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© Ellie Foreman-Peck

Can 65 million readers all be wrong? If the sales of E.L. James's ghastly S&M saga Fifty Shades of Grey are anything to go by, the Marquis de Sade should be enjoying a revival. Implicitly, the eager devourers of "mummy porn" are joining Oscar Wilde, Simone de Beauvoir and Jacques Derrida in paying homage to the man who brought us sadism, His Satanic Majesty himself. But can we really credit the Enlightenment's most famous swinger with the boom in handcuff sales? 

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) may have been many things-anarchist, libertine, criminal psychopath, or victim of state tyranny — but he was certainly a rotten pornographer. Those dipping into The 120 Days of Sodom, for example, in anticipation of a cheap thrill will be disappointed. Sade's women do not, like the heroine of Fifty Shades, experience orgasms that, send them swirling "like a washing machine on spin cycle". The greatest threat to their virtue is being bored to death.

Sade's writings contain interminable descriptions of every variety of sex which maximise how many people can put what where; but erotica is not his forte or even his purpose. Unlike his disciple Pauline Réage's Histoire d'O, where the familiar paraphernalia of Sade's imagination are adopted as stage-dressing for a disquietingly arousing meditation on what it means to be a slave for love, Sade himself saw his sexual material as part of a subversive philosophical project. In his own lifetime, the racier stuff remained anonymous. Instead, he churned out some 20 dreary plays during his brief period of freedom in the 1790s, only one of which was (unsuccessfully) performed. 

It is incarceration, not sex, which is the key to Sade. He spent 32 of his 74 years imprisoned without trial for blasphemy and "libertine dementia". As he observed in a letter to his wife Renée-Pélagie, who remained devoted to him throughout their 25-year marriage, he had written of many crimes, but committed none. (It is true that he buggered his valet, Latour, which was then a capital offence. Nowadays they could have married, but in 1772 they had to settle for being burned in effigy.) 

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