How Times Have Changed: Remembering The Outrage Over Madonna’s ‘Sex’

Above: Madonna's spiral-bound coffee table book 'Sex' was released on October 21, 1992
Above: Madonna's spiral-bound coffee table book 'Sex' was released on October 21, 1992

Right now, one of the biggest celebrities in the world is a reality television star who got her “big break” when a sex tape she made with her then-boyfriend became available for public consumption via the Internet.

Not only is she famous and viewed as a role model, a fashion icon and a desired spokesperson for any number of brands, but the rest of her family have all managed to snag their own piece of the spotlight along the way. Next time you’re passing a magazine stand, scan the covers and play “Count the Kardashians” – chances are there will be at least five instances where some member of the family is pictured and a handful more where one of them is mentioned.

Now contrast that with the reception Madonna received when she released Sex, her book of erotic pictorials taken by Steven Meisel that was released on October 21, 1992, a day after her fifth studio album, the equally divisive Erotica hit record stores. Even though she was one of the biggest entertainers in the world at the time and someone that never held back when it came to expressing her sexuality, the book was met with backlash from critics and fans that “The Material Girl” had gone too far.

At the time, Sex was characterized as “hardcore pornography” by some conservative critics. People lobbied to keep the book off shelves, out of libraries and one individual in Alexandria, Louisiana actually asked the authorities to investigate whether the book broke state anti-obscenity laws. People genuinely thought this book and her cavalier opinions and approach to sex was going to bring about the death of her career.

Images from Madonna's 'Sex' book

In case you haven’t been keeping score, Madge dropped her 12th studio album, MDNA, in 2012 and is currently working on Lucky #13.

Compare those reactions to where we are today: 50 Shades of Grey brought BDSM fantasies to thousands of readers and was such a runaway success as a book that a big screen adaptation will hit theatres next year and Rihanna topped the charts a couple years earlier with “S&M,” an extremely singable track where RiRi cranks the volume up on her sexuality and tells everyone listening that “chains and whips excite me.”

Pole dancing is now an accepted and wildly popular form of exercise.

Sex isn’t such a taboo any more, and Sex shouldn’t have been back then either.

Madonna liked pushing the envelope and testing limits – she had done it in countless songs over the years, including several on Erotica, and this was just another example of her seeing what kind of reaction she could get from the public at large. It kept her in the spotlight and brought her a tremendous amount of attention, even though much of it was negative or critical and it dinged up her overall image a little at the time.

As for the pictures and the accompanying missives that make up the pages of this once scandelous coffee table book, some of them are a little more racy than you’ll find in Playboy or Penthouse, but the most obscene element of the entire collection is that the undeniably sexy Madonna got up close and personal with Vanilla Ice.

What a difference 20 years makes.

E. Spencer Kyte

E. Spencer Kyte

E. Spencer Kyte is a freelance journalist based in Abbotsford, British Columbia, where he lives with his wife and dog. In addition to his work here, he writes about sports for Complex Canada and covers the UFC for various outlets. His mom also still tells him what to do on a regular basis, even though he’s nearly 40. He tweets from @spencerkyte.

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