Sexuality as a Construct (Foucault)

Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction explains power and ultimately demonstrates that sexuality is a construct created by discourse.  To begin to understand Foucault’s argument, we must start by learning why he believed that our widely held theory on sexuality was erroneous.  The repressive hypothesis is a prevalent theory that analyzes how our current notions of sexuality developed.  This hypothesis assumes that during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance a free and easy attitude prevailed toward sexuality.[1]  Then, in the seventeenth century the bourgeoisie repressed sexuality.  The repressive hypothesis holds that the bourgeoisie was concerned with economic productivity and did not want energy wasted on sexual pursuits.[2]  Therefore, sex outside of procreative purposes was repressed.  Consequently, if we want to liberate ourselves, the theory maintains we need to become free and open about our sexuality.[3]

Foucault did not deny that with the rise of the bourgeoisie there was indeed an effort to control sexuality and how people talked about sexuality, but he also pointed out that since the seventeenth century discourse about sexuality has dramatically increased.[4]  In fact, discourse on sexuality began to change.  Instead of discourse being vulgar or centering on pleasure it turned into a new discourse that centered on science.[5]  This insight led Foucault to spend some time examining knowledge and power.  Foucault believed that there is an undeniable power dynamic related to knowledge and that people influencing the knowledge had a great deal of power.  Power dynamics for Foucault are not “juridicio-discursive”, as the repressive hypothesis assumed.  Or stated differently: power is not only present in the negative form in which someone in authority restricts behavior with laws.[6]  He also briefly discussed a psychoanalytical approach that states we only have desire once we are restricted from the object we crave.[7]  Once again, the psychoanalytical approach only regards power as “juridico- discursive” or as a force of repression.  Foucault, however, proposed that power in the form of repression and subjugation is only part of the story.  Instead of seeing power as only in the hands of people in authority, power exists in all relationships.[8]  Foucault emphasized that even the repressed exercise power, and this power shapes concepts.  Importantly, Foucault believed power does not always present itself in a negative, repressive way as the juridicio-discursive view holds.  Power is, in fact, often creative.  Foucault argued that knowledge and power dynamics in relationships have had great influence on sexuality.  He concluded that power is not what repressed sexuality but instead that it is ultimately power that has created the construct of sexuality.[9]

Foucault discussed four sources of knowledge and power that have greatly contributed to the construct of sexuality.[10]  One of these is the “hysterization of women’s bodies”.  It has led us to view women as being highly sexual and as a source for medical knowledge about human reproduction.[11]  The next source is the “pedagogization of children’s sex”, which sees children as highly sexual.[12]  The heightened sexuality of children is held as something dangerous that needs to be monitored and controlled.  Another source of knowledge and power is the “socialization of procreative behavior” which maintains reproduction as an important matter for society.[13]  As a result, non-procreative sex is conceptualized as negative and nonproductive.  The “psychiatrization of perverse pleasure” is a source of knowledge and power centering on identifying sexual illness.[14]  This psychiatrization was done with the stated intent of controlling perversions, but in the study of sexual perversions Foucault argued that the power and pleasure dynamic actually contributes to a higher desire for and higher frequency of sexual perversions.[15]  The results of “psychiatrization of perverse pleasure” also illustrate how the multiplicity of relationships contributes to the construct of sexuality.

After Foucault showed us how the conception of this construct was shaped, he also explained why this fabrication came to be.  There was a shift in focus to a “power-over-life” outlook.  The “power-over-life” focus is concerned with governments or ruling authorities preserving life, aiding in increasing population, and improving life for their people.[16]  The four areas of power and knowledge are directly related to this power-over-life focus.  The power-over-life outlook’s end ensures the flourishing of society and its rulers.  Tight regulations are enforced to foster the goal of power maintenance.[17]  As a result, the idea of a “healthy sexuality” manifests.  A “healthy” sexuality was originally propagated by the bourgeoisie.[18]  The idea of a “healthy” sexuality is ingrained in society and contributes to seeing sexuality as integral to a person’s identity.[19]  Sexual preferences once held little importance, but today a person’s sexual preference is believed to affect a person’s behavior.[20]  Foucault argued that buying into this construct makes people more easily controlled.[21]  To Foucault, sexuality must be understood as a bourgeoisie invention that ensures dominance.  Even today, its purpose is to maintain power.[22]  Indeed, hegemonic powers in our world produce immense pressure for individuals to display heteronormative behavior.  It results in widespread oppression of non-heteronormative preconstructions.

Michel Foucault uncovered sexuality as a construct.  His analysis helps us to reflect on our own experiences of sexuality and to question our beliefs about sexuality.  The constant inundation of what both religion and secular society holds as truth bombards our minds and puts many of us through numerous sleepless nights.  Foucault’s work has encouraged me to ask honest questions and to trust my judgment about the construction of sexuality.  The question is how we use our new-found knowledge to influence others and bring clarity to so many confused minds.

Anonymous Student

 [1]Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 3.

[2]Ibid., 6.

[3]Ibid., 5.

[4]Ibid., 12, 17.

[5]Ibid., 53, 58.

[6]Ibid., 82-91.

[7]Ibid., 81-82.

[8]Ibid., 92-95.

[9]Ibid., 105.

[10]Ibid., 103.

[11]Ibid., 104.



[14]Ibid., 105.

[15]Ibid., 44-45.

[16]Ibid., 135-140.

[17]Ibid., 139.

[18]Ibid., 124-127.

[19] Ibid., 69, 78.

[20]Ibid., 43, 69, 78, 126.

[21]Ibid., 126.

[22]Ibid., 120-127.


Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.