Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage Books 1985. (Parts 1 and 2) (49 pages)
Foucault confronts the typical Victorian history of sexuality that marks sex as something that was repressed and silenced; rather, he claims that sex and sexuality were not silenced during this time but experienced an explosion of sexual discourses that were meant to bring attention to, examine, and thus regulate sex.
Foucault begins his history in the 17th century, and likewise draws upon a commonly held motive in suppressing sexuality that he shares with the Victorian historical view. Namely, there was a desire to subjugate sex, control how its circulated, and how people participate in it. Further, he also notes that the Victorian historical perspective likewise sees the power of language as a means of altering reality; however, where they depart is the role that language played. Where the Victorian historical perspective seemed to point to the silences, Foucault points to the “multiplication of discourse concerning sex in the field of exercise of power itself: an institutional incitement to speak about it, and to do so more and more; a determination on the part of the agencies of power to hear it spoken about, and to cause it to speak through explicit articulation and endlessly accumulated detail” (18).
He points to Catholic confession as one scene in which sex was meant to be disclosed in detail in order to examine the sin and thus regulate the person. Foucault writes succinctly: “one had to speak of it as of a thing to be not simply condemned or tolerated but managed, inserted into systems of utility, regulated for the greater good of all, made to function according to an optimum. Sex was not something one simply judged; it was a thing one administered. It was in the nature of a public potential; it called for management procedures; it had to be taken charge of by analytical discourse” (24). Foucault goes further to note that it was not just religious discipline, but also law: sex became a concern for economic and political stability. He offers another example of a simpleton who hired a young prostitute. Physicians made him into “a pure object of medicine and knowledge—an object to be shut away till the end of his life in the hospital…but also one to be made known to the world of learning through a detailed analysis” published in academic journals, circulated widely (32).
Turning to the political boundaries placed on sex, Foucault also notes the ways that laws were used to frame acceptable and thus unacceptable (licit or illicit) sex. Marriage, for example, made coupling a legal entity: it became a system “centered on legitimate alliance” that placed heterosexual monogamy at the centrifuge of this system (38). In this way, homosexuality, extramarital affairs (excess), incest, etc. were now legal means of defining illicit and licit sexual activity.