200 Years of Sadomasochism


Fifty Shades of Grey, Secretary – all have been associated with the gradual increased perversion of society’s sex drive. However, nothing quite competes with the shocking sexual extremity depicted by Marquis de Sade.

The original scroll of Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom” is going on display for the first time in France after the Letters and Manuscripts Museum in Paris secured the rights. It will mark the 200th anniversary of Sade’s death. It is arguably one of the most censored pieces of work in history, depicting a shocking tale of rape, torture, paedophilia and murder, and will now be shown in the original unedited form.

The scroll which will be on show in the Letters and Manuscript Museum in Paris
The scroll which will be on show in the Letters and Manuscript Museum in Paris

The author described it as “the most impure tale that has ever been told since our world began.” It took him only 37 days to write, during his 1785 imprisonment in the Bastille, Paris. Despite Sade thinking the work was lost or destroyed when the prison was raided and looted during the French Revolution in 1789, the twelve metre-long scroll was later found hidden in his cell.

The terms “sadism” and “sadist” are derived from Marquis de Sade’s name, as reading “120 Days of Sodom” and any other of his works, such as “Justine”, will establish. The novel begins by listing 600 passions combining sexual fantasy with violence, exploitation and a substantial lack of morals. These include men who like to masturbate in the faces of seven-year-old girls, men who prostitute their own daughters and watch the proceedings, and others who mutilate women by tearing off fingers or burning them with iron.

The French National Library competed for the ownership in legal proceedings against the Letters and Manuscript Museum; despite their unsuccessful claim, Bruno Racine, the president of the National Library said in a statement “we are pleased that the legal status of the manuscript has been resolved and that it has been returned to France…It is part of France’s cultural heritage”.

For most feminists he is the embodiment of misogyny, yet Sade is a figure of great cultural importance for France: he represents the idea of unrestrained sexual freedom and has influenced many philosophers around the world. Whether the impact of his work has always been for the benefit of academics, writers and social commentators is of course widely disputed. It has been suggested that many murderers, particularly of children, sought the works of Sade for inspiration, for example the ‘Moors Murders’ committed by Ian Brady.

However depraved or extreme the works are regarded, the significance for French writing and culture has been profound, and partakers in any form of sadomasochism owe Sade for his ideas. The 1994 R v Brown case whereby five men were found guilty of inflicting actual bodily harm during sadomasochism sexual acts signified the stance the UK had on such activity. Since the decision, the UK has become more liberal after widespread judicial and academic criticism of the outcome. It has been suggested that S&M is now a frequently common practice in the bedroom: within the past year Anne Summers’ sale profits have seen an increase of 60% in the sale of blindfolds; a 35% increase in the sale of rope ties; a 30% increase in sale of leather and metal handcuffs and a 15% increase in the sale of both whips and restraints, largely thanks to the promotion S&M received after the widespread success of Fifty Shades of Grey.

The current legal stance on such behaviour is not the sexual fantasy that Sade depicted – with the prevalent need for safety being emphasised through safe words and code colours to signify a pain threshold. The ultimate sexual freedom and liberation which Sade sought is still being restricted in the name of public interest through consideration of the affect on public health and safety if unregulated practice escalated. However, the modern practice of sadomasochism is nonetheless a by-product of Sade’s imagination and his influential works which are still being studied 200 years after his death.


Third year law student with an interest in criminal and international law, particularly the criminalisation of sexuality (paraphilia; BDSM; prostitution; consent; and HIV transmissions). My research encompasses viewpoints ranging from legal theory and literature to the wider political, social and cultural framework in which criminalisation works within.

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