The Mylar sheet wrapped cover of Sex, showing Madonna's face
|Cover artist||Steven Meisel|
|October 21, 1992|
|Media type||Print (hardback)|
Sex is a coffee table book written by American singer Madonna, with photographs taken by Steven Meisel Studio and film frames shot by Fabien Baron. The book was edited by Glenn O'Brien and was released on October 21, 1992, by Warner Books, Maverick and Callaway Books. Approached with an idea for a book on erotic photographs, Madonna expanded on the idea and conceived the book and its content. Shot in early 1992 in New York City and Miami, the locations ranged from hotels and burlesque theaters, to the streets of Miami. The photographs were stolen before publishing, but were quickly recovered.
The book had a range of influences, from punk rock to earlier fashion iconoclasts such as Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton and Robert Mapplethorpe. Sex has photographs that feature adult content and softcore pornographic as well as simulations of sexual acts, including sadomasochism. 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 Princess Tatiana von Fürstenberg, and nightclub owner Ingrid Casares.
The packaging for the book is made of aluminium, which was Madonna's idea, and is spiral bound and enclosed in a Mylar sheet. Due to the scandalous nature of the photographs and the media mayhem surrounding it from the initial preview of the book, Madonna did not have to promote Sex, except for a pre-release party and some television specials. Her publishers were extremely apprehensive about the release as well as its commercial potential. Sex was released alongside her fifth studio album Erotica, which went on sale a day earlier.
The book was an instant commercial success, managing to sell over 150,000 copies on its first day of release and topping the New York Times Best Seller list. It was received negatively by both critics and fans of the singer, who felt she had "gone too far." Through the years, however, critical reception towards Sex has become more positive, with academics deeming it a defining phase in Madonna's career. Sex is noted for its impact on society and culture as well as on Madonna herself, and is considered a bold, post-feminist work of art. The book has since become one of the most sought-after out-of-print books ever released and still remains the fastest-selling coffee table book of all time.
Background and development
According to Giselle Benatar of Entertainment Weekly, there are two versions of how Madonna came up with the idea for the book. One was that she conceived the idea of an erotic photography book during the shooting of the film A League of Their Own in the summer of 1991. The second one is that Judith Regan, vice-president and editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, flew to Los Angeles in March 1991 to meet with Madonna and her manager Freddy DeMann, armed with a proposal for a similar collection of photo-erotica. The singer had initially verified whether Regan had approached any other celebrities with this concept, as Madonna would be interested to be a part of it only if it was a unique idea. By the end of the meeting Madonna had agreed "in principle" to do a book called Madonna's Book of Erotica and Sexual Fantasies. She told Regan that DeMann would call her and work out the details regarding the book. However, Madonna never got back in touch with Regan, who assumed that the singer did not want to proceed with the idea. Madonna's publicist Liz Rosenberg never confirmed nor denied Regan's claim, but according to Benatar, Madonna started working on Sex before wrapping up A League of Their Own. At first Warner Bros. Records and the executive directors at Time Warner were reluctant to allow Madonna to publish such a book, but finally gave in to the idea. Madonna, however, was forced to sign a contract that forbade her from showing child pornography, bestiality and religious imagery. Not long after signing this agreement Madonna founded Maverick, a multi-media entertainment company. Since by contract she had total artistic control over any of the work released by Maverick, the agreement she signed with Time Warner concerning what not to do in Sex became obsolete.
The Sex book had a range of influences—from punk rock to earlier fashion iconoclasts like Guy Bourdin and his surrealism, and Helmut Newton, in its stylized, sado-masochistic look. The book was also influenced by Robert Mapplethorpe's infamous three-part XYZ portfolio, particularly the X portfolio, with Madonna even having considered the latter as a title during the formative stages of Sex. Photographs from Brassaï's 1933 book Paris de nuit (Paris by Night) also inspired several of the book's series of images. Madonna changed her mind about the title being X, when Spike Lee's film Malcolm X began to be promoted (the film was released three weeks after the book). She would go on to tell Vogue magazine: "We were gonna call it X [...] but then the whole thing with the Malcolm X movie started. At first I thought, 'Fuck it, it's a really good symbol and I thought of it first'. But I realized it might be confusing or look like I was copying Spike [Lee]. Besides, Sex is almost as powerful: it's universal, it doesn't need translation - and it's only two letters more than X." Warner Bros. commented that Sex was very difficult to produce, requiring contributions from many different printing and publishing companies. They also stated that in order to generate any profit, the book would have to sell at least 350,000 copies. Madonna hired top-notch talent for the development of the book; she counted on the help of friends from the music, film and fashion industry. The singer hired Fabien Baron as the art director, fashion photographer Steven Meisel, editor Glenn O'Brien, make-up artist Francois Nars and hairstylist Paul Cavaco. Madonna originally wanted the book to be of an oval shape in order to simulate a condom but the printing and manufacturing of such a book would have been too expensive. Meisel would later comment: "Madonna and I can keep up with each other" and that "I'm doing things to make people think too. It's not really to antagonize or to push people's buttons. It's really to present another way of seeing things."
The pictures were taken almost entirely in Super 8 format, and most of the photo shoots took place in New York City and Miami. Locations in New York City included the Hotel Chelsea and Times Square's all-male burlesque Gaiety Theatre (dancers from theatre participated in one of the book's photo sessions), whereas in Miami the majority of the sessions were shot at a house Madonna had purchased just before starting the project, and in several beaches and streets. One morning during the four-day Florida shoot Madonna was prancing around her 14-bedroom house in Miami completely naked, when someone jokingly suggested she go out on the street, then, according to Baron "the next thing we're in the street" where allegedly "cars screeched to a halt, motorists whistled, and one entranced cyclist fell off his bike." This was just one of the many crazy episodes that took place during the shooting of the book. According to Baron, during the photo shoots "[Madonna]'d do something crazy and then we'd come up with something even crazier". One of the most shocking photographs made for the book, which featured two women in post-punk attire flanking Madonna with one of them holding a knife to Madonna's crotch, was dismissed as it was considered too violent. At some point, while the book was being produced, some of the photographs were stolen, but were quickly recovered by the FBI. According to New York magazine, there were approximately 80,000 photographs taken for the book, but only a handful made the final cut. The printing of the book was extended for 15 days making the total production process last about eight months.
Design and content
Wrapped and sealed in a polyethylene terephthalate (PET) Mylar bag, Sex contains 128 pages and is spiral bound with an aluminium cover that has the word "Sex" stamped in the middle and a warning label. The front page also shows Madonna against a sky blue backdrop. Three different types of paper were used for the printing of Sex and the design was overseen by Madonna and Baron & Baron Inc. (consisting of Fabien Baron and the photographer Siung Fat Tjia) who had previously collaborated with the singer designing the cover art of her fifth studio album, Erotica. As this was the first project for Maverick, the packaging was crucial; however Madonna did not have faith in Warner Book's "mass-market" publication process. Hence Baron suggested to transfer the packaging job to Nicholas Callaway's bespoke Callaway Editions. Charles Melcher, co-publisher with Callaway for the book, said that they usually did "exquisite art books, $100 high end, beautiful things". But it was a challenge for them to process Madonna's ideas into reality. The artist wanted the packaging to be sealed, so that the reader had to tear it up and read. They considered various kinds of clasps before zeroing on the idea of the sealed bag as a reference to a condom package. The metal cover was Madonna's idea, who took the inspiration from the 1979 album, Metal Box by the band Public Image Ltd. Melcher recollects, "We were talking about materials for the cover, and we went into her kitchen. [Madonna] pointed at the metal plate at the back of her stove and said, 'I want something like this'. I was very impressed with the way she interacted with her world to source things." The company bought about 1,500,000 pounds (680,000 kg) of aluminium, a pound for each book. The designers had to do the front and the back covers, while rolling, stamping and ionizing the metal.
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" as a homage to German actress Dita Parlo; her friends in these stories are Bunny, Dex, Stella, Chiclet and Stranger. According to biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, a big part of the book is read as a letter to a pornographic magazine. As a thank you for recovering the stolen pictures during the making of the book, in the credits of the book Madonna mentioned the FBI for " ... rescuing photographs that would have made J. Edgar Hoover roll over." Madonna also wanted to explore the notion of power in Sex. Melcher said that the artist wanted to talk about "gentle and hard, soft and violent [in Sex]. She was playing out all those elements in her book. That was reflected in the materials: uncoated, soft paper on the inside and hard metal coating on the outside."
Just like the text—which was mostly written on top of photographs—the photographs on the book are highly sexual and depict nudity, simulations of sexual acts, bondage, homosexuality and analingus, with accessories such as knives, whips, masks and chains; however, full intercourse is never shown. Aside from unknown models, featured in the book are actress Isabella Rossellini, rappers Big Daddy Kane and Madonna's then boyfriend Vanilla Ice, model Naomi Campbell, gay porn star Joey Stefano, actor Udo Kier, socialite Princess Tatiana von Fürstenberg, and nightclub owner Ingrid Casares; however the heterosexual photos in the book involve only Madonna and Vanilla Ice. Madonna herself is featured partially or completely naked. One of the book's most famous photographs shows Madonna hitchhiking completely naked in Miami. 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 ("It's hard to describe it smells like a baby to me fresh and full of life. I love my pussy, it is the complete summation of my life"). Sex contains statements like "ass fucking is the most pleasurable way to get fucked and it hurts the most too". Others include "[t]here is something comforting about being tied up. Like when you were a baby and your mother strapped you in the car seat. She wanted you to be safe. It was an act of love" and "I wouldn't want a penis. It would be like having a third leg. it seems like a contraption that would get in the way. I think I have a dick in my brain". In Sex, Dita also pointed out that "A lot of people are afraid to say what they want. That's why they don't get what they want".
Release and promotion
The initial preview of the book was met with a huge amount of controversy, as it showed a nude Madonna wearing a rabbit's tail, shaving the pubic hair of a naked man, and cavorting outdoors with a dog, suggesting bestiality. The Vatican urged its people to boycott the release, saying that it was "morally intolerable". Indian customs officials said that the book offended the country's public morality. The Press Trust of India (PTI), India's domestic news agency, quoted a top customs official as saying the book would be seized under a section of the Customs Act prohibiting entry of indecent literature. Citizens of Alexandria, Louisiana filed a complaint with the city's police department on behalf of a group called the Rapides Parish Chapter of American Family Association, claiming that it violated Louisiana's anti-obscenity laws. South US Baptists did not want their Bibles coming off the same printing presses as Madonna's Sex and threatened to stop doing business with a Chicago printer. The Nashville-based Baptist Sunday School Board, a division of the Southern Baptist Convention, reviewed their $2.1 million ($3,662,177 in 2017 dollars) printing contract with R.R. Donnelley & Sons. Board President James Draper said he was infuriated that Donnelley also printed "such an obscene book". Entertainment Tonight reported that Madonna herself had initiated the mayhem with the explicit content in the music video for "Erotica", walking bare breasted at designer Jean Paul Gaultier's fashion show and posing nude in Vanity Fair magazine. A writer for The Sacramento Bee said that since the press wanted "controversy", Madonna was willing to provide them "fodder" with her "antiques".
Madonna then said she was "doing this to liberate America — free us all of our hang-ups". She told Spin magazine "We live in a very repressed society, and I deal with erotic themes. The point I try to make is: Why should we feel ashamed of our sexuality?". Later she revealed that "[This book] does not condone unsafe sexual practices". Nicholas Callaway from Callaway Arts & Entertainment said that the book was "inevitably going to be controversial. The book explores every aspect of sexual fantasy. It's hard to calculate the effect, [but], Sex should be considered 'art'". Originally it was rumored that Time Warner was nervous about the release of the book; however, in an interview with Vanity Fair, William Sarnoff, president of Warner Books, said he felt that Madonna "should pursue all avenues of creativity as she defines it". The Warner company had also previously assured that they would make sure Sex reached its main target audience and also reminded that the book was safely wrapped in a Mylar bag to prevent in-store peeping and contained a warning label. Michael Kilian of the Chicago Tribune published an article on October 7, 1992, regarding the then upcoming release of Sex: "Prepare thyself, [...], The mega-event of the millennium is to occur in precisely two weeks. It's an event far more mega than the November election, the collapse of communism or even the crowning of Leanza Cornett as the new Miss America." Kilian also described it as the "personal sexual fantasy picture book in all Christendom, then it goes far beyond all previous 'truly twisted' personal sexual fantasy picture books—perhaps beyond all imagining what such a book could be".
On October 15, Madonna threw a pre-release party at New York City's Industria Superstudio, and signed all the invitations under her Sex alter ego "Dita". During the party, Madonna showed up dressed as Little Bo Peep and even carried with her a stuffed toy lamb. Madonna's publicist Liz Rosenberg showed concern at first due to "what the parents of America's impressionable teens will soon be thinking" but later said that it "all depends on your idea of lovemaking, which in Madonna's case, should give new meaning to the word erotic". Both Waldenbooks and Barnes & Noble prepared corporate statements that the managers could share with customers who are offended by Sex. (Both statements defended the right of bookstores to provide "diversity and choice" to customers and say censorship is not the role of bookstores.) Many book stores, too, stated that the book would not be sold to anyone under 18 and that it would be for display only behind the cash register. Bookstore owner David Epstein stated that "The feeling of most people who have ordered the book is that Madonna is something special, that this is cutting-edge art, [...], they're not the kind of people who are buying it because it's smut and dirty pictures. People are interested in it as art."
Sex was finally released on October 21, 1992 – one day after Madonna's fifth studio album Erotica – by editorials Callaway and Warner Books; it was the first work released by Madonna's company Maverick. A comic book titled Dita in The Chelsea Girl was included in the book. Also included was a promotional single titled "Erotic" with the CD packaging representing a condom wrapper. The track "Erotic" featured a stripped-down arrangement of the song "Erotica" that offered an alternate vocal take not used in the album version. 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 ($87 in 2017 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".
Due to the high scandal and controversy surrounding the book, there was not really any need for Madonna to promote it; however, one of the few promotions for the book Madonna did, was appearing on the cover of the October edition of Vogue, where she appeared dressed in "Hippie trip" fashion. These photographs were taken by Meisel. After the book was released, on October 22, 1992, MTV aired a special called The Day in Madonna, hosted by Kurt Loder (the title of this special was a pun of the title of the channel's daily show The Day in Rock), which profiled the release of Madonna's Sex and her album Erotica, even taking the book to the streets to allow people, including a sex therapist and group of real-life New York City dominatrices, to view it. MTV also interviewed many people who had viewed the book on the day of its release at the HMV music store in New York City. In celebration of the release of the book, the store held a Madonna look-alike contest and set up a booth where people could view the book for one dollar a minute, with all of the proceeds going to Lifebeat, the music industry organization founded to help fund AIDS research.
Critical and commercial reception
– Madonna discussing the backlash surrounding the book.
The book received negative reaction from critics, conservative and feminist anti-porn groups, due to its sexually explicit photographs which many characterized as hardcore pornography. Taraborrelli opined that much of the book appears surprising and not shocking. He derided the whole concept as childish and impetuous rather than an adult book. According to him, though Madonna insisted that she was trying to demystify sexuality altogether, the author believed she just wanted to publish pornographic text and pictures and get away with it. "She was being a brat, not a revolutionary", the author concluded. Author Lucy O'Brien declared that the book was a bold, harrowing exercise in frustration, and despite Madonna's attempt at invincibility, the book appeared as "a curious act of self-destruction". "The overwhelming effect of the book is numbing," stated Anthony DeCurtis of 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."
Roger Catlin from the Hartford Courant said that the passages from the book were "too dirty to quote here, even the funny ones". The Daily Beast said that "the book is neither groundbreaking (save that it features a major star) nor particularly sexy [...] Sex is convincing only when it's playful, as when she appears nude in a Miami pizzeria, chewing a slice while a baffled customer looks on. Elsewhere, she's simply undressed with no place to go". Richard Harrington from The Washington Post gave the book a mixed review by saying: "Is Sex shocking? not really. Mostly because it's Madonna, and somehow we've come to expect this from her. Is Sex boring? surprisingly, yes". During her review of the book, British author Zoë Heller from The Independent wrote that it was "the women who once saw Madonna as a witty feminist role model who have been most alarmist about her latest pornographic incarnation" and that "previously, they say, Madonna played with traditional images of feminine sexuality in a subversive, 'empowering' way. But now, with sado-masochism and rape fantasies, she has gone too far." Calvin Tomkins, author and art critic for The New Yorker, wrote that "unfortunately, the book is going to be mistaken for pornography". Vanity Fair deemed it "the dirtiest coffee table book to ever be published". Caryn James from The New York Times was negative in her review stating that "There is plenty here to offend the meek (whips and chains), the self-righteous (gay men and lesbians), not to mention the tasteful (a tacky and cluttered art design)". Vicki Goldberg from the same newspaper was also dismissive of the photography of the book saying that "Unfortunately, not many of the images are very good photographically. Many are just pictures, or just porn". 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.
Despite all the controversy and negative backlash, which included the book being banned in Japan shortly after its release, Sex proved to be a commercial success, selling 150,000 copies on its release day in the United States alone. Hundreds of copies of the book were pre-ordered, prompting book sellers to say that Sex was "shattering their sales records for advance purchases". A week later, the book's sales exceeded the 500,000 units and eventually topped The New York Times Best Seller list. Giselle Benatar wrote in her article "Sex & Money": "This isn't the publishing event of the year, it's the publishing event of the century." A day earlier, Tyra Braden from The Morning Call wrote that she and some friends concluded that the book "might become a collector's item a few years down the road". Sex went on to sell 1.5 million copies worldwide.
Social impact and aftermath
Dubbed at the time as the "Queen of obscene", Madonna and the Sex era is considered by many as her most controversial and transgressive period. The book, widely panned by the press, is regarded as one of the factors that shaped the social reaction and critique towards Madonna during the early 1990s. Her fifth studio album Erotica was affected by the negative press surrounding the book. In March 1993, Spin magazine wrote an article praising the book, but months later in Mexico, social communicologist Nino Canún dedicated an episode of his morning talk show ¿Y usted qué opina? (English: So what's your opinion?), to Madonna. Some members of the audience, among them a priest, presented their arguments as to why "this morally clueless singer shouldn't be allowed to perform in the country", making reference to The Girlie Show World Tour, which was set to visit Mexico. Later, during the concert, Madonna wore a charro sombrero and simulated an orgy with her dancers onstage, as a response to these comments. Continuing her provocative imagery, Madonna starred in the erotic thriller Body of Evidence, which featured the singer fully nude and in scenes engaged in simulated sexual acts. In March 1994, Madonna appeared as a guest on Late Show with David Letterman, using profanity that was required to be censored on television and handing Letterman a pair of her underwear and asking him to smell it. The releases of her sexually explicit film, album and book, and the aggressive appearance on Letterman all made critics regard Madonna as a sexual renegade. She faced strong negative publicity from critics and fans, who commented that "she had gone too far" and that her career was over. Later, on the song "Human Nature", from her sixth studio album Bedtime Stories (1994), Madonna addressed the public backlash the book was still receiving, particularly with the lines "Did I say something wrong? Oops, I didn't know I couldn't talk about sex. I must have been crazy," as well as the line "What was I thinking?".
The perfect iconic goddess of True Blue had all gone. In the same way that sixties beauties like Nico, Marianne Faithfull and Brigitte Bardot set about destroying their beauty after they were famous, the very thing they felt limited them, Madonna annihilated hers. Within a few short years she moved from teasing flirtation to desperate sexual display. It is ironic that after the triumph of Like a Prayer, she hits this bathos. Being a blond again set her off in the wrong direction. It was as if with the Sex book she showed the underside of the Hollywood dream.— Lucy O'Brien, Madonna: Like an Icon, page. 254
—Priya Elan discussing the book.
Madonna herself would later say: "I wouldn't say I regret it. I've made mistakes and learned from them. Most people want to hear me say that I regret publishing my Sex book. I don't. The problem was releasing my Erotica album at the same time. I love that album and it got overlooked." However, author Andy Koopmans in his book Madonna (2002) would comment that the singer regretted both publishing Sex and recording Erotica and that the book "had affected everything she did later". It was not until 2003 that Madonna would once again declare that she regretted nothing; "I'm not apologizing in any shape or form [...] I was interested in pushing buttons and being rebellious and being mischievous and trying to bend the rules. There was a lot of irony in the Sex book and I am poking fun at a lot of things and I am being kind of silly and adolescent and I am being very f you, if a man can do it, I can do it." A year earlier on 2002, Naomi Campbell confessed to "have a lot of respect for Madonna being bold enough to come out and do a book on sex. I've never reneged on that". However, in 2009, rapper Vanilla Ice, who was Madonna's boyfriend at the time of the book's creation, confessed to not being happy with the book once he saw it. "My friends were like, 'Dude, that's cool man', but I was like, 'I'm dating her, it's not cool to see your girlfriend with all these other people' [...] It kinda ruined the whole thing. I wonder what her kids think of that book? Here she is writing kids' books now but they're going to see it and go, 'Mommy, what were you thinking?'" Another of the book's models, actress Isabella Rossellini, told Out magazine that she regretted her participation on the book; "I don't think the book worked, even though the photos were extraordinary, and some of them quite memorable. I think there was a little bit of a moralistic sort of 'I'll teach you how to be free!' – and that bothered the hell out of me."
Later reviews towards Sex have become more positive. The authors of The Porning of America: The Rise of Porn Culture, What It Means, and Where We Go from Here (2008) have commented that "the book is particularly interesting in the way that, like many of Madonna's works, it portrays sex in terms of domination and power", whereas Jane Raphaely, editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan praised Madonna's "liberated behavior on Sex [...] the fact that she takes all forms of pornography and systematically demystifies it by putting it under her control", in an article in 1996. Brian McNair, author of Striptease Culture: Sex, Media and the Democratisation of Desire (2002) praised this period of Madonna's career, saying that she had "porno elegance" and that "Sex is a cultural phenomenon of global proportions and thanks to this Madonna established her iconic status and cultural influence". Priya Elan from The Guardian, wrote: "That the Sex book came after a record-breaking album and tour felt like a shrinkwrapped curve ball. But Madge was expressing something unique". Elan felt that the book was part of a "slower reveal that began with confessional tracks such as 'Oh Father' (from 1989's Like a Prayer) and continued with the many scenes of narcissism captured in [the documentary] In Bed With Madonna".
Sex is now considered a bold, post-feminist, work of art, besides being labeled a "cultural book". Martin Amis from The Observer wrote an essay discussing the book's cultural meaning. 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 ($871,946,882 in 2017 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. Taraborrelli said that in Madonna's view, "she had no other way of fighting back". 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 Electral.
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."
In popular culture
Sex has also become an object of modern culture references. American performance artist Ann Magnuson, who had worked with Madonna on the 1985 film Desperately Seeking Susan, released a parody of the book's photo sessions, where she simulated sex with a giant stuffed bear. In 2010, writer-performer Greg Scarnici released a book parody of Sex, titled Sex in Drag, which featured over 70 parodied images from the book. In a deleted scene from a 1993 episode (Krusty Gets Kancelled) of the animated sitcom The Simpsons, aired as part of The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular, Krusty the Clown attempts to market a book extremely similar to Sex as a means of resolving his financial woes. Krusty is seen in a suggestive pose on the front cover. Unlike Madonna, however, Krusty apparently never appeared fully nude, as he quickly claimed that he used a body double.
In 2008, Madonna's look and attire she wore to the Sex pre-release party was ranked by People magazine as one of her "50 Looks We Can't Forget". In April 2012, a nude picture of Madonna taken by Meisel was put up for sale. The picture, an outtake from the book, features a naked Madonna lying on a bed, sporting bleach-blonde hair and dark eye make-up, smoking a cigarette and partially covered by a sheet. The picture was bought by an unnamed collector for almost US$24,000 ($25,583 in 2017 dollars). In 2011, according to the BookFinder.com, Sex was the most requested out-of-circulation publication and still remains the best-selling coffee table book. In 2015, the book was included on Rolling Stone's list of "20 Great Moments in Rock Star Nudity". Author Keith Harris wrote: "No celebrity had ever commanded control over her own naked image so audaciously as Madonna in [Sex]".
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- Steven Meisen, Madonna, Sex book at Achtung Photography
- Miami Photographer Hit Paydirt With Topless Madonna Shots at Adweek