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My name is Dita

High quality erotica or cheap pornography? Work of art or cold calculation? Read about the most sought-after book in the world!

Summer 1992. Madonna bags another #1 hit in the USA with “This Used to Be My Playground”, which promotes her latest film, A League of Their Own, where she stars alongside the likes of Tom Hanks and Geena Davis. There is nothing exceptional about that – apart from the fact that after almost a decade of non-stopping controversies, not a trace of a scandal surrounds her latest hit. “This Used to Be My Playground” isn’t another dancefloor smash, but a melancholic ballad. In the accompanying video, Madonna swaps provocative lingerie for romantic dresses, wandering across meadows. Marketing specialists and music critics accordingly say she’s just reinventing her image again. After controversies surrounding shocking clips “Like a Prayer” and “Justify My Love”, not to mention the scandalous Blond Ambition tour, it seemed that modest and settled Miss Ciccone is a perfect antidote to the previous sexual image, and another successful step. Nothing more misleading

Looking back, one can frankly say it was just calm before the storm. The storm that would cross all boundaries and change pop culture forever.

Let’s start from the beginning. First, the peace was disturbed by Playboy which published Steven Meisel’s photos of Madonna posing nude on a California beach. That provoked belief that Madonna finally accepted an offer from the legendary magazine, but the information was quickly contradicted. What prompted Madonna to lift the veil of secrecy was… the theft of pictures that she was going to use in her next project. An anonymous man contacted the biggest tabloid News of the World with a profitable offer – photographs from Madonna’s new book for 100,000 dollars. The singer’s representatives found out about the theft and the whole incident would soon involve FBI. Details aside, the story naturally ends with catching the thief, and fans will have to wait for their idol’s surprise a bit longer. What they already know is that the new project is a book titled Sex. The title and leaked pictures clearly state that the reflective, melancholic Madonna is just a tricky mystification. The singer herself only aroused her fans’ imagination even more when in Arsenio Hall’s talk show revealed that the pictures published in Playboy are only the earnest of what is to come, and that there are many MORE of them…

In September of the same year, starts the promotional campaign of “the new Madonna”. It is now clear that along with the Sex book, will be released Madonna’s new album Erotica.

Everything slowly starts to make one piece, especially when the first single debuts on the radio, showcasing “dirty” house beat, spoken lyrics ushered in a low register, Madonna introducing herself as “Dita”, referencing silent film star Dita Parlo, oriental sample from a song by Lebanese singer Fairuz and all-present sex with a strong sadomasochistic subtext in lyrics. Opinions are polarized – the rapture of fans is somewhat dimmed by critics’ reviews, who accurately notice that “Justify My Love” already used similar pattern 2 years earlier. That didn’t stop “Erotica” from conquering American charts and radio playlists – the song debuted at number 2 on Hot 100 Airplay, what was the highest debut entry ever at that time. Unfortunately, music would become heavily overshadowed as several days later Madonna officially launched what would be labeled by malicious critics as “the era of Porn-donna”. But in what style! The singer made an appearance at a charity fashion show by Jean Paul Gaultier in Los Angeles, and accompanied him during the final walk to the sounds of her latest hit, obviously. In the crucial moment, she took off her coat to reveal – much to every photographer’s delight – her naked breasts. Photos from this event went viral and American media went crazy in both praise and hostility. Such headlines as “Has she gone too far?”, so often referring to Madonna, couldn’t reflect a part of what was still to come.

The time leading up to the premiere of the book was cleverly utilized for teasing the public and heating up the atmosphere.

Madonna refused to publish any of the pictures prior to the book’s release, instead deciding to commission another photo shoot which would serve as a starter to the main course. Photos, again taken by the legendary Steven Meisel, landed on the cover and the centerfold of the October issue of Vanity Fair. The collection of innocent, but erotically-charged photographs provoked another scandal. Madonna, stylized as the famous 1960s playmate Gwen Wong, posed topless in a playground, in a baby girl room, surrounded by teddy toys. She didn’t look like a 34-year-old woman, but more like a teenage girl from a Catholic family, what deep inside her soul she still was – with strong exhibitionist inclinations. That immediately angered organizations upholding traditional moral values which went on to claim that Madonna has crossed another line and the photos are nothing else but a nourishment to pedophiles.

As interesting as the photos was the article about the forthcoming book and the interview with Madonna and others involved in the making of Sex. Maureen Orth of Vanity Fair was given a chance to see the book prior its release, and discuss its content directly with Madonna, who in turn looked clearly astonished by the journalist’s reaction to some pictures. The most repeated word by Maureen was “scary” – her American Puritanism was signaled every time she turned the page, and although she was impressed by the visual richness and artistry of the photographer, it was mere fear that accompanied her when looking at such brave and perverse pictures. “It’s meant to be funny, not scary” – Madonna said curtly. Maureen, however, wasn’t isolated in her fear as also Madonna’s co-operators were pretty anxious about the project. All of them were actually terrified – they knew that no one had ever pushed the limits this far. Freddy DeMann, the legend of music industry and Madonna’s then-manager, wasn’t hiding his anxiety about the Sex book and admitted that “Warner Books is shitting in their pants about it”. The director of Warner Books, William Sarnoff, wasn’t too keen on discussing the project, especially when asked how are they going to get away with a book like that. He assured that the book will be carefully protected so that it can only reach adult fans. Madonna’s long-time press agent, Liz Rosenberg, seemed to be more relaxed about the whole thing, recalling an incident from 1984, when Madonna’s fame exploded with “Like a Virgin” and a negative cover story appeared in Rolling Stone: “We found out then it was because people both hated and loved her. Suddenly everyone had to take a stance on Madonna. I love when people really hate Madonna – Madonna does, too. She’d rather that than apathy”. Fabien Baron, who designed the book, described Sex as another sex toy, a multilayer product, where you can put the CD on and start browsing the book, just like watching a film. Excitement and fear – these two words best described the atmosphere before the grand premiere. It’s hardly surprising though, as the book largely references sadomasochism, where those feelings are inseparable elements.

On October 21, Sex eventually landed in American book stores – 750,000 copies solicitously wrapped in a mylar sheet.

The book cost exactly $49, and included a CD with an alternate version of the song “Erotica”, which again came in a separate small mylar cover, what resembled the packaging of… a condom. The launch of the book was reported by nearly all local and national American media. Journalists discussed the content of the book live, spoke to people in long queues waiting to buy it and with lucky owners of Sex. Maybe not everybody wanted to own it, but surely everybody was dying to have a glimpse. So what showed after removing the silver packet? Metal cover with “SEX” embossed in the middle. On the first page, Madonna’s little romantic introduction where she informs that her “fantasies take place in a perfect world, a place without AIDS”, hence the absence of a condom in any of the pictures. Nonetheless, she stresses the importance of using condoms in real life. She also adds that the content of the book is “a fantasy, a dream, pretend” – an information too important to be so widely ignored by the public. After this, the literary content of the book is somewhat overshadowed by the visuals presented in Sex, which presents pretty much everything: sadomasochism, homosexual acts, group sex, anal sex, oral sex, rape, exhibitionism, transvestitism, masturbation… Anything goes. One cannot accuse Steven Meisel’s photograph’s of being calculated – everything looks real and makes an impression that every pictured fantasy has actually happened. It’s hard to pick one most shocking image, as they all perturbed the public in their own way, and still do. The literary content of the book is just as controversial – as Dita Parlo, Madonna treated readers with such words of wisdom as “My pussy is the temple of learning” or “Everybody loves you when they are about to cum”. Throughout the book, appear handwritten letters that Dita addresses to her lover Johnny, in which she describes her sexual adventures and with her natural grace tells about having sex with an underage boy. All this is stylized as raunchy readers’ letters from popular porn mags. Cameos from other high profile celebrities only triggered the interest, and in the book we can come across pictures of Isabella Rossellini, Naomi Campbell and Vanilla Ice, who at the time was Madonna’s life partner. Contributions from the model Tony Ward and the gay porn actor Joey Stefano give the book even more spice. In 1992, giving a gay actor an exposure in a mainstream culture was scandalous enough, and on the top of that, Stefano was open about his positive HIV status. The picture which depicts him receiving rimming from Madonna, gave “crossing the line” a whole new meaning.

The book opened Pandora’s box. Madonna surely knew it would lead to a scandal, but didn’t entirely expect the public lynch she would be getting.

By taking off her clothes in the pictures, she simultaneously revoked her right to be treated with respect and dignity. She literally as well as metaphorically stood naked in front of outraged American society. Calling her “a whore” in newspapers and on television became a norm, and no one even bothered to use euphemisms. The book was criticized in every possible way, and it appears impossible to list every social group that tried to stop its distribution. Madonna was made a subject of a nationwide debate, however, this time her opinion was completely disregarded. Helpless were explanations that one has to look at the book from a humorous point of view, that sex is not a taboo subject reserved only for men, and finally Madonna’s most important postulate – it’s about time we looked at sex from women’s point of view. A new trend has arrived: hating Madonna. The press competed in reporting from her private life – Dita, her character from the book, seemed to overshadow what Madonna really was. Media went as far as to inform that one of Madonna’s hobby is… driving around Manhattan in a limousine and dragging randomly encountered Latinos inside the car only to have sex with them. Even more appallingly, one of the newspapers published an article which directly stated that Madonna has… AIDS! Within a few days Madonna was at her all time low, and although she had experienced worse moments in the past, nothing could compare to this failure. Much in her unapologetic style, she kept repeating she would release the book again, if she could. In Europe, even though Sex didn’t pass without scandal there, the general reaction wasn’t as ferocious as in America – excluding the UK, where Madonna had never been the press favorite. This time around, the singer exposed herself to savage criticism, and British media eagerly took the opportunity to do so.

The universal criticism still wouldn’t affect sales figures. The book was selling in a record time – only on the first day 150,000 copies were sold.

Only 3 days later, the entire first print, that is 1,5 million copies, has flown off the store shelves, what made Sex the bestselling coffee table book. Such a huge demand led to Warner Books reprint the book, and it is now estimated that Sex has sold between 4 and 5 million copies worldwide, what is an absolute record. The second print was the last, but the book’s popularity hasn’t waned – according to yearly rankings on and other outlets, Sex is still the most sought-after book that remains out of print. Offers on eBay start with $100, but can reach up to several thousand if the book hasn’t been opened and still remains in its original silver bag.

I deliberately neglected to mention the album, released the day before the Sex book, because it was nothing else but Erotica that suffered the biggest failure in this whole spectacle. First reviews were strongly positive – The New York Times even wrote that it’s Madonna’s best and most mature record yet. Other respected magazines accordingly agreed, however, after the release of Sex, the music was overshadowed by a scandal, what is a real shame as the album is one of her most ambitious and conceptually consistent projects. A blend of house, dance and jazz, deep and emotional voice, great lyrics… Erotica was envisaged as another hit for Madonna. The album was accompanied by sophisticated videoclips, which only strengthened her position as the leader in the music video sector, but none of them really conquered the charts. The album offered stories of love, but instead of happiness and unconcern, it was a love story typical for the early 90s, full of fear, uncertainty and AIDS, which by then had already well settled in people’s consciousness, leaving stigma over sex and terrifying not only homosexuals, but the whole society. Justly, the album often appears in various retrospective works, and after so many years, wins appreciation for its artistic value. It’s certainly one of those works that define Madonna as an artist and proves she’s more than just a pop star and skilled businesswoman.


How to look at Sex book after over 22 years? Is it still that shocking? We’re living in a world where sex isn’t a taboo anymore. Sexually-oriented image is nothing but a number 1 rule not only in music industry. Armies of singers treat us with nude photo shoots, vulgar videos and ambiguous song lyrics. Every celebrity-to-be does own a sex tape which sooner or later is going to see the day of light. But even set against the reality of the 21st century, the book still makes an impression, provoking and fascinating at the same time. Any attempt of rating Sex unequivocally will be unsuccessful: for some, it will always be one of the most important books in popular culture, a book that changed the shape of that culture, a catalyst for socio-cultural turns, especially from female and homosexual points of view. For others, it’s just another one of many Madonna’s provocations, and an ultimate proof that she owes her career only to exposing nudity. However we look at it, we can be sure that the book won’t leave anyone indifferent.

PG / Transl. Matt Zaremba

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