Michel Foucault’s “The History of Sexuality”

Ever since coming to UCLA, I can never find the time between my academics, work, extracurriculars, family, relationships, or social life to just read books for the sake of reading. Anything I do read during the quarter is often assigned through my classes and they’re often terribly boring and dry. These past few years at UCLA, I’ve wistfully day dreamt of reading something like Harry Potter in Powell instead of medieval literature more than once.

However, one book has stuck out to me among the rest lately; reading it wasn’t a chore and I pored over its pages for hours until I finished. I think it was the first time I had ever been ahead in my readings. First assigned to me last quarter for Sociology 102 and now again for English 179R, I would like to recommend to all of you The History of Sexuality, Volume I by Michel Foucault.

I know that just from reading the title, the book already sounds boring. In its title is the word history and it being the first volume entails that there’s even more of that history to read. Wow, even the author’s name looks European and unpronounceable – it’s “mee-shell foo-koe” by the way. To most people these context clues spell out a recipe for disaster, and they did for me too, initially. However, this book was actually really interesting to read and it brings up a lot of new concepts and ideas that are worth considering.

Born in 1926 to a conservative upper-middle class family in Poitiers, France, Foucault was a precocious child with delinquent and trouble-making tendencies. Throughout his academic career, he routinely excelled in his Latin, Greek, French, and philosophy classes while doing underwhelmingly in the maths and sciences. Eventually he would get degrees in philosophy and psychology.

What fascinates me most about Foucault is how tumultuous his life was. Though he seemingly grew up with a perfect childhood, he underwent the Nazi takeover of France. During university, he attempted to kill himself during a depressive episode. In America, he frequented San Francisco’s gay quarters, thoroughly enjoying himself with the locals. Unfortunately he contracted HIV and died from an AIDS-related illness in 1984 at the young age of 57.

Though the man himself was rather eccentric and a research topic on his own, Foucault’s works have been widely influential. In fact, The History of Sexuality, Volume I is widely considered to mark the birth of queer-theory. One of the things that this book does right away is destroy the one of the most common ideas you have about sex and sexuality, what Foucault dubs the repressive hypothesis. The prevailing idea is that, today, we are all sexually repressed. Within our discourse, sex isn’t talked about, sex isn’t performed, and sex doesn’t exist. Among other things, Foucault inverts the idea that knowledge is power by suggesting that power is knowledge.

Reading The History of Sexuality, Volume I truly changed the way I think about gender and sexuality. Foucault jam packs multiple ideas into his book, so much so that it’s hard to even show people the tip of the iceberg in this post. The only way, then, is to read it for yourself.

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