Rogues' Gallery: The Marquis de Sade

By Amara Lynn

August 06, 2020

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As much like we celebrate the lives and legacies of famous bis past and present, we must also recognize that not all bi people are role models. In fact, bi people, like all people, have the capacity for good and evil. These bis— our rogues— are complicated, multi-faceted human beings that fell off the righteous path for one reason or another, but they still contributed to our understanding of the world. 

The Rogues' Gallery gives us a place to explore these darker characters, examine their legacies, and debate to what degree they deserve their bad reputations.

With that said, let’s kick off our second addition to the Rogues' Gallery by examining the infamous Marquis de Sade: the world’s most famous sadist. By no means was de Sade the first to have sadistic tendencies, but he was so famous for his sexual tastes that his name has been used to describe those tastes ever since. 

Let’s unpack.

Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade, more commonly known as the Marquis de Sade, was a French nobleman who is remembered today for being a libertine with sadistic, extreme, illegal, and often immoral sexual appetites, many of which were expressed in great detail in his prolific writings. His most popular publications combined musings on philosophy, politics, and aesthetics with incredibly graphic descriptions of sex and violence— particularly against women and children. 

The Marquis de Sade was born on June 2, 1740, in Paris, France. His father abandoned the family when Donatien was a child. His mother, Marie Eléonore de Maillé de Carman, was forced to enter a convent in order to survive and a young Donatien was sent to live with his uncle. Under the care of his uncle, de Sade was raised by the household servants. They catered to his every whim, causing him to grow up spoiled, rebellious, and with a temper that startled his family and peers. When de Sade was six, he beat up another young boy so badly that there was serious doubt that his victim would ever fully recover. 

De Sade continued to have violent outbursts for another four years until his uncle grew tired of his temper and sent him to a strict boarding school in Paris, the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. At school, Donatien continued to get into trouble and his punishments were severe. The school favored flagellation as their primary method of correction. Scholars speculate that this harsh punishment would cause his later obsession with the practice of flagellation. At 14 he was sent to an elite military academy and climbed the ranks, eventually becoming Colonel of a Dragoon regiment and fighting in the Seven Years' War. 

Portrait of the Marquis de Sade, 1760 by Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo

Even though Donatien’s father had abandoned him when he was very young, he still wanted his son to make a good marriage when he returned from the war. In 1763, de Sade was married to the daughter of a respected government official, Renee-Pelagie de Montreuil. After he was married, he would often rent rooms and explore his illicit desires with both male and female prostitutes. 

His criminal record started shortly after his marriage as he forced a prostitute to incorporate crucifixes into their intimate acts. She promptly told the police, who arrested and imprisoned de Sade for blasphemy, a serious crime at the time. Though he did spend some time in prison for the sacrilegious act, he was soon released. He and his wife never got along well after that incident, but since divorce was near impossible, they remained together and eventually had three children.

The Marquis de Sade’s crimes continued with the infamous Rose Keller Affair. On Easter Sunday in 1768, de Sade invited a maid into his room and proceeded to sexually assault and torture her. His family attempted to pay her off to keep her quiet, but de Sade was sent to the fortress of Pierre-Encise for his crimes. After his eventual release, he attempted to return to his old life but was forced to live on the edges of society. Four years after his release, he was caught again committing sodomy with four prostitutes and his manservant, Latour. Even though sodomy was not uncommon among the aristocracy of the time, he was charged with the non-lethal drugging of the prostitutes with the supposed aphrodisiac Spanish Fly. The Marquis de Sade and Latour both fled to Italy and were sentenced to death in absentia.

He dared to return to France in November of 1776, but quickly slipped back into his old ways. In 1777, after a series of scandals, he was arrested and sent to the dungeon on Vincennes. To everyone’s surprise, he was able to appeal his death sentence, but remained imprisoned. After a successful escape and recapture, he was moved to the Bastille in 1784. It was in the Bastille that the Marquis de Sade wrote 120 Days in Sodom, scribbled in tiny writing on a continuous roll of paper that he kept hidden in the walls of his cell. He was unable to finish the work before he was moved to an insane asylum near Paris. The storming of the Bastille occurred ten days after his release, and it led de Sade to believe that his manuscript had been destroyed in the clash. However, the manuscript was rescued by another inmate, though no one knows why.

The Marquis de Sade in Prison

After de Sade gained his freedom in 1790, he continued to write anonymously. Under Napoleon Bonaparte, he adapted to the new political order supporting the Republic and calling himself Citizen Sade, even climbing his way through the political ranks. He was elected to the National Convention representing the far left. He tried to push for the implementation of direct voting but was often ridiculed by his peers for his aristocratic upbringing.

In 1801, Napoleon ordered the arrest of the anonymous author of Justine, and de Sade was arrested at his publisher’s office and imprisoned without a trial. He was initially incarcerated in the Sainte-Pelagie Prison, but was soon moved to the infamous Bicetre Asylum after allegations that he was trying to seduce his fellow prisoners. His family intervened once again, having him declared insane in 1803 and transferring him the Charenton Asylum where he would stay until his death in 1814.

Even after his death, he was a conundrum. His will specifically stated that his body was not to be opened for any reason whatsoever and requested that it be left untouched for 48 hours in the place where he died. Then it was to be placed in a coffin and buried on his property in Malmaison. His unique requests were not followed and he was buried at the Charenton Asylum. He was later exhumed so that the skull could be used for various phrenological exams. His son had all of his remaining unpublished manuscripts burned, including his largest work, the multi-volume Les Journees de Fiorbelle.

His extensive writings also remain contentious. Some people argue that it is violent pornography with no literary value, while others claim that de Sade's writings are the work of the first true socialist. There have been socialist, Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic, and many other readings of de Sade's work. Others argue that people are simply projecting their philosophies on the smutty rantings of a mad man. His work has doubtless endured, despite being repeatedly banned by various governments, and remains in print to this day. 

Over the course of his life, de Sade spent 32 years— or almost half of his life— locked in prisons or insane asylums, with the vast majority of charges relating to inappropriate conduct, sexual assaults, and battery. Although many of his sexual appetites were undeniably reprehensible, many of his crimes would simply be considered kinks today. 

Was his reputation as a violent, lecherous scoundrel deserved? Absolutely. Did his bisexuality make him a violent, lecherous scoundrel? Absolutely not. Historically that distinction hasn't been made when it comes to the Marquis de Sade. His bisexuality, his desire to involve religious accouterment in his sex play, his sadistic nature, his kidnappings, his rapes, and his underaged victims have all been put on the same level playing field.

You can't deny that the Marquis de Sade was rogue, but being bi was not a part of that roguishness. 

photo/Smithsonian

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