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The History of Sexuality is a three-volume series of books written between 1976 and 1984 by French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault. The first volume of the book is titled An Introduction while the second volume is titled The Use of Pleasure, and the third volume is titled The Care of the Self.
Foucault's main goal in the books is to disprove the idea that Western society had repressed sexuality since the 17th century and that sexuality had been something that society did not talk about. The books were written during the sexual revolution in the United States. Thus it was a popular belief that up until this point in time, sexuality was something that was forbidden and unmentionable. That is, throughout history, sex had been treated as a private and practical matter that should only take place between a husband and a wife. Sex outside of these boundaries was not only prohibited, but it had also been repressed.
Foucault asks three questions about this repressive hypothesis:
- Is it historically accurate to trace what we think of sexual repression today to the rise of the bourgeois in the 17th century?
- Is power in our society really expressed primarily in terms of regression?
- Is our modern-day discourse on sexuality really a break from this history of repression or is it a part of the same history?
Throughout the book, Foucault questions the repressive hypothesis. He does not contradict it and does not deny the fact that sex has been a taboo subject in Western culture. Instead, he sets out to find out how and why sexuality is made an object of discussion. In essence, Foucault's interest does not lie in sexuality itself, but rather in our drive for a certain kind of knowledge and the power that we find in that knowledge.
The Bourgeois and Sexual Repression
The repressive hypothesis links sexual repression to the rise of the bourgeoisie in the 17th-century. The bourgeois became rich through hard work, unlike the aristocracy before it. Thus, they valued a strict work ethic and frowned upon wasting energy on frivolous pursuits such as sex. Sex for pleasure, to the bourgeois, became an object of disapproval and an unproductive waste of energy. And since the bourgeoisie were the ones who were in power, they made the decisions on how sex could be spoken about and by whom. This also meant they had control over the kind of knowledge that people had about sex. Ultimately, the bourgeois wanted to control and confine sex because it threatened their work ethic. Their desire to control talk and knowledge about sex was essentially a desire to control power.
Foucault is not satisfied with the repressive hypothesis and uses The History of Sexuality as a means to attack it. Instead of simply saying that it is wrong and arguing against it, however, Foucault also takes a step back and examines where the hypothesis came from and why.
Sexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome
In volumes two and three, Foucault also examines the role of sex in ancient Greece and Rome, when sex was not a moral issue but rather something erotic and normal. He answers questions such as: How did sexual experience come to be a moral issue in the West? And why were other experiences of the body, such as hunger, not subject to the rules and regulations that have come to define and confine sexual behavior?
SparkNotes Editors. (n.d.). SparkNote on The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1. Retrieved February 14, 2012.
Foucault, M. (1978) The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. United States: Random House.
Foucault, M. (1985) The History of Sexuality, Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure. United States: Random House.
Foucault, M. (1986) The History of Sexuality, Volume 3: The Care of the Self. United States: Random House.