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Book Review: The History of Sexuality

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume 1: An Introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.


Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality reads more like philosophy than history. This is not surprising considering he was a French philosopher, historian of ideas, a social theorist and literary critic. He lived a short life; was born in 1926 and died in 1984, an early victim of the AIDS epidemic. Early in the book, he argues against the “repressive hypothesis” and posits that “sex is put into discourse.”[1]Through this, he means that certain mechanisms have been used (pastorals, politics, economics, the medical and legal systems) to transform and categorize sexuality into discourse for the purpose of exercising power and control over society and within relationships. Foucault also traces how a sort of dichotomy has emerged with regard to sexuality. As homosexuality or other illicit sexualities were at one time condemned by those in power, people practicing those behaviors, lifestyles or identities were about to create their own narratives and demand legitimacy from society.[2] In the later part of the text, he begins to situate his examples in a time and place, thus giving the reader a sense of historical causation. However, he fails to trace these trends to their origins with great specificity.


If the purpose of history is to come to an understanding about the present through a study of the past, the study of The History of Sexualityis indeed timely. With the recent Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearing and testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the boarder #MeToo movement, and the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis, to cite just a few episodes in recent American history that are sexual in nature, one finds relevance in Foucault’s study in each of these. With my interests in the history of the Catholic Church in America, women’s history and the history of race, immigration and oppression, Foucault’s postulations about power and sexuality are evident and relevant. Indeed, Foucault credits the origins of sex as discourse in the Middle Ages with the pastorals of the Catholic Church following the Lateran Council that made confession obligatory for believers. A dark episode in the Progressive Era, the eugenics movement, was motivated by a desire to prevent those who were disformed, or deviant from reproducing. Many more historical events come to mind when sexuality was used to repress African Americans, women or immigrants. Since conducting a study of this text, I can’t help but see the power dynamics in the world around me as a woman who works for the male dominated Catholic Church.

[1]Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1976), 11.

[2]Foucault, 101.

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