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Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Modern Subject

Original Essay Question: What can the history of sexuality tell us about the formation of the modern subject?


The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 Quotes and Analysis | GradeSaver
The History of Sexuality, Source: Gradesaver

Foucault argues that the modern subject has been formed through a complex process, involving a proliferation of discourses generated by confessions and studies in growing disciplines, alongside increasing state interest in regulating the social body and the lives of private citizens.

The image of the imperial prude is emblazoned on our restrained, mute and hypocritical society

Michel Foucault, 1976

Foucault develops this argument as a way of critiquing the ‘repressive hypothesis’ that Western society suppressed repressed sexuality and confined sexual discourse to marriage during the 17th to mid-20th centuries, and instead argues that an increasing number of discourses were used to control and interrogate the individual’s sexuality. Foucault rejects the idea that power was exercised primarily through law, “prohibition, censorship, and denial” (Foucault, 1976, p.10), and instead studies how power is exerted in complex ways in the modern era, especially those that involve the formation of the modern subject. This essay will begin by looking at Foucault’s definition of ‘subject’ which he explores in later works, before focusing on the main ideas he presents in The History of Sexuality, such as confession, the construction of multiple discourses around sex, the construction of certain sexual categories, the deployment of sexuality and biopower, and look at how these phenomena have contributed towards the formation of the modern subject. Lastly, I will look at more recent works which apply Foucault’s ideas to more specific instances of the formation of the modern subject through discourses of racialisation and sexuality.

Foucault’s Subject

Michel Foucault's Unfinished Book Published in France - The New York Times
Michel Foucault, Source: NY Times/Camera Press

In The Subject and Power (1982), Foucault argues that ‘subject’ has two meanings: 1) to be subject to someone else through control and dependence, 2) to be tied to one’s own identity through conscience or self-knowledge, which are also explored in The History of Sexuality. For Foucault, both these definitions imply a form of power “which subjugates and makes subject to” (ibid., p.781). Foucault argues that there are several modes of objectification which transformed humans into subjects. Foucault argues that “modes of inquiry” which portray themselves as sciences, turn the objects of their studies into subjects, for example, psychology and medicine in regards to those who might deviate from sexual norms (ibid., p.777). Secondly, individuals can also turn themselves into subjects through learning to recognise themselves as subjects of a sexuality. This is linked to the modern state’s new form of “individualising” power, which requires “a knowledge of the conscience and an ability to direct it” to be exercised (ibid., p.782), this sort of knowledge is commonly gained through confession, which will be explored next.

Foucault’s Confession

File:Artgate Fondazione Cariplo - Molteni Giuseppe, La confessione.jpg
La confessionem Source: Wikimedia

According to Foucault (1976), confession originated in Catholicism, having been one of the “main rituals” for the “production of truth” since the Middle Ages (ibid., p.58). This technique survived the decline of Catholicism and spread to other disciplines, such as medicine and psychology. Confessions were used to gain or produce deeper and more detailed ‘truths’ about the individual, as Foucault wrote: “sex must not be named…but its…correlations and its effects must be pursued down to their slenderest ramifications: a shadow in a daydream…everything had to be told” (ibid., p.19). Therefore, the era between the 17th and 20th centuries, was not marked by an “age of repression” as commonly believed, but a “discursive explosion” regarding sex, communicated through “authorised vocabulary” (ibid., p.17). Furthermore, the shifting emphasis, from the sin being the act of transgression to the mere thought of it, enabled the thoughts of the individual to be further policed than they had been before.

Power and Knowledge

The Therapist by Astrid Oudheusden, Source: Saatchi Art

Through discourses created by disciplines such as medicine, psychology and education, individuals formed an idea of how they should be and behave, combined with the technique of confession, individuals came to know themselves as subject, with discourses by disciplines and “public discourses” regulating how people’s ways of behaving and thinking (ibid., p.25), influencing subjects to “police and present [themselves] in the correct way” (Mansfield, as quoted by Held, 2000). This is especially relevant if the individual constructs themselves as a subject in a way which contradicts with what is promoted by public discourses. In this discursive formation, “sexual desire” becomes “our master key” to unlocking fundamental truths about our identity and history (ibid., p.78) and we are encouraged to pursue to “the infinite task of extracting from the depths of oneself” (ibid., p.49) to these ends. This allows for an “indefinite penetration” and interrogation into ourselves, as well as an extension of power. An “inverted image of power” leads people to believe that confession is liberating, and that it “redeems and purifies… unburdens [the confessor] of his wrongs”, when in fact confessions are part of a “power relationship” in which the “agency of domination” resides in ‘the one who listens”, who has power to “judge, punish, forgive” (ibid., p.60, p.62). Furthermore, this was accompanied by the idea that sexual and other secrets of the individual were latent and therefore “hidden from [the confessor] himself”, therefore had to be extorted “by force” (ibid., p.60), creating “a knowledge of the subject…of that which divides him…[and] causes him to be ignorant of himself”, putting the power of interpretation with the listener- the doctor, psychologist, teacher, etc. These manifestations of the confessor-listener relationship could be read as an institutionalisation of the power relations of the era and the form of power that was important at that time, in which specific relationships were aligned with specific types of ‘deviants’. Foucault calls this “form of knowledge power” based on confessions scientia sexualis in which “quasi” scientific knowledge could be extracted from surveillance and confessions to build and justify norms (ibid., p.155). According to Foucault, knowledge is not neutral but “inextricably enmeshed in relations of power because it was always being applied to the regulation of social conduct in practice” (Hall, 2001, p.75), and therefore it is important for Foucault to define “the regime of power-knowledge-pleasure that sustains the discourse on human sexuality in our part of the world” (Foucault, 1976, p.11).

The knowledge produced by these confessions, were eventually consolidated by various disciplines. During the 18th. and 19th centuries, discourse on sexuality shifted away from the married couple, to interest in sexualities that transgressed from the norm of heterosexual marriage. Whereas in the past, such individuals may have been condemned for particular acts, a new discourse was formed in which these acts meant the individual was seen as being part of a different “species” as these differences were seen as affecting the person’s “total composition” and being “everywhere present in him” (ibid., p,43). In this way, these discourses subjected individuals ,who deviated from the norm, to see and construct themselves as fundamentally different to others. As these deviances from the norm were seen as “pathological” and transferrable, there were attempt to “manage them” and classify them as “agencies of control and…surveillance…were put into operation by pedagogy or therapeutics” (ibid., p.41). On one hand, this discourse helped give the state and science the justification and authority to “ensure…the moral cleanliness of the social body” (ibid., p.54). In this way, the modern subject was subjected to the control of the state in a way that was different to before, which will be expanded upon later. At the same time: the four “personages”, “the hysterical woman, the masturbating child, the Malthusian couple, and the perverse adult”, who were “targets…for the ventures of knowledge” and strategies of power and existed in the family sphere. Therefore, there was a desire to root out these individuals and their sexual ‘secrets’ through medicine, psychology and institutions. These four subjects can “only exist meaningfully within the discourse about them” (Hall, 2001, p.73) within a specific time period and society, which is important as it shows that these subjects are historically specific constructions rather than subjects which are universally true.

Power Over Death vs Power Over Life

Source: The Times, 2014

Foucault writes that previously power was aligned with the “right to death”, in the sense the sovereign had the power to determine when a person died at their hands. However, the modern era is defined by a desire to regulate the living, as Foucault wrote, “one had to speak of it as…a thing to be not simply condemned or tolerated but managed, inserted into systems of utility, regulated for the greater good of all, made to function according to an optimum” (ibid.,p.24). In this view, people became transformed from ‘subjects’ to ‘populations’ which had to be managed in ways which concerned government about birth rates, death rates, health, fertility, etc, which is one of the reasons that fuelled interest in discourse about sexuality and shaping this discourse. This was the first time society “affirmed, in a constant way, that its future and fortune were tied … to the manner in which each individual made use of his sex” (ibid,.p.26). Therefore, both the social body and the individual became subject of and subjected to the state in new ways. For Foucault, therefore, it is not the subject who has power, free will and consciousness, but rather the subject who is “subjected to discourse…its rules and conventions, to its dispositions of power/knowledge” (Hall, 2001, p.79).


File:The Doctor 1653 Gerard Dou.jpg
The Doctor (1653), Gerard Dou. Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to Foucault, biopower is a “power that exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavours to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations” (ibid., p.137), beginning in the 17th century. On one hand, this biopower is exerted for the disciplining of the body, for “the optimization of its capabilities… increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of…economic controls”. On another hand, biopower is used to “the body [as] imbued with the mechanics of life” through controlling “births and morality, the level of health, life expectancy” (ibid.,I p.139). This period witnessed the rapid development of academic institutions and disciplines, political and economic observation to meet these ends, constituting “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations” (ibid., p.140). According to Foucault, this disciplining power of biopower was “indispensable” to the rise of capitalism, by producing docile bodies and inserting them into “the machinery of production” (ibid., p.140-141). The tools of biopower provided a way for the state to exert control beyond law, “as a power whose task is to take charge of life needs continuous regulatory and corrective mechanisms” and the ability to “measure…and hierarchise” rather than to simply punish disobedient subjects in earlier eras (ibid., p.144).

Sex, Race and Empire

Duke University Press - Queering the Color Line
Queering the Color Line, Source: Duke Press

Although Foucault’s volume focuses mainly on the relationship between sexuality and the formation of the modern subject, other authors elaborate or expand upon Foucault’s work to foreground racialisation and the formation of the modern subject. This is especially important as Mercer and Julien (1988) write that, “historically the European construction of sexuality coincides with the epoch of imperialism and the two inter-connect” (quoted by Held, 2011, p.35), although this is only referenced by Foucault in passing in first volume of The History of Sexuality. Stoler (1995) argues that the colonial encounter was central to the formation of the modern bourgeois notion of self. She writes that colonial portrayals of the colonised provided “reference points of difference” (ibid., p.7) through which to bourgeois European could construct their own identity against that of ‘Others’. The colonies “provided contrasts” for notions of the “health, vigorous, bourgeois body”, which influenced the ways control was exerted over populations, discourses shaped (ibid.) and “clarified notions of “whiteness” and what it meant to be truly European”, which shaped bourgeois identity (ibid., p.8). In light of this, “sexual prescriptions served to secure and delineate the authentic, first-class citizens of the nation-state” (ibid., p.11). Therefore, Stoler shows how racialisation is important to modern concepts of sexuality and identity categories, which in turn inform how different modern subjects are categorised and hierarchised.

Alice Mitchell, 1892.jpg
Alice Mitchell, Source: Wikipedia

Somerville (2000) goes further, and argues that “it was not…a historical coincidence that the classification of bodies as either “homosexual” or “heterosexual” emerged at the same time that the United States was aggressively constructing and policing the boundary between “Black” and “white” bodies” (ibid., p.3). Instead, these two discourses and their associated policy directions were “mutually constitutive”, as “sexologists…drew on…methodologies from studies on racial difference to construct homosexuality as the deviant sexuality” (Held, 2011, p.36). Somerville notes that the turns of the century was marked by three important trials, that of Plessy v Fergusson, Oscar Wilde and Alice Mitchell. The first trial was instrumental in cementing the construction of racial binaries, and the latter two trials, which were high publicised, hardened public attitudes towards homosexuality. What was importantly established in these trials, was the right of the state to label one citizen as white or Black, and interpret the ethnicity and sexuality of the individual. This echoes Foucault’s idea that power lies in the hands of the listener in confessions, and his idea that academic and state classifications can be used to exert power over individuals and influence discourse. Somerville writes that, the discourse in the 19th century was one in which “human anatomy was treated as a legible text, over which various fields of science…competed for authority as literate readers and interpreters of its meaning”. Furthermore, the increasingly binary nature of the dominant discourses on sexuality and racial identity reinforced each other, and the discrimination that came with each. Ultimately these authors show that the binary racialisation and sexualisation of modern subjects through specific public discourses and practices during the modern era were essential for forming modern subjects and the hierarchy of modern subjects.


File:García martínez-la penitente-prado.jpg
La penitente (1884), Juan García Martínez. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In conclusion, the modern subject has been formed through discourses and is produced by a certain configuration of power-knowledge. The knowledge gained through confessions is used to consolidate discourses around certain subjects, such hysterical woman, regulate, categorise and hierarchise these subjects. An unequal power relation between the confessor and listener is present in the listener’s ability to interpret and demand information from the confessor, allowing the modern state and other authorities to penetrate their power deeper within the individual’s mind- this is an important aspect of the modern subject, as the deepest ‘truths’ about them are supposed to be hidden within them, yet elusive to them and therefore enabling the listener to interrogate and use this knowledge to discipline the confessor. The method of confession both means the individual is subjected to the control of the listener, public discourses and practices, but also becomes tied to their own identity as a subject. Not only is the individual subjected in a very individualising way through micro-level power relations, but also through public discourses and state policies which seek to regulate the health of the social body as a whole. Finally, these powerful discourses have historically involved the racialisation and sexualisation of subjects and the categorisation of subjects into hierarchical and binary subjects (Stoler, 1995; Sommerville, 2000). However, it is also important to note that Foucault did not view power as fixed, but rather “local and unstable”, writing “where there is power, there is resistance” (Foucault, 1976, p.93, 95), for example, in defining sexual subjects, these modern discourses also allowed these subjects to “speak [on their] own behalf” and “demand…legitimacy” (ibid., p.101).

This essay was originally written in February 2019 for the second year paper on social theory. I am uploading old essays firstly, to share knowledge, secondly as examples of what undergraduate level work looks like.

If you enjoy reading my content, please consider donating to my ko-fi if you have the means, so I can continue to create new content and fund improvements to the website:


Foucault, M. 1978 (1976). The History of Sexuality: An Introduction.

Hall, S. 2001. Foucault: Power, Knowledge and Discourse. In: Wetherell, M., Taylor, S., and Yates, S. J. ed. Discourse Theory and Practice: A Reader. London: SAGE Publications, pp. 72–81.

Held, N. 2011. Racialised Lesbian Spaces: A Mancunian Ethnography. Ph.D, Lancaster University.

Somerville, S. B. 2000. Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture. Duke University Press. pp. 1-14.

Stoler, A. L. 1995. Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things. Duke University Press, pp. 1-18.

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