Reading Rousseau’s Sexuality

  • Robin Howells


On Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s personal sexual dispositions there is no shortage of evidence to orient the enquiry, because he tells us about them. Here (as in so much else) he inaugurates modernity. He is historically the first to examine closely his own sexuality, and to perceive it as an essential element of the ‘self’. He is also the first to trace his proclivities back to his childhood. More exactly, he is the first to write all this down, in a literary subgenre which he also inaugurates, for the public (eventually) to read — the Confessions. The notable section in Book I was composed when he was in his early fifties, around 1765. He had however already projected models of sexuality and sexual relations in his epistolary novel, Julie, or The New Heloise (published at the start of 1761). The freedom of fiction allows him to explore and debate the relation of sexuality to desire, virtue, social and metaphysical order. Sexuality is formally theorised, especially in relation to nature, socialisation and imagination, in the latter part of Emile, or On Education (published in 1762). In Book 5 of Emile, notoriously, he argues that woman is intended to be subordinate to man. Between his theoretical stance and his personal imperatives however there is a considerable tension.


Political Work Courtly Love Sexual Submission Sexual Demand Warrior Woman 
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  1. 12.
    It has been nicely observed that as Julie deals in Italian quotation, so Emile deals in quotations from Latin, ‘the virile language’ — except in the story of Emile and Sophie where the Italian poets duly take over. See Françoise Bocquentin, ‘Comment lire J.-J. Rousseau selon J.-J. Rousseau?’, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau et la lecture, ed. Tanguy L’Aminot (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1999), 329–49 (p. 335).Google Scholar

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© Robin Howells 2005

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  • Robin Howells

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