Review: The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault

I normally wouldn't discuss philosophy books here - and Foucault's histories are philosophy, regardless of their titles - but I read this one for The Literary Others event and I had to have something to show for it. But since we're talking of three volumes here, and we can assume both my time and your patience to be finite, I am just going to briefly outline some of the main ideas in this work and then say a little something about the style and readability of each volume, in case you decide to read them.

First, of all The History of Sexuality was supposed to be a six-volume work, but Foucault died with only three volumes published and a fourth almost completed (it hasn't been published to this day). His initial plan seems to have been to show that sexuality is socially and historically determined and tied up with power dynamics, in volume 1, and then write the history of modern sexuality from the 17th century onwards. But then this plan changed to comparing sexuality in the Greek and Roman antiquity with sexuality in the Christian tradition, as a better way to illustrate his point. He only got to work on one side of this comparison: in volumes 2 and 3 he explored the role of sex in the Greek and Roman antiquity, highlighting some elements that seem very familiar to the Christian culture as we know it, but that had very different functions in their historical context. So what are the three ideas that I took away from these books?

1. Knowledge is power.

If you aren't at all familiar with Foucault, this is one of his pet theses. Power and knowledge are  intricately linked and they cannot be separated from each other. How does this apply to the case of sexuality? Foucault claims the modern world has a dominant narrative about sexuality: namely that it is an essential, defining part of who we are, but that historically it has been an object of increasing repression, culminating with the second part of the 19th century. (Everyone knows what prudes those Victorians were.) The modern person feels like this repression is wrong and toxic, and that it is their duty to undo its harm. Enjoying sex and talking about it often and openly become empowering, liberating acts, become a way to speak truth to power. Now, this story is very seductive. The problem with it, Foucault says, is that it is historically wrong. Not only that sexuality wasn't hushed up, but it was talked about more than ever in the 18th and 19th century. It became an object of knowledge, of science. The sexuality of children, the sexuality of women, population dynamics and homosexuality all became the targets of scientific discourse (and discourse in general) in this period, which means they also became subjects of control. Power is not only about outright repression, it is also about observation and knowing enough about its subjects to control them. So our talking about sex all the time is not standing up to power, but actually playing into its hands.

2. Sexuality is socially and culturally constructed.

We think that sexuality is something natural, something intrinsic to our personality, something that cannot be repressed without negative consequences. But, Foucault says, there is actually nothing necessary about sexuality. Not the acts we consider sexual (with some obvious exceptions), not the rules and prohibitions we have in place for them, not the importance we give to this part of our life (why should it take precedence over other biological functions, for example?). So we need to distinguish between sex and sexuality and think of the latter as the way our culture has to conceptualize sex. Other cultures had their own conceptual frameworks. Enter the Greeks.

3. The Greeks were crazy. And awesome. (But mostly crazy.)

The Greeks differed from the later Christian culture in two important aspects. First of all, their ethics was a conditional one. It wasn't about setting an universal standard and punishing everyone who failed short of it. It was more like giving a set of rules for those who wanted to become good and accomplished persons. It was about helping such people master themselves. Secondly, sex was not a sin, like it would be in Christianity; it was natural but subject to excess. So what was wrong was not to engage in it, but to a. let it get out of control and dominate your life or b. be passive. The problem was one of losing control over yourself, either because you were ruled by your basic urges or because you let your lover dominate you. A man - and this was an ethics by men for men - was always an active element, never passive. It was dishonorable to be passive. When having sex with women, men were understood to be the active actor, because they are superior to women in every way and they're doing the penetration. When having sex with men, though, a problem arises, because the partners are equals. So this type of relationship is honorable and okay for the one doing the penetration and dishonorable for the one penetrated. That is why the love of an older man for a boy was the most problematic and most discussed aspect of Greek sexuality: because, on one hand, the two partners weren't yet equals, so the relationship wasn't completely dishonorable for one of them, but, on the other hand, they would be equals soon, so it was a very fine line to tread.

There is much more to say, about the Greeks and about Foucault's project in general, but I am going to stop here and hope I made you curious. If you want to give The History of Sexuality a try, I suggest you go for volume 1 and maybe 2. Volume 1: An Introduction is the easiest to read and perhaps the most interesting. As its title suggests, it is an introduction, so it reads more like the condensed version of a more extended argument. It's perhaps a little light on technical and historical details, but the story itself is plausible and you can easily get a hang of Foucault's favorite themes. (If you've read History of Madness or Discipline and Punish, this volume is just like that only applied to sexuality. And if you haven't read them, they're fun, give them a try.) Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure has a lot of very interesting details about the Greek world, but also some philosophical ramblings about the construction of the subject. Unless you have a particular interest in (Foucault's) philosophy, you won't miss much by skimming those parts. You also won't miss much by not reading Volume 3: The Care of the Self altogether. It deals with changes to the model of the Greek world as described above, but the changes themselves were not terribly fascinating and the structure of the book itself was not the best or the easiest to follow.

In any case, I am glad I managed to read these books in October.

This post is part of The Literary Others: An LGBT Reading Event hosted by Adam of Roof Beam Reader. If you're curious about what other people are doing for this event go here. If you want to see what else we read for this event, check out our Literary Others tag.

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