De Sade’s Reanimation in the Sex Book

Madonna’s still-underrated literary masterpiece, Sex, was arguably the last time a massive audience got truly excited—titillated—about a book. Coffee table or not. And, balk at the prose all you will (including, “My pussy has nine lives”)—it still got people talking about sex in a way they never had as a result of literature since the era of Marquis de Sade’s reign over erotic content. Madonna was happy to oblige taking over the unclaimed role of literary enfant terrible in the twentieth century, the entire project tying in with her then latest album, Erotica. It was all variations on a theme, if you will. And that theme was: confront your sexual self or be consumed by repression. 

While most would say that Madonna’s sole intent in putting out the Sex book was for “shock value,” it wasn’t really as though she had anything left to prove on that front—what with her nude Playboy and Penthouse photos splashed across headlines in the 80s, getting called the antichrist for her “Like A Prayer” video, her “Justify My Love” video being banned for showcasing same-sex relationships and S&M moments, and the “scandal” of her open portrayal of homosexual life in her 1991 documentary, Truth or Dare. But it wasn’t in Madonna’s nature to stop shocking just because the public felt she had already reached a zenith. No, it was in M’s blood to keep pushing and pushing until people confronted the things she wanted them to. And in 90s America, the thing no one wanted to confront, even still, was the following: AIDS, the continued relevancy of safe sex PSAs and talking candidly about sadomasochistic fantasies. 

De Sade had eventually outraged enough high-ranking officials to publish anonymously with works like Justine, but Madonna was proud to have her name associated with the “illicit” tome. One that explored her sexual fantasies via Steven Meisel’s signature photography accompanied by essays that included such musings as, “I wouldn’t want a penis. It would be like having a third leg. It would seem like a contraption that would get in the way. I think I have a dick in my brain. I don’t need to have one between my legs.”

Madonna’s intent with Sex did, ultimately, seem to be the same as de Sade’s: to show society its deepest, darkest fantasies—even if de Sade wasn’t as gung-ho about being deemed to “possess meaning” in his motivations for touting sexual “debauchery” as Madonna. After all, libertines don’t care if their lifestyle incites societal change—they just want to live it. As for M, her entire manifesto with regard to releasing the book was that it was time for America to shed its 80s-era conservatism, still so ensconced within the first two years of the 90s thanks to the Bush presidency. Of course, she couldn’t have expected that Clinton would take it so far in the other direction. By the same token, if America wasn’t so rigid in their views of sex, perhaps Clinton wouldn’t have kept escalating things to an inevitable boiling point—bound to get “in trouble” by trying to suppress his desires, only to allow them to consume him in a burst (oui, that’s sort of an orgasm pun). And yes, if the incident had happened in, say, France, it’s certain that no one would have batted an eyelash at the notion of Clinton having more than a few mistresses. Not that France is great benchmark for feminism (sorry de Beauvoir). 

To emphasize her intent behind the book, Madonna declared, “I don’t think that sex is bad. I don’t think that nudity is bad. I don’t think that being in touch with your sexuality and being able to talk about it and being able to talk about this person and their sexuality [is bad]. I think the problem is that everybody’s so uptight about it that they make it into something bad when it isn’t, and if people could talk about it freely, we would have people practicing more safe sex, we wouldn’t have people sexually abusing each other, because they wouldn’t be so uptight to say what they really want, what they really feel.” In short, stop being so goddamn sexually repressed America!

The fact that gratuitous violence was and is more acceptable to be seen on TV and in film than anything resembling something like authentic sex spoke to just how warped the American mindset was becoming, and now firmly remains. For it was a mindset that had been run for so long under the conservative agenda (modern pop culture, after all, didn’t really hit its stride until the Reagan years).

Fortunately, Madonna was there to shatter the last vestiges of 80s Republicanism in one fell swoop, assuring us all: “I’ll teach you how to fuck.” In essence, picking up where de Sade left off. As for that 50 Shades of Grey bia who came to roost in the twenty-first century, we don’t know what that was supposed to be.  

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