You have to admit that the new Museum of Sex in New York City is a wonderful idea. Imagine-a place where you can go and look at pornography without shame or sanction. In fact, the more you pore over it, the more you examine every minute detail, the more scholarly you will be perceived to be. Book me a flight!
A lot of people must feet this way, for the museum has been wildly popular since it opened several months ago. It’s already turning a profit. Yes, profit. For as museums go, it’s a hybrid. It is a for-profit commercial enterprise, yet it follows the laws and style of a reputable, well-established art museum (which is invariably non-profit). This means you get the porno, but it’s all behind glass-literally. Plus, it costs $17.
The museum is located on Fifth Avenue at 27th Street, in a smallish building that was, on my recent visit, still covered with scaffolding. At least I thought so at first. Then I realized that perhaps it was a giant condom, part of some grand-opening celebration. I stared and stared, trying to figure it out.
Inside, the museum is a dead ringer for any art museum in the world. The walls are white, the floors highly polished, the lighting bright. The exhibits are attractively installed, with proper museum signage that indicates the artist (if applicable), the title or description of the article, and the date. There are even bored guards standing around, just like at the Metropolitan. The items on display are mostly photographs and reproductions of photographs and old newspapers. There are a few objects and costumes and props but not many. Several times you come across movies or videos-Sally Rand and her fan dance, Blaze Star doing a number, and even some old stag films from the ’20s.
I must say I found the pornography of yore to be very interesting. The most fascinating part was the way people did it the same way then that they do it now. I mean, exactly. But there is one big difference. The bodies are so much better today, particularly on the women. It makes you realize that breast implants really are making a difference in the world.
The opening exhibit, which runs through July, is a survey of sex in New York City during the past 150 years or so. It begins with the brothels of the olden days, which I must say sounded quite nice, with live music, good food, and no fuss about closing time. Many were in my old neighborhood. They used to print up guides, like Zagat’s. If a brothel was really good it was called a "crack house." And just think-many brothels today are also "crack houses."
We then move on to the rise of sexual entertainment, in particular burlesque, and the growth in popularity of pornography, which found its mecca in the colorful area around Times Square. Today, in its new guise as a family-friendly amusement area, it is hard to believe that this was once the sex capital of the United States. Rounding out the exhibit are the various liberation movements-women, gays, the trans-gendered-which have spiced the mix, so to speak. And finally, sex’s present day reality, where AIDS, the religious right and Rudy Giuliani have done so much to dampen even the most libidinous swinger’s libido.
While the exhibit is about sex in New York, the changes it chronicles occurred everywhere in the country. What I found most interesting about it was the role women played. Most academic studies detail the deeds of men, with women barely mentioned. That’s not true in the field of sex. In fact, just about all the people who moved sex forward, who took it to places it had never been before, were women. Several examples:
Little Egypt. She invented the art form of modern erotic dance; her spiritual granddaughters are everywhere and her "hoochie-kootch" has evolved into the pole and lap dance, which, hopefully, is about as far as it can go, in public anyway.
Mae West. She was the Madonna of her day, a canny actress with a sexual agenda that also just happened to make her millions. She brought out into the open themes that were rarely presented to white middle class America-black music, gay slang, the style of prostitution-and in doing so, really loosened things up.
Bettie Page. The famous dominatrix model of the ’50s was not into S&M herself but had such a distinctive style-that hairdo, those pointed bras-that she is now more famous than ever, an iconic image right up there with Marilyn.
Linda Lovelace. The star of the groundbreaking Deep Throat and sex’s greatest cautionary tale. Sex made her world-famous but then destroyed her. And why? Men. An endlessly fascinating life, and the museum does a pretty good job of presenting it.
To me personally, the most interesting part of the whole experience was when I bumped into my old boss. Unfortunately, he wasn’t just viewing the exhibit. He was the exhibit. There was a photograph of him by Robert Mapplethorpe, doing something very unusual. "Oh . my . God," I said aloud. It just goes to show. You think you know somebody . And this guy had a very reputable job. In fact, he worked for the governor of New York, until he got fired under very mysterious circumstances that are now suddenly starting to make a lot of sense.
Anyway, as handy as the Museum of Sex may be for catching up with old acquaintances, I couldn’t help feeling that something was missing. Something raffish, something daring, something . . . sexy. Frankly, I wanted something a little more interactive. Here’s an idea -you place your palm on some sort of electronic sensing device that measures minute changes in your heartbeat and blood pressure. Then they flash images before you of all sorts of sexual fetishes and a meter tells which one excites you the most. That would be fun with a group from the office.
I left the Museum of Sex in a nostalgic mood. The good times are behind me, I knew that much. And even all that stuff on exhibit seemed quaint and dated. The Internet has so completely changed sex that everything else is obsolete. And you’re pretty much forced to keep up with all the changes via all that porno spam you get in your e-mail. Some people get all incensed but I lovingly save each one, or I did until my hard drive blew up. At first I couldn’t quite explain why I was doing it, but now I know. I’m performing an archival function. Someday the Museum of Sex will come begging.