Skip to content Skip to navigation

LHMP #282b Foucault 1990 (1978) The History of Sexuality Vol 2 The Use of Pleasure

Full citation: 

Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality. Vintage Books, New York. ISBN 978-0-679-72469-8

Volume 2

* * *


This work was not meant to be a history of sexual behavior and practices but of the concept of “sexuality”: how people understand the experience of sex. Foucault asserts that such a study could not be undertaken until he had invented the theoretical tools necessary to perform it. [Note: clearly we are supposed to gasp and marvel at his genius.] He encountered problems at the point of structuring the modes in which individuals recognize themselves as sexual subjects--as desiring beings. He needed a historic genealogy of conceptions of desire. This, in turn, required an entire study of the development of a “hermeneutics of the self.” A history of truth, as it were. Thus, he detours into the realms of philosophy, noting that although he is studying history, he is not “doing history.”

Foucault starts off with the classical problematization of the “arts of existence” and especially sexual behaviors, looking at texts of philosophers and physicians, and later theologians, regarding prescriptions for the practice of the self. [Note: as Foucault points out later at the end of the book this analysis is all about didactic, prescriptive texts for how people should live. Not so much about trying to identify how people did live.]

What are the points that were problematized, especially in the transition from paganism to Christianity? 1) The meaning of the sex act (sin or pleasure?), 2) The definition of legitimate partners, 3) The meaning placed on abstinence.

But these don’t have the clear ruptures in the pagan/Christian transition that first glance would suggest. Christian philosophy drew heavily on pre-Christian principles. Four themes are noted: 1) Fear of sexual weakness, 2) Ideals of conduct, 3) How stigmatized behavior is imagined, using the stereotype of male homosexuals as “feminized” as an example, 4) The model of abstention--rejecting temptation--as a virtue or strength. Foucault sees continuity of thought between paganism and Christianity on these points.

Foucault notes in passing that this is a history of an ethics for men, in which women are merely props, or to be trained into their roles. [Note: I’d give him more credit for this recognition if he hadn’t then entirely ignored this point.]

This reflection brings Foucault to focus on “four great domains of relations” that were problematized in the absence of explicit prohibitions: men’s relations with the body (dietetics), with the wife (economics), with boys (erotics), and with truth. These are the domains in which the presence of sex caused anxiety and discussion. He offers a discussion of the definition of “morality” as a set of rules for behavior that operates within a system of self-reflection.

Part I: The Moral Problematization of Pleasures

Foucault asserts that because the Greeks didn’t have a single word covering the broad concept of “sexuality” that they didn’t have it as a concept. [Note: Like many discussions of historic sexuality, Foucault takes a fairly strong Sapir-Whorf approach: if you don't have language for a thing, you obviously can't think seriously about it.] He sees four different realms in Greek thought relating to sexuality: 1) dietetics (concern with the body), 2) economics (concern with marriage), 3) erotics (concern with the love of boys*), and 4) philosophy (concern with truth).

* Note: Foucault regularly discusses the topic of Greek age-differentiated erotic relationships using the word “boys”. It isn’t clear whether this is a matter of translation, or whether he is oblivious to distinguishing various categories of pre-adult males, or whether he intends to evoke the negative modern associations of pederasty. I rather incline towards “oblivious” since that seems to be the case in a number of other aspects of his writing. From here on in, I’m going to substitute the word “youths” (which he sometimes also uses) to try to keep the framing on the more typical age range of those involved.

There is a discussion of the Greek concept of aphrodisia--the arts, etc. that provide sexual pleasure--and relates it to other types of sensual pleasure. The sexual experience is treated as “gendered” as an essential characteristic. Sexual participants are categorized as actors and objects, not by gender, with the “actor” being quintessentially masculine and all objects being “feminine” to some degree. [Note: Foucault doesn’t seem to recognize the inherent contradiction in these two positions. It seems to me that if you consider all sexual objects as “feminized” then you are categorizing participants by gender. It's just that you're assigning gender as an aspect of the sexual role, rather than assigning a sexual role as an aspect of gender.] Sexual desire/pleasure is treated as a force in relation to “appetite”.

Pleasure is problematized in terms of its “proper” enjoyment. But what does this mean? “Need” is considered an appropriate basis for judging something as proper. If you desire something that is necessary for life/health, then enjoying it is “proper.” The burden is then placed on evaluating the right time and context for that enjoyment. “Context” includes paying attention to aligning with status differences. The ideal of masculinity includes the concept of “mastery” over the self. One should be in charge of one’s desires and experiences, not be driven and controlled by them. This mastery was equated with freedom (in the semantic framework of free-slave). Thus, moderation of desires was virile/virtuous because it showed control and mastery. Immoderation and indulgence was “feminine” and therefore deprecated.

Part II: Dietetics

The approach to morality of the Greeks, i.e., that self-control was moral superiority, meant that they accepted/celebrated relations between men and youths while also having an ethics of abstention. Similarly, a man was understood to seek pleasure outside of marriage while also valuing being faithful to one’s wife. [Note: this is, of course, focusing only on the male point of view.] Sexual pleasure was not considered “evil” but the relationship of sex and health was a subject of concern.

These concepts are examined via a metaphor of the place of dietary pleasure in the “ethical life.” Food, like sex, was one of a variety of fields of experience where necessity was balanced with moderation and pleasure. Similarly for sleep, exercise, etc. In all cases, excess could have negative effects even when the practice itself was essential to life and health. [Note: This basic concept--of a wide variety of aspects of life being part of “diet”--continued in the medieval period as “health manuals” included discussions of clothing, activities including sex and sleep, personal hygiene, etc.]

Sexual activity had its essential place, but that place was shaped and modified for optimal health and benefits. Even with respect to procreation, the “diet” of sex (i.e., the amount, context, nature) was considered important for the outcome. Sexual activity was complexly constructed and there was significant anxiety about the side-effects it could have on health in general. [Note: To toss in just the tiniest bit of lesbian-relevant content, this same concept--that the nature, frequency, and context of sex was part of one’s overall health--when it appears in Arabic health manuals, is inclusive of sex between women as potentially beneficial/necessary to the women in the right circumstances and to people with specific attributes. Also, since I’m pausing to comment, another thing that Foucault doesn’t specifically point out, is that the imperative of procreation means that, to the extent that same-sex desire unbalances one away from procreation, it represents an undesirable “excess”. But at the same time, the imperative of procreation means that m/f sex always has the justification of potential “need” to procreate, whereas same-sex activity, lacking that justification, inspires more abstract philosophical considerations.]

Self-control in sex was also positive in all circumstances because the expenditure of “life force” as a consequence of sex was harmful to procreation if it was unnecessarily wasted.

Part III: Economics

[Note: the word “economics” here is being used in the original Greek sense of “things pertaining to the house/household” and not in the modern sense of “systems of value and trade.”]

How, then, could sexual relations between husband and wife be “problematic”? Compared to some other cultures, Greece envisioned an ideal of specialized female purpose: mistresses for pleasure, concubines for daily care of the person, wives to bear legitimate children and keep the house. But this recognition of multiple female social roles was also far removed from Christian monogamous ideals.

Women’s virtue was in confining themselves to their prescribed role, while men’s virtue was in exercising freedom. Adultery was defined by the woman’s status (because she “belonged” to another man) and not by the man’s marital status. Yet men did have sexual obligations to their wives: to have sex with them on a regular basis, and to leave behind some of the sexual excesses of youth.

The aphorism quoted above about mistresses/concubines/wives did not mean that sex with a wife was not pleasure, but rather that there was one function that only a wife could provide (legitimate children) in addition to any erotic pleasure involved. A wife must restrict sex to her husband because she was under his control, but a husband could restrict sex to his wife as an exercise of self-control. For her it was obligation, for him, optional virtue.

There is a discussion that elaborates on the roles of husband and wife, and how a husband is expected to “train” his wife into her role. There is a discussion of Plato’s directives for moderation of one’s life, which were more rigid and narrow than actual common practice at the time.

Part IV: Erotics

This section is not about “erotics” in general, but about adult men’s sexual pleasure involving youths. Greeks did not view desire for the same or opposite sex as exclusive or as categorically different experiences. The pursuit of moderate, self-controlled pleasure was independent of the object of that pleasure. “Loose morals” involved excessive desire for either or both objects, self-control was abstention from both. Greeks both were bisexual (in practice, by modern definitions) and had no concept of bisexuality as a distinct orientation.

To the extent that the love of youths was sometimes considered more “elevated” than the love of women, it was because males were considered more noble and worthy of love than females. At the same time, individuals might be recognized as having a preferred taste for males or females, as one might have individual preferences in other appetites.

“Tolerance” is the wrong word for this. The love of youths was freely accepted (except in specific circumstances) and was integrated in a variety of social institutions and structures. At the same time, there were aspects of desire for youths that were viewed differently. The object of desire should be worthy of love--not “too easy” or too self-involved or effeminate. “Catamites” were scorned as not being truly worthy of a man’s love. [Note: The existence of a categorical distinction between youths, who accepted the love of a man, and "catamites," who evidently enjoyed/desired the role of passive partner for its own sake, sounds an awful lot like a "sexual identity/orientation" and some more recent studies of Classical attitudes discuss it in this context.]

Given all this, why were there special anxieties around the love of youths? Why have an entire cultural preoccupation around how such a love should be pursued? Foucault claims that the number of texts specifically addressing men’s love of youths are few and primarily from the Socratic/Platonic tradition, though Plato quotes speeches attributed to other philosophers with other viewpoints. Here are the relevant points:

1. The concerns of these texts focused on age-differentiated relationships, not those of age-mates at any age (either the love between youths or the love between adult men). Age-mate relationships were also common, but not problematized in the same way.

2. This anxiety was not solely related to its pedagogical aspects, although an older, experienced lover was expected to guide and support a younger one. There was a larger ritualization of such relationships around courtship behavior (of both parties), reticence (especially on the part of the youth), and consummation.

3. In contrast to the spatially-segregated spaces of male-female relations, male-male relations took place in a common, public space. The male-male relation was also “free” in the sense that the erastes (adult) had no legal or social authority over the eromenos (youth). Any deviation from this assumption of freedom was considered to reduce pleasure. (E.g., if the youth were under some sort of pressure or obligation to return the man’s interest.) The problematicization of male-female marriage was precisely because of the constraint/control the man had over the woman. Self-control was in how he exercised that power.

4. Timing/limits were another source of concern. How old was too old for a youth? How young was too young for the youth to have shown the virtues that should drive attraction? The Stoics were criticized for keeping their young lovers until the age of 28. In general, the first appearance of a youth’s beard was considered the sign that he was “aging out” of being an eromenos. Adolescent male bodies were not considered beautiful by analogy to female bodies, but as their own thing. Only later was a connection made between adolescent male bodies and female bodies. These questions of appropriate age created an anxiety around the inevitable point of loss of desire/desirability, at precisely the time that the boy achieved the (desirable) state of manhood. At that point, eros/love was expected to be left behind and shift into philia/love, which was expected to be constant and life-long.

5. Concerns about youths represented the essence of concerns about eros while not being specific to youths. In marriage, other concerns dominated the ideals of right behavior, but in male-male relationships, eros was the primary concern. Self-control was not for the benefit of the self alone, but focused on the other’s benefit. This tension revolves around masculine ideals of honor and shame (for both erastes and eromenos. These qualities were recognized to differ in different regional cultures. A youth’s honor/shame could affect his future social prospects similarly to how a woman’s honor/shame could affect her marriage prospects--though not universally in either case.

For a youth, the period of his peak desirability was also the period of the peak fragility of his honor, such that he must constantly guard himself. [Note: Although Foucault doesn’t make the connection, the considerations discussed here with regard to a youth’s behavior in the erotic relationship are highly parallel to the double-bind that women felt in cultures where marriage was courtship-driven rather than arranged. One must be desirable, encourage the attention of appropriate partners, but never behave in ways that made one appear too eager for the relationship, and never be “too easy to get.”]

Various qualities and behaviors are discussed that contribute to honor. The youth’s responsibility was to thread the needle wisely. Despite much talk of the youth’s decision when to “grant favors”, there is almost no discussion of the physical details of what "favors" are meant. Here, the principle of self-mastery was somewhat at odds with the position in the relationship. A youth should allow a lover’s enjoyment, but not in a way that showed passivity, and especially not showing a desire for a passive role.

The polarization of dominance in sexual relations (i.e., actor-object) manifested differently with different social categories of sexual partners. Only in the case of age-differentiated male-male relations did this polarization have internal conflicts. That is, in age-mate same-sex relationships the partners were expected to have equal status. In male-female relationships the woman was expected to be in the object role and therefore it did not shame her to take it. But for a free man to accept the “object” role in a polar sexual relationship was unmanly. So the youth (required to be the object due to age/experience) was in an unstable position, as he must eventually become dominant to be a man. Thus, the hedging around of the relationship with anxieties and rituals to allow this eventual transition. Youths could not/must not be treated “like women” sexually, because they must be allowed to become men. The youth was expected not to take pleasure in the sexual act itself, but to allow the act out of admiration and respect for his lover.

This is, of course, a philosophical ideal that emerges from the texts, not necessarily a standard for everyday experience.

Part V: True Love

This section addresses how the use of pleasure relates to the pursuit of truth, as examined in the context of the nature of “true love.” The shift from Greek to Christian approaches to the nature of truth, love, and pleasure was accompanied by a shift in focus from a purely masculine context to a male/female context--Foucault says one “dominated by femininity.” He returns to the questions of “right actions” in the context of set-piece speeches on love and the proper relations of male same-sex lovers. He also returns to the question of how the asymmetric and transitory male-male relationships generated unease and even disgust about its superficial goals. [Note: Foucault seems to betray an underlying unease himself with regard to male-male love here.]

The “searching for your other half” speech that Plato attributes to Aristophanes appears to answer the question of “can it be appropriate for a youth to take pleasure in being an eromenos?" in the affirmative. If a male is a “lost half” of a male-male paired being, then to take pleasure in “reunion” is natural and manly, not feminizing. For such a youth, this is true consent and the relationship is not asymmetrical after all.

This changes the question of the nature of true love to “who and under what conditions can we love such that the love is honorable for both parties?” Must one purge love of the physical dimension in order to purify it--as Socrates seems to advocate? This leads to the elevation of philia over eros.

We now descend into a discussion of the ways in which different characters in Plato present their arguments. The focus shifts from the behavior of the beloved to the nature of the lover and what they love. One should love the ideal, the soul, of the beloved, and not the superficialities of appearance and behavior. The love of bodies is inferior to the love of souls. That is, the love of bodies is not bad, only lesser. [Note: it can be difficult to attribute specific opinions to specific philosophers here as the texts are second and third hand reports placed into the mouths of functionally fictional characters.]

If eros is a relation to the truth, and not to a specific beloved, then the asymmetry inherent in the lover-beloved relation is left behind. Love (philia) may remain if both achieve this love of truth.


Foucault reminds us here that he is focusing on Greek prescriptive discourse--how they talked about the “art of living” and the relation of pleasure to self-control and austerity. He reiterates that it is a misconception that the Greeks “tolerated” sexual freedom, rather that sexual freedom was the context for demonstrating moderation.

There are connections between ancient Greek philosophy and later Christian thought, but the focus of why sexual self-control was desirable shifted. Pleasure was no longer self-indulgent and a sign of lack of control, but was immoral and evil. Greek self-control became Christian divine imperatives. Christian thought re-centered anxieties about pleasure and austerity around women. Then later, from women to the body, as manifested in assigned connections between sex, health, and the control of children’s bodies.

[Note: this last seems intended to close the loop back to the preoccupations of 19-20th century society discussed in volume 1.]

Time period: 

Add new comment