The collector’s coffee table centerpiece has been out of print for years. Now, it’s set to re-enter the cultural dialogue around sexual autonomy and pleasure
In 1992, Madonna released Sex—her 128-page coffee table book, wrapped in Mylar to resemble a condom, and stacked cover to cover with the Queen of Pop’s salacious wants and desires. “Love is something we make. Pass it on,” she writes on the book’s first page. “Everything you are about to see and read is a fantasy, a dream, pretend.”
What follows is a shockingly candid survey of sexual expression—especially coming from an artist with massive mainstream appeal—nearly a decade prior to the turn of the century. Sex compiles Steven Meisel’s now-iconic photographs: Madonna dressed in bondage gear, hitchhiking nude in Miami, embracing men and women alike in a variety of compromising scenes and positions; sometimes, she poses alongside others in celebrity circles, like supermodel Naomi Campbell, gay porn star Joey Stefano, socialite Tatiana von Fürstenberg, and rapper Ice Spice, her then-boyfriend. These images are bookended with words from Madonna herself, told through the perspective of Dita, her hypersexual alter-ego. “Do you feel that it is possible to experience pleasure and pain at the same time?” a line of text asks, above a print of Madonna, arched backwards over a pinball table. “Sure!” Dita responds. “That’s what ass fucking is all about.”
On its first day on the market, 150,000 copies of Sex sold; the book topped the New York Times’s Best Seller List for three weeks. It drew a call for boycott from Pope John Paul II, and the general ire of the conservative public. “America has become so repressed sexually,” Madonna responded in an interview that year. “Maybe that’s why people attach that stigma to me—‘How far will she go?’ Nobody asks Martin Scorsese how he’s going to top himself.”
“Maybe that’s why people attach that stigma to me—‘How far will she go?’ Nobody asks Martin Scorsese how he’s going to top himself.”
Despite the instant uproar it invoked, Sex achieved cult status for its liberating approach to often-taboo subjects—kink, non-heteronormative relationships, female pleasure, and so on. In many instances, it’s educational, with Madonna and Dita urging readers to use protection (nodding to the AIDS epidemic), as well as reframing conversations around sexual autonomy (“the definition of S&M [is] that you let someone hurt you who you know would never hurt you”), and the nuances of consent. (“You have an unspoken agreement between you that this is the dialogue you have, an unconscious agreement.”)
Sex is a highly-coveted collector’s item, as it’s been out of print for years. But today, Saint Laurent announced a re-edition of the groundbreaking work, conceived by Rive Droit in collaboration with Madonna and Anthony Vaccarello. In celebration of the launch, Saint Laurent will appear at Art Basel Miami, presenting the book’s images in large-format from a temporary beachfront gallery. “Sex remains a seminal artifact of culture and style, having paved the way for countless artists,” reads an announcement from the label.
Sex, then, is set to re-enter the cultural dialogue. It’ll take on entirely new meaning—reflecting broadly shifting attitudes toward sex and relationships, an increasingly polarized climate, and Madonna’s own dynamic legacy. (Just last month, at 64, the artist seemingly came out via TikTok, after being widely accused of ‘queerbaiting’ for years, with critics citing the infamous kisses she shared with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the 2003 VMAs.) Of course, anything once radical is bound to lose some of its world-changing weight—that’s by virtue of the fact that it changed the world to begin with. Madonna, hand in hand with her privileged position within the entertainment industry, was allowed to publish a text that legitimately disrupted American mores. It’s come around to provoke once again, this time from the heights of sexual canon.
Saint Laurent’s Art Basel gallery will be open to the public from November 29 to December 4.