Category Archives: The Use of Pleasure

History of Sexuality: Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure by Michel Foucault

They Only Love You When You’re 17

Donatello's David
… when you’re 21, you’re no fun — “Seventeen” by Ladytron.

Rather than go ahead and type up notes for the entire The Use of Pleasure, I think my time would be better spent just typing notes for the “Erotics” chapter since it was the most interesting and the only one I really took anything away from. “Erotics” is the chapter in which Foucault discusses the problematic “relations to one’s own sex” (23). Foucault’s analysis of ancient Greek sexuality involves three aspects: dietetics (regime, diet, risks & dangers), economics (marriage, household), and erotics (sex with boys, the boy’s honor, objects of pleasure).

Erotics/A Problematic Relation

  • “The use of pleasures in the relationship with boys was a theme of anxiety for Greek thought” (187)
  • “the notion of homosexuality is plainly inadequate as a means of referring to an experience, forms of valuation, and a system of categorization so different from ours” (187)
  • “To have loose morals was to be incapable of resisting either women of boys, without it being any more serious than that” (187)
  • bisexual? “simultaneously or in turn, be enamored of a boy of girl” (188)
  • “they did not recognize two kinds of ‘desire,’ two different or competing ‘drives,’ each claiming a share of men’s hearts or appetites” (188)
  • “this option was not referred to a dual, ambivalent, and ‘bisexual’ structure of desire” (188)
  • “what made it possible to desire a man or woman was simply the appetite that nature had implanted in man’s heart for ‘beautiful’ human beings, whatever their sex may be” (188)
  • “the preference for boys or girls was easily recognized as a character trait” (190)
  • “it was not only permitted by the laws (except in particular circumstances), it was accepted by opinion” (190)
  • “a contempt for young men who were too ‘easy,’ or too self-interested; a disqualification of effeminate men…; a disallowance of certain shameful behaviors” (190)
  • “there was a clear awareness of this complexity” (191)
  • “the care fathers took to protect their sons from love affairs” (191)
  • “we affirm that this type [gay] of relation should not be assigned a lesser value, nor given a special status… the Greeks thought very differently about these things: they believed that the same desire attached to anything that was desirable — boy or girl — subject to the condition that the appetite was nobler that included toward what was more beautiful and honorable” (192)
  • “relationship that implied an age difference and, connected with it, a certain difference of status” (193)
  • “very young men were both represented and recognized as highly desirable erotic objects” (194)
  • “passivity was always disliked, and for an adult to be suspected of it was especially serious” (194)
  • disparity of relationship: “made it valuable and conceivable” (195)
  • “a male relationship gave rise to a theoretical and moral interest when it was based on rather pronounced difference on either side of the threshold separating adolescence from manhood” (195)
  • “the other partner, the one who was loved and courted, had to be careful not to yield too easily; he also had to keep from accepting too many tokens of love, and from granting his favors heedlessly and out of self-interest, without testing the worth of his partner; he must also show gratitude for what the lover had done for him” (196)
  • “a whole game of delays and obstacles designed to put off the moment of closure, and to integrate it into a series of subsidiary activities and relations” (197)
  • “in the case of relations between men and boys, we are dealing with a game that was ‘open'” (197)
  • “one could not exercise any statutory authority over the boy… he was free in his choices” (198)
  • “the decision was the boy’s alone to make… one was never sure of winning” (198)
  • “question of timing was important” (199)
  • “it was expressed in different ways — as a problem of ‘limit’ first of all: what was the age limit after which a boy ought to be considered too old to be an honorable partner in a love relation” (199)
  • “this involved the familiar casuistry of the signs of manhood. these were supposed to mark a threshold” (199)
  • “the first beard was believed to be that fateful mark, and it was said that the razor that shaved it must sever the ties of love” (199)
  • “helped to increase people’s sensitivity to the juvenile body, to its special beauty and to the different signs of its development; the adolescent physique became the object of a kind of cultural valorization that was quite pronounced” (200)
  • “in the sphere is sexual ethics, it was the juvenile body with its peculiar charm that was regularly suggested as the ‘right object’ of pleasure” (200)
  • “the double fear so often expressed in the lover, of seeing his beloved lose his charm, and in the beloved, of seeing his lover turn away from him” (201)
  • “it was not good to love a boy who was past a certain age, just as it was not good for him to allow himself to be loved” (201)
  • “on a very general level, this inquiry concerning relationships with boys took the form of a reflection on love” (201)
  • “Eros could unite human beings no matter what their sex happened to be” (202)
  • “the problematization of their relationship belonged to an ‘erotics'” (202)
  • “but in the case of a man or boy who were in a position of reciprocal independence and between whom there was no institutional constraint, but rather an open game (with preferences, choices, freedom of movement, uncertain outcome), the principle of regulation of behaviors was to be sought in the relation itself, in the nature of attraction… carried out in the form of a reflection on the relation itself” (202)
  • “in erotics, the game was more complicated; it implied self-mastery on the part of the lover; it also implied an ability on the part of the beloved to establish a relation of dominion over himself; and lastly, it implied a relationship between their two moderations, expressed in their deliberate choice of one another” (203)

Erotics/A Boy’s Honor

  • “finds expression in a vocabulary that refers constantly to honor and shame” (204)
  • “managed to preserve their honor in the course of their relationship” (205)
  • “especially sensitive to the division between what was shameful and what was proper, between what reflected credit and what brought dishonor” (205)
  • girls now: “their premarital conduct became an important moral and social concern, of itself and for their families” (206)
  • greek boy’s involvement with an older man: “related to his status, his eventual place in the city” (206)
  • trial period: “transitional age, when the young man was so desirable and his honor so fragile” (206)
  • tests as part of greek education: “demeanor of the body”, “one’s gaze”, “one’s way of talking”, “quality of one’s acquaintances” (207)
  • from the symposium: “‘no absolute right and wrong in love, but everything depends upon the circumstances'” (208)
  • “nothing is said concerning what is acceptable or objectionable in physical relations” (208)
  • “everyone must have known what it was honorable or shameful for a boy to consent to” (209)
  • “doubtless to exclude or advise against sexual practices that would be humiliating for the boy, putting him in a position of inferiority” (211) — so are the boys the tops or bottoms?
  • “it was not good (especially in the eyes of public opinion) for a boy to behave ‘passively,’ to let himself be manipulated and dominated, to yield without resistance, to become an obliging partner in the sensual pleasures of the other, to indulge his whims, and to offer his body to whomever it pleased and however it pleased them, out of weakness, lust, or self-interest” (211)
  • “what philosophy can show, in fact, is how to become ‘stronger than oneself’ and when one has become so, it also enables one to prevail over others” (211-212)
  • “where erotics takes the boy’s point of view, the problem is to see how the boy is going to be able to achieve self-mastery in not yielding to others” (212)
  • “later, in european culture, girls or married women, with their behavior, their beauty, and their feelings, were to become themes of special concern” (213)
  • “draw curiosity and desires around them” (213)
  • “there would be accentuation, a valorization, of the ‘problem’ of women. their nature, their conduct, the feelings they inspired or experienced, the permitted or forbidden relationship that one might have with them were to become themes of reflection, knowledge, analysis, and prescription” (213)
  • “in classical greece the problematization was more active in regard to boys, maintaining an intense moral concern around their fragile beauty, their corporal honor, their ethical judgment and the training it required” (213-214)

Erotics/The Object of Pleasure

  • “isomorphism between sexual relations and social relations. what this means is that sexual relations — always conceived in terms of the model act of penetration, assuming a polarity that opposed activity and passivity — were seen as being of the same type as the relationship between a superior and a subordinate, an individual who dominates and one who is dominated, one who commands and one who complies, one who vanquishes and one who is vanquished” (215) — i.e. if someone was penetrated during sex (e.g. women being fucked, men being fucked, anyone giving oral sex to a man) they were assumed to be subordinate and not as superior as the one doing the penetration
  • “this suggests that in sexual behavior there was one role that was intrinsically honorable and valorized without question: the one that consisted in being active, in dominating, in penetrating, in asserting one’s superiority” (215)
  • “as for the woman’s passivity, it did denote an inferiority of nature and condition; but there was no reason to criticize it as behavior, precisely because it was in conformity with what nature intended and with what the law prescribed” (216) — i.e. since women had “no choice” in their role, it wasn’t bad for them to be passive and penetrated… men, on the other hand, had the physical ability to penetrate so being penetrated wasn’t “natural”
  • the boy in a relationship with a man: “his place was not assailable to that of a slave, nor to that of a woman” (216)
  • “in the boy, the deficiency relates to his incomplete development” (217)
  • “among the various legitimate ‘objects,’ the boy occupied a special position. he was definitely not a forbidden object… nothing prevented or prohibited an adolescent from being the openly recognized sexual partner of a man” (217)
  • “an individual who had prostituted himself was disbarred from holding any magistracy in the city” (217-218)
  • “this law made male prostitution an instance of atimia — of public disgrace” (218)
  • “finding certain factors that constitute prostitution (number of partners, indiscriminateness, payment for services)” (218)
  • what made it worse: “placed himself and showed himself to everyone, in the inferior and humiliating position of a pleasure object for others; he wanted this role, he sought it, took pleasure in it, and profited from it” (219)
  • problem with those who were pleasure objects holding public office for other citizens: “they might come under the authority of a leader who once identified with the role of pleasure object for others” (219) — i.e. he wouldn’t be as assertive and superior as they wanted from a leader
  • “when one played the role of subordinate partner in the game of pleasure relations, one could not be truly dominant in the game of civic and political activity” (220)
  • “the difficulty caused, in this society that accepted sexual relations between men, by the juxtaposition of an ethos of male superiority and a conception of all sexual intercourse in the terms of the scheme of penetration and male domination” (220) — i.e. this basically refutes any claims made by people (especially queer theorists/activists) that homosexuality as accepted, practiced, and embraced in classical greek times.
  • “and while this was no problem when it involved a woman or a slave, the case was altered when it involved a man” (220)
  • “one had to keep in mind that the day would come when he would have to be a man, to exercise powers and responsibilities” (220-221)
  • “antinomy of the boy”: “one the one hand, young men were recognized as objects of pleasure — and even as the only honorable and legitimate objects among the possible male partners of men; no one would ever reproach a man for loving a boy, for desiring and enjoying him, provided that the laws and proprieties were respected. but on the other hand, the boy, whose youth must be a training for manhood, could not and must not identify with that role” (221)
  • “but to be an object of pleasure and to acknowledge oneself as such constitute a major difficulty for the boy” (221)
  • “because it feminized one of the partners, whereas the desire that one could have for beauty was nevertheless regarded as natural” (222)
  • “in the phaedrus, the physical form of the relation where a man behaves like a ‘four-footed beast’ is said to be ‘unnatural'” (222) — i.e. doggie style is bad. hehe.
  • “there was a reluctance to evoke directly and in so many words the role of the boy in sexual intercourse” (223) — i.e. the love that dare not speak its name
  • “other times the ‘thing’ is designated by the very impossibility of naming it” (223)
  • “reluctance to concede that the boy might experience pleasure” (223)
  • “affirmation that such a pleasure could not exist and as the prescription that it ought not to be experienced” (223)
  • “and no one was more severely criticized than boys who showed their willingness to yield” (223)
  • “he was only supposed to yield only if he had feelings of admiration, gratitude, or affection for his lover, which made him want to please the latter” (223)
  • “it was not the sharing of a sensation” (224)
  • “he was supposed to feel pleased about giving pleasure to the other” (224)
  • “sexual act… needed to be taken up in a game of refusals, evasions, and escapes that tended to postpone it as long as possible” (224)
  • now: “the viewpoint of the subject of desire: how can it be that a man can desire forms whose object is another man” (225)
  • greeks: “their anxiety focused on the object of pleasure, or more precisely, on that object insofar as he would have to become in turn the master in the pleasure that was enjoyed with others and in the power that was exercised over oneself” (225)
  • point of problemization: “how to make the object of pleasure into a subject who was in control of his pleasures” (225)


As I’m reading Foucault’s The Use of Pleasure, which is ultimately his analysis of Greek sexuality, I must admit that I’m finding it difficult to really try to visualize (er, not like that, but I mean really try to picture the culture and practices in my head) the society that Foucault presents. The Greeks he is writing about lived and wrote nearly 1,500 years ago — that is a long time. Our current ideas of individuality and politics and whatnot are pretty radically different.

Take the idea of sexual relationships with boys. The way Foucault writes (and I don’t think Foucault is alone in presenting this idea), sex between older men and younger boys was quite normal. Foucault goes a long way to explain how these relationships caused great anxiety for the Greeks and that they weren’t “homosexual” as we understand the concept — it was a matter of desiring a thing of beauty (and young boys were considered beautiful) and a way of combining pleasure and knowledge so that the boys could grow up to be better leaders.

In addition to the sex with boys thing, Foucault also describes marriage relationships. According to Foucault (and, again, many other writers and historians), during the Greek times men in their 30s would marry wives in their late-teens and early-20s. The marriages had more to do with politics and the creation of a household unit than love or anything terribly romantic. The wives had to remain faithful to their husbands while the husbands could find pleasure elsewhere (though it was considered best if the men remained faithful as well — though, as Foucault mentions, it wasn’t even a question about whether women could stray or not — it was assumed and ingrained that they would only have sex with one man). Further, the wives had no autonomy in their life and were mainly around to clean the house and produce children.

So like I said, I was having a difficult time imagining how a society would look with those particular sexual and politics structures. Not that I haven’t seen old movies where women are the property of their husband and whatnot — that I could imagine. I do have a difficult time picturing a society where women had no subjectivity at all.

Orlando Bloom as Paris of Troy
Well, looking to the contemporary film Troy was no help, whatsoever.

I can understand that when someone makes a historical film, they want to make it a bit more contemporary so that the audience doesn’t feel so far removed that they are trying to understand the culture instead of the characters or storyline… but still, I find it a little distressing that the filmmakers failed to even try to problematize some of the more interesting relationships, such as whether Helen choose to was forced to return to Troy with Paris (in the film, it’s obvious that she choose to and that her and Paris have such a passionate relationship in which they are equals and he values her as a person and all that) or even the strange relationship between Hector and Paris.

I should add that I’m not terribly familiar with the story, but I remember that when we read it in high school it wasn’t as idealized as the film version.

And to be honest, I don’t know why I expected more from such a big budget film, but oh well. We all make mistakes. Does anyone have any recommendations of films that actually try to reflect classical times in a more realistic way?

Pages 1-32


  • the term “sexuality” did not appear until the nineteenth century (3)
  • “experience that caused individuals to recognize themselves as subjects of a ‘sexuality'” (4)
  • experience = “the correlations between fields of knowledge, types of normativity, and forms of subjectivity in a particular culture” (4)
  • desire and the subject of desire were withdrawn from the historical field, and interdiction as the general form was made to account for anything historical in sexuality” (4)
  • three axes that constitute sexuality:
    1. science
    2. systems of power that regulate it
    3. recognition of self as a subject of it
  • Christian tradition and psychology turn people into the “desiring subject” — “both appear nonetheless to be dominated by the principle of ‘desiring man.'” (5)
  • Foucault wants to: “analyze the practices by which individuals were led to focus their attention on themselves, to decipher, recognize, and acknowledge themselves as subjects of desire” (5); to find “a hermeneutics of desire” (5)
  • “why is sexual conduct, why are the activities and pleasures that attach to it, an object of moral solicitude? why this ethical concern?” (10)
  • “‘techniques of the self,’ no doubt lost some of their importance and autonomy when they were assimilated into the exercise of priestly power in early Christianity, and later, into educative, medical, and psychological types of practices” (11)
  • “and now i would like to show how, in classical antiquity, sexuality activity and sexual and sexual pleasures were problematized through practices of the self, bringing into play the criteria of an ‘aesthetics of existence.'” (12)
  • “this volume, The Use of Pleasure, is devoted to the manner in which sexual activity was problematized by philosophers and doctors in classical Greek culture of the fourth century B.C.” (12)

Introduction/Forms of Problematization

  • “the meaning of the sexual act itself: it will be said that Christianity associated it with evil, sin, the Fall, and death, whereas antiquity invested it with positive symbolic values” (14)
  • relations between individuals of the same sex
  • fear and sex:
    • “obsessive worries that medicine and pedagogy nurtured on the subject of pure sexual expenditure” (16)
    • gonorrhea
    • “some even advised to indulge only ‘if one wants to do harm to oneself.’ a very ancient fear, therefore” (17)
  • ideal and conduct:
    • elephants have good morals (!??!?!): saint francis of sales: “recommending the example of the elephant and the good morals it manifested with its mate. it was ‘only a large beast, but the most worth of all the animals on earth, and the one with the most intelligence… it is tenderly loving with the one it has chosen, mating only every three years, and then only for five days, and so secretly that is is never seen in the act; but it can be seen again on the sixth day, when the first thing it does is go straight to the river and bathe its whole body, being unwilling to return to the herd before it is purified'” (17)
    • mutual faithfulness i.e. monogamy is valued
  • homosexuality
    • nineteenth century stereotypical image of a “homosexual or introvert”: “the way he gets dolled up, his coquetry, but also his facial expressions, his anatomy, the feminine morphology of his whole body” (18)
    • “the theme of role reversal and the principle of a natural stigma attached to this offense against nature” (18) — i.e. what is really wrong is that the man isn’t acting manly, and therefore “god” or whoever makes it known that this person isn’t a real man
    • soft boys: :”seneca the elder notices around him, with great repugnance: ‘Libidinous delight in song and dance transfixes these effeminates. braiding the hair, refining the voice till it is as caressing as a woman’s, competing in bodily softness with women, beautifying themselves with filthy fineries'” (19)
    • “socrates’ first speech in the Phaedrus alludes to it, when he voices disapproval of the love that is given to soft boys” (19)
    • “it would be completely incorrect to interpret this as a condemnation of love of boys, or what we generally refer to as homosexual relations” (19) — it is more about gender inversion
    • “definite aversion to anything that might denote a deliberate renunciation of the signs and privileges of the masculine role” (19)
  • abstention from sex
    • “the virtuous hero who is able to turn aside from pleasure” (20)
    • “renunciation can give access to a spiritual experience of truth and love that sexual activity excludes” (20)
    • “the thematics of a relationship between sexual abstinence and access to truth was already quite prominent” (20)
  • “one must also not lose sight of the fact that the Church and the pastoral ministry stressed the principle of morality whose precepts were compulsory and whose scope was universal… in classical thought, on the other hand, the demands of austerity were not organized into a unified, coherent, authoritarian moral system that was imposed on everyone in the same manner” (21) — i.e. in Christianity people had to follow the rules or they were punished, in classical times, people were expected to follow the rules for their own good and in order to become better
  • in classical times: “the proposed–more than they imposed–different styles of moderation or strictness” (21)
  • “it should not be concluded that the Christian mortality of sex was somehow ‘pre-formed’ in ancient thought” (21)
  • Foucault doing a quick feminist critique:
    • “it was an ethics for men: an ethics thought, written, and taught by men, and addressed to men–to free men, obviously. a male ethics, consequently, in which women figured only as objects, or at most, partners that one had best train, educate, and watch over…” (22)
    • “it was an elaboration of masculine conduct carried out from the viewpoint of men in order to give them their behavior” (23)
  • axis of experience/domains (23)
    1. relations to the body
    2. relation to the other sex
    3. relation to one’s own sex
    4. relation to the truth
  • “locate the areas of experience and the forms in which sexual behavior was problematized” (23)
  • “why was it in those areas–apropos of the body, of the wife, of boys, and of truth–that the practice of pleasures became a matter for debate?” (24)
  • “how did sexual behavior, insofar as it implied these different types of relations, come to be conceived as a domain of moral experience?” (24)

Introduction/Morality and Practice of the Self

  • definition of morality: “one means a set of values and rules of action that are recommended to individuals through the intermediary of various prescriptive agencies such as the family (in one of its roles), educational institutions, churches, and so forth” (25)
  • “they form a complex interplay of elements that counterbalance and correct one another, and cancel each other out on certain points, thus providing for compromises or loopholes” (25)
  • ethical work: “bring one’s conduct into compliance with a given rule, but attempt to transform oneself into the ethical subject of one’s behavior” (27)
  • telos of the ethical subject: an action is not only moral in itself, in its singularity; it is also moral in its circumstantial integration and by virtue of the place it occupies in a patter of conduct” (27-28)
  • “in short, for an action to be ‘moral,’ it must not be reducible to an act or series of acts conforming to a rule, a law, or a value” … “but self-formation as an ‘ethical subject'” (28)
  • “decides on a certain mode of being that will serve as his moral goal” (28)
  • “in certain moralities the main emphasis is placed on the code, on its systematicity, its richness, its area of behavior… the important thing is to focus on the instances of authority that enforce the code, that require it to be learned and observed, that penalize infractions” (29)
  • “the subjectivation occurs basically in a quasi-juridical form” (29)
  • “moral conceptions in Greek and Greco-Roman antiquity were much more oriented toward practices of the self and the question of askesis than toward codifications of conducts and the strict definition of what is permitted and what is forbidden” (30)
  • “to remain free from interior bondage to the passions, and to achieve a mode of being that could be defined by the full enjoyment of oneself, or the perfect supremacy of oneself over oneself” (31)

Using pleasure

The History of Sexuality: Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure
In an attempt to be an academic while not in school, I’m going to make use of my journaling and note taking skills and see if I can’t use this blog as a place to jot down thoughts as I read various books.

To see how this works out, I’ll start with the book I am currently reading: *The History of Sexuality: Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure* by Michel Foucault.

Last week I finished reading (for the second or third time) his *History of Sexuality: Volume 1: An Introduction*. Maybe if I get really ambitious I will try to transcribe some notes from volume one — we’ll see how this first experiment works out.

Read all posts relating to History of Sexuality: Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure.

Here is the citation for the edition I am using:

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1985. Trans. of L’Usage des plaisirs. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1984.