Welcome to another book review! This time we’re looking at a book that, for many historians interested in the history of the body, sexuality, gender, and the self, still remains an unavoidable juggernaut of a scholarly work: That of The History of Sexuality: Volume I – An Introduction by French Philosopher, Michel Foucault. For many, this work represents the beginnings of the history of sexuality as a discourse which comes from all directions and is shaped by the twin mechanisms of incitement and repression. Indeed, I felt I had to read it cover to cover for an essay I am currently researching on the psychiatric treatment of gay men in the post-war decade, just to understand what articles in academic journals mean when they refer to ‘Foucauldian paradigms’ or the ‘Deployment of Sexuality’. And so, dear reader, let us jump straight into this small but hugely impactful book on the history of sexuality.
Within the area of the history of sexuality, the shadow of Michel Foucault looms large. Through the first book in his unfinished, tripartite collection of volumes exploring the construction of sexuality and the discourses surrounding it, Foucault posits the central question of why we claim sexuality to be a progressive movement of liberation, from the darkened past to the enlightened present. By tracing the extension of the medical gaze, the shifting distribution of power, and the deployment of representations of sexual norms and sexual aberrations, Foucault highlights that the world of the history of sexuality is much more muddy than the ‘Sexual Liberation’ narrative would have us believe.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the work for me personally was in his discussion of ‘The Birth of the Homosexual’ by the end of the nineteenth century, wherein the medico-social category of the ‘Homosexual’ was born. The medicalisation of the Homosexual Body (and, by extension, of the Homosexual Mind) brought a new, totalising category into the discourse surrounding sexuality, one which we are arguably still living in the shadow of. As Foucault, in perhaps one of his most oft-quoted sections, writes:
The nineteenth- century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology with a indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. 1
According to Foucault, then, the medicalisation of the sexual ‘types’ of the population that so fascinated nineteenth-century sexologists thus created totalising categories of analysis in which act and identity were inextricably tied into a single ‘personage’. Although I personally am not sure how far I agree with him here (there exists accounts of Molly culture, from the eighteenth century and previously, in which people describe their innate desire for same-sex contact as part of themselves and an immutable aspect of their ‘self’ although whether this is indicative of what Foucault highlights here or not is another debate for another time – What is selfhood? for example…) the passage does open up a significant debate in asking precisely when the modern category of the ‘Homosexual’ was born. I personally believe it is in a constant state of refashioning which must be historicised as much it is essentialised – being a ‘homosexual’ now is experienced differently to being a ‘homosexual’ during the Stonewall Riots, for example, or at the outbreak of the Wilde Trial. Historians of sexuality could easily wax lyrical on when (or indeed whether) the category of the ‘Homosexual’ can be traced transhistorically, but what remains from Foucault’s excavation of the production of sexuality is that it must never be assumed that such a sociological entity such as sexuality is a neutral and ahistorical force: instead it must be traced, examined, situated within its proper context, and understood as something changing, politicised, and discursively generated.
The work still remains important to scholars hoping to penetrate the world of the history of sexuality (although it has been oft-criticised by many for its lack of evidential justification, its ahistoricism, and its lack of definitive solutions to the question “well, what then is sexuality?”) it represents a huge task that faces historians of sexuality, namely how to talk about sex and sexual practices in a way that is divorced from our own understandings. In many ways, Foucault opens a debate that continues to rage even today (one such debate I am currently grappling with in my own research is whether same-sex desire is ‘essential’ – hereditary and part of a set of biological determinants – or ‘socially constructed’ – experienced and expressed within numerous social frameworks – and, annoyingly, I’d argue that it’s both, but that’s another frustration for another time!). The prose is theoretically dense at times, and I found I had to read it chapter-by-chapter in order to process everything that was being said, and Foucault is not a man who enjoyed writing short sentences, but the work still remains a huge part of the debate surrounding the history of sexuality (even if he is disagreed with outright!) and I would recommend it to anyone wanting a challenging but ultimately very interesting excavation of why we say we are sexually liberated and how such things are more complex than they first seem.
That’s all for now,
 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume I – An Introduction (New York, 1978), p. 43.
Fig. 1 – Cover Of Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume I – An Introduction, Random House, 1988. Image taken from the The History of Sexuality Goodreads page which can be viewed here.
Fig. 2 – Stock image of a chain taken from Pixabay under a CCO License.
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