This website is an interactive academic
tool for CEA-UNH course:
Gay Paris:
Culture, Society, & Urban Sexual Identity

CEA GlobalCampus | Spring 2009
UNH Course Code: GEN230
Credits: 3 | Location: Paris, France

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Foucault and Queer Theory

Tamsin Spargo

"Sexuality is a cultural product that cannot be regarded as a simple extension of a biological process." (p. 45)

Questions to Think About:
  1. What do the terms ‘queer’ and ‘tolerance’ signify to you?
  2. How does homosexuality challenge our most basic assumptions of sexuality?
  3. Was the sexual revolution of the 1960’s the impetus for ‘freeing’ us sexually? What would Foucault think? (p. 12)
  4. What is constructivism? Essentialism?
  5. What is an identity? What is an essential identity?
  6. What are identity politics?
  7. What are the problems with basing politics on identity?
  8. If homosexuality is (as Foucault asserted) a cultural product, then, what is heterosexuality? (p. 45)
  9. And why is it viewed as the natural, normal sexuality?
  10. How do we privilege heterosexuality in discussions about homosexuality? 
From the reading:
“The realm of sexuality has its own internal politics, inequities and modes of oppression. As with other aspects of human behaviour, the concrete institutional forms of sexuality at any given time and place are products of human activity. They are imbued with conflicts of interest and political manoeuvring, both deliberate and incidental. In that sense, sex is always political. But there are also historical periods in which sexuality is more sharply contested and more overtly politicized. In such periods, the domain of erotic life is, in effect, renegotiated.” Anthropologist Gayle Rubin (p. 5)

- What does Rubin mean when she says that 'sex is always political' in this quotation?

- Do you think we may, in fact, be in a historical period where sex is being renegotiated, as Rubin suggests?

Michel Foucault (1926-1984)
  • Poststructuralist (philosopher)
  • Focused on power/discourse
  • A homosexual who died of AIDS 1984
  • Point of departure for queer theory/theorists
  • According to Foucault: sexuality is not a natural feature or fact of human life but a constructed category of experience which has historical, social and cultural, rather than biological origins (p. 12).
  • Foucault was less concerned with what ‘sexuality’ is, than with how it functions in society (p. 13).
  • According to Foucault, modern homosexuality is of recent origin. For him, homosexuality is a constructed category – not a discovered identity. (This does not mean that sexual relations between men and between women did not happen before this time period p. 17).
  • In his words: “Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior and androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (p. 20).
  • Thus, homosexuality became pathologised as perverse and deviant (to be treated).

Important Vocabularly
  • Episteme: (paradigm) the structure of thought which epitomizes the thinking of a particular age. It is the underground network of assumptions and thought processes, the 'mind-set,' which limits the scientific, philosophical, and cultural thinking of an age.
  • Discourse: the accumulation of concepts, practices, statements, and beliefs that are produced by an episteme. A particular episteme gives rise to a particular form of knowledge (discourse). 
  • Truth: knowledge that exists within a particular discourse and is bound up with power.
  • Power: a matter of complex relationships rather than property inherent in certain classes or individuals

Queer Theory
  • ‘Queer’ is defined as against the normative.
  • Queer Theory: a collection of intellectual engagements with the relations between sex, gender and sexual desire.
  • The view of ‘self’ shifts in queer theory: the individual is not seen as atomistic, or as a holder of objective knowledge or an essential identity. The self is a socially constructed fiction (p. 50).

Judith Butler
  • Foucault’s analysis was almost exclusively male focused. 
  • She agrees with Foucault: sexuality is discursively produced and she also claims that gender is a product of culture. 
  • Gender, for Butler, is performance .“It is through the stylized repetition of particular bodily acts, gestures and movements that the effect of gender is created as ‘social temporality. We do not behave in certain ways because of our gender identity, we attain that identity through those behavioral patterns, which sustain gender norms’”(p. 53).
  • We are, according to Butler, identities without essences, subjects in process.

Who is Eddie Izzard?

Julian Clary?


  1. And why is it viewed as the natural, normal sexuality?

    I think this universal notion of hetersexuality as the norm in our society has been penetrated in the mind of people from the beginning of history. We have so deeply been thought that heterosexuality is the norm and I believe for centuries people were afraid to violate this norm in fear of being punished by society. I think as people and nations have evolved people are beginning to appreciate the alternatives and are being more open minded. I give great credit to scholars and professors that have committed so much of their time to this topic in order to shed light on this manner. I also believe a lot of people believe only in hetersexuality due to their religious affliation. So many religions teach man and women relationships as being the only acceptable relationships for a intimate couple to hold. I think heterosexuality may be the norm currently but I think as a universive we will see this concept change.

  2. Yes. Thanks for this comment...A big part of our time this semester will be spent tracing how this type of 'heteronormativity' is shifting and why...