In his book The History of Sexuality, Will of Knowledge, Vol. 1, Foucault refutes the widely accepted notion that before the 17th century sexuality was more open and naturally expressed. The code of conduct regarding the obscene, illicit and indecent was not so rigid. However, post 17th century with the rise of the bourgeoisie especially in the Victorian era, sexuality is constrained and repressed. Even at the level of speech censorship became the norm when talking about sex itself in the bourgeois society.

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Foucault’s interpretation of history however disputes this narrative and claims otherwise. Through the course of the book he shows that instead of being repressed the discourse on sexuality has been “subjected to a mechanism of increased incitement” (pg 12). Moreover, Foucault’s main concern in this book is to understand that how did sexuality come to be a discourse, and object of discussion, a kind of knowledge and the power we find in that knowledge.


Foucault is influenced by Nietzsche’s understanding of genealogy and origin. By origin Nietzsche means something that has a fixed starting point from which it evolved whereas in genealogy there is no fixed starting point, current state of the thing is seen to have taken a random path to reach where it is today. Nietzsche uses the genealogy model to trace the evolution of morals and shows that our current sense of right or wrong are the result of random evolution of human society. Foucault borrows this concept to trace the genealogy of sexuality to show that the concept of sexuality evolved in the nineteenth century with the coming together of scientific discourse and confession. Before the nineteenth century, there was no such thing as "sexuality," as such. What is Repressive Hypothesis?

The ideology of “repressive hypothesis” guides the current belief that over the past three hundred years the history of sexuality has been repressed. Silence became the rule in matters related to sex which was seen as legitimate only between a conjugal family, for the purpose of reproduction.

Repressive hypothesis is based on the premise that for the bourgeois sex is incompatible with the intensive work imperative logic of capitalism. So spending time and energy in sexual pursuits was seen as wasteful. It is then seen as a private affair which is legitimate and permissible between husband and wife. Sex outside this conjugal relation is repressed. However, the improper sexual feelings could be released safely through prostitution and psychiatry which were outside the confines of conventional morality.


The term discourse is used in the course of the book at various places. For Foucault in a discourse it is vital to understand who is speaking, in what context, about what and from what perspective. Whoever does the talking also determines what can be known and how the listener should think. In this sense he relates power with knowledge.

Disagreement with Repressive Hypothesis

Foucault agrees with the basic premise of the repressive hypothesis that there have been efforts to control sex and even its discussion in speech is something to be ashamed of. His point of disagreement is on how and why this open sexuality was suppressed. The “will to knowledge” about sex has resulted in regulation on the way we talk about sex and not its repression. Consequently the people who control the discourse on sex also become increasingly powerful. They are usually people who belong to the governing institutions of the society.

Another point in refuting the repressive hypothesis according to Foucault is that around the 18th century multiple discourses emerged like medical studies, demographic studies, psychiatry etc. However all these discourses cannot be assigned to a single cause underlying the repressive hypothesis which is the bourgeois need to channelize sex in order to increase productivity. According to Foucault then the will to knowledge about sex cannot be reduced to economic causes.

He goes on to state that the modern discourse on sexuality is far from repressed. There has been a rise in the kinds of sexual perversion like homosexuality, paedophilia, sadism, incest etc. While earlier discourse on sex dealt with marriage- the dos and don’ts of a conjugal relation, in this era focus is increasingly on those who lie outside the boundaries of marriage. Homosexuality is one such aspect of sexuality that Foucault discusses. Before the 19th century sodomy was regarded as a criminal act. After the 19th century, sodomy came to be seen as a manifestation of a person’s personality and behaviour.

What happened then was that sex became all pervasive, rather than maintaining boundaries to contain sexuality, this scrutiny made us see everything from the lens of sex. As a result this age has seen a greater proliferation of discourse on sexuality than the previous ones. The perversities that were to be condemned are increasingly becoming a matter of scrutiny.

Reasons for Incitement in Discourse on Sexuality

One of the reasons that added to the propagation of discourse on sexuality was the declaration at the Lateran Council of 1215, wherein confessions became a part of the Catholic doctrine. There was emphasis on sins of flesh wherein Priests expected confession of the smallest temptation or desire. People were expected to confess not just the act but even the inclination towards sex, desires, thoughts etc. so instead of being repressed the talk about sex had a religious sanction though within the religious confines. The emphasis shifted to what is permissible and non-permissible. The conjugal family came within the purview of permissible while the cases of perversion like child sexuality etc. were non- permissible. This shift in focus allowed discourse on sex to permeate at deeper levels. Despite tighter controls on sex the discourse on sex intensified.

Sexuality- A Shift in Focus From Religious to Secular

Foucault states that around the 17 century, sexuality moved to the secular domain. Power and knowledge came to be associated with sex in four key areas. First, the shift in focus brought about by the bourgeois to channelize sex as a function of reproduction. Thus there was an increased interest in understanding the demographics of sex. It became a matter of statistical enquiry and the sex life of citizens became a topic of public scrutiny- statistics regarding birth rates, fertility rates, illegitimate births etc became important to regulate the population.

Even the government interest in the vital statistics of their population increased making sex an important object of study. Second, of child sexuality, this had to be controlled and monitored. Third, the female body was seen as highly sexual and an object of medical knowledge and a point of control. Fourth area where power and knowledge came to be associated with sex was that that of deviant sexual behaviour which was seen as a mental illness that needed correction. For Foucault then the concept of sexuality does not exist except as framed by these discourses.

This entire notion of secrecy itself then became a part of the discourse on sex and it added a mystical value to it. Sex became something that was to be uncovered and learnt. Power thus was exercised not to repress sex but to bring it into focus for discussion.

Power and Knowledge

Foucault relates the above discussion in terms of power. He feels that power, discourse, and knowledge are linked. The “will to knowledge” is driven by the compulsion to gain knowledge of certain things and that too in a particular way. Knowledge then is never neutral. The more authority we have over a subject the more we are in control and the more power we have over it. When we learn something new, we link it up with what we already know. So learning is also an exercise of power. Foucault gives an example of sexual perversion- in order to scrutinize the kinds of sexual perversion; we are using our powers of analysis while also gaining new knowledge, and hence new power. As far as discourse is concerned, what we know about something and how we come to know about it determines how we talk about it.

The “will to knowledge” about homosexuality since the 19th century shows how deep the discourse on sexuality is going with time. An individual’s sexual orientation was earlier a fact about the person. Now it is used in identifying the character of the individual. Foucault connects this deepening of discourse to the exercise of power. As there is not just a desire to know more about sexuality; but to create sexuality and to discover it in places that it was not previously thought to exist. Sexual perversion was increasingly becoming a danger to the society. So the will to knowledge about sex increased but it was also essential that this knowledge took the side of morality.

Pleasure Vs. Science

Foucault goes on to discussing the two procedures that produced the truth about sex historically. Societies such as China, Japan, India, Rome, the Arab-Muslim, deal with sex as ars erotica or erotic art-knowledge of sensual pleasure. It contains truth about how pleasure can be experienced. This knowledge has a mystique attached to it and it can be passed on from a master to an initiated disciple. Morality is of no concern in such a case. In contrast to this is the modern west, from where Foucault himself comes, which deals in a scientia sexualis ("science of sexuality") - the inhuman aspect of sex only for reproduction.

Role of Confession in Forming a Discourse

The scientia sexualis deals with confessions. These confessions are made by the unlearned rather than secrets passed down from the learned. There has been a growing emphasis on confession since the Middle Ages. Be it law, literature, philosophy or psychiatry all demand a confession which is seen as a liberating force. Confession, which is dug out of our own consciousness, unburdens the individual from repressive powers. Confession then is seen as therapeutic. Or we are made to think so according to Foucault. He suggests that the powers responsible for extracting confessions push us to see confession as liberating. The idea of confession as therapeutic then is a cultural construct and not a fact. In other cultures such a demand may be seen as coercive rather than liberating.

Foucault observes that in confession sex is a special theme as it is hidden and needs to be drawn out. Moreover since all behaviour was seen through the lens of sex there was a need for a thorough and exact confession. In the 19th century, psychiatrists tried to bring together confession and scientific discourse to create a "confessional science" of sex. Since confession is seen as therapeutic it gave it the status of a medical procedure. Psychiatry developed a method of interpreting confessions that made the response of the listener essential for understanding confessions. In a confession thus the listener holds the position of authority.

The discourse of science leads us to think of sexuality as a matter of scientific study, about which we can gather objective data and facts. Sex then becomes a body of knowledge, that we can understand and control. The discourse of confession portrays sexuality as something hidden and shameful. These two discourses combine to form a concept of sexuality as a mystery that must be drawn out and codified into knowledge. Sexuality then becomes the basis on which we understand ourselves.

Refuting “Juridico- discursive” Conception of Power

Foucault goes on to question as to why so much emphasis is placed on sex that it holds the key to truth and our liberation. The reason being the relationship sex has with power and knowledge. The repressive hypothesis looked at the relationship between power and sex as negative and constraining. Power acts as a law that determines how sex should be treated and understood. It is prohibitive and represses sex. This conception forces us to see power existing outside us, acts on us and free to resist it. It hold our desires at bay. So when we give expression to our desires it is seen as an act of liberation.

The above ‘juridico-discursive’ conception of power according to Foucault is misguided as it is a one-sided conception of power. For him power is not just repressive but also creative. Power exists inside us and our reaction to the outside powers is a part of a larger dynamics of power relations. Everybody and everything is a source of power which manifests itself in different ways. It exists at different levels. There is logic behind power relations and not individuals who are masterminding the power play. He goes on to say that resistance is a part of power relations and not external to it. Knowledge then should be seen in relation to power. And discourse is what joins both of them together. Power relations determine what and how we learn about sex.

What is Sexuality?

Foucault says that sexuality is a social construct invented by the bourgeois that channelizes different power relations. It has grown out of a discourse and enables us to understand other concepts. It is a network of physical sensations and pleasures, the incitement of discourse, a specialized knowledge.

Contrary to the popular belief by the proponents of repressive hypothesis, bourgeois did not control sex to increase productivity rather they saw healthy sexuality as the key to a healthy body and soul which would help them to extend their power and influence. Had it been the case of increase in productivity, the bourgeois would have placed these constraints on the proletariat and not on themselves. They observed harsher control over themselves to maintain their supremacy over the proletariat. History of sexuality is then seen as a history of class domination, developed by the bourgeois to propagate their own class.


Foucault extends his understanding of sexuality to modern capitalistic society wherein sex is a social construct not external to power, channelized to regulate health. The sovereign uses the concept of sexuality to exercise power over life by regulating sexuality for a healthy and secure life. Foucault has coined a specific term for such power that is used to control a population- “Bio-power”, a phenomena specific to the modern nation state.

In earlier times, the sovereign exercised power as a “right to death” wherein the ruler decided the punishment for offenders and death sentences were given very often. In the modern nation state power is exercised over the population as “power over life” i.e. power is exercised to preserve life- hence it is called bio-power. The notion of controlled sexuality is the basis for bio-power which is manifested in a modern nation state in two ways according to Foucault. First, through emphasis is on the productivity of the body e.g . military, education etc. essentially disciplining the body. Second, through emphasis on the reproductive function of the body e.g. demographic details, this seeks to control the population at the statistical level. Sex in modern societies deals with both these forms of bio-power. Regulation of customs, habits, health, reproductive practices, family, "blood", and "well-being" are some examples of bio-power.


Foucault gives a genealogical understanding of the history of sexuality. His work is a commentary on the how the discourse on sexuality which was widely believed to be repressed since the 17th century is actually not so. It is rather a case of shift in focus pertaining to the knowledge about sexuality and the power that is associated with this knowledge. According to Foucault then never before had there been so much attention given to sexuality as is given now and the nineteenth century in fact saw the emergence of an enormous proliferation of knowledge and the development of multiple mechanisms of control in relation to sexuality. The fact that sexuality was a social construct invented by the bourgeois to maintain their supremacy makes it easier to control.

Foucault’s narrative is essentially the history of sexuality in the west. He makes comparison in the notions of sexuality held by the west where it is more a function of reproduction, devoid of emotions while in societies like India and China it is knowledge of sensual pleasure. In case of the latter there is no question of what pleasures are permitted and what forbidden: only a question of the pleasures themselves.

There is a problem in such a claim. In India, despite the changing social and cultural milieu with the exposure to global cultures, sex as an act comes with a lot of emotional baggage. It is not viewed as just an act of pleasure but also a commitment. Even though we are the land of Kamasutra- The Joy of Sex, we are also a country where emotions rule the psyche of people and the traditionally held values of purity and sanctity in a relationship are very strongly nurtured.

This was also a problem with Foucault’s narrative as he did not give too much leeway to the individual agency. He constantly refutes the notion that power is negative and repressive. He instead claims that power is productive and not negative, but he fails to substantiate his claim through examples. The application part on what actually is power according to Foucault is missing in his narrative.