liberation, and manifold pleasures” (p. 7). Sometimes, a person does not need to be liberated due to his/her close relation to the products of power and knowledge. In the case of total liberation, individualization and control may be questioned or even destroyed. Therefore, Foucault does not want to make people free from prejudice and power or tell them the truth in his writing. His goal is to invite people to a long-lasting discussion where everyone can demonstrate a certain experience and choose the most appropriate practice regarding personal knowledge and attitudes toward sex.

Personal Opinion and Lessons

After reading the book by Foucault, I concluded that sexuality is the key approach to control people. Power and knowledge play their specific roles in the development of sexual relationships. Instead of limiting human actions, knowledge opens new boundaries, and power motivates people. However, the steps taken by bourgeois representatives in the 17th-18th centuries destroyed the effects power and knowledge could have. Repressed sex and sexuality turned out to be the most interesting and provocative topics for discussion. The peculiar feature of this book is the possibility to use these concepts in different fields.


In general, the book written by Foucault is not only discourse about sex and sexuality. It is a source of credible and motivating information about how people should develop their relationships, set goals, and achieve the desired results. In people’s intentions to expand discourses, they make the same mistake all the time by limiting the most important things. If sex is a means to link knowledge, power, and pleasure that fulfills human life, then Foucault’s book is one of the best guides for this practice.

Foucault shapes the current perception of sex, sexuality, and gender relationships by viewing the specified concepts from the perspective of social factors and the cultural environment in which they are created, thus determining the methods of subverting dangerous misconceptions about the specified notions. As a result, opportunities for a personal exploration of sex, sexuality, and related notions are constructed. I have experienced the issue of sexual stereotyping when having to explain that I did not have to conform to the image that the media suggested as linked to my gender. The expectations to meet the standards promoted in the contemporary media and representing a rather offensive stereotype of sexuality and sexual behavior was rather painful. Thus, vulnerable groups need to receive the required protection and support as sex-related misconceptions are cleared with the help of an open discussion.

Work Cited

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume I: An Introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley, Pantheon Books, 1978.

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