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Full citation: 

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

Contents summary: 

Part I - We “Other Victorians”

Foucault begins by setting up the strawman he intends to tear down. The current age, he asserts, involves two centuries of “Victorian prudery”, contrasting with the free and open sexual discourse that held until the early 17th century. That discourse has now shifted to the privacy of the home and a focus on reproduction. But this idealized state of privacy and prudery was created by denial, avoidance, and repression, with the only sexual safety valves found in the prostitution industry and mental illness, which carefully removed such anti-social activities from public view. (By this, he means that "alternative sexualities" were classified as psychological aberrations, not that people found sexual release by going crazy.) Freud, he allows, offered a small reprieve of honesty from this general represion.

With the beginning of this culture of repression assigned to the 17th century, it is natural to align it with the rise of capitalism and bourgeois dominance of society. Surely repressive Victorian sex culture arose to constrain “non-productive” sex, seeing sexual activity as only one more capitalist enterprise where productivity was the only good?

[Note: as I was reading this, I found it impossible to tell if he was sincere, or engaging in an elaborate set-up. The latter, as it turns out.]

If sex must be repressed, then to speak of it is to be a rebel. Sexual discourse aligns one with prophecy and preaching, calling for a coming better world of pleasure. But this provides an incentive for sex talk to uphold the image of repression in order to make heroes and visionaries of those who engage in it. Then the question becomes not “why are we repressed?” but “why do we insist so vehemently that we are repressed?”

Foucault then turns around and raises several points to ask if they can be demonstrated. 1) Is sexual repression an established historic fact? And does it begin in the 17th century? 2) Have the powers that be acted primarily and consistently to repress sex? 3) Is anti-repressive discourse a counter to, or part of the same system as, repressive discourse?

In addressing these questions, Foucault plans to situate repression as only part of a continuous system of sex-discourse in modern society. Who talks about sex? Which side they are on? What point of view do they have in society and what institutions support them? What forms of power are implicated in sexual discourse?

Part II - The Repressive Hypothesis

Power over sex discourse is exercised by controlling language--how and when it is talked about. But when you look at the record, rather than a decrease in discussions of sex, there is an explosion. This might include a shift in “authorized” vocabulary and shifts in authorized contexts for sexual discourse. But the sheer volume shows a significant increase in the last three centuries.

For example, penitential manuals shifted from eliciting many specific details about sexual sins (exactly what actions and body parts were involved), to recommending that vague language be used, while at the same time the scope of life activities that were subject to scrutiny for sexual implications vastly increased. All thoughts and actions were to be examined for sexual significance.

This focus on expanding detail is not limited to confession, but can be seen reflected in pornography. This compulsion to dissect sex in detail permeated political, social, and technical discourse. Sex-related texts regularly called attention to the “disgust and ridicule” their subjects were expected to generate, supporting the framing of sex-talk as transgressive.

Sexual discourse must be managed and administered. It must be “policed” both literally and figuratively. People as individuals became a “population”--a resource to be managed, and one inextricably tied to sex.

The sexualization of ever-expanding facets of life can also be seen in ideas about the sexuality of children and the function of sexual discourse between children and adults. The official silence and reticence in this context masked the purpose of control. The sexuality of adolescent boys, in particular, became an obsession among medical and educational professionals. There was an expansion of medical and psychological concern, with ever more behaviors being considered “disordered” sexually.

If this increase in sexual discourse were simply quantitative, it might not be significant. But there was also an expantion of the negative discussion of non-reproductive sexual behaviors and obsession over how to control and suppress them. Foucault says he’s not sure if the primary goal can be demonstrated to be population growth/reproduction. Rather than reducing the catalog of sexualities, it has expanded in order to codify the activities labeled as perversions. Earlier discourse tended to identify only two categories of sexual activity: licit and illicit. Interest in cataloging and identifying illicit forms of sex focused primarily on sex within marriage--to distinguish the times, conditions, and circumstances that defined licit sex. Non-marital sex, though illicit, was not explored and cataloged in detail. Prohibitions on illicit sex were legal in nature, not moral. [Note: I don't think this last statement holds water, when you examine the medieval history of the discourse around sodomy. It may have been subject to legal penalties, but the objections were moral.]

From this, the sexual discourse in the 18-19th century shifted in two ways. Normative sex (i.e., m/f marital sex for the purpose of procreation) was less discussed and was taken for granted. It was other types of sexualities that formed the expansion of discourse. At the same time, libertine excesses of m/f sex were distinguished from this new catalog of “perversions.”

If variant sexualities could not be opressed legally, they were medicalized. In theory, legal consequences diminished, but in practical terms, the increased scope of interest and control more than balanced out the severity of effect. Non-reproductive sex was medicalized as “disordered” even within marriage.

What was the purpose in exercising this control over sex? Not the elimination of the acts, but the excuse for their persecution. Deviant sexuality was no longer a set of forbidden acts, but an identifiable set of deviant people.

[Note: This is the essence of the concept Foucault is most often know for: that there was a shift between conceptualizing “deviant” sex as acts, to conceptualizing deviance as adhering to a type of person. In the discussion in which this idea is introduced, we aren’t talking about self-identity or how individuals understood their own actions and nature, but about how behavior was viewed and dealt with by persons and systems of authority.]

The proliferation of medically-named perversions was not for the purpose of eliminating them, but to establish their reality to justify their study and treatment. This power required constant surveillance and proximity to the potential deviants. Power over sexuality became its own reward and justification--a type of perversion itself. Rather than restricting sexuality to the licit conjugal act, now the entirety of life was filled with potentially sexualized acts, thoughts, and experiences.

[Note: Foucault regularly uses the word “perversion” in a way that is ambiguous with regard to his position. Is this a scare-quotes “perversion” meant to signal the point of view of the people studying and defining it? Or is Foucault asserting that there is an objective concept of “perversion” to which acts/thoughts/experiences can belong?]

Foucault’s conclusion is that the modern age has not been an age of increased sexual repression. Rather it has seen a vast expansion of interest and concern about sex that invested all aspects of life and society with sexuality, in order to justify the intrusive study, categorization, and control of any sexualized aspect of life, creating “perverse” power dynamics within the very structures claiming to oppose perversion.

Part III - Scientia Sexualis

Granting the proliferation of sexual discourse, was its purpose to conceal sex behind a screen of avoidance talk? Foucault takes us on a tour through the field of sexology , which created a “pornography of the morbid,” riddled with established delusions, systemic blindness, and disinterest in “truth.” The work of the sexologists was filtered through deliberate omission and distortion of their observations to avoid tackling explicit truths about sexual experiences. [Note: Foucault credits Freud with introducing “truth and rationality,” which is a laugh considering what has come out about Freud’s deliberate omissions and distortions to deflect the truth of actual female sexual trauma into imagined fantasies.]

Truth about sex can be produced in two ways. One means is through a cultural “art of pleasure” which derives truth from the experience of pleasure itself, studied for its effects and codified into expert knowledge which can then be imparted to the student. Alternately, truth can be pursued via the “confession” (the Western approach), in which one self-reports one’s experiences to a judging body, which fits them into a framework of meaning. This places meaning into the hands of “professionals” separate from the experience being studied, who claimed the sole ability to identify relevance, causality, and meaning.

Part IV - The Deployment of Sexuality

This section contains a discussion of the relationship of power and sex and the mechanics of the techniques that power employs. [I skip over a lot in this section.]

Foucault identifies four major strategic threads in the use of power over sexual discourse:

  • 1. “Hysterization” of women’s bodies, that is, identifying women as essentially and fundamentally sexual beings, and pathologically sexual ones at that.
  • 2. The “pedagogization” of children’s sexuality, that is, putting sexual exploration and experience by children under the surveillance and direction of adults.
  • 3. Socialization of procreative behavior, that is, framing individual procreative choices as being a proper subject of social concern and control.
  • 4. Psychiatrization of perverse pleasure, that is, all pleasure is separated into “normal” and “pathological” with the latter subject to correction.

Foucault reviews a timeline of various significant “ruptures” in the history of sexuality: the 18th century silencing and focusing relative to marital sexuality, and the 20th century opening up and loosening of controls. Between those, the invention of a “science” of sex in the 19th century provided a transition.

Part V - Right of Death and Power Over Life

Here Foucault discusses systems of power that claim rights over lives. The claim to power over sexuality and reproduction relate directly to ideas about rights over people’s lives and deaths.

Contents summary: 


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.]

Contents summary: 

Part 1: Dreaming of One’s Pleasures

This section examines Artemidorus’s book The Interpretation of Dreams--the only work of the (classical) period that systematically addresses different sexual acts. It’s the only survival of what was once an extensive literature of dream interpretation and was intended as a practical manual. [Note: One might say that professional dream interpreters were the psychoanalysts of the day.] Artemidorus also presented a theoretical argument for the validity of the field of dream interpretations.

Artemidorus identified two types of dreams: those that simply reflect the dreamer’s present state, and those that tell what is to come and shape the soul to implement it. Another dichotomy is between images that can be read transparently and those that must be read allegorically. The professional dream interpreter comes into play for the latter two of each pair.

Four chapters of the work involve sexual dreams, with other scattered references to sexual imagery. The sex acts in dreams fall in three categories: those in accordance with law, those contrary to law, and those contrary to nature. [Note: The distinction between these categories and the assignment of acts to them is also present in other types of texts, but this work is often cited for the underlying concepts as it discusses them overtly.]

As allegories, the nature of one’s partner in the dream (wife, mistress, prostitute, stranger, married or not, of higher or lower status) is the key to interpretation, not the nature of the act itself. Also relevant is the dreamer’s role in the act, whether active or passive. This distinction gets a bit fuzzy when dealing with things like the category for “against nature”. For a man to dream of being the passive participant in anal sex carries a negative interpretation not because anal sex is involved, but because it’s “unnatural” for a free adult man to be in this position relative to a lower status partner.

There is a very brief mention of interpreting the sexual dreams of women, but a male partner is assumed and the analysis is not detailed in the same ways as that of men’s dreams.

The category of acts “contrary to law” is explored primarily as meaning incest. The category “contrary to nature” can refer either to the sexual position involved or to acts against the relative “nature” of the participants. Dreams of acts “against nature” generally have negative meanings, as do dreams of acts “against law” except in a few highly specific cases. But even negatively-valued sex acts can imply positive dream meanings in particular contexts. [Note: My perception is that Artemidorus was able to construct a positive meaning for almost any sort of dream by manipulation of the allegorical meanings.]

Dream-sex between women (unlike dream-sex between men) is always categorized as “against nature” because the only types of sex acts being considered involve penetration, and it is always considered against a woman’s nature to penetrate.

[Note: This is a point that is easy to misunderstand. “Contrary to nature” doesn’t mean “completely unnatural and never to be done” but rather “not consistent with the characteristics assigned to this category of person.” For example, it is contrary to the nature of a free adult man to allow himself to be penetrated, but it is not contrary to the nature of a male slave to be penetrated by someone of higher status. It is contrary to the nature of a woman to take an active, penetrating role in sex, regardless of partner, because it is woman’s assigned “nature” to be passive/receptive in sex. Thus if Woman A is the active partner in sex with Woman B, then only Woman A is acting “contrary to nature”, whereas if Woman A is the active partner in sex with Man C (regardless of his status) then both are acting “contrary to nature”.]

These interpretations always assume the dreamer is present in the dream and that sex is always a “predictive” image rather than one reflecting current reality. The focus of the interpretation nearly always assumes a male subject.

Part 2: The Cultivation of the Self

[Note: It feels to me as if the rest of volume 3 is a recapitulation of the topics covered in volume 2, but now considering them more in the context of Roman rather than Greek society. If this is the intended distinction, it isn’t made clear.]

The book shifts to a consideration of  a philosophy of “strictness” and a type of individualism in how “the self” was approached. The primary themes are self-control and self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is considered a life-long project. The body must be attended to so that one can attend to the mind and soul. Abstinence (either temporary or permanent) plays a key role in self-knowledge.

Part 3: Self and Others

The “cultivation of the self” now has less focus on the role of pleasure and this shift is associated with, or attributed to, changes in marriage practices and shifts in political dynamics. Marriage was evolving away from a private “ownership” transaction between the bride’s father and the husband--one that did not have significant social or political meaning. In the 1st to 2nd century BCE, marriage was shifting to being a civic institution in which the city participates. The rise of laws regarding adultery are one example of this. As upper class status became more tied to civic roles, marriage as a political strategy became less important. There was more emphasis on marriage as a voluntary partnership. Women gained (relatively) more power in making marriage arrangements. Men were increasingly expected not to maintain other sexual relationships outside marriage.

On the political side, the decline of independent city-states and political life as an upper class profession resulted in a turn to focus on the self as the “profession” of the aristocracy.

Part 4: The Body

This section discusses the field of medicine in classical references, especially medical understandings of sex--both as physiology and activity. Sexual activity was thought to have physical effects on the body, and medical manuals advised how both procreation and sexual pleasure should be organized to optimize health. The mind and “soul” had a role in the pursuit of proper enjoyment of sex. This idea developed into a fixation on sex as a potential hazard to health and spiritual well-being. But this idea must be distinguished from associating sex with sin.

Part 5: The Wife

This section discusses the place of marriage in the understanding of a “good life” (but only from the male point of view). Foucault reviews the evolution of philosophical views of marriage, including emphasis on the personal bond between spouses. Marriage was considered “natural” due to its place in procreation and community. People were expected to have an attraction to a joined life, but there was a constant tension with arguments regarding the proper forms of marriage. Treatises were written on the proper “regimen” for married life that gave rather limited space for discussing sexual relations. An ideal emerged that sex was only proper within marriage. The focus is still on self-restraint as virtue but there is also a focus on legitimate offspring as the purpose of sex. Though pleasure within marriage is expected, excess sexual pleasure can be considered inappropriate. It might suggest you are treating your wife as a courtesan, whose purpose is only to provide pleasure.

Part 6: Boys

In the early centuries of the common era, reflection on the love for youths became a less vital and less important debate. In part, this was a difference between Greek and Roman attitudes. A relationship with an older male figure was no longer an expected part of a free-born man’s youth. Discussions about the “love of boys” began to mean relations with male slaves.

[Note: There's an interesting contradiction here in Foucault's equation of these two types of male-male relations. If the nature of the object of desire and the types of erotic activity do not define a "sexual identity" then why should there be any conceptual connection between the Greek system of erastes/eromenos and the relations between (male) Roman citizens and their (male) slaves? Yet Foucault makes a direct connection between these two practices by context and impmlication while still maintaining his disbelief in the concept of sexualities.]

The sons of Roman citizens would be shamed by being sexual objects. But there was also a shift from the importance of male-male philia to the valorization of marriage as the primary bond. Love was no longer viewed as being elevated by the removal of physical pleasure.

It is the “naturalness” of male-female relations that becomes the argument both for and against the love of youths. “Natural” can be considered lesser because it’s common or ordinary, or it can be considered elevated because it aligns with one's inherent nature. This debate became its own genre of literary argumentation.


Foucault sees several strands of philosophical thought in the first centuries of the common era that converge on an elevation of the ideal of austerity. Was this a precursor to the ethics that developed within Christianity? Dual strands in this process include focus on the ethics of pleasure and care for the body with consequent consideration of the effects of pleasure on it and a distrust of those effects.