Madonna pushes the boundaries

Issue 

Sex
By Madonna
Distributed by William Heinemann Australia. $59.95.
Reviewed by Kath Gelber

Sex had a huge reputation to live up to. Sold under conditions that ensured its pages would not be exposed in any public arena, its success was guaranteed months before it hit the shelves of bookshops around the world last week. Some cried for censorship, others declared liberation.

Madonna — icon, incredibly rich, beautiful and powerful, the subject of scorn and envy by millions — is pushing the boundaries with Sex. That's the most challenging and radical element of it. She challenges notions of pornography, erotica, sexuality, image and power.

She defies critics who try to define her work, and rejects claims that it is demeaning or degrading either generically to women or specifically to herself. "I don't see how a guy looking at a naked girl in a magazine is degrading to women ... It's how you treat people in everyday life that counts."

At its best, Sex provides a lead to those countless 15 to 30 year olds who will devour it and who may then feel more able to be open and honest in demanding what they want sexually. In the age of HIV/AIDS, for a role model like Madonna to encourage young women to take control of their sexuality in whichever form they choose can only be a positive thing.

Sex intersperses photographic images in both colour and black and white with text. Intended presumably also to arouse and shock (and with a strong element of tongue-in-cheek), unfortunately not every picture tells a good story.

With a few notable exceptions, most of the text comes across as vacuous, exhibiting at times a profound lack of understanding or sensitivity on issues such as domestic violence and body size. Madonna will earn some well-deserved criticism with lines such as, "I think for the most part if women are in an abusive relationship and they know it and they stay in it, they must be digging it".

She displays lack of analysis, or a deliberately provocative stance, in declaring "fat is a big problem for me." She goes even further and suggests fat people are "overindulgent pigs" — what could be more self-indulgent that splashing your own body image and sexual fantasies across the world and marketing them to make millions?

But you don't get the impression Madonna much cares what people think of her, as long as they do think about her. No preview copies of Sex needed to be made available — everyone was prepared to pay to see it. Madonna admits in the book, "every time anyone reviews anything I do, I'm mistaken for a prostitute". One of the overriding impressions of the images in Sex, however, is that most of the participants were more concerned with how they looked than with actually enjoying what they were doing. They participated in the creation of the photographic image first, in the erotic sensations of their poses second. The result is much less than the "obscenity" accusations of those who have called for restriction and censorship. The images are explicit, but within limits. They are more suggestive than candid, alluding to more than the image itself portrays.

As a challenge to conservative stereotypes about sexuality, Sex meets the criteria. It's certainly bold. As a marketing stunt, it's clearly hugely successful. As an enjoyable collection of images, it doesn't disappoint. Still, many would add, we haven't yet asked the most fundamental of questions. Is Sex a product and promotion of a feminist ideal, or is it more exploitation such as we've seen before, albeit dressed in a new garb? Perhaps the answer to that is, don't read into sex politics that aren't there.