Oscar Wilde? Michael Cunningham? Robert Klitzman? Robert Michels? Frank Underwood? Kevin Spacey? Apocryphal? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: While reading about the precipitous downfall of an influential literary tastemaker and powerbroker at “The Paris Review” I encountered once again a remark attributed to Oscar Wilde. Here are three versions:
- Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.
- Everything is about sex, except sex, which is about power.
- Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.
The Wilde ascription is often labeled apocryphal. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde wrote or said this remark. It is not listed in the valuable compendium “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde” assembled by quotation expert Ralph Keyes. 1
The earliest close match located by QI appeared in the “Provincetown Arts” journal of 1995. Author Michael Cunningham employed the saying during an interview conducted by fellow author Paul Lisicky. Cunningham is now best known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Hours”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2
If you’re writing about what people do to and with one another, it’s sort of crazy to leave sex out. I think Oscar Wilde said, “Everything in human life is really about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” And I think he’s got something there.
Cunningham disclaimed coinage and provided an attribution that was both tentative and implausible. Hence, the saying remains anonymous.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
A variant statement about aggression appeared in a book published in the same year as the citation above. The precise chronology remains uncertain because “Provincetown Arts” was published in July, but the 1995 book did not specify a month. “In a House of Dreams and Glass: Becoming a Psychiatrist” by Robert Klitzman M.D. included a conversation during which a colleague warned Klitzman that one of his new patients might try to seduce him. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 3
“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 about aggression.’” I smiled but was puzzled. I couldn’t tell how wholeheartedly he accepted this proposition.
This comment employed the phrase “everything in therapy” instead of “everything in the world”. Also, “aggression” occurred instead of “power”. Yet, the comment fit the same template. The attribution was anonymous, i.e., an unidentified supervisor received credit.
In 1997 “The Talking Cure” by Susan C. Vaughan printed an intermediate variant. The restrictive word “therapy” was dropped. However, the adage also used “aggression” instead of “power”: 4
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.”
In 1998 Vaughan used the same variant within a book about the male-potency drug Viagra: 5
As the old analytic joke goes, “Everything is about sex except sex, which is about aggression.” But I’m betting that sex is about sex, too.
In 2002 the collection “Constructing and Deconstructing Woman’s Power” contained an article titled “Looking at women: what do men see?” by Robert Alan Glick which included the following: 6
Summarizing Freud and all of psychoanalysis most succinctly, Robert Michels (personal communication) wryly suggested: “Everything is about sex, except sex: sex is about power.” To which he added: “Sometimes sex is just about sex!”
The character Francis Underwood played by Kevin Spacey in the television series “House of Cards” used the saying during the first season in 2013: 7
The American House of Cards contains comparable signature phrases—Frank Underwood’s “Power is a lot like real estate. It’s all about location, location, location. The closer you are to the source, the higher your property value”; “Democracy is overrated”; “A great man once said, everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.”
In conclusion, the ascription to Oscar Wilde is apocryphal. Author Michael Cunningham used the saying by 1995, but he disclaimed credit. Also in 1995 psychiatrist Robert Klitzman employed a thematically similar remark about aggression while disclaiming credit. One of these expressions may have evolved into the other although the chronology is not clear. This article presents a snapshot of current knowledge and future discoveries may provide further illumination.
(Great thanks to Karin Kross Levenstein, Helena Aman, and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also the requester who wishes to remain anonymous.)
Image Notes: Painting of Adam and Eve attributed to Peter Paul Rubens at wikiart.org. Depiction of a broken chain from Nemo at Pixabay. Images have been cropped and resized.
- 1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Ralph Keyes, Quote (Quotation is absent), HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1995, Provincetown Arts, Volume 11, Conversations: A Talk with Michael Cunningham by Paul Lisicky, Start Page 36, Quote Page 39, Column 3, Published Annually in July by Provincetown Arts Inc., Provincetown, Massachusetts. link (Internet Archive at archive.org accessed June 5, 2018) ↩
- 1995, In a House of Dreams and Glass: Becoming a Psychiatrist by Robert Klitzman M.D., Quote Page 73 and 74, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1998 (Copyright 1997), The Talking Cure: Why Traditional Talking Therapy Offers a Better Chance for Long-Term Relief Than Any Drug by Susan C. Vaughan, M.D, Revised Edition, Quote Page 160, An Owl Book: Henry Holt and Company, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 1998, Viagra: A Guide to the Phenomenal Potency Promoting Drug by Susan C. Vaughan, Introduction: The Bull Market for Viagra, Quote Page 16, Pocket Books: A Division of Simon & Schuster, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 2002, Constructing and Deconstructing Woman’s Power, Edited by Beth J. Seelig, Robert A. Paul, and Carol B. Levy, Chapter 9: Looking at women: what do men see? by Robert Alan Glick, Start Page 110, Quote Page 118, H. Karnac Books, London. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 2017, American Literature as World Literature, Edited by Jeffrey R. Di Leo, Chapter 5: Political Serials: Tanner ’88 to House of Cards by Emily Apter, Start Page 107, Quote Page 116, (imdb.com places the quotation in chapter 9 of the TV series), Bloomsbury Academic: An Imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩