Harvey Weinstein, Anne Faber and #metoo: what de Sade can teach us about abuse in society

4 minutes to read
Odile Heynders

Sex, harassment, abuse and humiliation are everywhere in the current Dutch public sphere. It all started with the disappearance of a young woman, who went on a bike tour near the city of Utrecht and was found dead two weeks later. Her name, Anne Faber, details of her life, her last sent selfie, were shared on social media and online news feeds. Many people helped to search for her in the woods. When her bike, bag and coat were found with on it the DNA of the perpetrator, the disappearance became a nationally experienced tragedy. Michael P. was arrested by the police and media discussions followed on how it had been possible that this man, charged for earlier rape of two young girls, had been walking and riding around freely.

In the same weeks, voices of women assaulted and harassed by film producer Harvey Weinstein in the US appeared on social media using the hashtag #MeToo (created in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke – but that now went viral). In France women shared the alternative #BalanceTonPorc (expose your pig), and in the Netherlands the hashtag #MeToo was used and personal stories of women having experienced rape and abuse were published as well. Writer Saskia Noort revealed how she was abused in her teenage years. 

In the NRC newspaper of 21 October a collection of 19 personal stories & pics was published in which sixteen women and three men told their narratives of abuse. Most of these stories were impressive, but somehow because of the quantity and ubiquity of it all, an atmosphere of ‘yet another story’ became dominant. The hashtag #MeToo underlines this: it opens a collective confession as well as an obsession with unpleasant experiences of sex. It reveals the voices of the victims but the abusers can stay silent.

The point of course is the absolute incomparability of the various experiences: violent rape and murder in a rainy wood is definitely not the same as going too far on a party. The psyche and behavior of a murderer is not at all the same as that of an overheated boss or boyfriend. Sex can be about violent fantasies and practices, but damaging the other is unacceptable.

There are many literary texts about sex, violence and the permeable boundaries of acceptable behavior. Texts that can help us to reflect and understand why and how abuse happens. One of the best examples is V. Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), a novel that is read by some as a love story of a mature man and a very young adolescent who pretends to be a grown-up woman. Others read it as a novel on abuse and improper male dominance and manipulation. The narrative is told after the events took place – as the protagonist explains to the court why he did what he did. The fact that there is judgement gives the novel a moral depth.

Sade’s novel is about cruelty and sexual dominance, about abstract morality -or libertine thinking- and crime. But importantly, it also teaches us something about perpetrators and the systematization that they hold on to.

Another even darker literary work on sex and violence, and definitely undesirable behavior is Marquis de Sade’s One hundred twenty days of Sodom. The book was written at the end of the 18th century, in the years of the French Revolution, of rational Enlightenment thinking and upcoming democracy. It was only published in the 1930s. This undeniably shocking book is about four aristocratic men (the Bishop of X (50), the Duc de Blangis (45), the Président de Curval (60) and the Banker Durcet (53)) who come together in an isolated château in the Black Forest with four female ‘storytellers’, a ‘harem of little [teenage] girls’ and a ‘harem of little boys’. There are ‘eight fuckers’ (mature men) and some other female characters as well, and the plot of the book is that they all together perform sexual orgies based on strict schedules and rules. The four female storytellers tell narratives of experienced abuse and sexual assault, followed up by absurd conversations on details in the stories and then copious meals. The effectiveness of the text is in the described details and the absolute lack of emotion. I quote just one passage:

As the same profusion reigned at every meal, to have described one is to have described them all; but as almost everyone had discharged, there was a general need to recuperate strength, and therefore the friends drank a great deal at this supper. Zelmire [a girl of 15, OH], to whom they gave the sobriquet of Duclos’ sister, was to an uncommon degree regaled during the subsequent orgies, and everyone simply had to kiss her ass. The Bishop left a puddle of fuck thereon, the three others restiffened over it, and they went to bed as they had the night before, that is to say, each with the wife he had had upon his couch, and with one of the four fuckers who had not appeared since the midday meal. (299/300).

Sade’s novel is about cruelty and sexual dominance, about abstract morality -or libertine thinking- and crime. But importantly, it also teaches us something about perpetrators and the systematization that they hold on to. The men are actors in a theater play, they enjoy their visibility and public attention. The ‘statutes’ are rules that keep self-reflection at a distance. The strict rhythms, so to say, of the performances take away the individual responsibility of each of the men.

Sade’s book is an almost impossible read, but at the same time a text that gives some insight in the minds and behavior of perpetrators, such as Joseph Fritzl or Marc Dutroux and his apathetic spouse Michelle Martin. The men create a system, life becomes theatrical, and morality and self-reflection are banned. To Simone de Beauvoir, in her essay ‘Must we burn Sade’, the book’s value is in its ability to disturb us, and to force us to re-examine thoroughly the basic problem ‘which haunts our age in different forms: the true relation between man and man’ (64). Sexual abuse and violence are not issues of different sexes, but of the organization and perception of society.



Marquis de Sade (1987), The 120 Days of Sodom and other writings, Compiled and translated by Austryn Wainhouse & Richard Seaver, with Introductions by Simone de Beauvoir & Pierre Klossowski: New York: Grove Press.