This article was last modified on March 2, 2011.

Foucault: Sex in the Working Class

“I may be greasing the wheels in a noisy factory, I may be hunched over metal machines. Watching the gears as they move just reminds me of bodies in motion, the sweat and the sound. Wild sex in the working class.” – Oingo Boingo, 1982

Michel Foucault was a very strange intellectual. Widely read, hugely influential, and often difficult to comprehend. He was classified as a philosopher, though his work tended to be more historical. Yet, for someone whose histories (of madness, prison, and sexuality) are highly respected, he is very sparse when it comes to citing sources. His history of sexuality goes pages at a time without a footnote, leaving the reader to wonder how much is mere speculation.

Repeatedly in volume one, he returns to the idea of sexuality and how it affected different classes and was linked to capitalism. For now, I am presenting a summary of those sections. I do hope that some day this short essay is expanded to have more sources, though, as Foucault makes some broad generalizations and it is hard to verify his claims. But, at the very least, his theories are thought-provoking.

Sexuality and Class Division

Strangely enough, despite the assumption that sexual repression in the lower class might be caused by sexual oppression from the upper class, Foucault believes “the most rigorous techniques were formed and, more particularly, applied first, with the greatest intensity, in the economically privileged and politically dominant classes.” [Foucault: 120] This came about in a variety of ways.

With women, sexuality became “medicalized” and the upper class ladies were “the first to be alerted to the potential pathology of sex”, the idea that sexuality could be a disorder rather than natural. [Foucault: 120] One is reminded of hysteria, a mental condition that causes a person to experience emotion excess (today we still say someone laughs hysterically). For a long time, hysteria was thought to be caused by disturbances of the uterus. In fact, the word “hystera” is Greek for “uterus” (hence the surgery we know as the hysterectomy, or removal of the uterus).

In young men, the doctors, teachers and parents tried to curb masturbation (commonly known then as “Onanism”, due to a misreading of the Bible). They informed the child that masturbation would compromise “his intellectual capacity, his moral fiber, and the obligation to preserve a healthy line of descent for his family and his social class.” [Foucault: 121] New Haven, Connecticut, a Puritan colony in the 1600s, considered masturbation a crime punishable by death (though I am not aware if such a sentence was ever carried out). Today we may joke that masturbation will cause you to go blind, but it was once thought to cause insanity, and that was the last thing you wished your child to pass on to your grandchildren. In the year 1716, Dr. Balthazar Bekker passed out pamphlets claiming that masturbation would lead to:

“Disturbances of the stomach and digestion, loss of appetite or ravenous hunger, vomiting, nausea, weakening of the organs of breathing, coughing, hoarseness, paralysis, weakening of the organ of generation to the point of impotence, lack of libido, back pain, disorders of the eye and ear, total diminution of bodily powers, paleness, thinness, pimples on the face, decline of intellectual powers, loss of memory, attacks of rage, madness, idiocy, epilepsy, fever and finally suicide.”

Later, masturbation was vilified by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and Rev. Sylvester Graham. Today, we consider Kellogg’s corn flakes a healthy breakfast and Graham crackers a tasty snack. But both of these foods were invented with a similar notion in mind: a substance plain in taste will not excite the mind, and help curb the scourge of masturbation. Even Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, incorporated a passage in the 1914 edition of Scouting for Boys warning against the dangers of masturbation. This passage stated that the individual should run away from the temptation by performing physical activity which was supposed to tire the individual so that masturbation could not be performed. (Baden-Powell was a strange man in many respects; he is believed to be a repressed homosexual and had gone on record to say Mein Kampf was a “wonderful book” with “good ideas”.)

The sexual repression of the upper class spread to everyone around the late 1800s, according to Foucault, in part due to “medical control of perversions”, but also legal penalties for such — “for the sake of a general protection of society and the race.” [Foucault: 122] I would venture to say the laws were more compelling than the medical advice for the lower classes, as literacy and access to a medical professional were probably still scarce. The law, however, reaches all of society. (The difference between European and American laws may be important to clarify. American states had pretty much always had anti-sodomy laws, for example, but the religious influence of colonial America was strong and French or English history may vary.)

Ultimately, the point Foucault wishes to stress is that this change in sexuality was “the self-affirmation of one class rather than the enslavement of another” — the upper class had its intentions in keeping their blood pure and their mental health secure. [Foucault: 123] The spread, or trickle down, to other classes was a mere accident.

Sexuality and Capitalism

Whether the change of how sexuality is viewed was intended for the upper or lower class has been discussed. But Foucault reveals another layer: that the upper class still used sexuality as a tool on the lower class, albeit i na very different way.

Foucault believes the “age of repression” coincides with “the development of capitalism” in the 1600s. [Foucault: 5] He sees a connection between controlling sexual impulses and the need for increased manual labor. “At a time when labor capacity was being systematically exploited, how could this capacity be allowed to dissipate itself in pleasurable pursuits, except in those — reduced to a minimum — that enabled it to reproduce itself?” [Foucault: 6] In other words, sex must not be enjoyable, but serve only to create more employees.

He calls this the “first phase”, where a “labor force” is made up of men whose “forces were reduced to labor capacity alone” — the “expenditure” of sex would be “wasted energy”. [Foucault: 114] The employers were not concerned about sex degrading the minds of the employee, but merely with their ability to avoid exhaustion. When a ten-hour day or six-day week was considered short, it was imperative to have every ounce of strength go to being productive, not towards leisure.

I am not sure I agree with Foucault. I personally feel the Catholic Church, for example, had a bigger influence on a family’s sexuality than any employer. With Saint Paul telling Christians that it is is better to marry than to burn (implying that unmarried sexual intercourse is a sin) and the push to ban birth control (“every sperm is sacred”), I would suspect the Church had a much greater affect on the common man. One threatens to fire you, and the other threatens to have your soul tormented for eternity (back when such threats were believable).

The use of manual labor (what Foucault calls bio-power) “was without question an indispensable element of capitalism”, which “would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes.” [Foucault: 141] While I agree that manual labor and increased population fueled capitalism (particularly before the improvement of various technologies), and thankfully so, I am unclear how this relates to sexuality. Foucault knows quite well that a worker’s sexual escapades do not affect their working ability, just as he should know that population increases are more strongly connected to improved health and education. The discussion of capitalism and its rise could be accomplished without resorting to sexuality at all, I think.

Perhaps I am missing a point he has tried to make, or perhaps he makes too much of capitalism’s connection to sexuality. Foucault is always interesting, if not necessarily always clear in his meaning. I suspect the discussion of this topic is not concluded.


Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction Vintage Books, 1990.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

2 Responses to “Foucault: Sex in the Working Class”

  1. KZFMP Says:

    “I would suspect the Church had a much greater affect [than capitalism] on the common man”

    Perhaps Foucault saw this too, he planned on publishing a 4th Volume of The History of Sexuality: Confessions of the Flesh. In here he discusses Christianity, however, he died before it was almost finished. They can’t release it from his private archive (check Wikipedia).

  2. Eric Scrivner Says:

    Just wanted to point out that this article is pretty misinformed in regards to Foucault’s hypotheses put forward in the book. Especially in your last section “Sexuality and Capitalism”. If you are confused by some of his points that is perhaps because a careful reading reveals him to be saying some quite different things, for example:

    You write

    “Foucault believes the “age of repression” coincides with “the development of capitalism” in the 1600s.”

    No he doesn’t. This is what he terms the “Repressive Hypothesis” and he’s merely, at length, re-articulating it. He goes out of his way NOT to deny it’s possibility, but to say that he is merely claiming its status as established historical fact is up for question and the origin of the repressive hypothesis itself murky. He then goes on to say that far from being the advent of a sexual repression, this period saw an explosion in dialogue about sex and a transformation of sex into discourse. Thus, calling it repression seems, for him, a little simplistic. The transformation of sex into discourse and its relation to the Christian confessional is what fascinates him through most of the early chapters. He see this transformation as sex becoming incorporated into the means of power through discourse, and this point is far more important. The expansion of power through discourse is a common sight nowadays, and the fact that it expanded early on to control sexuality incredibly important.

    I would give the book another read, because it seems like you missed a lot of the good stuff.

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