Posts Tagged With: michele foucault

How to do the History of Homosexuality – D. Halperin


David M. Halperin, How to Do the History of Homosexuality. Chicago:  the University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Subject: A theoretical expedition into the workings of “the history of (homo)sexuality.”  Specifically, he revisits the essentialist-constructionist debate.

Research Questions:  How would we experience our own sexuality differently if we experienced it as something historical, as well as instinctual?

Author’s Arguments:  Though Halperin approaches a different theme in each of his four chapters, his main aim in this book (besides defending himself against criticism leveled against his previous book) is to 1) Defend the constructionist/historicist approach to sexuality, 2) bridge the gap between classical studies and LGBT studies, 3) to show that gay studies should be more than just “reclaiming” great homosexuals in history.  He is a defender of Foucault, and says that the claim that there were no sexual “identities” in the pre-modern world is false.  Halperin also argues against the recent tendency to reduce the history of sexuality to the history of classification or representations of sexuality.

One of the foundations of his arguments is that one form of sexuality does not replace the previous one.  Multiple forms of sexuality exist at any given time, and while one gives way to another as the “norm,” the previous form lingers and coexists with the new norm, perhaps never fading away entirely.  He claims that the definitional incoherence at the core of the modern notion of homosexuality is a sign of its historical evolution – absorbing prior understandings of same-sex desires and of sexual deviance, even if those understandings are in direct contradiction of our modern definition. 

In each of his four chapters (which are independent essays), Halperin addresses a pertinent topic, such as 1) how past societies did have notions of “sexual identities,” and not just sexual acts, 2) how lesbianism was more than likely the “first homosexuality,” that is, the first same-sex desiring “identity” to come about, and 3) how the body itself is to be studied as a sign or symbol for sexuality (among many other things).  However, it is in his fourth chapter, “How to do the History of Male Sexuality” that I believe Halperin makes his most useful conclusions.

In it he claims, “Any adequate attempt to describe the historicity of sexuality will have to fix on some strategy for accommodating the aspects of sexual life that seem to persist through time as well as the dramatic differences between historically documented forms of sexual experience. “  This will require us to get past the modern notion of “homosexuality” as a singular distinct formation that pretends to represent all same-sex sexual experiences.

He then offers 5 categories in which to understand male-male sex/gender deviance: 1) effeminacy, 2) pederasty or active sodomy, 3) friendship or male love, 4) passivity or inversion, 5) homosexuality

Context & Methodology:  It is apparent that this work is meant to be Halperin’s answer to criticism of his approach in his previous work, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1989).  Therefore the work reads like a conversation (albeit a one-sided one; granted, he lays out what he feels to be the others’ arguments).  The book is divided into four chapters, each of which is an independent essay that can be used for study on its own.  Also, this work is highly theoretical.  There are historical examples given, but they are only provided to substantiate the theory that he is trying to clarify.

Final Remarks:  The book is extremely helpful – though can be very dense and difficult to read at times.  So, it is better, perhaps to read and discuss as a group.  That aside, the volume is slim and rather direct and to the point.  A note on the title:  Halperin states that it is meant to be more of a question (Is this how we should do the history of homosexuality?) than a magisterial handbook (THIS is how you should do the history of homosexuality).  While he acknowledges that there may be criticism of his new theory(ies) to come, he is pretty firm that the approach he outlines here should be followed by future historians of sexuality.

All in all, one of the points that stuck with me the most is that the prior systems of “sexual regulation” were more about gender than sexuality.

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“Remembering Foucault”


I’m in the middle of reading for my PhD qualifying exams, and I’ve been writing short summaries of each book or article that I read.  Instead of hoarding them all to myself, I thought I’d share them on here in case there are any other curious wanderers who can benefit from them!Gender-_A_Useful_Category_of_Historical_Analysis

Weeks, Jeffrey.  “Remembering Foucault,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 14, Nos. 1 & 2 (Jan. 2005/April 2005): 186-201.

Subject: A look at Foucault’s place in queer studies.

Main Argument(s):  Week’s relatively short article is an attempt to give a summary of the social constructionist movement, particularly in the fields of gay/lesbian/queer/sexuality studies.  These scholars in the 1960s and 1970s were seeking to explore understandings of sexuality, and many were interested in the invention of homosexuality itself.  Weeks reiterates that scholars of queer theory were not out to deny the validity of modern gay experience by ‘disproving’ any false ‘gay lineage’ throughout history.  Instead, they wanted to validate the current understanding of homosexuality by exploring its historical creation, not a misguided past in which modern understandings of “gay” are forced onto history’s actors.

Weeks then puts Foucault into this context and explains that Foucault’s aim was never to destroy or get away from these constructed identities.  Instead, Foucault argues that the purpose of history is not to discover the roots of our identities, but to refuse the identities that are imposed on us as truth.  In other words, the task it not to realize the self, but to create the self.  For, identities (the self) are narratives; they are created.  But more important to understand is that they are necessary narratives.  Moreover, by studying the crafted nature of these identities, the identities themselves haven’t disappeared or lost power.  Instead, we’ve witnessed “an explosion and proliferation of identities” as some people seek to naturalize these identities (the search for a ‘gay gene’ for instance) and other seek to overthrow old identities and craft new ones.

Ultimately, Weeks concludes that it seems like social constructionists have failed – at least outside of Academia.  The result is a “geneticization of sexual theory,” a search for a biological (essential) explanation for homosexuality, rather than accepting its historical origins in the 19th century.  “It’s easier to believe in a gay brain or gay gene than to explore how we came to be where we are,” Weeks states.  He’s not pessimistic, though.  He aims to continue his work, and even ends with a challenge for scholars to “find ways of balancing the recognition of individual needs, desires, sensitivities with mutual responsibilities in order to establish some agreement [on values and ethics] on common human standards.”



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“Forgetting Foucault”

I’m in the middle of reading for my PhD qualifying exams, and I’ve been writing short summaries of each book or article that I read.  Instead of hoarding them all to myself, I thought I’d share them on here in case there are any other curious wanderers who can benefit from them!


Gender-_A_Useful_Category_of_Historical_AnalysisHalperin, David M.  “Forgetting Foucault:  Identities, and the History of Sexuality,” Representations, No. 63 (Summer 1998):  93-120.



Halperin explores a passage in Michele Foucault’s History of Sexuality that is often cited as claiming that before the 19th century, sexual acts did not constitute a sexual identity.

Author’s Main Arguments:

While the title of the article may be misleading, Halperin is not arguing that we should forget Foucault, but is instead implying that by always paying lip service to Foucault and granting the “almost ritualistic invocation of his name,” we are actually devalue Foucault’s contribution (by not analyzing it fully), and thus we are ‘forgetting’ his work.

One passage in particular is misunderstood the most often, Halperin argues, and this is the quote from the History of Sexuality which Foucault makes a distinction between sodomite and homosexual.  The commonly misunderstood argument (or, misreading of Foucault’s argument, rather) holds that before sexual identities were created in the 19th century (all embodying “homosexuality” or “heterosexuality”), particular sexual acts did not define someone’s identity.  In other words, sexual acts and sexual identities were separate so that a man who had sex with another man would not be considered a distinct classification of humanity (“homosexual”) with an inborn difference.   In this view, sodomy was simply a sinful (or at least abnormal) act that anyone of “sufficient depravity” might commit.

While Halperin does not want to reverse this idea, but he feels that it needs to be revised because it’s too simple (indeed, he believes that it’s not exactly what Foucault meant either).  And he is careful to say that he does not wish to return to an “essentialist” belief that there is a universal validity and applicability of modern sexual concepts to the past.  He is arguing that past societies did in fact have concepts of identities and morphologies that were tied to sexual activity.  What is different is that past identities were something larger that included sexual acts – and even inclinations towards particular kinds of sexual acts.  But what did not exist was a sexuality – something deep and inborn, tied to “instinct” that then emanated outwards and engulfed a person’s entire identity, thus creating “a heterosexual” or “a homosexual.”

For example – in ancient Greece, the kinaidos was a man who liked to be penetrated by other men.  Halperin shows that while a kinaidos was not the same as our understanding of a homosexual, he was not simply a man who had sex with other men on occasion (or there would be no need for a specific word to describe men like that).  So, a kinaidos was a man who was socially deviant, and it acted as a category of person; it was an identity.  But the difference between a kinaidos and homosexual is that at kinaidos wasn’t seen as separate and being produced by something inborn and unalterable.  In other words, it wasn’t tied to some thing called a sexuality.  Instead, what made the man a deviant was his inversion of his masculinity (keeping the dominant position).  In this sense, the kinaidos was a gender inversion, not an inversion of “normal” sexuality.  It is also important to recognize that in this view, all men were potentially in danger of becoming a kinaidos if they did not protect and foster their masculinity enough.   This is different from the understanding of homosexuality, which is that it is inborn, therefore only affects certain people who are born with it; no one else should worry about it affecting them.

A final example comes from a 14th century Italian sodomite who has different sexual tastes than normal men, but this was compartmentalized.  It was something to hide, for sure, but it was not defining of that person’s character or identity.  He did not become gay or homosexual upon someone learning this about him.


My comments:

Halperin does an important job here by reminding us to actually grapple with Foucault and to not simply pay homage to him in our studies of sexuality.  Moreover, he shows that this idea that identities (even those based on sexual acts) have existed (at least in the West) since antiquity, though they are not the same identities, or even the same type of identities that we have today.

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