The History of Sexuality, by Michel Foucault
by Madeline Schaeffer
The History of Sexuality is a four-volume dissertation of Western world sexuality, written by the French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault. In this book, Foucault examines the emergence of sexuality as a “discursive object and a separate sphere of life”, and argues that the idea of each individual possessing a sexuality is a “relatively recent development in Western societies” (Foucault 27). The first volume, The Will to Knowledge, was published in 1976 in French and an English translation appeared in 1978. The second and third volumes, The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, were published in 1984. The fourth volume, Confessions of the Flesh, was published in 2018, after the death of Foucault.
In Volume 1, Foucault criticizes the idea that western society suppressed sexuality from the 17th to the mid-20th century due to the rise of capitalism. He argues that the discussions surrounding sexuality increased during this period. According to Foucault, in the 18th and 19th centuries, society took an even more increased interest in sexuality that was not related to marriage. This included the sexuality of children, the mentally ill, the criminal, and the homosexual. By the 19th century, sexuality was being explored through scientific study and human psychology. In Volume 2 and Volume 3, Foucault discusses “the manner in which sexual activity was problematized by philosophers and doctors in classical Greek culture of the fourth century B. C.” (Knox), and the role of sex among Greek and Roman period. In Volume 4, Foucault explores the ideas of pleasure by early Christian societies.
The History of Sexuality is most commonly associated with the idea that sexuality, including homosexuality, is a social concept. Today, it continues to strongly influence discourse about gender studies, feminism, and Queer Theory.
Foucault, Michel and Hurley, Robert (1979) . The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction; ; Translated from the French by Robert Hurley. London: Allen Lane.
Foucault, Michel and Hurley, Robert (1992) . The History of Sexuality Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure; Translated from the French by Robert Hurley. London: Penguin Books.
Foucault, Michel and Hurley, Robert(1990) . The History of Sexuality Volume 3: The Care of the Self; Translated from the French by Robert Hurley. London: Penguin Books.
Foucault, Michel and Hurley, Robert (2021) . The History of Sexuality Volume 4: Confessions of the Flesh; Translated from the French by Robert Hurley. London: Penguin Books.
Foucault, Michel., et al. The Essential Foucault : Selections from Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984 . New Press, 2003.
Knox, Bernard. “Michel Foucault and the Sex Life of the Ancients.” The Washington Post, 5 January 1986, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/entertainment/books/1986/01/05 /michel-foucault-and-the-sex-life-of-the-ancients/877b6c98-bb15-4056-a401-dffa2e7f2175/. Accessed 22 March 2021.
Whitebook, Joel (2003). Gutting, Gary (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Accessed 22 March 2021.