On November 2 1992, Madonna appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine, with the headline: The Selling of Sex – The New Voyeurism.
Here’s a snippet of the article inside, written by John Leland:
What if Madonna gave a sexual bonfire and nobody came? In the quiet before the inevitable storm a few weeks back, NEWSWEEK asked Madonna about the possibility of failure or, more grievous, inconsequence. What if she released “Sex“—her explicit coffee-table book of erotic photos and writings, celebrating sadomasochism, homosexuality, exhibitionism and other pansexual delights-and the public merely yawned? “If everybody yawned,” she said, armed for this and other contingencies, “I’d say hooray. That means something happened.”
It was one of those neat identity makeovers for which Madonna is justly renowned: after coloring the last nine years with her determination to engage our attention at all costs, here she was, Florence Nightingale, dutiful erotic night nurse, content to slip into the shadows once her services were no longer needed, the patient cured. Now that’s what you call spin.
But for Madonna and for the rest of us, this was no lark. A deft little way to make some money and grab some spotlight, “Sex” also promised our first barometric reading of a turbulence boiling in American culture. Call it the new voyeurism: the middlebrow embrace, in the age of AIDS, of explicit erotic material for its own sake. From Mapplethorpe to MTV, from the Fox network to fashion advertising, looking at sex is creeping out of the private sphere and into the public, gentrified by artsy pretension and de-stigmatized out of viral necessity. Canny marketers exploit it; alarmed conservatives, joined by many feminists, are trying to shut it down. In many ways, as Pat Buchanan asserted at the Republican convention in August, there really is a cultural war going on. “Sex” stood to claim the battlefield. Advance cover stories on the book in Vanity Fair, Vogue and New York Magazine heralded hot like you’ve never seen before.
And from the looks of things last Wednesday morning, “Sex” measured up. Dismissive reviews, splashed across the tabloids like news of Pearl Harbor, couldn’t stop the ambush. Bookstores, record stores, anybody who carried it got swamped. Priced at $49.95 and packaged in a Mylar bag that warned ADULTs ONLY!, the book sold 150,000 copies on the first day, out of 500,000 printed for American distribution. Who says we’re in a recession? Laurence J. Kirshbaum, president of Warner Books, called it “review-proof.” Many stores pre-sold their shipments before they arrived. Others couldn’t restock fast enough to keep pace with demand.