Frequently, "Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power." is seen attributed to Oscar Wilde: e.g., here, here, and here. This seems unlikely to me, for several reasons:

  • I can't find any instances of the quote that date from more than about fifteen years ago. The oldest of them already seem to quote it as a well-known dictum, so it's probably older than that, but a hundred years is an awfully long time to go without googleable citations.
  • Nobody seems to have any idea where Oscar would have said it, if in fact he did.
  • It just sounds wrong: specifically, I would expect a post-Freudian source.

Does anyone know what the actual source of this quote is?

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    But power, in turn, is about sex? – Nate Eldredge Dec 11 '14 at 5:59
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    @NateEldredge So, by transitivity, sex is about sex, after all. – David Richerby Dec 11 '14 at 10:56
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    I'd say "F.U.," but non House of Cards people would think me vulgar. – Affable Geek Dec 12 '14 at 21:29
  • @AffableGeek: That episode is actually what got me looking into this the first place. Frank a) makes it very clear that he's quoting someone, and b) is carefully nonspecific about who, suggesting that the writers couldn't find anyone plausible to attribute to either... – Micah Dec 12 '14 at 21:56

From Beth Seelig's 2002 book Constructing and Deconstructing Woman's Power:

Summarizing Freud and all of psychoanalysis most succinctly, Robert Michels (personal communciation) wryly suggested: "Everything is about sex, except sex: sex is about power."

Unfortunately, the book's bibliography isn't available for free on Google Books, so whether this quote can be traced back to a primary source remains to be seen. But it certainly feels like something Michels would've said.

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    This is a good lead, especially as that's one of the earliest concrete cites I've seen. However, if it's actually a personal communication, I'm almost sure it has to be quoting this Robert Michels. Seelig was born about a decade after sociologist-Michels' death. On the other hand, both she and psychiatrist-Michels are currently associated with Columbia University... – Micah Dec 11 '14 at 21:43
  • The personal communication isn't between Seelig and Michels, it's from Michels' personal communication. – Kyle Hale Dec 20 '14 at 4:08
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    I wonder to what extend a book's copyright extends to the bibliography? I think one could make a reasonable argument that publication of full bibliographies from even copyrighted books should counted under "fair use" since it should represent a non-creative representation of factual content. – supercat May 26 '15 at 17:20
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    I (and the courts) disagree that a bibliography is non-creative. It's a curated document expressing a list of cited works which cumulatively provide the knowledge necessary to present the work it accompanies. The compilation of that list requires critical analysis and creative judgment. – Kyle Hale May 28 '15 at 18:37
  • The book doesn't have a work by Robert Michels in it's bibliography. – Christian Jun 26 '16 at 9:01

The claim is that it was first said by Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde died 30 November, 1900.

However, the first recorded use of "sex" as a noun to refer to sexual intercourse was by D.H. Lawrence in 1929.

The attribution to Wilde of the quote (as it stands) is anachronistic.

Hat-tip to this Quoran

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    The OED does have one earlier cite for "sex" in this sense (in Love and Mr Lewisham by H. G. Wells, published in 1899). I think the fundamental point stands, though -- if Wilde had said the quote in this form, lexicographers would very much like to know about it, and they don't seem to... – Micah Dec 11 '14 at 6:47
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    +1, despite Micah's point: even if this sense of sex did already exist, it was a rare secondary sense, so it wouldn't have been used in a low-context witticism like this. (Consider "Everything is better with sauce, except sauce. Sauce is better with food." You may know that sauce sometimes means "alcohol", but would you understand the quotation as using it in that sense?) – ruakh Dec 12 '14 at 22:10

According to Google Ngram the phrase "sex is about power" first appeared in 1981:

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Google Books gives a 1981 edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde published by Alahambra (ISBN: 9788420507910) as a hit for the search phrase: "Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power." The original version of the book doesn't contain the phrase.

Unfortunately that version of the book isn't available to me to check it out in more detail. It's likely that the publisher edited the version in a way that made readers think that the Oscar Wilde actually wrote the words.

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    Perhaps in the Alhambra edition there is an introduction by some currently (1981) famous writer, and that is where the phrase in question appears. – GEdgar Jun 26 '16 at 12:39
  • @GEdgar : It would be interesting if someone with access to a well-sorted libary or to the Google scans would find out. It's one of the obscure books you can't even buy on Amazon. – Christian Jun 26 '16 at 12:50

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