Sade, Sluts and Rush


WHAT WITH ALL the talk of sluts these days from Rush Limbaugh, they’ve been much on my mind, and with them, Sade, yes, the Marquis de, the 18th century French nobleman for whom sadism is named. Not that I want to enact his activities on Rush (though there’s a thought) but rather because Sade, he loved sluts – and not just because of the sex either. While Rush denigrates women who make demands and try to take control of their bodies, Sade embraces them.  In short he sees sluts (that is, prostitutes, not Rush’s misuse of the word) as feminist prototypes. Sade even believed in birth control. That was one reason he was pro, as he put it, “buggery.” Back in the 18th Century it was handy for preventing pregnancy.

In Sade we get a topsy-turvy world, the flip side of Rush’s certainly. He embraced views that seem radical even today. He was against capital punishment and the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. Lust was fine and good. “Natural,” he called it, and theft for him was a means to “distribute wealth more evenly” (his words exactly according to my translation). He called marriage “slavery,” this in 1795 when slavery was still legal in the new United States. On the subject of women’s chastity and those who want to protect it, he wrote: “There is nothing so barbarous or ludicrous as to have identified their [that is women’s] honor and their virtue with the resistance women show the desires Nature implants in them, and which continually inflame those who are hypocrite enough to pass censure on them.” Take that, Rush.

Now Sade is tricky, difficult even. He’s hard to read and hardly sympathetic when you do. His stories are picaresques, repeating the same mistakes not just twice but over and over, through trial after trial after trial and sex scene after sex scene after sex scene. The books are boring. There’s no character development, and the sex isn’t even very sexy. It’s extreme. The man was a coprophiliac, which says enough, thank you, about his tastes. Still, over the last half-century or so, he’s been taken up by theorists and thinkers for his response to the Enlightenment and pointing out just how unreasonable reason can be and how unsocial society. The man spent years in jail and saw there the inanity of civilization.

There’s much I like about Sade. He was happy to trade in his fancy title and aristocratic position and go from marquis to citizen during the French Revolution. As a judge, though, a position he held during the Reign of Terror, he wouldn’t, couldn’t, approve of the guillotine. Not to take another life. He didn’t believe in capital punishment. Or, in fact, much punishment unless it was for pleasure. Most of these truths were pointed out by the British novelist Angela Carter. She wrote about him from a feminist perspective in 1979 in The Sadeian Woman and found in him a model for women’s liberation and sexuality. In her book-length essay, she also tackles his tales of two sisters, Justine and Juliette.


Now take two sisters, one good, one bad, and add in a moral, and that’s usually the makings of a fairytale, kind of like Cinderella rewarding virtue. The good one would be virginal, doing all the housework and never complaining. She longs for her escape but never fights back, then as a reward for this complaisance, for bundling up her longing in passivity, she gets her prince, a castle, a glass slipper, money, rewards, you name it…. The bad one is a slut, who violates the rules of the male-dominated world and doesn’t stay in her place. The two stake out the poles of femininity. Yes, Madonna and whore. You can almost find them inscribed in the word “woman,” at the very start in the wo, where we’re pulled between woe and whoa, the one who’s put upon and the other who stops you in your tracks with her audacious behavior.

The woe and whoa are Sade’s Justine and Juliette. This battle between good and bad, passive and active, the well-behaved sort happy to wait for her prince vs. the strident one who takes control of her life, is played out by the two of them. They’re sisters and opposites – also the opposite of what the moral would be if this were a traditional fairytale. Justine was good in the “woe” sense of the word, and Juliette bad as in, “Whoa, she got away with that?”

They occupy two separate “novels” by Sade, though to call them novels is being generous. The girls were raised by nuns and abandoned by their parents, left with no money. Justine clung to virtue. Given a chance to make money as a slut, that is, as a prostitute, she chose not to. Over and over anything that would save her, she refused. Her fate is there in Sade’s subtitle: “The Misfortunes of Virtue.” Penniless and downtrodden, she refuses to budge as if the reward of virtue itself is being stepped upon and stepped upon. For Justine, her vagina= virginity= virtue. If Sade hadn’t made clear enough his feelings about the matter in that quote of his, you can see it in Justine’s efforts to preserve her virtue. In its service, she makes dubious decisions that see others punished, even killed.

Meanwhile Juliette is “bad,” that is in the way of the traditional world, the Rush Limbaugh world. She dares to make demands and take control of her fate, and to believe in contraception, as she would. She is a prostitute, after all. She leads a happy and prosperous life starting as a slut. (I should add here too that Sade came out for the rights of women to do with their bodies as they wanted, in a pamphlet he embedded in Philosophy in the Bedroom).

Back in the late 18th century ca. the Revolutionary War and French Revolution, there were few ways women could earn a real living, and sex was certainly one of them. It still is. There was also marriage, which, back then, was as contractual as prostitution, though a man could force his wife into sex without it being called rape. That’s one of the reasons Sade himself decried the institution.

Now Sade is a bit like the Bible, that is, open for much interpretation. Everyone from Foucault to Bataille, Baudrillard and Adorno has adopted him. In the 19th century Baudelaire read him over and over. Just imagine if Flaubert had, what would have become of Madame Bovary? I’d be tempted to suggest Sade to Rush, and, lord knows, one of his minions might find this post in his Google Alerts, but it would be lost on minion and Limbaugh both. They’d just say there’s some kooky liberal embracing Sade and Sluts. I am, that’s true. However, he offers a far better reality than Rush’s.

He rounds on all the institutions Limbaugh fights to keep safe. Everything Rush says is bad, Sade comes out swinging for. It’s an inverted world, like seeing Santorum called “santorum.” I’d love such an appropriation of Limbaugh’s name. Once I thought he’d had his comeuppance in his addiction to pain pills. You’d think at rehab he’d have learned some sympathy or, at least, humility. Someone I know, a local good ol’ boy here in the sticks where I live, put it most aptly on Facebook: “A well-known, vocal opinionator, who has made millions preaching from one side of the road with his blinders on, gets dumped by his sponsors as soon as he becomes a bit toxic, and now he finds himself on his knees pandering for support, blabbering for salvation from his vitriolic nonsense. Who is the slut now?”

Then, there’s Nina Turner, the Ohio state senator, whose response to Limbaugh has been proposing that all men wanting Viagra (remember, he was arrested for having an illegal ‘script) go through an embarrassing degree of tests and secure a notarized letter from a sexual partner saying they can’t get it up.

Carter herself would have seen the irony but wouldn’t have stood for such vindictiveness. In her mind if it’s wrong for women, it’s wrong for men. She ends The Sadeian Woman with a long quote from Emma Goldman:

“A true conception of the relation of the sexes will not admit of conqueror or conquered; it knows of but one great thing: to give of one’s self boundlessly, in order to find one’s self richer, deeper better. That alone can fill the emptiness, and transform the tragedy of women’s emancipation into joy, limitless joy.”

Love will break the bonds of all, and as the New York Times reported recently, it can conquer more than that too. A simple touch from a loved one creates a deep sense of security, and that touch has been clinically proved to reduce pain. Perhaps that’s what Rush needs. Someone to hold his hand. Maybe that would have kept him off the oxy and out of rehab?

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, right?

About Jennifer Kabat

A recent finalist for Notting Hill Editions’ Essay Prize, Jennifer Kabat (@jenkabat) is working on a book called Growing Up Modern, exploring art, ideology and the landscape from the modernist suburb where she grew up to the Western Catskills where she lives now. She’s been awarded a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for her criticism and teaches at NYU. She contributes to BOMB, The Believer and Frieze and was once an editor at the legendary style magazine The Face in London.
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