Foucault’s History of Sexuality

In the second and third volume of his History of Sexuality trilogy, French philosopher Michel Foucault documents a change in the way marriage factored into (men’s) personal growth: From a minor role in the training for self-governance to the primary focus of self-care. In Ancient Greece, marriage was seen as a way to learn to govern ourselves so that we can govern others, though the boy-man friendship was more central in this training for self-mastery. Foucault also shows that the Greeks moved from the debate over whether to marry to making marriage a duty (154-5). Foucault traces the change of focus from outside the house – through the relation of the man and boy as preparation for citizenship – to the inside – through the increasing focus on marriage as the key to self.

The focus of Ancient Greece was the ethical domain of pleasure (Vol 2, 91). Channeling this pleasure was compared to a battle from which the victorious came out in control of themselves, ready for political participation. In general, Foucault contends that pleasure, including sexual pleasure, was seen as positive, as a route to freedom, at least once it was mastered (78). Mastery was not achieved by following a set of rules, though, instead the work suggested depended on variables such as age and status of the person working on himself. Developing certain attitudes that were reflected in interaction with others was seen as more important than figuring out specific rules (93). Foucault places this view on sexuality into the general philosophy of Ancient Greece that was more concerned with fostering the good life than to determine specific rules to follow. He identifies three areas for this care of the self: diet, household, and sexuality. Interestingly, the household was viewed as a setting of the economic world. It was a part of larger society through its economic contribution to it, not through the emotional support it lend, as it will be seen when the idea of separate spheres emerges (93). Despite this fairly positive approach, Foucault observes anxiety around sexual activity since perceived abuses could result in too much sperm being lost, which was seen as highly detrimental to the life force of the man (130). This anxiety was not, however, grounded in the perception of an inherent evil but rather stemmed from practical beliefs, such as the wasting of bodily resources, and the tie procreation established between the procreator’s own death and his immortality through children (136).

Marriage was seen within the context of the economic unit of the family. Foucault describes this unit, headed by the husband, as the provisioning of resources from the outside by the husband and their management by the wife inside of the house (157). Additionally, the fidelity of the spouses were an important aspect of citizenship. Unlike modern notions of the duty for fidelity based on the respect of the other spouse, Foucault stresses that fidelity was seen as a result of respect for the law and one’s honor, an aspect of a city’s stability, rather than the stability of a marriage (170). Fidelity would also ensure a clean lineage that could be traced back to the gods – as long as no children were born outside of wedlock (171). However, Foucault outlines that the laws applying to husband and wife were different. The obligation for fidelity for the wife was legislated by her deference to the authority of the husband. The husband’s fidelity instead was part of his quest for moderation, thus it was his choice – highly encouraged, as it was (182). Foucault points out that this asymmetry is historically important since it disappeared as early as the Roman period he investigated in volume 3. Again, though Foucault reminds us that the obligation to fidelity was not established by the marital relationship but rather connected the spouses to the community at large, especially the city (183).

The husband’s other tie to the city came through his relationship with a teenage boy. This relationship was crucially important for the development of both boy and man into citizens as it combined the mastery of one’s desires and the building of a friendship, which would outlast the sexual relationship between the two men (201). This friendship had all the hallmarks of what would later be folded into the marital relationship: a deep, supportive bond. Socrates elevated this friendship above the physical pleasures of the sexual relationship arguing that it was the highest form of connection (233-4).

The theme of sexual expression as a care of self was intensified during the Roman period of the first two centuries CE (Vol 3, 43). Foucault leaves philosophy to describe the emerging medical views on sexuality, which he contends in turn were integrated into philosophical ideas. Additionally, Foucault documents a shift in attitude toward the sexual act from something that has to be moderated to avoid overexpenditure to something that could tax the body too much. Although the shift is slight, Foucault sees this as the first steps toward pathologizing sexuality (122). Together with an increased valuation of virginity, this emerging view would later develop into the Christian doctrine of sexuality as evil.

At the same time as the role of sexuality in personal growth shifted from training in moderation to abstinence, the place of marriage in a man’s life changed. Foucault first describes the institutionalization of marriage as public authority increased over the previously largely private celebrations (73). Furthermore, marriage became more widespread (74). With that, marriage was viewed as a “voluntary union” rather than a necessity if one has property or reputation to pass on to heirs (75). Foucault claims that with this change, the inequality between husband and wife lessened although this claim is not supported by Coontz who stresses the continued patriarchal role of marriage as the wife passed from dependency to the father to that of the husband. Husbands were the rulers of the family (Coontz 79). However, the obligations of the husband and the wife became more similar, suggesting more equality at least in that regard (Foucault, Vol 3, 76). Either way, the roles of both were more heavily regulated as in the past (76). Additionally, these obligations were based not in respect for the law or one’s honor – as they had been in Ancient Greece – but in respect for the partner. Foucault characterizes these developments in the marital practice as “a stronger force for binding conjugal partners and hence a more effective one for isolating the couple in a field of other social relations” (77). The role of conjugality in the form of marriage had become center stage. It was no longer a way to establish oneself as a citizen. It had become an end in itself. With that, though, came increased privatization. This continued throughout history as Coontz documents.

Share this post with others:
Facebook Twitter Linkedin Email


Foucault’s History of Sexuality — 2 Comments

  1. Thanks, Lisa! I skipped Volume 1 because the prof I was working with said I should – it seems a bit odd since that seems to be the volume everybody reads… So, I might read it still. Reading vol 2 & 3 wasn’t bad because I really like Foucault’s writing style (especially after reading Kant!). I have put off reading “vol 4″ (which are really Foucault’s lectures, although given on the publication date, maybe they are more likely to add to Vol 2 & 3) for now since this reading wasn’t part of any course work but rather exploratory reading for my master’s thesis…

  2. Wow Rachel — thanks so much for posting this! I read Volume 1 last semester in preparation for one of my doctoral exams, but haven’t gotten to the later volumes (and don’t really plan to — from what I understand, few people ever actually make it as far as you have!). Very cool — sounds like your coursework is keeping you busy!

    – L

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>