The Laws of Eighteenth-Century Sex: Thérèse philosophe

Jennifer J. Davis

University of Oklahoma


Thérèse philosophe records the tale of one young woman’s sexual education, as she relates her experiences in explicit detail to her noble lover. The Thérèse of the title opens the novel with an incredulous query, “What, Sir, seriously you want me to write my story?” (I,1) [1] In this opening salvo, Thérèse is wry and self-deprecating, stressing both her own lack of education and the incapacity of words to capture either the physical actions or metaphysical systems at the heart of her experience. She finally consents to write down the story that she has already recounted in person, framing a narrative dedicated to evaluating the power of the written word to excite physical response. The ensuing pages juxtapose the narrator’s sexual awakening with extended meditations on philosophical materialism, natural law theory, and refutations of established principles of Catholic doctrine.

Thérèse presents both extramarital affairs and extreme piety as key elements of the social landscape in her natal province of Vencerop (Provence). Thérèse’s father died while she was a baby, and her mother, previously a galante who had taken a marquis as a lover, found solace in religion. As a child of seven, Thérèse was discovered rubbing “that part that distinguishes us from men” to a pleasurable release. The narrator presents her younger self’s habitual nocturnal masturbation as evidence of a natural drive so powerful and yet so contrary to contemporary morality that her mother resorted to tying the girl’s hands together to stop it. Even awake the narrator found ways to gratify her innate sexual curiosity. Nor was she unusual in this behavior, for she recalls childish games with groups of children dropping pants and lifting skirts to examine and kiss other children’s private parts, motivated by curiosity and “simple nature.” (I, 11) In this telling, nature is equated with sexuality, and this law of nature demands the satisfaction of the physical desire for sexual pleasure.

At the age of eleven, Thérèse is placed in a convent. There the priests to whom she confesses teach her sexual excitement is not a simple, natural phenomenon but a satanic temptation to be avoided at all costs. Struck by the visceral metaphors these confessors offered likening her pubis to the fatal Edenic apple, and her playmate’s phallus to the Garden’s serpent, Thérèse avoided further masturbation until she turned 25. This attitude changed once she met the famous Père Dirrag and his young novitiate Eradice. This section contains a roman à clef based on a 1731 cause célèbre and causes Thérèse to question Catholic morality regarding sexuality.[2]

In the wake of this episode and its disturbing revelations, Thérèse’s own health falters. Close friends of her mother to whom she is confided attribute this to her awakened but unfulfilled sexuality. Desire is innate, instructs Thérèse’s first sexual educator, the Abbé T. It is “as natural as those of hunger and thirst; you need not seek them or excite them, but when you feel them, there’s nothing wrong with using your hand, your finger, to care for this part by agitating it as necessary.” (I, 89-90) He forbids her from pushing her finger inside, however, since “this could be a problem one day for the husband that you marry.” (I, 90) Church mandates against masturbation are ignored here, as the cleric advises Thérèse to follow the “laws of nature” rather than canon law. Still, the novel accepts the social mandate that women remain virgins until marriage with no discussion of why or how an intact hymen serves nature. Thérèse takes the Abbé’s advice, and in an explicit description, she chronicles her explorations of “this part that makes us women.” (I, 94) Soon afterwards, Thérèse overhears a conversation between the Abbé and his lover Mme. C. in which the prelate attributes Thérèse’s recovery to her faithful devotion to self-love that has caused her breasts to swell and a glint to return to her eyes.

Thérèse philosophe’s author makes an impassioned plea to regard sexuality as an aspect of human health that should be taken seriously by historians of science and eighteenth-century medicine.[3] Medical literature dating back at least to Hecquet’s essays on the convulsionnaires considered chastity to be a problem, although no self-respecting eighteenth-century physician advocated masturbation as a solution.[4] Here, Thérèse philosophe showcases the hypocrisy in medical and moral advice regarding female sexuality. New theories undergirded late eighteenth-century criticisms of monastic celibacy, as well as enlightened economists’ despair over French couples’ tendency to delay marriage and childbearing.[5] Lengthy expositions of sexual techniques suggest that the author sought to transform bodily practices. Indeed, the attentive and curious reader can learn about masturbation, oral sex, and the withdrawal method of birth control from this text.

The novel also initiates its readers into a community attuned to the physical effects of reading sexually explicit literature, mentioning specific texts and noting their impact on key characters. Texts regularly exhibit power over bodily reactions as the words on the page are transformed in the imagination to affect sensation.[6] We have been told of those novels which were “read with one hand.”[7] Within the book, text and sex form a feedback loop, each sustained by the other. One evening, Thérèse overhears a conversation between Mme C. and the Abbé T., whose relationship is presented as an ideal philosophical union, in which they explain how they depend on techniques of mutual masturbation and withdrawal to avoid a pregnancy which would threaten their honor and Mme C’s health. One evening, however, Mme C. insists that the Abbé not hold back any longer, for “reading your naughty Portier des Chartreux has lit me on fire… I’m dying of desire and I consent to risk everything.” (I, 130) The act of reading constitutes sexual foreplay, arousing Mme C. to the point of requiring embodied intercourse. However, the abbé refuses to penetrate her saying that he loves her too much to damage her reputation by getting her pregnant. He obliges her with oral sex instead, and the scene emphasizes the imperative nature of sexual desire once awakened through a book’s words working upon the imagination.

In the final section of the novel, Thérèse has a similar experience of textually inspired desire with her own ideal philosophical companion, the Count. She agrees to live with him as his mistress, but refuses to allow penetration. The Count, realizing that Thérèse enjoyed erotic novels and paintings, agrees to loan her his collection for a year, provided that she could abstain from masturbating for fifteen days. After some banter, she finally agrees, adding that she will spend every morning of the next fifteen days reading these books and looking at the paintings which were brought to her room. In four days, she devours the Portier des Chartreux, the Tourrière des Carmelites, the Académie des Dames, the Lauriers Ecclésistiques, Thémidore, Fretillon, and others. while resisting their call upon her body.

This immersion in erotica makes a profound impact on Thérèse. She recalls, “on the fifth day, after an hour of reading, I fell into a sort of ecstasy.” (II, 78) She begins to masturbate while observing two paintings Les fêtes de Priape and Les amours de Mars & de Vénus. “My imagination became heated by the attitudes represented there, I threw off my sheets and blanket, and without reflecting on whether the door of my room was closed, I sought to imitate all the postures that I saw.” (II, 81) The narrative oscillates between descriptions of the paintings and Thérèse’s responses for two pages, until she calls for her lover at the height of passion, “Count, I no longer fear your dart, you can pierce your lover – you can even choose where you will hit me, it’s all the same to me.” (II, 81) Once again, text and image worked on the body to create sensations that required physical fulfillment. Texts imparted new sexual techniques and birth control methods, but they also worked on the imagination, enflamed the body, and led readers to novel experiences. At Thérèse’s invitation, the Count appears, and provides one final lesson on the withdrawal method, clearly equating romantic love with this way to avoid pregnancy.

With this conclusion, as Robert Darnton has observed, Thérèse offers a happy ending, uniting Thérèse and her Count in pleasure for ten years “without trouble, without children, without worries.” (II, 83) But did the novel have an impact on its own readers? Demographers have cited the novel as evidence that the withdrawal method had gained cultural acceptance and played a role in women of all social classes bearing fewer children in eighteenth-century France.[8] Historians might investigate whether the debates surrounding the legal and social status of illegitimate children indicate a new social understanding of sex and sexuality as subject to the laws of nature rather than laws of society.[9] The novel points the way to a re-evaluation of sexuality as situated at the center of human health.

Why take the time to read Thérèse philosophe? After all, the novel, first published in 1748 and attributed to Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, the marquis d’Argens, has not been neglected. Many students of eighteenth-century France first encountered the text in Robert Darnton’s work on the forbidden bestsellers of pre-revolutionary France.[10] Lynn Hunt, Catherine Cusset, Paul Young, and Natania Meeker have all approached the novel in recent years to excavate contemporary debates on gender ideals, pregnancy, sexuality, and educational theories.[11] This novel provides an exemplary introduction to the libertine genre for students and scholars alike. The narrative effectively communicates how Enlightenment principles of skepticism and empiricism might promise to transform quotidian practices and codes, even those governing sexuality. By adopting a female narrator’s voice, the author even proposes that women might have a place in these broader conversations.[12] This is a playful and elegant text that reminds us the Age of Reason could only be as reasonable as the men and women who lived it at the mercy of their own bodily desires.

[Anonymous] Thérèse philosophe, Geneva, Slatkine Reprint Editions, 1980.


  1. Thérèse philosophe (Geneva: Editions Slatkine, 1980 [1780]), p.1. All references are to this edition.
  2. On this case, see Mita Choudhury, The Wanton Jesuit and the Wayward Saint: A Tale of Sex, Religion and Politics in Eighteenth-Century France (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2015).
  3. Historians of early modern science in France would do well to include philosophical pornography as primary sources on changing sexual ideals in eighteenth-century France. Authors within this flourishing genre commented prolifically on sex, sexuality, and morals in eighteenth-century France, and wielded a great deal more influence over social mores than did the authors of medical treatises.
  4. See Lindsay Wilson, Women and Medicine in the French Enlightenment: The Debate over Maladies des Femmes (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), pp. 27-30.
  5. This point is made by Peter Conroy, “Gender Issues in Diderot’s La ReligieuseDiderot Studies vol. 24 (1991): 47-66. The demographic crisis posed by French sexual practices is made clearly by Denis-Laurien Turmeau de la Morandière, Appel des étrangers dans nos colonies (Paris: Chez Dessain, 1763).
  6. Fascinating inquiries on this theme of ‘pathological reading’ by James Kennaway, Anita O’Connell, Ashleigh Blackwood, Sharon Ruston, Darren N. Wagner, Monika Class, Victoire Feuillebois, Michelle Faubert, Jessica Roberts, Norman Aselmeyer, Pauls Daija, Eva Eglaja-Kristsone, and Emma Seaber were very recently published in a special volume of Literature and Medicine, vol. 34, no. 2, Fall 2016.
  7. Rousseau, Confessions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 39.
  8. Etienne van de Walle & Helmut V. Muhsam, “Fatal Secrets and the French Fertility Transition,” Population and Development Review vol. 21, no. 2 (June 1995): 261-279.
  9. Matthew Gerber, Bastards: Politics, Family and Law in Early Modern France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
  10. Darnton lists Thérèse philosophe as one of the top three bestsellers of the age, see Forbidden Bestsellers, p. 35-6.
  11. Lynn Hunt, “Introduction,” in Lynn Hunt, ed. The Invention of Pornography, 1500-1800: Obscenity and the Invention of Modernity (London: Zone Books, 1996), pp. 9-48. Catherine Cusset, No Tomorrow: The Ethics of Pleasure in the French Enlightenment (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999), p. 115. Paul Young, Seducing the Eighteenth-Century French Reader: Reading, Writing, and the Question of Pleasure (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008), p. 38. Natasha Gill, Educational Philosophy in the French Enlightenment: From Nature to Second Nature (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010). Natania Meeker, “‘I Resist It No Longer: Enlightened Philosophy and Feminine Compulsion,” Eighteenth-Century Studies vol. 39, n. 3 (Spring 2006), p. 364.
  12. On these broader conversations, see Jennifer J. Davis, “The Radical Enlightenment and Movements for Women’s Equality in Europe and the Americas (1673-1825)” in Steffen Ducheyne, ed., Reassessing the Radical Enlightenment (London: Routledge, 2017), pp. 292-308.
Tags: , , , , ,