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? Dec 11, 2014 at 5:59
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    @NateEldredge So, by transitivity, sex is about sex, after all. Dec 11, 2014 at 10:56
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    I'd say "F.U.," but non House of Cards people would think me vulgar. Dec 12, 2014 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, 2014 at 21:56

4 Answers 4


From an article by Robert Alan Glick in the 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, 2014 at 21:43
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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, 2015 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, 2015 at 18:37
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    The book doesn't have a work by Robert Michels in it's bibliography.
    – Christian
    Jun 26, 2016 at 9:01
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    @KyleHale The author of the article from which you are quoting is Robert Alan Glick. Beth Seelig is just one of the editors of the book, which is collection of articles by various author. The phrase "personal communication" should mean from Robert Michels to Robert Alan Glick.
    – DavePhD
    Jan 30, 2019 at 16:20

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, 2014 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, 2014 at 22:10

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

enter image description here

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, 2016 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, 2016 at 12:50
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    @Christian Ngram is giving fake info based on this website ginawings.com/tag/love which has the quote, and the ngram thinks the website is older than it really is. The actual oldest book with "sex is about power" is "Sweeping statements: writings from the women's liberation movement" books.google.com/… 1984
    – DavePhD
    Jan 30, 2019 at 19:03

Following up Kyle Hale's lead from Beth Seelig... (I don't have enough reputation to comment there)… it seems to be an old saying in psychoanalytical circles.

"In a House of Dreams and Glass: Becoming a Psychiatrist" by Robert Kitzman (Random House; 1996) has a very similar quote on page 54. It's snippet view on Google Books, so hard to tell the context, but it's a quote within the dialogue of some story about therapy.

"Seduce me?"
"She's going to try to hook on to you and to get under your skin. I once had a supervisor who used to say that 'Everything in therapy is really about sex except sex, which is really about aggression.' I smiled but was puzzled. I couldn't tell how wholeheartedly he accepted this proposition."

Susan Putnam has the same wording in "The Talking Cure: The Science Behind Psychotherapy," (Putnam's; 1997) on page 160. She implies that it's an old chestnut in Freudian circles. (Also snippet view)

"Indeed, the importance with which sex and aggression are viewed as motivators of human behavior by psychoanalysts is captured by the saying, "Everything is about sex except sex, which is about aggression.' I think of the Beast Within as a wolf, perhaps the wolf from the story of Little Red Riding Hood..."

There is also Henry Kissinger's famous quote that "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac" which may have interbred with this one.

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    Technically you're linking to the 1998 version of "The Talking Cure", but this doesn't change the point of your answer.
    – Laurel
    Jan 30, 2019 at 3:36
  • Thanks. I think the Google Books result may have listed the wrong date; that's what I went by. It's interesting that the search page results are sometimes different than the results from a search inside a book; sometimes it helps see a bit more of a snippet view book. I also got two different page numbers in GB; page 60, and page 160. Latter is correct. Jan 31, 2019 at 2:09

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