'Sex' for sale Madonna, bound and published


"This book is about sex."

So goes the first line in Madonna's "Sex," and it's clear that this is what she wants us to believe about her new book of high-concept erotica. Flip through its 128 pages of nudie photos and heavy-breathing prose, it's easy enough to believe her. Even at their most innocent (which is not very), the words and images collected here seem besotted with physical beauty and fleshly desire.

Sex, in other words, fairly drips from its pages -- which, to be honest, is what we expected. After all, if the goal of any author is to "write what you know," Madonna would seem a natural for the topic. Sex has been her stock-in-trade from the first, and not just in the bustier-baring, boy-toy sense of the term. Madonna plays the game on every level -- musical, theatrical, personal and professional -- better than any star in our culture.

No wonder, then, that Warner Books believes with the book's release today that there will be 1 million souls willing to part with $50 to see lavishly packaged photos of Madonna making out with tattooed lesbians or hitchhiking topless with Vanilla Ice. Who better to break taboos?

Except that the taboos being broken here have little to do with sex, and everything to do with stardom. Her opening statement to the contrary, what "Sex" is really about is celebrity -- the opportunity to see famous faces engaged in the sort of acts even the scandal sheets won't describe.

"Sex" may be packaged as a high-class photo book, but what it delivers is really just a more respectable version of the star-struck voyeurism peddled by paparazzi rags like Celebrity Sleuth, which promise revealing snaps of the rich and famous.

And who, at one time or another, hasn't wanted to sneak at those?

But "Sex" isn't just about eyeballing Madonna's naughty bits. For one thing, that's not such a big deal these days; to paraphrase Rosie O'Donnell's line in "A League of Their Own," does she really think there's a man in this country who hasn't seen her breasts? No, the draw here is the chance to glimpse her rubbing up against the equally glamorous private parts of Isabella Rosselini, Naomi Campbell, Vanilla Ice, Big Daddy Kane and Tatiana von Furstenburg -- in all sorts of places.

Stargazing has rarely been this kinky.

Kink, though, is the sticking point. Madonna and her pals aren't just playing footsie here; in fact, conventional couplings are rare compared with the tableaus devoted to bondage, discipline, sadomasochism, fetishism, group-gropes, and gay sex of every description. It's not Krafft-Ebing, exactly, but it does fall well outside the average American's sexual experience.

As such, do we even need to say it will shock people?

That doesn't mean "Sex" is pornography. Madonna and the lawyers at Warner Books are too canny to be caught in that trap. But even though its images may be couched in the visual language of soft-core -- plenty of female nudity and simulated sex, but precious few penises and no penetration -- its content is hard-core enough to unsettle even the most open-minded.

Want specifics? How about a topless Madonna dripping candle wax over a leather-boy named Lucifer? Or using a whip and choke-collar to induce a male skinhead to lick her fishnet-clad ankle. Or using a cat-o'-nine tails on a leather-skirted woman. Or making out with a tuxedo clad pretty-boy as male dancers strut their stuff at a gay strip joint.

Is any of this worth $50?

Not as erotica, no. Unless you're unusually fixated on America's Most Famous Exhibitionist, "Sex" is less likely to arouse than it is to mystify or enrage. Take the sequence early on in the book in which Madonna has a bondage session with a pair of pierced-and-tattooed skinhead lesbians. There's no narrative, as such, but what they're doing is plain enough. In some shots, the two women are kissing and caressing Madonna; in others, they seem to be menacing her sex with a stiletto.

What's going on? Just gal-pals foolin' around, says Madonna. And those conversant with lesbian pornography -- the kind made by and for lesbians, not the male-oriented stuff printed in Penthouse -- will recognize these power games as a well-established (if selectively practiced) type of foreplay. They might even applaud the singer for raising this alternative love-style up out of the underground. Everyone else, will probably think it pretty sick.

Madonna, naturally, makes a valiant attempt to justify her lovemaking. Arguing in her introduction that these "are fantasies I have dreamed up," she seems to take the view that naughty thoughts never hurt anyone.

She opines that "generally I don't think pornography degrades women. The women who are doing it want to do it. No one is holding a gun to their head."

Granted, that's not going to mollify those women who will be incensed at the sight of two thuggish men ripping what appears to be a Catholic schoolgirl outfit off Madonna in a dilapidated school gymnasium. But, hey, says the book, how could that be a glorification of rape? She's smiling, isn't she?

Still, Madonna has insisted that the intention of "Sex" isn't simply to shock. As she told Vanity Fair, Madonna hopes the book will "open [people's] minds and get them to see sexuality in another way."

Don't count on it. Because for the most part, the way "Sex" sees sexuality is as pure commodity, something to be packed into a Mylar bag and peddled to curious consumers. And given how well she seems to know her audience, it's a fair bet that "Sex" will sell the way sex usually does.

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