Was The Marquis de Sade Actually ‘Wicked’?

Meet the controversial sexual libertine, prisoner, intellectual, storyteller behind ‘sadism’.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you probably know a thing or two about Donatien Alphonse François, more popularly referred to by his title, Marquis de Sade. Sade has been hugely influential to the BDSM community, in fact the “S” in BDSM stands for sadism, and it’s derived entirely from his name. There’s plenty that Sade has written on the subject of sexual domination, not to mention the numerous other criminal and fetishistic themes his work has dealt with. Beyond that, he’s become kind of an unlikely sexual icon, giving us permission to confront and entertain our own fantasies.

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Photo – H. Biberstein in L’Œuvre du marquis de Sade, Guillaume Appolinaire (Edit.), Bibliothèque des Curieux, Paris, 1912

Sade developed something of a reputation as a sexual libertine in eighteenth century France, a time that was no doubt oppressive and stifling to those with a more unbridled disposition. While libertinage wasn’t particularly unique among France’s Ancien Régime, Sade’s particular brand was.

An open atheist, it’s said that Sade, unlike his aristocratic peers, would frequent common brothels accompanied by his attractive valet. They would take turns sodomising one another, and in one famous instance, they apparently switched roles so that Sade became the servant and addressed his valet by his own title. Sade’s trenchant individualism and the zest with which he pursued his own desires went against everything that his contemporaries believed in and made him a scandalous figure. Accounts of his exploits include torture, abusive sexual situations, and highly unusual sexual subjects among others.

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Photo – Mubi (Still from the 1969 movie, Justine)

That being said, there are those who would argue these allegations. His biographer, Francine du Plessix Gray, has noted that “there are plenty of non-violent sadists and the marquis was one of them.” If this is actually the case, why do we persist in believing that Sade was so ‘wicked’?

Simply put: his books. All that we really know about Sade comes from his oeuvre of written work and accounts from his age. Novels like the 120 Days of Sodom, Justine and Juliette are spectacularly violent but whether or not they speak to the man behind them is something else entirely. Some contend that his work was influenced by a life in prison, and that the themes of cruelty, violence, power and dominance that he dealt with were performances of his own fantasies of revenge.

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Photo – Mubi (Still from the 1969 movie, Justine)

120 Days of Sodom, for example, was written while he was imprisoned in the Bastille. Satirizing the debauched excesses of France’s ruling class, the book is brutal – a piece of horror fiction more than erotic writing. Strangely enough, just before the revolution occurred, Sade was moved to detention on the outskirts of Paris. Finally, he was freed and appointed a Revolution judge. Ironically, the Revolution government imprisoned him yet again, this time for being too lenient. This goes against who we believe Sade to be; that is, a man comfortable asserting his will and exacting punishment on others, yet provides more evidence of how complicated a figure he was.

Whether or not Sade was a sexual psychopath or an intellectual obsessed with liberty and individualism remains to be seen. His legacy, however, is much clearer. If anything, Sade has taught us that, with consent, performing f*cked up fantasies does not intrinsically mean that we too are f*cked up.

Written by Hugh Jasse

An eloquent soul, a lover of women, fine wine, and travel. I can often be spotted aboard a skiff in Santorini, catching rays and artfully plucking at my lute.