25 Years Later, Madonna's 'Sex' Book Is Still Pop's Most Radical Moment

"Sex" and "Erotica" marked the most daring chapter of the singer's career. Spoiler alert: She survived.
Madonna and photographer Steven Meisel arrive at a New York party for "Sex" on Oct. 15, 1992.
Madonna and photographer Steven Meisel arrive at a New York party for "Sex" on Oct. 15, 1992.
Catherine McGann via Getty Images

Twenty-five years ago, Madonna put the world in a trance with the release of Sex. Well, she put some of the world in a trance: During its first day in stores, the $50 coffee-table book, which lived up to its carnal title, sold 150,000 copies, and it soon topped The New York Times Best Seller list. Of course, because it was mainstream art promoting libidinous pleasure, a puritanical outcry followed. Many critics, cultural theorists and fans alike found the BDSM-themed photo collection scandalizing, even repulsive. In their eyes, Madonna, who already faced accessions of overexposure following a decade of chart-topping provocations, had crossed the line.

Today, Sex is still the most radical career move a pop star has ever made.

During Madonna’s imperial phase ― the ephemeral period in an artist’s career when everything turns to commercial gold ― she sang about teenage pregnancy, introduced the famous cone bra, burned Christian crosses, simulated masturbation on an arena tour and made a video so prurient that even the youth-centric MTV refused to air it. That was child’s play.

The publication of Sex ― on Oct. 21, 1992, one day after its companion album “Erotica” arrived to mixed reviews ― marked the moment Madonna’s priorities graduated from making you dance to making you horny. Michael Jackson had been grabbing his crotch for years, and Prince wore an assless pantsuit to the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards, but women were only allowed to push so many buttons. The competing female pop stars of the 1980s couched their sexuality in other aesthetics: punk camp (Cyndi Lauper), androgyny (Annie Lennox), anthems about respect (Janet Jackson), love-hungry wholesomeness (Whitney Houston). For Madonna, however, there was a continuum between “Like a Virgin,” the 1984 single that sparked her first brush with controversy, and “Erotica,” a concept album about fornication, conceived in the shadow of the conservative Reagan era and the ongoing AIDS crisis.

Sex was an audacious thesis statement, calculated enough to piss people off but seemly enough to maintain artistic integrity. No one today would dare emulate it. Even though desire has grown queerer in the intervening years, the think-piece economy would have a field day with the pornographic imagery, brazen bisexuality and postfeminist authorship sandwiched between the book’s aluminum covers.

One of the first photographs, captured in glossy black and white, shows Madonna seated on a stool, wearing bondage gear, breasts exposed. She sucks on one of her fingers while seemingly inserting another into her vagina. Several pages later, a man appears to be eating her out. The rest of the book includes threesomes, men kissing men, women fondling women, dog collars, whips, knives ― everything but graphic intercourse. Throughout, she writes about the pleasure and pain of sex, sometimes scripting letters to a fictional lover named Johnny.

For Sex and “Erotica,” Madonna assumed an alter ego, Mistress Dita. As evidenced with “Material Girl” and “Vogue,” Madonna always idolized Old Hollywood movie stars, and now she’d turned an entire chapter of her career into character-based performance art. Hers was hardly pop’s first alter ego (David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardrust being the primo example), but none that have followed (Janet Jackson’s varying personas on “Damita Jo,” Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce, Mariah Carey’s Mimi) are as daring or innovative as Madonna’s.

Madonna described the book’s contents as “fantasy,” but certain naysayers felt Sex was somehow coercing them to adopt her expressions of passion. “Of course, some of us actually like the opposite sex,” a female New York Times critic wrote in a review, encapsulating the paradox inherent in the backlash Madonna experienced. ”[S]ome of us believe it is possible to have great sex without whips, third parties or domestic pets. [...] Maybe Sex can be a warning about what happens when pop icons become bloated, one way or another.”

“<i>Sex</i> was an audacious thesis statement, calculated enough to piss people off but seemly enough to maintain artistic integrity.”

Even the reinvention-oriented pop stars who most resemble Madonna ― Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna ― have never made political statements as blatant as Sex, if they’ve made political statements at all. Gaga is a prominent LGBTQ ally, as Madonna was long before such advocacy was commonplace in the entertainment industry, but her music has always centered on dance-floor invitations and commentary about the nature of fame. As Rolling Stone suggested earlier this week, “Erotica” and Sex operated more in the vein of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” also inspired by sociopolitical strife. “Lemonade” was accompanied by a cinematic visual album; “Erotica” was accompanied by a cinematic book co-starring Isabella Rossellini, Naomi Campbell, Udo Kier, Big Daddy Kane, Vanilla Ice and gay porn actor Joey Stefano. (Fashion fixture Steven Meisel took the photos, and Harper’s Bazaar creative director Fabien Baron served as the art director.)

Sex and “Erotica” were a one-two punch that could have extinguished Madonna’s career. It’s not every day that pop singers hitchhike in the nude and live to tell the tale. “This is not a love song,” she announced at the start of the track “Bye Bye Baby,” a sentiment echoed in the passage that opens Sex: “This book is about sex. Sex is not love. Love is not sex.” Such notions, especially in 1992, ran counter to everything a female celebrity was supposed to be: alluring but not dominating, confident but not powerful, prey but not predator. Madonna, forever popular culture’s savviest self-marketer, was in full control of the way she displayed her body.

After the hoopla subsided and Sex went out of print, Madonna continued to reinvent herself, most significantly as a spiritually enlightened earth-mother, on 1998′s “Ray of Light,” her best album to date. Controversy remained part of her job description. By that point, she’d received so much flak from the media and general public that she could anger without much collateral damage; it’s hard to achieve something more daring than Sex.

Madonna is now routinely mocked for remaining sexual as she nears senior-citizen status. It’s her checkmate. In the end, that pioneering pluck ― crystallized during her “Erotica” stage ― will define her legacy. As Cher, Diana Ross, Céline Dion and Elton John become nostalgia acts, Madonna maintains the same boundary-pushing persona that, circa 1992, nearly tipped her over the cultural edge. That year, when asked whether she feared being overexposed, she said, brilliantly, “Only at the gynecologist’s.”

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