Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s sex life began when he was young. His story begins when he was born on 28 June 1712 in Geneva to a watchmaker named Isaac Rousseau and a woman named Suzanne. Suzanne died of puerperal fever nine days after his birth, so Rousseau and his older brother, François, were brought up by their father and a paternal aunt, also named Suzanne.
Around the age of ten, Rousseau’s father experienced legal troubles and he left town, taking Suzanne with him. Rousseau and François saw their father little after that and were left in the care of their mother’s brother, a Calvinist preacher named Samuel Bernard. Bernard soon shipped them off to Bossey where a Calvinist minister named Monsieur Lambercier, lived with his son and a daughter named Mademoiselle Lambercier. Rousseau wrote of his time at Bossey, stating:
“The life which I led at Bossey suited me so well, that had it only lasted longer, it would have completely decided my character. Tender, affectionate and gentle feelings formed its foundation. … I shall never forget how, if I happened to hesitate when saying my catechism in church, nothing trouble me more than to observe signs of restless and dissatisfaction on Mademoiselle Lambercier’s face. That alone troubled me more than the disgrace of failing in public, which, nevertheless, affected me greatly … and I may say here that the thought of Mademoiselle’s reproaches caused me less uneasiness than the fear of offending her.”
Mademoiselle Lambercier loved the boys as a mother, and she also exercised authority over them like a mother. According to Rousseau, her exercising of authority happened when he or François misbehaved, and he noted that the punishment usually fit the crime. Rousseau maintained that initially Mademoiselle Lambercier’s method was a threat of punishment, and as threats were new to him, he was quite terrified. Eventually, however, her threats no longer worked and when he was punished he reported, “I found the reality less terrible than the expectation.”
It seems that the punishment 30-year-old Mademoiselle Lambercier resorted to was spanking, and Rousseau, rather than be horrified by the experience, wanted it repeated.
“I had found in the pain, even in the disgrace, a mixture of sensuality which had left me less afraid than desirous of experiencing it again from the same hand. No doubt some precocious sexual instinct was mingled with this feeling, for the same chastisement inflicted by her brother would not have seemed to me at all pleasant. … and if I kept myself from deserving punishment, it was solely for fear of displeasing Mademoiselle Lambercier, for, so great is the power exercised over me by kindness, even by that which is due to the sense, that it has always controlled the latter in my heart.”
Try as he might to not offend Mademoiselle Lambercier again, the day came when Rousseau did. However, he claimed that the repetition of the offense was not his fault, but repeating the offense again caused Mademoiselle Lambercier to realize that spanking had not accomplished her goal, and so she “declared that it tired her too much, and that she would abandon it.”
Rousseau, having recognized this sexual desire for spanking, fought against the feeling. He further maintained that he kept himself “free from every taint until the age when the coldest and most sluggish temperaments begin to develop.” At that time, his desires claimed his imagination, which was set on fire:
“I devoured with burning glances all the pretty women I met; my imagination unceasingly recalled them to me, only to make use of them in my own fashion, and to make of them so many Mlles. Lambercier.”
Rousseau’s desire followed him into adulthood and he maintained that “this curious taste, always abiding with me and carried to depravity and even frenzy, preserved my morality, which it might naturally have been expected to destroy.” Rousseau also admitted:
“In my foolish fancies, in my erotic frenzies, in the extravagant acts to which they sometimes led me, I had recourse in my imagination to the assistance of the other sex, without ever thinking that it was serviceable for any purpose than that for which I was burning to make use of it. In this manner, then, in spite of an ardent, lascivious and precocious temperament, I passed the age of puberty without desiring, even without knowing of any other sensual pleasures than those of which Mademoiselle Lambercier had most innocently given me the idea.”
Rousseau maintained that he was shy and “unenterprising with women.” He had no courage and claimed he spent his life wanting to be spanked but that he was too “bashful” to declare his unorthodox desires to a woman.
“To lie at the feet of an imperious mistress, to obey her commands, to ask her forgiveness – this was for me a sweet enjoyment; and, the more my lively imagination heated my blood, the more I presented the appearance of a bashful lover.”
Unable to be fulfilled sexually in the way he desired, Rousseau’s “agitation” became so pronounced, that he decided to appease it in the most extravagant way.
“I haunted dark alleys and hidden retreats, where I might be able to expose myself to women in the condition in which I should have liked to have been in their company. What they saw was not an obscene object, I never even thought of such a thing; it was a ridiculous object. The foolish pleasure I took in displaying it before their eyes cannot be described. There was only one step further necessary for me to take, in order to gain actual experience of the treatment I desired, and I have no doubt that some one would have been bold enough to afford me the amusement, while passing by, if I had the boldness to wait.”
One day, Rousseau decided to expose himself to achieve the sexual success he wanted, but the experience turned into a comical disaster. He positioned himself in a darkened area that led to some cellars. It was near a well where girls went to fetch water. He had determined beforehand that there was no outlet from the cellars, but as it was dark, he surmised that he could easily find a safe hiding place if necessary. Emboldened by his plan, he then “exhibited to the girls … a sight more laughable than seductive. The more modest pretended to see nothing; others began to laugh; others felt insulted and made a noise,” He then reported:
“What they saw was not the obscene thing [his penis], I never even thought of that, it was the ridiculous thing [his ass]. The foolish pleasure I took in displayed it before their eyes cannot be described.”
Rousseau then ran off only to hear a man’s voice and discover that he was being chased into the darkness. Rousseau eventually reached the point where there was no outlet and he had no choice but to await his fate. It was then that a tall, moustached man carrying a big sword grabbed him by the arm. The man was accompanied by several old women armed with brooms. The moustached man asked Rousseau what he was doing there, and he invented some fanciful excuse.
“I said that I was a young stranger of good birth, whose brain was affected; that I had run away from home, because they wanted to shut me up; that I was lost if he betrayed me; but that, if he would let me go, I might some day be able to reward his kindness. Contrary to all expectation, my words and demeanour took effect; the terrible man was touched … and, after administering a short reproof, he let me go.”
A few days later Rousseau was walking down the street, when he met again the moustached man.
“He recognized me, and, imitating me mockingly, said: ‘I am a prince, I am prince, and I am a coward; but don’t let his highness come back again!’ He said no more, and I sneaked away, not venturing to look up. … I judged that the confounded old women had made him ashamed of his credulity. … The adventure, without having the consequences which I dreaded, nevertheless made me careful for a long time.”
Although Rousseau was careful for a time, it did not stop him from seeking to appease his sexual desire for a spanking. It came to fruition after he met the liberal and controversial Louise Élénore de Warens. De Warens came from an ancient and noble family and had married a Monsieur de Warens when she was young. Their marriage proved unhappy, and Warens abandoned her husband and went to Annecy, France. In 1726, she annulled her marriage. Rousseau met de Warens two years later in 1728 on Palm Sunday. Rousseau described his 28-year-old wealthy benefactress Madame de Warens as having “a face full of charm, beautiful blue eyes — full of gentleness — a dazzling complexion, the outlines of an enchanting throat.”
Several years later, when Rousseau was twenty-one, an intimate relationship between he and de Warens commenced. Once an intimate relationship was established she called him “Little one,” and he called her “Mamma.” However, their relationship was not exclusive as de Warens was also involved with the steward of her household named Claude Anet. It was reported that Anet’s ego was severely bruised when she took Rousseau as a lover and that Anet never recovered from her infidelity and died of pleurisy on 13 March 1734.
Rousseau reported that after Anet died, de Warens took “a substitute in the person of another new consort, a young Vintzeried … wishing to attach him to her service, ’employed all means which she thought proper.'” However, although Rousseau participated, he supposedly found these ménage à trois relationships confusing and was uncomfortable and unhappy with them.
In 1742, Rousseau moved to Paris. He then began to pursue other sexual relationships, but he always had a strong desire to be with de Warens and claimed that she was the greatest love his life. However, when de Warens died in poverty in 1762 in Chambéry, Rousseau did not learn about her death until six years later.
Rousseau later wrote about his sexual relationships and his sexual inclinations in The Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau, which was published in 1782. As for Rousseau’s motivation in writing the book, he wanted to understand what shaped his identity, and he desired to provide readers with an introspective and psychological portrait of who he was and who he became. He did this by examining his past and by looking at his sexual behavior in an honest way. In fact, he wrote:
“I have never promised to introduce a great character to the public; I have promised to describe myself as I am; and in order to know me in my riper years, it is necessary to have known me well in my youth.”
- The Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1904
- The Nation, Volume 52, 1891