monthly column from author/activist
David Steinberg

Comes Naturally #128

New York's Thoughtful New Museum of Sex:
A Succulent Plum in the Big Apple

The question is whether it's appropriate to put the terms "museum" and "sex" together in one descriptive title.

The New York State Board of Regents, which controls access to the official Empire State moniker of "Museum" (and, not insignificantly, to the non-profit status that accompanies state sanctification as a cultural organization), says it is not. To the Regents, the very title, "Museum of Sex," defames and ridicules the hallowed notion of museumhood.

Daniel Gluck and Grady Turner, executive director and curator respectively of New York City's spanking new, elegant (if non-state-approved) Museum of Sex, disagree. What could be more appropriate, they argue, than having an institution whose exhibits honor sex as an important, complex, and variegated aspect of life, worthy of the most thoughtful investigation, reflection, and celebration -- like art, like history, like a dozen different ethnicities, like baseball -- like so many cherished aspects of culture that we enthusiastically acknowledge in this way.

"The mission of the Museum of Sex," they announce after four years and millions of dollars of preparation, "is to preserve and present the history, evolution, and cultural significance of human sexuality," while bringing the public "the best in current scholarship" on sexual issues. It is in this spirit that the Museum's 15,000-square-foot inaugural exhibition, "NYC Sex: How New York City Transformed Sex in America," seeks to "guide visitors through a detailed history of the city's sexual subcultures from 1825 to the present." The exhibit emphasizes the cyclical ways that burgeoning and changing sexual practices and proclivities have repeatedly overwhelmed and been overwhelmed by forces of sexual repression and control. It also shows how the cauldron of New York's dense and diverse mix of sexual populations and desires has repeatedly spawned forms of sexual exploration and experimentation that went on to shape the sexual development and sophistication of the nation as a whole.

To be sure, MoSex (as Museum of Sex people affectionately refer to their institutional creation) is not the only sex museum in the world. Amsterdam and Barcelona have their own "sex museums," but these are, sadly, little more than garish tourist attractions -- kitschy expressions of the dominant culture's titillation and trivialization of sex, rather than a significant alternative to it. But MoSex is the first attempt in decades -- probably since the demise of San Francisco's too-short-lived International Museum of Erotic Art during the early 1970s -- to bring the respect and thoughtfulness associated with serious museums to the subject of sex.

It's no accident that the primary lens through which MoSex views sex is that of history rather than art. Its founder and chief financial benefactor, Executive Director Daniel Gluck, feels that the image that erotic art raises in people's minds is essentially cheesy. Gluck would rather teach the lessons of sexual history than offer the more nebulous perspectives to be gleaned from exhibitions of sexual art.

Gluck was shopping in historical circles for the right person to become MoSex's chief curator when he came across Grady Turner, then Director of Exhibitions at the New-York Historical Society. Turner was fascinated by the idea of making a museum of sex work effectively -- of walking the fine line between education and entertainment, between controversy and legitimacy, that would be at the heart of bringing the concepts of museum and sex together. Turner, by his own description always intrigued with "difficult topics," was no stranger to controversy. At the Historical Society he curated the much criticized, emotionally unnerving, and ultimately extremely successful exhibit, "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America," a collection of photographs of lynchings that documented in no uncertain terms an aspect of American history that most people would much prefer to quietly sweep under the historical rug. In April, 2001, he signed on as Executive Curator and began the long process of pulling the inaugural MoSex exhibit together.

Turner's primary goal for "NYC Sex" is to use a wide array of collected historical objects to convey the personal sexual stories of as wide a variety of people as possible. His primary interest is in social history, history of the common people, as opposed to historical perspectives that focus entirely on the rich and powerful. While much of "NYC Sex" commemorates the contributions of major figures in sexual history -- birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock, condom mogul Julius Schmid, pin-up artist Alberto Vargas, to name a few, Turner also wanted to get beyond exemplary sexual pioneers to tell the sexual stories of common people. And he was committed to presenting a broad spectrum of sexual stories that would acknowledge the great diversity of sexual activity, much of it decidedly outside whatever was contemporarily considered mainstream, that has always been part of the real sexual history of a cosmopolitan city like New York, and probably the rest of the country as well. Prostitution, pornography, the emergence of gay and lesbian culture, the manufacture and subterranean distribution of bondage devices, radical sex clubs of the 1970s, all play significant roles in the 170-year tour of New York's sexual history that Turner and "NYC Sex" offer the public.

Turner is careful to note that the Museum is not an advocacy organization. Its intention is to offer objective information about sexual history, rather than to take a political position with regard to abortion, birth control, obscenity, homosexuality, or any of the other hot button sexual issues that have made their way across the political and social stage throughout history.

Inevitably, however, there is powerful political impact in the simple act of making information public that has traditionally been kept secret -- whether the secreted story has to do with sex, with lynching, or with anything else. MoSex is important and controversial not just because it speaks of sex, but because it speaks of sex in ways that cultural gatekeepers are determined to disallow. Despite what all the moralistic homogenizers would have us believe, for example, sexual practice and desire have never been limited to the straight and narrow, to what is considered respectable, and this sexual truth is something that the "NYC Sex" exhibit proclaims for all to know and ponder.

The exhibit demonstrates that throughout history (or at least throught the 170 years in America that it documents) unconventional sex has found its way around whatever modes of socially imposed constraint have been raised to try to keep people from acting on their most basic sexual desires. It is a story that is particularly relevant as the nation plunges into yet another period of increasing sexual repression, fear, and constraint. We have been here before, "NYC Sex" implicitly counsels. There are lessons to be learned from the past.

Not surprisingly, antisexual moralists are far from happy to see such truths being told frankly and openly, without the imprimatur of sexual shame or the trivialization of sex that is itself an expression of that shame. The antisexualists are even more disturbed to see straightforwardness about sex lay claim to social legitimacy and respectability through MoSex's deliberately scholarly and thoughtful demeanor. William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, condemned MoSex, sight unseen, for what he called its "unabashed celebration of unbounded sexuality" and its "moral pollution" before the museum had so much as opened its doors.

Where does one go to find historical objects to document and illustrate the underground sexual subcultures that have dotted New York's historical landscape for the past 170 years? Turner sensibly turned to the people most obsessively smitten with those cultures, foremost among them anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock himself. Just as the voluminous report of the Meese Commission offered a virtual treasure trove of pornographic material to the public at government expense, and just as the public fuss of the Clinton-Lewinsky caper brought discussion of oral sex and the sexual uses of cigars to the dinner tables of heartland American families, so did Anthony Comstock's painstaking efforts to combat smut elaborately record the details and preserve the artifacts of underground sexual activity for posterity and, as Comstock bulkily rolls over in his grave, as fodder for the educational efforts of sexual historians like Grady Turner as well.

Material confiscated and archived by the New York Police Department in its various vice raids provided another ironic and valuable collection of source material for MoSex. And the vast, meticulously catalogued, personal porn collection of retired Library of Congress librarian Ralph Wittington, acquired over thirty years at a collective cost of something over $100,000 and recently purchased by MoSex when Wittington's accumulation outgrew even his substantial home, offered yet another bounty of material to the museum's growing archive.

Whether MoSex will attract the 100,000 visitors it projects for its first ten months remains to be seen. But the emergence of a serious museum focusing on sex is a significant development in itself.

Artists and photographers, as well as historians, who address sex in other than titillating and sensationalizing ways have always found it difficult to have their work taken seriously. As the forces of sexual repression have increased their political clout in the past twenty years, and as the Ashcroft Justice Department prepares for ever greater challenges to the public availability of sex-related information and material, the world of fine art has become more reluctant than ever to embrace material of a sexual nature, no matter how thoughtful or artistic its intent and presentation. Respected galleries and museums that began to explore sexual themes during the 1970s have grown increasingly reluctant to put their reputations on the media chopping block in recent years. Photography critic and commentator A.D. Coleman, who has written extensively on this subject for decades, notes that the existence of the new Museum of Sex, together with the press that the opening of the museum has generated, may in itself encourage museums, galleries, and art publishers to be more open to thinking of sex as a subject worthy of serious, artistic presentation to the public.

Happily, the initial coverage of MoSex in mainstream media has been remarkably respectful, if not free of inevitable sniggering. Karin Lipson, writing in Newsday, acknowledges the museum's "seriousness of purpose," noting that "nothing at MoSex is presented in a tacky or cheesy fashion." Maria Puente, in USA Today ("Sex Scores Its Own Museum in the City -- Exhibits Take Erudite Peek at the Erotic"), asks "why not [have] a museum that attempts to take a scholarly yet playful look" at sex, predicting that viewers will be intrigued, moved, and only a little titillated by the opening exhibit. Simon Tait notes in The London Times that MoSex "has gone some way to being taken seriously" by contracting design of the first exhibit to the noted architectural firm of Casson Mann. A notably infantile article by Clyde Haberman in The New York Times ("Dirty Photos? Call them Artifacts") was balanced in the Times by a more thoughtful Ralph Blumenthal article ("Sex Museum Says It's Here to Educate"). And even coverage of controversy about the museum in the tabloid New York Daily News, famous for its sensationalism about everything ("A Serious Museum, or Exhibitionism?"), gave MoSex supporters an opportunity to make the critics from the Catholic League look foolish. Speaking of AIDS, for example, a spokesman for Gay Men's Health Crisis commented that "sex is not a bad thing. Disease and ignorance are. The Catholic League should lighten up."

After a series of unfortunate construction delays, the Museum of Sex opened its long-awaited doors on October 5. The critics will have their say; the public will vote with their feet and their dollars. Hopefully MoSex will be around to venerate and teach about sex for years to come.

The Museum of Sex is located at 233 Fifth Avenue, at 27th Street. Hours are Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; closed Wednesdays. Tickets ($17 including audio tour) are available at 866-MOSEXTIX. No one admitted under 18. Additional information is available at "NYC Sex: How New York City Transformed Sex in America" will be on display at the Museum of Sex through July 3, 2003.

An elegant catalog of the show, edited by Grady Turner and also titled NYC Sex: How New York City Transformed Sex in America, includes chapters on "Sodom on the Hudson," "Queers," "Whores," "Underground," and "Porn," and conversations with several members of the Museum's Advisory Board, including Martin Duberman, Joan Nestle, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, Xaviera Hollander, Tracy Quan, Karen Finley, Art Spiegelman, and Annie Sprinkle.

This article first appeared in Spectator magazine. If you'd like to receive Comes Naturally and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email (free and confidential), send your name and email address to David at Past columns are available at the Society for Human Sexuality's "David Steinberg Archives." Two books edited by David -- Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies, and The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self -- are available from him by mail order.