Cet article a été publié dans Österreichische Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaften, 3/11/2000/, numéro spécial " Im Inneren der Männlichkeit " et sur le site Gay and Lesbian Studies at the University of Amsterdam
( http://www2.fmg.uva.nl/gl/)

Sade, masculinity and sexual humilitation



During the eighteenth century, new ideals, theories and prac tices of masculinity and sexuality developed in the countries of Northwestern Europe. This article discusses these ideals using the example of the life and the works of the marquis de Sade (1740-1814). His view on male honor, sexual humiliation, masturbation and same-sexual acts are so interesting because they were in direct opposition to both old and new ideals of masculinity. I will survey his life and some of his works before reviewing his philosophy and his views on masculinity. The article will end with the importance of his work for his own times and for contemporary discussions.

New ideals of masculinity

Various authors examined new ideals of masculinity developing in the eighteenth century. Randolph Trumbach (1998) has pointed for England to the origin of the heterosexual male in the 1730's who had to prove that he was no molly (homosexual in contemporary parlance) by visiting whores. The Europe-wide struggle against masturbation, starting about the same time, can be analyzed as both a sexualization of male culture and a plea for its chastity while making sexuality the core of a new educational system (compare Foucault 1976; Tarczylo 1983; Stengers & Van Neck 1984; Stolberg 2000). Thomas Laqueur (1990) has pointed to the invention of a sex dichotomy at the end of the Age of Reason, with males being the superior sex. Abigail Solomon-Godeau (1997) has discussed major changes in male representations from feminine and libidinous to brave and chaste around 1800. She attributes this change to the political ideals of bourgeois citizens who exemplified the new virtues in more sober clothing. Exhibitionism and splendour became female instead of male privileges. The new ideals of the French Revolution separated public and private, leaving the political field to men whose freedoms in the private realm included the control of women and children. George Mosse (1985) has indicated the impetus the studies of Johann Joachim Winckelmann on ancient Greek art but also the Wars of Liberations against Napoleon's armies gave to the development of nascent ideals of muscular masculinity.

The new masculine ideals were quite ambiguous. While the English males Trumbach discusses, were obliged to prove their heterosexuality, the male friendships in England and Germany of a slightly later period Mosse discusses, are highly homoerotic. The double bind of the obligation of sexual chastity as well as of showing off heterosexual exploits must have been maddening. These ambivalences have of course produced feelings of guilt that kept the masters of the world themselves under control. The proscription of onanism will not have contributed to a decline in self-stimulation as boys always got more chances to masturbate, but to a rise in their feelings of shame. Processes of male individualization were at the same time processes of onanization. While self-stimulation as solitary vice (male hand on penis) looked like a homosexual act, as mutual masturbation between males it simply was a same-sexual act, endangering the straight masculinity of young men.

The homoeroticism of public life including education, politics and the military, has largely contributed to samesexual emotions, relations and acts. But the men involved in such relationships, received the social message that homoeroticism should not lead to homosexual acts. As sodomy, such acts were in the eighteenth century nearly all over Europe prosecuted as capital crimes. In much literature of the time, the borderline of passionate friendship and its physical expressions was discussed. The German philosopher Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) posed the question during the so-called Socratic wars, if Socrates was a pederast. His conclusion was that it was better for Christianity to overlook this vice in the revered philosopher. Hamann continued: "One cannot experience a vital friendship without sensuality, and perhaps a metaphysical love sins more grossly against the fluids of the nerves than does a bestial love against flesh and blood" (Hekma 1989: 437; Derks 1990: 62-73). Ambivalence indeed ruled, but Hamann expressed remarkably more trust in physical than in metaphysical love among men. This position was quite uncommon for his times.

Sade's life and work

It is interesting to read the work of marquis Donatien Alphonse François de Sade against this background of male anxieties about masculinity and sexuality. Both his work and his life have become over the last two centuries the epitome of perversion and sexual abuse, and Krafft-Ebing used his name for a sexual perversion. But the common opinion that Sade was a sadist, is mistaken. He was more on the masochist side. The desires of Sade, as it appears both from his work and his life, were to be whipped and sodomized. He was a masochist and passive sodomite who transformed his desires into the most interesting and radical theory of masculine sexuality in modern times (Hekma 1999).

Sade had no qualms about same-sexual pleasures and described them lasciviously. He went even much further than the homosexual rights movement that only started a century later and denied the importance of anal sex in homosexual relations. For Sade, sodomy was to the contrary central to his practices and theories. Both he himself and the libertines of his novels gained their main pleasures from passive and active sodomy.

His straight marriage was an arrangement of convenience between the rich family of recent nobility of his wife and his own impoverished family of old heritage and great distinction. The continuous devotion of his wife to the charming but irate marquis during the many years of his imprisonment, against the sentiments of her own mother, was a sure sign of a largely unrequited love. The letters they exchanged are a touching, well written testimony of their devotion. But love and sex were different practices for Sade, and perhaps Sade's wife was an accomplice in his sexual endeavours, but certainly not its object.

Sade's life and work has been the subject of numerous biographies and studies (LeBrun 1986; Lever 1991). On several occasions, the libertine marquis was involved in sexual scandals. The two first Parisian cases involved a prostitute who was beaten and had to perform blasphemy under pressure of Sade after she had refused to whip and abuse him. The set-up is typical for the desires of the marquis. He only abused the women after they refused to revile him and to insult God. He became a sadist when his submissive propositions were refused. The most interesting scandal was in 1777 the affaire in Marseilles where Sade organized an orgy with some prostitutes and his servant. Being whipped and sodomized by his servant in the presence of the whores offered Sade his major stimulation. The whores however filed a complaint because they thought the aphrodisiacs he had offered them, were poison. Sade and his servant received the death penalty for sodomy and poisoning but as they had fled, only their portraits were burned. Later, Sade's sentence was commuted but then he was imprisoned on his family's request for an indeterminate period with a "lettre de cachet". Sade entered the Vincennes and Bastille prisons that he left just before the latter was destroyed by the Parisian population on the 14th of July, 1789. In these prisons, he wrote some of his major works like "The 120 days of Sodom". These works confirm Sade's major sexual interests already known from the scandals, but pressed to their extremes.

Sade had in modern terms masochist and homosexual, but also masturbatory interests. Seen the abomination that selfstimulation had become, it is interesting to read Sade's prison-letters. His wife sent him on request specifically produced dildo's that he used regularly to sodomize himself during his solitary pleasures. It would be interesting to analyze the stories in "The 120 days of Sodom" as a progression of fantasies used for masturbatory practices. In Sade, there is no shame or anxiety involved in self-stimulation. The lack of scenes of masturbation in his works may be attributed to the circumstance that most solitary acts make use of fantasies that include partners, surely when they are put into text. Sade's interests in sodomy, pederasty and onanism, and in violence directed against the self evidently invert nascent ideals of masculine sexuality.

Two novels

In this article, I will discuss two of Sade's novels "Philosophy in the Boudoir" (1795) and "The 120 Days of Sodom" (written in the Bastille before July 1789; first published in 1915) that are most explicit on his sexual philosophy. The first book offers a short and not too brutal entry to Sade's work. In the boudoir of Madame de Saint-Ange, the libertines, her brother le Chevalier de Mirvel and Dolmancé, introduce Eugénie, the beloved of Madame, into a life of lust. The initiation is a mixture of libertine discourses and sexual practices. Halfway, a servant of madame is summoned in because of the size of his genital, and at the end the mother of Eugénie enters. She tries to take her daughter home, but instead she will be the victim of libertine lusts.

The boudoir of the title is incorrectly translated into English as bedroom, while a boudoir is a space between bedroom and street, between public and private where the owner of the house receives his guests. For Sade, sexual pleasure is not a private, but a semi-public affair. The separation of state and citizen that came with the French revolution meant privatization of sexual desire and criminalization of "public indecencies". Different from this dichotomy of private and public, Sade picks up with his boudoirs and orgies in castles and bordello's middle terrain between the two sides of the dichotomy. For him, sexual privacy has less attraction than a game of exhibitionism and voyeurism. In this respect, his work once more opposes enlightened ideas on state and privacy.

The play with looking and being looked at is also a regular theme in "The 120 Days of Sodom". This novel tells the story of an orgy of four libertines who take a winter retreat on the Castle of Silling in the Black Forest that not even birds are able to enter during the orgies. One of them, the duke, gives before the orgies start a lecture to the victims that includes a self-description of the libertines: "Beings of a profound and recognized criminality, who have no god but their lubricity, no laws but their depravity, no care but for their debauch, godless, unprincipled, unbelieving profligates, of whom the least criminal is soiled by more infamies than you could number .." (251).

The group of people that is dragged off to this hidden prison consists of the four wives of the libertines, and eight boys and eight girls of the greatest beauty around age 15 who have been chosen out of a much larger group. Not against their will have come eight male fuckers around age 25 whose main quality consists in the size of their cocks and four madames who come from the world of bordello's and whose main task it is to tell sexy stories. Four other women embody depravity with their old, diseased and ugly carcasses. Monstrosity inspires even more lust in Sade's libertines than beauty. The last group consists of six women who do the cooking of the most delicious dishes and serve the drinks. The dinners are copious, the drinks so abundant that nobody has to go to bed sober. The novel discusses in detail the first month with stories of shit and sex while the stories of anal sex, cruelty and murder for the three following months are only handed down in stenographic notes. The well-written stories of the madames are followed up by rather crude descriptions of the sex acts that the stories have inspired. At the end, only 16 of the 46 persons who came to the castle, will leave the fortress alive.

Beyond good and evil

Sade's work was in many ways typical of the pornography that was produced during the Enlightenment, being a collation of sexual tales, philosophy and political criticism in a literary and humorous style. It is outstanding in its field because of the quality of its style and the extremities of its philosophy and sexual games. Because of its distinction, it entered recently the heaven of French literature the Pléiade. It is also a work difficult to deal with because it blurs the boundaries between treatise and novel. His oeuvre is often read as an exposition of his ideas, but because of its literary form, Sade created a distance between content and author. He even refused to acknowledge the authorship of many of his works for the obvious reason that his work was considered obscene and as such subject of criminal prosecutions. One of the main pamphlets he wrote, "French, another effort to be true republicans", is embedded in his "Philosophy in the Boudoir". It is a text that the main libertine of the novel, the passive sodomite Dolmancé has bought on the streets of Paris just before the orgy in the boudoir takes place. So, Sade distances himself five times from this text in a text that is an anonymous product of the revolution, brought in by this sodomite and read by one of the other libertines in a novel of which Sade denied the authorship.

This little essay has often been read as a synopsis of the philosophy of Sade as exposed in his novels. The main argument is quite straightforward. The text proposes to form free citizens while opposing the twin oppressions of royal serfdom and religious superstition. The state should not block the natural lusts of man which include incest, rape, whoring, sodomy, pederasty and murder. The last thing the state should do would be to punish such pleasures with the death penalty (that Sade faced twice). Lust murder was more acceptable to Sade than capital punishment. He was not a male chauvinist who saw prostitution as work by women for men but he included all forms of prostitution, of men for men and women and also of women for women. He was in favour, one could summarize, for a general circulation of bodies. A major criticism that could be directed against his libertarian message, is Sade's assumption that he as a nobleman of some fortune will pull the strings of the sex games.

Christianity had made a distinction between good and bad, while Sade clarifies in many of his works that it is better to spit on God and derive lust from blasphemy. Man should go beyond good and evil, and enjoy evil as well as good, beauty as well as ugliness and filth. The persons, regrettably mainly women, who have succumbed to catholic doctrines of charity and desire for the just, will suffer because evil is as much of part of life as good. It is better to enjoy both pleasure and pain, because a one-sided belief in the just will make the believer suffer from evil. Life is not good or evil, not eros or thanatos, but both together. Lust murder is one of the ways to enjoy violence in pleasure. Murder is the destiny of people who remain attached to Christian ideals. As Dolmancé says, "wolves don't eat each other". The effort for republicans is apparently to become wolves. The debauchee will incite his partners in crime to many evil acts, but do them no harm.

Sadian inversions

The philosophy as exposed by Sade in his novels is often an inversion of ideas that became popular with the Enlightenment. Sade's work can in many parts be read as a critique and even a negation of the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other philosophers of his time. Of course, some others offered him more positive inspiration. While society moved towards heterosexual ideals and started to propagate reproduction as a demographic device, Sade stressed the self-evident pleasures of sodomy. Most of his libertines prefer the arses of young males above those of women, and like to be fucked themselves along that canal. In "La philosophie dans le boudoir", not only horror is expressed at coital sex, but the main "good" character, a mother and wife, has her cunt sewn shut after she has been infected with a venereal disease. In a sense, she has become again a virgin and as such one of the few coital objects of desire, next to pregnant women. The only reason why Sade's libertines support marriage and reproduction, is to be able to commit incest and adultery and to blur family relations. For some of them it is a dazzling experience to fuck someone who is the offspring of incestuous relations with mother, wife, sister and daughter at the same time.

At a time that heterosexuality inside marriage was coded as natural, Sade expressed in "La philosophie dans le boudoir" that incest, prostitution, sodomy, pederasty and violence are natural expressions of desire. His novels can be read as the most elaborate catalogue of sexual perversion ever written. His gender position is well-defined. Although most of his leading libertines are men, women who have learned to enjoy the pleasures of evil and the pains of justice, have an equal footing with men. Most women have however fallen prey to the doctrines of the church and thus become easy victims for libertines. While Malthus was proposing his theory of scarcity, Sade believed in the abundance of nature. In stark contrast with the anti-masturbation theory of Tissot and others who stressed the necessity to spare sperm for procreation, Sade indicated its abundance and suggested that spoiling it without an aim like reproduction, made its expenditure all the more exciting. Spoiling sperm posed no problem at all as it is produced in endless quantities by the male body.


Perhaps we could deduce the ideals of masculinity in the late eighteenth century by the way Sade discusses them. His work is so revealing because he brings to the surface what in most material of his days is kept secret or is not discussed. Of course, his persuasions are usually the opposite of general opinion. In the opening scenes of "La philosophie dans le boudoir", the straight and well-hung knight of Mirvel discusses his sexual exploits with the queen Dolmancé. He says he is only available for such bizarre inclinations if a charming person insists on it. The last thing he would do is to show attitude or to beat up the person who suggests such relations as other anti-sodomitical males apparently do: "I've none of that ludicrous arrogance which makes our young upstarts believe that it's by cuts with your walking stick you respond to such propositions" (188). This kind of inclinations is in nature, and why should the person thus afflicted not act upon his desires. For Mirvel, such proposals are a compliment, and he has no intention to refuse them or to harass the concerned person. He not only fucks Dolmancé, but afterwards returns the pleasure. Sodomite Dolmancé had been very excited and asked Mirvel: "deign, O my love, deign to serve me as a woman after having been my lover, and enable me to say that in your divine arms I have tasted all the delights of the fancy I cherish supremely" (190). Thus happens while Mirvel at the same time sodomizes another male present at this scene. In his acts, the straight Mirvel shows that he does not doubt his masculinity or heterosexual preferences by having sex with men, not only in the active, penetrating position, but also being passive and penetrated. He is simply not interested in proving his masculinity or heterosexuality, he is interested in sexual pleasures whichever those may be.

In Sade's work, there is always a strict division of male and female roles with which he confirms apparently the sex dichotomy that developed, according to Laqueur, in the eighteenth century. But Sade is a master of inversion and all his male libertines like Le Chevalier prefer at times the socalled female roles. The four main protagonists of "The 120 days of Sodom" have, like Dolmancé, a strong propensity for sodomy, particularly in its passive form. One libertine still fucks from the front, but he does so because his enormous dick makes the act for the concerned women an act of violence. Another of the men has a predilection for oral sex while the bishop who has the strongest inclination for males, abhors cunts and can not get a hard-on for half a year after he has seen one. They are all of the opinion that men look best when they are adorned with female attributes, and women when they resemble most closely men.

In "The 120 days of Sodom", the libertines have married wives who are the daughters of their partners in crime and who have been raped by their fathers. The bishop marries the daughter of his brother who is a result of his own sperm -the only time he ever fucked coitally. In the end, the women are the wives of all men making it possible for their husbands to combine several crimes simultaneously like rape, sodomy, incest and adultery. The wives who have to be obedient to their husbands according to ecclesiastic law, are treated as the lowest servants and face the worst destiny in the orgies in the castle of Silling. Here, the laws of marriage are not inverted, but driven to their extreme logic: if women have to be submissive to their husbands, those can exploit them until the utter limit which will be in this novel lust murder for three of them.

The libertines are not only married to their wives, but are at the same time also the husbands of four of the kidnapped beautiful boys. Four of the so-called fuckers become again the husbands of the libertines who function as their wives. The example of the Roman emperors Nero and Heliogabal is followed but broadened by Sade's libertines. They marry as males each other's daughters and moreover young boys while they marry as wives these well-endowed young men. They enter a triple instead of a double marriage. The eight kidnapped young girls are left out of this arrangement. They are obliged to marry the remaining four young boys for the amusement of their masters. The libertines are rude and cruel to their wives, more so for the women than for the boys, but submissive, sluttish and shameless facing the fuckers whose wives they are.

The libertines take their shamelessness a step further. Durcet says: "Nothing more logical than to adore degradation and to reap delight from scorn. He who ardently loves the things which dishonor, finds pleasure in being dishonored and must necessarily stiffen when told that he is." (495) The libertines not only love to be fucked in their ass, but their humiliation implies other acts. Being beaten is a major pastime in most of Sade's work, while lust for shit is the main topic of the first month in the castle of Silling. Piss sex, eating shit, licking filthy assholes are discussed in all their variations.

The enjoyments of sodomy, shit and scourging are usually considered to be humiliations for male persons and to threaten their masculinity. In Sade, the reverse is true. Access to sexual pleasure is offered by such disgraces. His interest in debasement goes so far that he prefers for the wildest orgies ugly female carcasses lost in misery above the beauty of young boys whose innocence awakens more anger than lust on the pivotal moment: "is it not true that it is always the crapulous individual who best executes the infamous deed?" (516) In a clear reference to his own life, Sade has Curval tell the story of his real-life penalty: "Everyone knows the story of the brave Marquis de S*** who, when informed of the magistrates' decision to burn him in effigie [his image], pulled his prick from his breeches and exclaimed: 'God be fucked, it has taken years to do it, but it's achieved at last; covered with opprobrium and infamy, am I? Oh, leave me, leave me, for I've got absolutely to discharge'; and he did so in less time than it takes to tell." (495) The idea of the utter debasement of being executed brings the horniest ejaculation.

The people who believe in christian morality and do not know sexual pleasure, need some force to get beyond norms of honor and morality. This is precisely a scheme that again and again returns both in the life and work of Sade. Some people refuse and resist sexual pleasure because they are victims of systems of morality. Women and priests are often faithful to catholic doctrines and reject what they consider to be evil. Most men at the other hand are entrapped in ideas on masculine honor and unmasculine shame. For Sade, women have to stop being stiff christians and men trying to keep their honour. Only the loss of christian morality and male honour offers a chance of pleasure. Only beyond honor and religion lust can be found in shamelessness and unmasculinity. Those who believe in good and just, will perish because of the reality of evil.

In "The Philosophie in the Boudoir", Eugénie starts off as an innocent girl who knows the religious doctrines her mother has poisoned her with. Madame de Saint-Ange falls in love with the girl and asks her brother Mirvel and Dolmancé to introduce her fresh lesbian lover into the pleasures of libertinism. In one day, she will be deflowered from front and back, have endured with some pain the enormous cocks of Mirvel and the servant of Madame, while all fuck from behind, the women using a dildo. The higher techniques of jerking, rubbing and sucking are taught. The whip is not spared on any ass. In this one day Eugénie proffers to be a very good pupil who starts off with innocent questions but knows after an exposé by Dolmancé that the answers most often will be the opposite of what she learned from her catholic mother. The expected male respect for the girl's virginity is inverted and the girl very much enjoys the loss of it. The pamphlet "French, another effort" is the pinnacle of the verbal instruction. The sexual zenith is with her mother who comes to pick up Eugénie at the end of the day. She will be raped, infected with venereal disease and have her cunt and ass stitched closed, this last act performed by her own flesh and blood. There are no regrets for blood bonds in Sade, to the contrary. It seems as if in Sade's novels, women have to learn from others the pleasures of libertinism while men fall prey to these without any education. They are more sexual than women. Here, Sade reproduces social prejudice instead of subverting it. This begs the question why libertinism has not already since long taken over the world. But Sade gives a utopian vision of libertinism and cares little for sustained historic arguments.

Sade ridiculed ideals of masculinity. When he comes to christian doctrines of sexuality, he gets very harsh the more so because he was himself a victim of the consequences of catholic teaching. He was convicted to the death penalty both during the Ancien Regime and by the Jacobins which explains his criticism not only of catholic doctrines, but also of enlightened philosophies. His lust ideals have removed him very far from the codes of honor of his social class. Sade was the essential outsider of the late eighteenth century. Shortly after the Jacobins sentenced, but just before they should put him to death, they themselves became victims of the guillotine. Sade's destiny however remained harsh. Both under Napoleon's regime and the Restoration, he was imprisoned, now not so much any longer for what he did but for what he wrote. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, his work would remain forbidden, at most published illegally, or in expensive rare editions. Sade's perversions and his devastating irony regarding male ideals made his work impossible for a remarkable long time.

The importance of Sade's work in his times

Sade made fun of the sexual morality and the masculine ideals of his times. At the same time, he expressed in the most offensive way libertine pleasures many men craved for. He brought out into the open hidden desires of both the men who espoused old ideals of masculinity and sexuality, and those who developed new ideals. As a man of high nobility and as a predecessor of modern times, he mocked both the old privileges of his class and the promised freedoms of the Enlightenment, and thus criticized both systems. He did to some extent and described in its extremes what many men would have given pleasure. His voice can be analyzed as a counter-melody in the field of newly developing theories and ideals. His libertines are in important ways the inverted images of the developing masculine and sexual ideals of his times. They do not care much about spoiling their sperm or being humiliated, whipped and sodomized, acts that provoked great anxiety among males that believed in their male honor and active sexual roles.

While Trumbach's straight males had to prove their masculinity by denying same-sex interests and by visiting prostitutes, Sade's libertines certainly use prostitutes, but not to prove their masculinity or the absence of same-sex inclinations. The men Trumbach describes, had to deny pleasures available to them, while Sade's libertines seem to do whatever they like. That is often less abusive than what the men did who succumbed to ideals of male honor and shame while it offered a richer practice. For Sade, being put to shame and submitted to humiliations is the way to get access to lust. Sade's work is his testimony to ideals of freedom that the Enlightenment promised but did not bring. The liberties it promised appeared to be subjection to an intrusive and omnipotent state. Sade offered a divergent perspective on nascent masculine sexual ideals that lingered on as an undercurrent in European history (compare Praz 1970). It remains a question whether the necessity of sexual humiliation for experiencing lust was an essentialist or historic strategy for Sade. Was it for all eternity the only access to sexual pleasure, or rather timebound and proposed against a background of catholic doctrines of chastity and noble beliefs of male honour? I would go for the historic answer: shamelessness opens a way beyond christian doctrines and male honor, and beyond the new masculine ideals of the late eighteenth century.

Sade fits quite well in the transformation of male representations that Solomon-Godeau describes. His masculinity is still libidinous, exhibitionist and ostentatious in the old, pre-bourgeois fashion of nobility. This style will be lost in the new masculine order, although revered by decadent writers of the late-nineteenth century. But while Solomon-Godeau (1997:216) opposes the male's earlier exhibitionism with his later scoptophilia (or voyeurism, erotic pleasure in the use of looking, in this case particularly at women), Sade already combines both. His gender performance is of another order.

It could be worthwhile to extend the gender system with a new terminology. Sade's libertines are not masculine according to the ideals of his times. As wives to their husbands-fuckers these debauchees are neither effeminate or transgendered. They refuse both the powerless effeminacy of fops and sodomites of an older generation and the domineering heterosexual masculinity of a new generation. They themselves are not androgynous, although they love it in boys and girls. It might be helpful to describe their refusal or transgression of both masculine, feminine and androgynous roles with a terminology of unmasculinity. Men who make a choice for feminine roles, may combat the sex dichotomy but remain within a gender dichotomy that unmasculine men shatter. Unmasculinity is different from effeminacy, feminity or transgenderism in its rejection of the gender opposition. Sade also wrecks the gendered dichotomy of looking and being looked at, of exhibitionism and voyeurism. At both ends, his lechers find pleasure which is, of course, a consequence of the multiple, passive and active, positions hisorgies require. Sade is in this perspective a forerunner of dandies, queers, transgenders and multisexuals.

The importance of Sade's work in our times

We are living in the shadow of another "sexual revolution", and again, Sade's criticism has not lost any of its urgency. Many of his points are still relevant, while some others are indeed outdated. Lasting results of the "revolution" of the 1960's were a change from eternal to serial monogamy, a flood of erotic imagery in the media and some minor progress in the field of women's sexuality and gay and lesbian emancipation. Sexual cultures have however not changed fundamentally over the last four decades. We still have to deal with the social impossibility of an easy-going sexual culture, a stagnation with the sex dichotomy, a continued belief in sexual privacy and primacy of love over sex. In most respects, Sade had already shown a different libertine eros without sexual privacy or a tyranny of love, and with gender inversions, confusions and transgressions. The contemporary sexual ideology with its sex dichotomy and beliefs of love and privacy impedes an easy-going sexual culture for obvious reasons. Sexual expressions are more than private affairs and often in direct opposition to ideals of love. Especially heterosexuality is inhibited by the sex dichotomy as is obvious through a comparison with a much more sexualized gay culture where no sex dichotomy limits a circulation of bodies for sexual pleasure.

Sade's tales of initiation underline the necessity of a sexual socialization that is not based in ideas of a development from innocence to knowledge, but in a sexy discourse that helps the kids to find their own sexual ways. Innocence is not a natural, but an imposed state. The blank stupidity of innocent people leads on many occasions in Sade's novels to impediments to lustful situations, and his main characters have to turn from the young and beautiful to the old and ugly to find solace for their excitements. His emphasis on violence stresses his difference from the hippies who declared "make love, not war". After the sixties, many hopes of sexual liberation were shattered because of the unveiling of a hidden world of rape, assault and harassment. Although Sade may have exaggerated the violence in sexuality, he nonetheless underlined pointedly the ferocity in sexual relations. Such furor is part of all social relations. Violence and conflict are not outside the field of a peaceful sexuality, but as much parts of it as of any other social phenomenon like maternal love, coupling, marriage, politics or sports.

In one respect Sade followed more or less the lines of enlightened thinking. He very much believed in nature and used in accordance with his times the terminology of inborn dispositions to explain and defend his desires. His lusts are repeatedly stated to be in nature. But while most philosophers only thought of heterosexual and reproductive relations to be innate, Sade included pederasty, prostitution, adultery, incest and lust murder among the natural inclinations. He more or less asserted that all sexual variations are in nature, and that there is no reason to object to them or forbid them. For him, all human and also "inhuman" passions are innate, and should thus have a place as well in culture and society.

Masculine ideals slowly got its imprint of bourgeois citizenship in the eighteenth century, but Sade took a great distance from these ideals. The focus of his criticism was their lack of hedonistic quality. His approach to transgress honor and shame and to indulge in humiliating experiences, ran and runs counter to expectations of male behavior. One could say that the situation has only worsened with the development of fresh ideals of sexual democracy and gender equality. While men formerly put women in submissive positions, this is no longer well received. Humiliation is refused in both genders. Only in a s/m-underground culture, degradation is still desired but often only in its more symbolic forms. An s/m-discourse of consensual sex, of contractual relations, of codewords that interrupt ongoing scenes and of situations that are dictated by the submissive, is itself submitting to dominant discourses of equality and democracy.

Humiliation, one could argue, has nowadays been made into victimization. Since two decades, confessing to have been a victim of sexual abuse or harassment has become widespread and well regarded (Jenkins 1998). This has led to a general feeling that sexual violence is morally wrong while definitions of abuse have been stretched very far including harassment, erotic conversations or sexual acts with younger people. Sade's approach to acknowledge and also enjoy the pleasures of violence, is now off limits. Victims of sexual violence often experience feelings of excitement during the act and are afterwards ashamed of such emotions. Disapproving attitudes towards such sexual violence create often negative feelings not only regarding sexual behavior in general, but also various forms of sociability. It could be worthwhile, following Sade, not only to accept the pleasures of abuse, but also to prepare children in sexual education on such contradictory sentiments that are not specific to cases of abuse, but also exist in erotic situations of mutual consent. The dichotomy of villain and victim, of amoral and innocent is as unreal and ineffective as male-female or gay-straight dichotomies. We have gone very far in discourses of sexual abuse, but such negative approaches not only impede erotic pleasures, they neither do contribute much to prevention of future abuse. Discourses of victimization that are becoming dominant, are counterproductive. They do not help victims of sexual abuse to get beyond feelings of violation or to accept pleasure beyond pain. Impedements to sexual pleasure in a sexualized culture only force offenders to continue their crimes.

Many men seem nowadays to be on their way to give up ideals of honor and practices of domination, and have tempered these down in favor of half-baked ideals of equality. Does this mean, to follow Sade, that lust also fades away and sex becomes boring while humiliation and submission are disappearing? There is no immediate answer to this question that Sade poses. There is in many situations nothing against democracy, as demonstrate Sade's libertines who have equal relations among themselves. But why should we oppose bonds of inequality that for sure will not wither away, between neither old and young, rich and poor, male and female nor the beautiful and the ugly. Equality in sexual desire is for Sade unimaginable, and therefor his libertines have to force their wishes upon their often unwilling victims. Perhaps we could say that sexual equality is only possible in societies that have straightened out difference. It might well be that democracy functions best not based on equality or indifference, but on a continuous production of endless differences including gender and sexual performances. Following Sade, combining democracy and equality could lead to a tyranny of mediocrity, and extinguish pleasures of inequality and diversity. One way to produce diversity and oppose forms of domination is inverting hierarchical dichotomies as Sade continuously does: by preferring sodomy above coitus, ugliness above beauty, spoiling above sparing sperm.

Sade seems to offer a utopia of multigendered and varied sexual pleasures that are produced through inequality and differentiation. It is amazing that capitalist societies that function in a similar way regarding capital and commodities, refuse to create a comparable world of circulating bodies and pleasures.



Copyright Gert Hekma, © 2000

© Le séminaire gai est un portail qui existe depuis 1998. Il est destiné à favoriser la dissémination des recherches sur l’homosexualité.