The real role of sexology in the rise of LGBTQ+ activism: A review of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality

“The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.”

(Michel Foucault, 1976)

            Michel Foucault – in his influential work The History of Sexuality (first volume) – explores how sexuality started being conceptualized differently from the end of the nineteenth century onwards. The parallelism between “sodomite” and “homosexual” as well as between “temporary aberration” and “now a species” sheds light on the process of “scientification” of society that occurred after the European Enlightenment. With the rise of social sciences, humans became both the subject and object of studies. Their sexuality was no exception. Thus, a “sodomite”, which describes a “person who engages in anal sexual intercourse” and therefore whose action is by definition temporary, was renamed a “homosexual”, which qualifies the person with a fixed character as it refers to sexual attraction in general. Overall, what Foucault claims is that the rise of sexology participated in the stigmatization and pathologization of homosexuals. This article will explain Foucault’s theory and argue that, although sexology stigmatized homosexuals, it gave birth to the homosexual identity as such and therefore, to activism in favor of the latter. 

Michel Foucault

            Foucault describes sexual sciences as a contributing factor in the stigmatization of homosexuals and a means of controlling populations. According to him, it is the concept of “population” that emerged in nineteenth century Western Europe that led to a state regulation of people’s sexuality. Although the Christian religion condemned pleasurable sex as a sin well before that period, it is the birth of the concept of “population” that gave it a new controlling dimension. The people of a nation started representing “wealth”, “power” and “labor capacity”. Consequently, as cities and industries grew rapidly in that period, politicians and scientists started relating “the health of the individual body to that of the social body, conceiving of the nation’s life in organic terms, increasingly to be regulated by experts”. Controlling people’s sexuality became a means to ensure that their sexual behaviors were “economically useful” and “politically conservative”, that is reproductive, and therefore, heterosexual. For instance, in 1950s pro-natalist Germany, experts urged the state to maintain existing laws against homosexuality in order to boost birth rates. The concept of “population” both enabled and provoked the control of people’s sexuality in order to serve economic and political ends. 

            According to Foucault, the control of the population’s sexuality was made possible through an “incitement to discourse”, which led to the categorization and hierarchization of sexual behaviors. He argues that sex was regulated through “useful and public discourses”, meaning that people were encouraged to talk about their sexuality no matter how “sinful” it was. The strategy was to acknowledge those diverse sexual behaviors better in order to control them better. This “incitement to discourse” led to the development of different sexual categories. Austro-German sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing notably established categories such as “fetishism, sadomasochism and pedophilia” in Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). People were essentialized to their sexual practices, and to follow on the example of the “sodomite” used by Foucault, sodomy became “less seen as a habitual sin than as a singular nature”: the homosexual.

            Those newly created categories were hierarchized, and the ones that implied the practice of non-reproductive and non-heterosexual behaviors were stigmatized and even made pathologic. To begin with, Krafft-Ebing labeled same-sex love as “sexual inversion” or “antipathic sexual instinct”, therefore depicting homosexuality as abnormal. He also defined the “pure type” of man and woman as respectively “heterosexually masculine” and “heterosexually feminine”, with each gradation between those two categories being a “gradation of sexual inversion”. He distinguished “acquired inversion” from “congenital sexual inversion”, with this last category encompassing a “multitude of perversion and reducing the diversity of desires and practices to a single clinical entity”. This process of pathologizing what was seen as the “peripheral” sexualities is also well illustrated in the work of the English eugenicist, physician and writer Havelock Ellis. In the second volume of his Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897), the author uses Krafft-Ebing’s concept of “sexual inversion” and explores its manifestation through case studies. In one of them, he describes the body of a woman “sexually inverted” and uses some of her physical features to explain her homosexuality: “The general conformation of the body is feminine. But with arms, palms up, extended in front her with inner sides of hands touching, she cannot bring the inner sides of forearms together, […] showing that the feminine angle of arm is lost”. The use of the adjective “lost” shows that homosexuality is medically described as a lack of something and as a degeneration of the body. As Foucault explains, sexology was used for economic and political ends in nineteenth century Western Europe, which led to the categorization and hierarchization of sexual behaviors and, subsequently, the pathologization of homosexuals. 

            Yet, it is also through the categorization of sexual desires that the homosexual identity was born. One of the case studies explored by Ellis in his Studies in the Psychology of Sex shows the relief of one of the “patients” when finding out that his sexual desires towards the same sex were not isolated nor exceptional ones: “[I] was too convinced that I was a hopeless monstrosity ever to make any effectual advances. Later on, it was much the same, but gradually, though slowly, I came to find that there were others like myself […] Before this happened, however, I was once or twice on the brink of despair and madness with repressed passion and torment”. This statement demonstrates that the creation of categories and the liberation of speech – or what Foucault called the “incitement to discourse” – made some people feel more comfortable with their sexual attractions and also made them realize that they did not make up isolated cases, therefore they could finally identify to other people. Sexual identities were also reshaped and redefined. For instance, for a long time, homosexuality was mistaken with pedophilia due to accounts from Ancient Greece celebrating “bonds between older and younger men”. Oscar Wilde’s 1890s trial is a good illustration of the strength of that past belief. The author was indeed portrayed as a “paedophile, corruptor of young victims ranging from Oxford undergraduate […] to teenage working-class rent boys”. The creation of the category of “pedophilia” by Krafft-Ebing allowed a clear distinction between the “acceptable homosexual” and the “dangerous corruptor of youth” to be made.

Stonewall riots, 1969

            Activism undoubtedly resulted from this new emergence of the homosexual identity. Some sexologists started suggesting that homosexuality was not necessarily pathological or morbid. Magnus Hirschfeld – another German doctor – and Ellis drew attention to some famous “respectable and healthy” homosexual figures such as Shakespeare or Michelangelo, in order to question the pathological nature of homosexuality. The goal was to show that being attracted to the same sex was a phenomenon that existed in all past and present cultures and that, therefore, it could not systematically be perceived as pathological. Hirschfeld did not stop there in terms of activism. In 1919, he created the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin and launched the first journal dedicated to sexology. His institute notably supported the “liberalization of divorce, equality between sexes” and stood against laws criminalizing homosexuality. The suppression of Hirschfeld’s institute in May 1933 by the Nazis and the burning of his books emphasizes the emancipatory nature of Hirschfeld’s work. Contrary to what Foucault implies, the emergence of the homosexual identity through sexology did not only lead to the stigmatization of the homosexuals. It also gave rise to activism in favor of it. 


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Published by Matisse Lefebvre

She/Her. Matisse is a 4th year joint honours student in English literature and History at University of Glasgow. She is French and also studied literature, cinema and social sciences for 2 years in Paris. She is writing a dissertation about the representations of nationhood in the Kazuo Ishiguro's novels.