The Marquis de Sade’s Attitude Towards Women
The Marquis de Sade was an author in France in the late 1700s. His works
were infamous in their time, giving Sade a reputation as an adulterer, a
debaucher, and a sodomite. One of the more common misrepresentations
concerning Sade was his attitude toward women. His attitude was shown in his
way of life and in two of his literary characters, Justine and Julliette.
The Marquis de Sade was said to be the first and only philosopher of vice
because of his atheistic and sadistic activities. He held the common woman in
low regard. He believed that women dressed provocatively because they feared
men would take no notice of them if they were naked. He cared little for
forced sex. Rape is not a crime, he explained, and is in fact less than
robbery, for you get what is used back after the deed is done (Bloch 108).
Opinions about the Marquis de Sade’s attitude towards sexual freedom for
women varies from author to author. A prevalent one, the one held by Carter,
suggests Sade’s work concerns sexual freedom and the nature of such,
significant because of his “refusal to see female sexuality in relation to a
Sade justified his beliefs through graffiti, playing psychologist on
In the stylization of graffiti, the prick is
always presented erect, as an alert attitude.
It points upward, asserts. The hole is open, as
an inert space, as a mouth, waiting to be filled.
This iconography could be derived from the
metaphysical sexual differences: man aspires,
woman serves no function but existence, waiting.
Between her thighs is zero, the symbol of nothingness, that only attains
somethingness when male principle fills it with meaning (Carter 4).
The Marquis de Sade’s way of thought is probably best symbolized in the
missionary position. The missionary position represents the mythic
relationship between partners. The woman represents the passive receptiveness,
the fertility, and the richness of soil. This relationship mythicizes and
elevates intercourse to an unrealistic proportion. In a more realistic view,
Sade compares married women with prostitutes, saying that prostitutes were
better paid and that they had fewer delusions (Carter 9).
Most of Sade’s opinions of women were geared towards the present, in what
they were in his time. He held different opinions, however, for how he
envisioned women in the future. Sade suggests that women don’t “fuck in the
passive tense and hence automatically fucked up, done over, undone.” Sade
declares that he is all for the “right of women to fuck.” It is stated as if
the time in which women copulate tyrannously, cruelly, and aggressively will be
a necessary step in the development of the general human conscious concerning
the nature of copulation. He urges women to copulate as actively as they can,
so that, “powered by their hitherto untapped sexual energy they will be able
to fuck their way into history, and, in doing so, change it” (Carter 27).
Women see themselves in the reflection form Sade’s looking glass of
misanthropy. Critics say that Sade offers male fantasies about women in great
variety, along with a number of startling insights. He is said to put
pornography in the service of women (Carter 36).
The Justine series, consisting of six editions, was one of the most
infamous and well known series written by Sade. While the series had several
editions, the storyline remained basically the same throughout, though becoming
more verbose in each edition.
Two characters emerge from the Justine novels: Justine and Juliette, who
are sisters orphaned at an early age. These two characters represent the
opposite poles of womanhood in Sade’s mind. Justine is the innocent, naive
type who gets mistreated throughout her life. Juliette is Sade’s ideal woman,
being uninhibited in her sexual conduct and in her life, murdering and
copulating at whim. She, naturally, does well in life (Lynch 41-42).
The story of Justine is a long and tragic one, taking the naive young girl
abroad, where she is used and discarded by man and woman alike. This is due to
the fact that she is a good woman in a predominately male world. “Justine is
good according to the rules concerning women laid down by men.” Her reward is
rape, incessant beatings, and humiliation (Carter 38).
Justine’s first encounter in life is with a priest who tries to seduce her
instead of offering her the assistance she seeks. Next, she encounters a
financier named Dubourg. He abuses her and makes her steal. Dubourg is
rewarded for the vices he has by getting a lucrative government job (Lynch 47).
Justine soon is received by Du Harpin, an expert in making loans, plotter
of the robbery of a neighbor, who is utilizing Justine as a intermediary.
Justine is arrested as a result of Du Harpin’s misdeeds. She is soon released
by a woman named Dubois, who engineers their escape via setting aflame the
prison (Lynch 42).
Dubois leads Justine to an encounter with her brigand friends, led by
Coeur-de-fer (French for Heart of Iron). They rape Justine between raids in
which she doesn’t participate. During one of their raids, they rob and beat
Saint-Florent. Justine helps Saint-Florent escape. He promptly expresses his
gratitude by raping her and stealing the little money she had (Lynch 42).
Justine is left abandoned and distraught in the woods. She happens upon a
youthful count named Bressac in the middle of a homosexual act with one of his
servants. Rather than killing her then for her indiscretion, Bressac brings
her home and forces her to assist with his plan to murder his wealthy aunt.
Justine flees after four years with Bressac (Lynch 42).
She is soon hired by a “surgeon” who is better described as a vivisector,
who practices his science on his daughter and on young children. Justine,
feeling pity, attempts to save Bressac’s daughter, is caught, and is branded
as a common criminal (Lynch 42).
Justine’s cycle of misfortunes continue for some time. She is visited
once again by Dubois and twice by Saint-Florent, both of whom incriminate her
in something not of her doing. She finally finds her long-lost sister,
Juliette, who she recites her life’s story to. Her sister grants her freedom.
She lives for a short time afterwards, shortly disfigured by lightning and
eventually killing her (Lynch 43).
Juliette, sister of Justine, lives a different life altogether. Her early
life revolves around her tutors, who introduce different trades. Her first
tutor was Mme. Delbene, a libertine, who introduces infliction of pain for
pleasure. Mme. Delbene’s final affirmation to Juliette was, “Oh, my friend,
fuck, you were born to fuck! Nature created you to be fucked” (Lynch 52).
Her next mentor is Mme. de Lorsange, who brings an introduction to theft,
a supplement to carnal pleasure. Under Mme. de Lorsange’s tutelage, Juliette
becomes a skilled thief, robbing many. Here Juliette learns the intricacies
of being antiethical (Lynch 53).
Juliette’s next learning experience comes from Noirceuil, a believer in
the duality and balance of virtue and vice in people. He is a totally
independent individual. He justifies himself by tracing immorality through
antiquity. He arranges a transvestite wedding, where he dresses up as a woman
and Juliette dresses like a man. He later violates Juliette’s seven-year-old
daughter, roasting her alive afterwards with her mother’s permission.
Noirceuil is awarded a position in the ministry (Lynch 53).
Juliette later becomes involved with Saint-Rond, a minister and king’s
favorite. He introduces her to the Society of Friends of Crime. Justine is
initiated by being asked questions about her sexual activities (both past and
present). Her last oath uttered upon entrance in the Society read,”Do you
swear to forever live in the same degeneracy as you have all your life?” She
replied yes (Lynch 53).
Sade’s two aforementioned characters represent two factors in Sade’s life:
reality and fantasy. Reality, in Sade’s eyes, is Justine. Innocence without
prosperity, an image of woman. Juliette represents fantasy. She is what Sade
expects and hopes the woman of the future will resemble: uninhibited, free,
equal (Lynch). So says Gullaume Appolinare in Lynch:
Justine is the old woman, subjugated, miserable,
and less than human; Juliette, on the contrary,
represents the new woman he glimpses, a being we
cannot conceive of, that breaks loose from
humanity, that will have wings and will renew
Sade justified his writings and feelings by saying, “Flesh comes to us out
of history, so does the repression and taboo that governs our experience of
flesh.” He cites flesh as verification of itself, rewriting the Cartesian
cognito, “I fuck therefore I am” (Carter, 11).
Sade punished virtue in his writings. Women are the representation of
innocence to him, which isn’t too far from how his contemporaries felt. By
punishing Justine in his novels, he isn’t punishing woman, simply the innocence
that woman represents.
While Sade believed that the woman with which he was copulating was simply
there to serve his needs, he also felt it could (and should) work the other way
around. It is as if he is saying, “Just because I use you, it doesn’t mean
you can’t use me.” Sade couldn’t be a sexist in the modern sense, simply
because he advocated free sexuality so much.
He saw the women of his time and was troubled by it. In turn, he wrote
about these women, represented in Justine. The woman he saw in the future were
a bolder, free-spirited kind, represented in Juliette. It was the promise of
this new genre of women he looked forward to and was enlightened by.
In short, Sade disliked subjugated women and liked empowered women. He
liked women closer to his own persona. Sade was probably the first
pornographer, and as such, caused quite an uproar. Most of the judgements made
about Sade by critics were reflexes, made without taking in the full spectrum
of what he was, what he wrote, and what he did. The judgement of Sade by the
populus, therefore is one more severe than it should be.