(WARNING: This post is not suitable for reading while you’re at work. You have been warned. There’s no nudity in this post but dear lord it’s about a book called Sex so don’t tell me you didn’t get enough warning).
Pop stars reinvent themselves as often as the rest of us change our socks, but few have repeatedly done so with such success and scandal as Madonna. This is a woman who managed to goad the Vatican into boycotting her over a Pepsi advert. She’s the songstress who tapped into the very consciousness of her time and turned pop into provocation. Nowadays, it would make sense to say that she seems tame by comparison to modern media and our numbed sensibilities, but that wouldn’t feel accurate to what she did and continues to do. The boundaries are there in part because she pushed them to where she wanted them to be. She didn’t just push them either: She turned that very act into its own lucrative and transgressive commodity. Sex sells, but it was Madonna that made the book of it.
Pop culture aficionados could argue for days over which point in Madonna’s career she reached the peak of controversy. Everything surrounding Like a Prayer is an obvious front-runner. There’s also her now infamous kissing of Britney and Christina at the VMAs, although that act seems so quaint in today’s eyes. Her misguided attempt at political commentary through American Life is best forgotten, but there’s also the constant threats of arrest she faced on the Blonde Ambition tour for stimulating sex on stage. And then there was the Erotica era. Her fifth album, and the first to follow up the smash Like a Prayer, Erotica is a curious mixture to modern listeners. Reviews were generally positive but it failed to produce a mega hit in the vein of Vogue, and it inspired claims that Madonna’s sexy act was getting tired. It’s hard to find contemporary discussions of the album that talk exclusively about the music, much of which was some of the singer’s most ambitious work at that time. The whole experiment seems snigger-worthy or fatigue-inducing to many critics, although their focus seems more on a bit silver book that was released to accompany the album. Entitled, rather imaginatively, Sex, it may be Madonna’s biggest career controversy, but it’s also one of its most staggering achievements.
Originally conceived as a simple collection of erotic photographs, very much in line with the image of the woman who sang Like a Virgin, Sex slowly evolved into an artistic gamble that combined S&M, erotica, satire, cultural commentary and some incredibly bad jokes. Photographed by Steven Meisel, the influences of Mapplethorpe and Helmut Newton are obvious, but the contents are also inimitably Madonna. When the book was released, reviews were savage but that did little to quash sales, and it remains the fastest selling coffee table book in history (imagine which table in your house you’d put it on). Entertainment Weekly billed it ‘the publishing event of the century’, and Bob Guccione, Jr. of Penthouse fame called it ‘as sexy as a body chart at the doctor’s office’. Is it sexy? Well, yes and no. It’s carefully manicured provocation with a purpose; it’s porn as polemic, but without the actual fucking. Mostly, it’s Madonna.
The book, which can be read online (go on, you know you want to), opens with a disclaimer of sorts. In all caps, Madonna reminds the reader that this book called Sex is indeed about sex, and that what goes on in the following 127 pages is pure fantasy. This is in part to explain the lack of condoms (she then reminds the readers to always practice safe sex) but you get the feeling she was coaxed into adding it because someone would go looking for trouble and blame her for it otherwise. You can almost hear the exasperation in her voice with the final sentence ensuring that ‘I made it all up’. Madonna was so pitch perfect at changing herself to suit her new ideas and image that many in the public seemed unable to separate the person from the work. In fairness, she did make it particularly hard, but that was where she had the most fun.
Madonna takes on the character of Dita, a mistress and sexual goddess, a ‘love technician’ who can be heard in the Erotica album. She promises she can teach you how to fuck, and then the fun begins. Yes, there are lots of nipples in here. There are dicks and arses and whips and chains and BDSM fantasies that practically spit in the face of E.L. James. Shot in black and white for that artful taste, most of the photographs are undeniably explicit. There’s Madonna being tied to a chair by two men and ravaged with kisses; there’s Madonna receiving oral sex from a leather daddy with ‘Lucifer’ on the back of his vest; there’s Madonna nibbling on a guy’s nipple piercing; there’s Madonna making out with Isabella Rossellini, the pair in androgynous mode. It’s artful and raunchy but, then and now, feels exactly like what you would expect when you think of Madonna and sex. By this point in time, she’d already released Justify My Love, a terrible song with a beautifully erotic music video, one so controversial that it was banned from MTV before she cannily made the move to release it on VHS. It’s shock by numbers: Not necessarily bad or ineffective, but when you’ve seen the rules, you know how it’s played.
When Sex tries to inject story or dialogue into its efforts, that’s when things lose their way. We see the evolution of a menage a trois relationship between Dita, a man named Johnny and their female partner Ingrid. She writes letters to him detailing their sexual liaisons and fantasies she has of their time together, but it doesn’t end well. She catches him cheating on them with another man and it sours their passion, which raises a lot of questions about male queerness in Madonna’s sexual vision. Some of these pages of pseudo-monologue are laughable, and only a fraction of them feel that way on purpose. When she tells the story of a hot encounter with a young Latino boy that ends with the clanger, ‘but then he gave me crabs’, you laugh at and with her. One moment detailing a less than pleasant moment with an overweight moment quickly turns mean and against the book’s entire notion of inclusivity. The book is best when it doesn’t say anything.
And in those moments, it’s pretty badass. Who else other than Madonna could get Isabella Rossellini, Naomi Campbell and Udo Kier at her beck and call to do a book like this? Hell, she managed to get her then-boyfriend Vanilla Ice on board, and he’s never looked better. This is also where Madonna seems to be having the most fun, as if even she can’t believe she’s getting away with this.
The thing that surprises most about Sex is that there’s no actual sex in it. Nobody gets penetrated, there’s no actual pornography on display here, and everything adds up to 130 pages of foreplay. The act of sex is less interesting than the acting out of sex for Madonna. It’s in the performativity where truth lies, and she’s always known that better than any of her contemporaries. Sex is explicitly about creating a fantasy, and this is the kind of fantasy that meant something very different in 1992 compared to now. The Erotica album features songs dedicated to friends of Madonna who died during the AIDS crisis, and while this distinctly safe sex-free dream never mentions the illness, it’s tough to ignore the reasons why she’d want to imagine a sexual utopia free of judgement and unwanted pain. Women are front and centre throughout the book, waited on hand and foot by men or lavished with adoration at every turn, even when things get all tied up or spanked. The contradictions of Sex are everywhere: How do you craft such a meticulous and deliberately public fantasy and reconcile it with reality?
Critics called it anti-feminist, feminist, and post-feminist, but they’ve done that for Madonna’s entire career. Sex utterly demystifies sex but keeps an air around its star’s own mystique, even as she bares everything. She offered the public’s obsession back to them on a silver cover and laughed when they said it was too much. It probably was too much, but baroque excess is her forte. Nowadays, the book is looked upon more fondly that it was upon release. As part of the wider cultural context of the Madonna phenomenon, it makes better sense, and its potency is not lost, as more accustomed as we are to the book’s contents. Every pop star in some way follows in her footsteps, but even the most provocative figures of our time wouldn’t pull off Sex. Why bother when Madonna already did it best?