In the late seventies when a young girl name Madonna was trying to make ends meet first in college and then as a dancer in New York City, she posed nude for a few photographers making around $10 an hour to $25 for a session. After Madonna became the Madonna, the photos showed up in the September 1985 issues of both Playboy and Penthouse featuring a fully naked, natural and unstylized Madonna. You can see those pictures here and here. After the initial shock, her response to the nude photos was “So what?”
Seven years later, Madonna must have decided if the world wanted to see her naked, then she’ll give them what they want…but on her terms. On October 21, 1992, Madonna’s company Maverick in association with publishers Warner Books and Callaway Books released “Sex” an adult content pictorial coffee table book written by and starring Madonna in photographs taken by fashion photographer Steven Meisel. Although already known for her out-spokenness, sexual openness and controversial nature, at the time of its release, “Sex” still pushed societal boundaries. Through the book, Madonna clearly demonstrated she was not afraid to expose herself in a way that no other international mainstream artist had ever done.
“Sex” was packaged with a cover picture of Madonna in a sealed silver mylar wrap to resemble a condom wrapper. Once unwrapped, the book was spiralbound with metal covers and the word ‘Sex’ embossed on the front. On the back there was a punched ‘X’ with an individual embossed number. Also included with the book was a Photo-Comic called ‘Dita in the Chelsea Girl’ and a CD of the song Erotic which is a remix Madonna’s song “Erotica” with different lyrics. One of her publishers said Madonna wanted to simulate the "gentle and hard, soft and violent” elements of sex which were reflected in the materials used in producing the book, from the soft paper inside to the hard metal on the outside.
Meisel shot almost entirely in Super 8 at various locations in New York City including the Hotel Chelsea and at Times Square's all-male burlesque Gaiety Theatre. In Miami, the photoshoots took place mostly at Madonna’s house. The stylized photos depicted Madonna and guest models in various erotic, softcore pornographic poses in addition to simulations of sexual acts and sadomasochism. New York magazine reported there were a total of around 80,000 photographs taken. During the book production phase, some photographs were stolen but were recovered by the FBI whom Madonna thanked in the book credits. There was already so much media attention about the book even before it came out that Madonna didn’t even need to publicize it. However, on October 15, she did attend a book pre-release party dressed as Little Bo Beep and carried a lamb stuffed animal.
Madonna at the pre-release party in 1992 with photographer Steven Meisel and toy lamb
The introduction to the book says: "Everything you are about to see and read is a fantasy, a dream, pretend." Madonna wrote the book from the point-of-view of a fictitious character named Mistress Dita who was inspired by 1930s film actress Dita Parlo.
Throughout the book Madonna wrote poems, stories, and essays unabashedly exploring sexuality. She writes about her fantasies, explaining why she loves anal sex and bondage while the camera celebrates her body in provocative photos. Madonna also shared her perspective on pornography, “I don't see how a guy looking at a naked girl in a magazine is degrading to women. Everyone has their sexuality. It's how you treat people in everyday life that counts, not what turns you on in your fantasy. But generally I don't think pornography degrades women."
The book was published a day after Madonna’s fifth album, Erotica was released and she later express regret in releasing the album at the same time as the book since the attention surrounding the controversial book eclipsed the album. The music video for the title track incorporates film footage shot by Fabien Baron whose film stills also appear in the book.
Some of the celebrity guest models in the book included Isabella Rossellini, Naomi Campbell and Madonna’s boyfriend at the time, Robert Matthew Van Winkle, aka Vanilla Ice. In a 2011 interview, he said dating 33 year-old Madonna when he was 24 was “exciting” but the book ultimately broke them up because he, “was hurt to be an unwitting part of this slutty package. It was disgusting and cheap. We were in a relationship yet it looked like she was screwing all these other people.”
Whatever does he mean?
Vanilla Ice wasn’t the only person who negatively received the book. Some critics and Madonna fans felt she had gone too far and was being controversial just for the sake of it. Reactions ranged from labeling the book as hardcore pornography to derivative and dull. It was banned in India and Japan and protesters in Mexico tried to prevent Madonna from bringing her Girlie Show World Tour to their country. In the U.S., book store chains Waldenbooks and Barnes & Noble had to arm store managers with prepared corporate statements explaining censorship is not the role of bookstores in case any customers were offended that the stores sold the book. Many bookstores would not sell the book to anyone under 18 and displayed it only behind the cash register. Various organizations tried to boycott the book before it was even published. However, despite the public outcry, 150,000 copies (at $50 each) were sold in one day in the U.S. and ultimately, 1.5 million copies sold out worldwide in several days. “Sex” eventually made The New York Times Best Seller list.
Today, the book is out of print but in 2011 according to BookFinder.com, “Sex” is the most sought after out-of-circulation publication and still ranks as the best-selling coffee table book of all time. You can find used and new copies on Ebay and Amazon but nowadays, they tend to sell for way more than the original $50 price tag.
WHAT IS THE SOCIAL IMPACT OF MADONNA’S “SEX” BOOK?
The critical reception towards “Sex” has become more positive throughout the years, with cultural pundits praising the book as an integral part of one of the most defining phases of Madonna's artistic career. Some writers praised Madonna for recreating "porn-chic" and the book became an important symbol in the LGBT community since they felt Madonna's pictures of lesbian love scenes in the book was a positive portrayal. Today, “Sex” is recognized for its impact on culture, society, and on Madonna’s career and is considered by many to be a bold, post-feminist work of art.
WHERE HAS THE MADONNA “SEX” BOOK APPEARED IN POP CULTURE?
On The Simpsons’ 138th Episode Spectacular, in a deleted scene from a 1993 episode called “Krusty Gets Kancelled,” Krusty the Clown tries to sell a book similar to “Sex” to make more money. However, Krusty claims he never appeared fully nude since he used a body double.
If you watch my show, I will send you this book featuring me in a variety of sexually-explicit positions! — Krusty the Clown
And in 2010, writer-performer Greg Scarnici parodied Madonna and “Sex” in a book of his own called “Sex in Drag.”
Madonna herself recreated a similar pose from a photo in “Sex” when in 2012, she posed for an ad to promote her new perfume campaign Truth or Dare: Naked. Except this time, instead of pasties across her breasts Madonna has a black bar with the name of the fragrance covering up the girls.
It’s now been over twenty years since “Sex” was first released. Back in 1992, as a response to the negative criticism, Madonna said, "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 be able to talk about it is bad. I think the problem is that everyone is so uptight about it and have turned it into a bad thing when it's not, if people could speak freely, we would have more people practicing safe sex, we wouldn't have people being sexually abused." She defended the book by saying she was "doing this to liberate America and free us all of our hang-ups."
Hmm…America, did she do a good job?