The Legacy of Madonna’s ‘Sex’ Book

Letter From The Editor, David Helton

Madonna’s pussy is the only pussy I have ever paid to see.

To be fair, it wasn’t just her pussy that I wanted to see. I wanted to peruse the pages of the controversial book that everyone had been talking about for months. It was, indeed, a spectacle. It was an absolute media frenzy and the release of Madonna’s new (and very dirty) coffee table book seemed to be pushing cultural boundaries in every direction — even before it was available.

Simultaneously ahead of its time and right on time, the infamous Sex book was released on my twentieth birthday in October of 1992. I bought two copies from Barnes and Noble (remember those?); one that I tore open immediately in the parking lot and devoured from cover to cover — and the other I kept safely sealed in the shiny mylar bag. (In case of a Madonna emergency, you should open the bag .)

Like most young gay men coming of age in the 80s and 90s, I was obsessed with everything Madonna. Sex was no exception. At a time when most pop artists would be abhorred at the idea of a nude photo leaking out to the public, Madonna worked with legendary photographer Steven Meisel to assemble 128 pages of provocative photographs that feature adult content and softcore pornographic — as well as simulations of sexual acts, including sadomasochism and analingus. The rumor is that she signed an agreement with Warner Brothers not to show ‘child pornography’ or ‘anything of a religious nature’ – a contract that she was also rumored to dismiss a few months later when she founded Maverick, her own company.

The sleek, aluminum-bound book had a range of influences – from punk rock to earlier fashion iconoclasts such as Guy Bourdin and his surrealism, and Helmut Newton, in its stylized, sado-masochistic look. Madonna wrote the book as a character named “Mistress Dita”, inspired by 1930s film actress Dita Parlo. It also includes cameos by actress Isabella Rossellini, rappers Big Daddy Kane and Vanilla Ice, model Naomi Campbell, gay porn star Joey Stefano, actor Udo Kier, socialite Tatiana von Fürstenberg, and nightclub owner Ingrid Casares. With an initial print run of one million copies of the first edition in five continents and in five languages, the price of the book was $50 ($84 in 2016 dollars) at retail, making Sex an “expensive visual book”. Nevertheless, the book managed to break records regarding the number of copies pre-ordered before the release. Nicholas Callaway pointed out that the book was an unprecedented hit, because the print run of an average art book ranges between 5 and 10,000 units. He described it as “the largest initial release of any illustrated book in publishing history”.

Although a commercial success, the book immediately received negative reaction from critics, conservative and feminist “anti-porn” groups, due to its sexually explicit photographs which many characterized as “hardcore pornography”. Writing for Spin magazine, Bob Guccione, Jr. gave the book a particularly unfavorable review:

“Madonna has overstayed her welcome. She’s becoming the human equivalent of the Energizer Bunny, flashing us her breasts in every magazine that’ll let her. […] Her book Sex, is a rip-off. Because it’s not about sex, it’s more about a hatred of it. […] The book is not erotic. It’s all somehow, astonishingly, dead. As sexy as a body chart at the doctor’s office. Because it’s just as precise and soulless. [Sex] is a con job because instead of being flagrant pornography, it dresses itself up as Great Art. The text is pretentious and derives most, if not all, of its impact from the fact that it’s Madonna talking, quite a lot… Any other model would sound no more or less coarse, just uninteresting.”

“The overwhelming effect of the book is numbing,” complained Rolling Stone. “The images are derivative, and Madonna herself seems far too eager to shock; that, not even prurient arousal, seems the ideal response the book tirelessly seeks. The potency of Sex’s subject matter is dissipated by Madonna and Meisel’s self-congratulatory – and silly – sense of their own ‘bravery,’ as if their naughty games were somehow revolutionary.”

For my sheltered twenty-year-old eyes, however, the Sex book was ripe with flesh and imagery that I had never been exposed to. In fact, the gay overtones and the depiction of homosexuality was something that no other major pop star had embraced or promoted at that time. For me, it was groundbreaking to see gay people in this way. Sex was art. Sex was necessary. Sex was liberating. At the height of the AIDS crisis, this message was something that we didn’t hear often.

Madonna responded to the negative backlash surrounding the book, “I don’t think sex is bad. I don’t think nudity is bad. I don’t think that being in touch with your sexuality and being able to talk about it is bad. I think the problem is that everybody’s so uptight about it and have turned it into something bad when it isn’t. If people could talk about it freely, we would have more people practicing safe sex, we wouldn’t have people sexually abusing each other.”

Nearly twenty-five years later, Sex is now considered a bold, post-feminist, work of art, besides being labeled a “cultural book”. Critical theorist Douglas Kellner affirmed that with Sex “Madonna became herself, an artifact of pop culture”. French academic writer Georges Claude Guilbert (author of three books about Madonna) described Sex as one of the most successful publicity stunts in history whereas Russell W. Belk, author of Handbook of Qualitative Research Methods in Marketing mentioned that the book is a quality product in marketing.

In 1992, Madonna had generated more than US$500 million ($843,134,930 in 2016 dollars) to Time Warner in sales of both albums and the Sex book, despite the negative feedback. However, Taraborrelli commented in his book, Madonna: An Intimate Biography, that those “who knew Madonna well at that time, knew what was really going on with her: the Sex book—and the outrageous antics that preceded it and would follow it—was really just something she used as a barrier between her and the rest of the world.”

For years it had seemed to Madonna that both her personal and professional life was extremely scrutinized by the public and media, and although she had started this scrutinizing by her provocative works, she was tired of it. Being vexed at this interest in her personal life, Madonna fought back by creating the persona of a renegade, something so outrageous as to defy explanation, something found objectionable by most people. The Boston Globe’s Matthew Gilbert analyzed the singer’s provocative attempt in an article published in the newspaper:

“Madonna’s motive for baring her breasts to the public feels more like personal gratification, less like commitment to a cause. She’s not out to change the world. Let’s face it: Few people get erotic in front of millions of viewers for purely selfless political reasons. It’s hard to escape the view of Madonna as a difficult Catholic adolescent aiming the finger at everything repressive. And many of her songs are addressed to an authority figure of her youth – from God and Jesus Christ to her own father. The heart of Madonna’s outrageousness seems to lie beneath her liberal rationales, as if she’s acting out something private and the world is her couch, not to mention her bank. Her politics are largely electorial.”

madonna sex image

According to some writers, Sex also helped Madonna make a name in the porn industry, and earned her the title of S&M’s first cultural ambassador and was praised for recreating “porn-chic”. Humberto Quiroga Lavié pointed out that it was the fact that Sex was considered pornographic that helped it become a bestseller. Steve Bachmann, on his book Simulating Sex: Aesthetic Representations of Erotic Activity pointed out that “perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Madonna’s sexual phenomenon is the extent to which her book marked a new threshold in the pornographic franchise”. McNair wrote in his book that “Sex brought out the personal underground to the surface of pop culture”. London art critic Sarah Kent wrote in Time Out magazine that the timing of Sex was “impeccable. Obsessions about the human body was in vogue, with Madonna’s book as well as artist Andres Serrano’s “cumming shots” and Jeff Koons’ The Jeff Koons Handbook, the latter portrayed fairytale pictures of the artist having sex with his pornographic actor wife, Cicciolina.

Sex has also become an important book in the LGBT community. Ben Shapiro, author of Porn Generation: How Social Liberalism Is Corrupting Our Future wrote that due to its iconic status “Sex adorns the coffee tables of hundreds of gay men and sperm banks”. Mark Blankenship, from the LGBT-oriented website New Now Next stated that “literature changed forever” with the publishing of Sex. Madonna’s portrayal of lesbian love scenes in the book sparked debates about her own sexual orientation. This was an adjunct to the singer’s public relationship with comedian Sandra Bernhard, with whom she cavorted around, visiting lesbian night-clubs as well as partying.

The LGBT community felt it was an important portrayal for them. They debated whether Madonna was “ripping” them off for publicity. As Carolin Grace from Diva magazine noted: “Madonna became meaningful in early nineties, when Sex came out, and at that point lesbian culture was really changing.” She noted how women were coming out about their sexuality and the book’s handling of the taboo issue were “a legacy, our contribution to the show. The lesbian sub-cultural references borrowed by Madonna aren’t our only possessions.”

O’Brien argues in her book Madonna: Like an Icon, that the book had a confusing philosophy. According to the female critics, who pointed out the vacuousness of Madonna’s remarks about porn and abuse, the singer did not have a correct idea that behind these fantasies the “reality is too hard for her to endure”, referring to the daily hustles that women have to face at red light districts and brothels. The author felt that despite the courageous premise of genuine exploration of queer sex, the book crossed over into pornography and a wrong portrayal for the community, while being flippant and commercial. She drew an example of the death of pornographic actor Joey Stefano, one of the models of the book, from drug overdose. Stefano had been thrilled to be a part of the book, but was underpaid. Once Madonna and her team were done with the shoot, “they packed up and left the Gaiety… They left behind the mundane reality and the boys who have to deal with it seven days a week.”

The book opens up with the introduction: “Everything you are about to see and read is a fantasy, a dream, pretend”. Throughout Sex, Madonna offers poems, stories, and essays. She also uses the pseudonym “Mistress Dita”. The book also reflects a great part on Dita’s perspective towards her own sexuality. Dita writes in Sex that her “pussy” is a temple of learning and that exposing it, is really a homage to it. I suspect the same can be said of Madonna’s pussy. In 1992, an impressionable pre-internet generation was exposed to Madonna’s calculated, and perhaps reckless, public reveal of her vagina — and the entire culture was forever shifted because of it. Sex created a dialogue and stoked the fire of a much more important conversation during a time of sexual repression and fear. This is a conversation we’re still having today. Thankfully.

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