let’s talk about 'sex,' baby

As cult online magazine 'Sex' is published as a print compilation, we talk to writer and creator Asher Penn on challenging the status quo and the power of print in the digital age.

by Tish Weinstock
Dec 14 2016, 3:25pm

When Asher Penn stopped making his cult magazine Sex, it was an end of an era. From 2012 to 2015, the quarterly mag was celebrated far and wide for its rousing content, in-depth interviews, nuanced essays on art, culture, fashion, music, design and tech, photo stories, and a light touch of erotica.

The list of contributors featured over the years reads like a yearbook of some of the coolest figures of the post-internet era, most of whom you'd probably never heard of. Because that, you see, was the beauty of Sex; it wasn't about cramming each issue full of celebrities or big names, it was about finding untapped sources of raw, creative talent — less the heroes of today, and more the keepers of tomorrow. It was fresh, honest and open. And then it was gone.

But now, Penn's vow of celibacy is over, as Sex returns to the limelight once more, this time no longer a print virgin. Published by Powerhouse Books, Sex collects the publication's ten issues in print for the first time ever, a physical manifestation of an entire digital culture. Fresh from the launch, we caught up with Asher to talk about sex.

What was the concept behind Sex?
The concept was an "all the food groups" cultural magazine: art, music, fashion, design, literature, film all combined in the same place. The name I think came out of desperation. I didn't want the magazine to be ignored, so I wanted it to have an iconic name. I also couldn't believe anyone hadn't called a magazine Sex before. I was also really inspired by Brendan Fowler's interview zine Sex Sells Magazines and the Fugs's publication Fuck You: A Magazine for the Arts.

Did the magazine's cult status surprise you?
I had no idea that was the perception, to be honest. Sometimes when you've got your head down working it's hard to tell. At the beginning I had wanted it to succeed both as something that was actually read and as a business. The challenges of doing both became more apparent as I continued.

A lot of the people you interviewed were barely known. Was there a deeper, perhaps reactionary, significance in shining the spotlight on unknowns  given today's current celebrity obsessed climate?
I can get a bit reactionary. In hindsight I regret it mostly because it tends to lead to missing some great opportunities. I used to feel like we had to only interview people who hadn't really been covered. Now I just think that what really matters is the fact that we do a good job — the quality and depth of our interviews is exceptional, not just the subjects.

How would you describe the creative process in terms of sourcing content and putting the magazine together?
I would always start an issue on my whiteboard with the list of subjects: art, music, fashion, etc. Then I would begin putting down names I would love to see there. The names normally enter into a conversation with each other; who would be amazing to see side by side, what would make a memorable contrast in terms of age, background, audience… It never ends up being that original lineup, but that's how it starts.

How do you think culture  both pop and counter  have changed since the magazine's inception?
I'd say that in general, the way that people use internet has changed. We weren't planning on being a publication that was primarily read on the phone. Instagram didn't exist when we started. There was more elbow room. There's been a lot of energy and money dedicated to internet publishing in the past few years. Unfortunately, the result of this is that the experience of online publishing has become a much worse experience.

Why did you decide to end the online publication?
I didn't decide to end it — that clickbait headline is kind of misleading. After the tenth issue, I needed to step back and kind of assess things. The book itself also took a year to put together, compiling a magazine that had taken three years to produce. Working on that required an entire revisiting of what the magazine had been and what it would be in the print form.

Why turn to print now  a medium whose death has been heralded on countless occasions?
Because the internet sucks now? I don't know. Books and print are one of the oldest and best technologies for storing information, and creating a positive mental experience. These days, the craft that goes into print publishing is missing from the way we archive and celebrate contemporary culture. I wish I had been printing from the beginning, to be honest.

How has it been reimagining something that has only ever existed online as a 3D object?
I learned a lot. There was so much more freedom in terms of art direction, layout, and storytelling. At the same time, print publishing comes with some challenging parameters, ranging from permissions, page count, typesetting — I had to really fight for each page. The system evolved as it went along and by the end, it was a real joy to layout a story.

What's next?
Now that the book is wrapped, I'm looking to reboot the publication as a free print magazine that comes out twice a year. I'm also working on a handful of side projects, many of which I hope will begin to peek their head out in 2017.


Text Tish Weinstock

asher penn
sex magazine
digital magazines