12 Historically Important Perverts and How They Changed the World

Marquis de Sade. Smithsonian Magazine

Marquis de Sade

Donatien Alphonse Francois, Comte de Sade , better known to history as the Marquis de Sade (1740 – 1814), was a French aristocrat who became so notorious for his deviant sexual practices, perversions, and erotic writings – which combined pornography with philosophy and violent sexual fantasies – that his name gave rise to the terms sadist and sadism.

Unlike other famous figures on this list, who had significant life accomplishments in fields outside the bedroom that sufficed to earn them a place in history, de Sade was a pervert who is known to history only for being a pervert. He did write about politics and philosophy, but were it not for the sexually deviant things that he did, and the sexually deviant things that he wrote about really liking to do, little would be known today about history’s most famous Marquis.

An advocate of radically unrestrained freedom, de Sade’s sexual fantasies’ emphasis on violence, criminality, and blasphemy – and his real-life partaking in criminally violent sexual practices – kept him behind bars in prisons and insane asylums for most of his adult life as, on and off, he spent 32 years behind bars, including 10 years in the Bastille. Most of his writings were penned while he was incarcerated.

He was addicted to prostitutes from early on, and even more addicted to mistreating them. In the early 1760s, he first appears in the record after numerous Paris prostitutes complained of his mistreatment, which led to several short jail stints, before he was exiled from Paris to his countryside residence. The details of the abuse are murky, but the fact a French aristocrat ended up behind bars during the Ancien Regime, based on his treatment of prostitutes, indicates seriousness.

His first big scandal occurred in 1768, when he lured a street beggar to his home with an offer of a housekeeping job, then tore off her clothes, tied her to a sofa, and alternated between flogging and pouring hot wax on her. His victim finally escaped out a second-floor window, but his family made the ensuing investigation go away with a royal decree that removed the case from the jurisdiction of the courts.

Another scandal followed in 1772, when de Sade and his body servant sodomized prostitutes in Marseilles after incapacitating them with doses of Spanish fly. They skipped the trial, fled to Italy, and were sentenced to death in absentia. They were caught and imprisoned in Savoy, but escaped after a few months and hid in de Sade’s rural castle in southeast France.

There, de Sade had a high turnover of employees, as he kept hiring youngsters as domestics, only for them to quit within a short time, complaining of the Marquis’ sexual predation and mistreatment. When the parents of local boys and girls complained to the authorities, de Sade was forced to flee to Italy once more, until things quieted down.

He returned in 1776 and resumed his perversions, which steadily intensified, with one scandal following another in quick succession. Finally, the authorities tricked de Sade in 1777 into going to Paris to visit his supposedly sick mother – unbeknownst to him, she had actually died – and there, he was arrested and locked up in the dungeon of a royal fortress. He was kept there, in harsh conditions, until 1784, when he was transferred to the Bastille, where he remained until transferred to a mental asylum two days before that famous prison’s storming in 1789 kicked off the French Revolution.

De Sade was released in 1790 amidst France’s revolutionary turmoil. Taking to the new order, he took to calling himself “Citizen Sade”, and within months got himself elected to the National Convention as a representative of the far left. He barely survived the Reign of Terror, during which he was imprisoned for a year, emerging from jail in 1794 utterly destitute.

In 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered his arrest for pornographic and blasphemous novels he had written a decade earlier, and had him imprisoned without trial. In 1803, his family had him declared insane and transferred from prison to a mental asylum. There, he continued writing, and staged plays with inmates as actors. His writing career finally came to an end in 1809, when the police ordered de Sade kept in solitary confinement, and deprived him of pen and paper.