The History of Sexuality
Paul-Michel Foucault (15 October 1926 – 25 June 1984), generally known as Michel Foucault [miʃɛl fuko], was a French philosopher, historian of ideas, social theorist, and literary critic. The History of Sexuality [L’Histoire de la sexualité] is a three-volume study of sexuality in the western world, in which Foucault examines the emergence of “sexuality” as a discursive object and separate sphere of life and argues that the notion that every individual has a sexuality is a relatively recent development in Western societies.
The first volume, The Will to Knowledge (La volonté de savoir), was first published in 1976; an English translation appeared in 1978. Foucault criticizes the “repressive hypothesis”, the idea that western society suppressed sexuality from the 17th to the mid-20th century due to the rise of capitalism and bourgeois society. Foucault argues that discourse on sexuality in fact proliferated during this period, during which experts began to examine sexuality in a scientific manner, encouraging people to confess their sexual feelings and actions.
According to Foucault, in the 18th and 19th centuries society took an increasing interest in sexualities that did not fit within the marital bond: the “world of perversion” that includes the sexuality of children, the mentally ill, the criminal and the homosexual, while by the 19th century, sexuality was being readily explored both through confession and scientific enquiry.
Arguing that sexuality was never truly repressed, Foucault asks why modern westerners believe the hypothesis, noting that in portraying past sexuality as repressed, it provides a basis for the idea that in rejecting past moral systems, future sexuality can be free and uninhibited, a “…garden of earthly delights”.