Now that I have your attention (and fulfilled a long-awaited opportunity to use that joke), come along with me. In this edition of The Wandering Brooklynite, we’ll be visiting the Museum of Sex. This is The Love Issue, after all. Seeing as how many of us are still nursing post-Valentine’s Day hangovers, what better remedy could there be than a three-floor monument to that most basic of human activities? More demure readers should be advised now that portions of this article will describe the museum’s attractions in precise — and sexually explicit — detail.
Located on the corner of 27th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the Museum of Sex has been a fixture of New York since opening on October 5, 2002. The museum seems right at home in a city which was a hot bed of the counterculture movement in the 1960s and the gay rights marches of the 1980s and ‘90s. Even today, women’s rights organizations have staged freedom advocacy demonstrations here for the right to go shirtless when and where they choose.
According to the mission statement on its website, the museum’s aim is to present “the history, evolution, and cultural significance of human sexuality.” It continues by saying the museum “is committed to open discourse and exchange, and to bringing to the public the best in current scholarship.” As I waited outside the museum for my girlfriend to join in my adventure, I couldn’t spot the debate or scholarship between the tittering passers-by and the already-drunk bachelorette group stumbling out the front door at four in the afternoon. Unlike most museums that funnel their visitors out through the gift shop prior to departing, the Museum of Sex places theirs on the ground floor prior to admission. This allows easy access to the curious and giggly who just want to pick up a vibrating cupcake sex toy or a “penis pokey” play book for later purposes. Don’t forget to visit the basement level bar for a sex-themed cocktail!
It’s obvious the museum is well aware that many are only interested in the novelty of the place. A museum about sex? Oh, the scandal! Granted, while a place like this should be fun as well as informative, it would be nice if the museum placed its bold mission statement somewhere in the entry level for guests to glance at as they sift through the strategically placed merchandise. Very few visitors seemed interested in shelling out the high $17.50 admission fee to gain access to the upper levels, but we hadn’t come all this way for a hand towel blazoned with a “cum rag” slogan, had we?
The next level offers a slightly more stimulating exhibit dedicated to sex and the Internet. It houses an interactive display of the top 50 most-searched sexual fetishes including group sex, interracial relations and a host of other things we won’t go into detail about here — but use your dirty little imaginations. Chances are if you can envision it, there’s a fetish group on the Internet devoted to it. Still, after a few minutes of watching fornicating cartoons, close-up shots of vaginal penetration and adulterous Facebook threads in a dark room with several dozen strangers, the appeal wears off. Most of the passers-by seemed more shocked and repulsed than enticed, and who can blame them? Does anybody seriously want to imagine doing some of these things? Even my girlfriend and I found ourselves hurrying through the exhibit. After a while of looking at images that range from the commonplace (masturbation and oral sex) to the downright disturbing (bestiality and rape fantasies) there comes a time when one can only handle so much overwhelming carnality.
The second floor offers a thoroughly more interesting exhibit that explores sexuality in the animal kingdom. Here, visitors are given a detailed look at just how much of a jungle it is out there when it comes to the act of procreation. Detailed diagrams of animal genitalia? Check. Life-sized models of beasts in various states of copulation? Double check. Most interesting of all is the portion of the exhibit which displays homosexual pairings in nature. I, for one, was largely unaware of all the flamingoes, penguins and bison — among others — that engaged in same-sex relations. So much for the conservative claims that homosexuality is unnatural! Public attention to this part of the museum could go a long way toward promoting acceptance of gays in society. Yet, it seems most visitors are more interested in a giddy little thrill than they are in becoming better-rounded human beings. Most are content to gawk at the bizarre shape of duck penises or the wacky-cute prospect of Panda pornography, which exists to entice Panda Bears into copulation. As one fellow guest observed during our time in the animal exhibit, “there’s some shit going down out there!” This pretty much sums up the mindset of the majority of the museum’s patrons. Indeed, there is a lot of shit going down out there, and in here too for that matter. Just take a look at the fetish exhibit on the first floor — but the less said about that, the better.
Almost everyone has sex, and just as many think about it all the time, so why do we as a society avoid confronting it, let alone discussing it? Is it our Puritanical roots? Is it our divided cultural spectrum? Rick Santorum? For that matter, why does an institute that dedicates itself to open discourse not bother handing out any promotional materials on upcoming events? During our entire time at the museum, my girlfriend and I didn’t see one pamphlet or poster advertising an upcoming speaker or educational seminar. The history of sex in culture is touched upon only briefly in an exhibit displaying fetish photographs from the 19th century. The museum offers little to no information on pioneering researchers such as Freud or Kinsey. Even contemporary experts such as Dr. Ruth or Dan Savage are left out in favor of crass merchandising opportunities and interactive sex doll exhibits. For a museum that prides itself on education, the whole collection just feels like a parade of attention-grabbing titillation rather than information.
After just 45 minutes, we’d seen everything. Normally I’m not the sort of person to gripe over price gouging, but $17.50 doesn’t go as far as it should here. As we left, my girlfriend pointed out that I seemed more uncomfortable in the museum than she was, having barely said anything during our time there. I explained that I wasn’t uncomfortable, just unimpressed. How can a museum devoted entirely to sex come across as mundane and downright boring? More to the point, shouldn’t an institution devoted to enlightening the public possess some shred of educational value? Does the museum offer classes or books that aren’t filled with nothing but nude pictures?
In the interest of being fair, I’m well aware that the museum needs to draw in visitors and accumulate revenue and let’s be honest: sex is fun! If the museum wants to highlight this in an effort to attract guests and promote its agenda, that’s fine, but too often it feels like a lost opportunity. Further information on upcoming events is detailed on their website, but how many visitors will make an effort to go there? On their website, the museum’s directors go into great detail outlining the atrocities committed in the name of repressing sexuality. This ranges from the destruction of academic research in Nazi Germany to the modern day discrimination against gays and lesbians. This is a wonderful mission statement, but very little about the museum seems to further or promote it. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but if a museum is going to promote a risky subject such as human sexuality, then it had better have more to show for it than cheap novelty. Suddenly, the joke I opened this article with doesn’t seem so invalid.
If you’re interested in learning more about sex, I suggest you read the work of the previously mentioned Sigmund Freud and Alfred Kinsey. If you’re interested in learning about the mating habits of animals, check out the National Geographic channel or do a YouTube search for the show Green Porno featuring Isabella Rossellini. If you have $17.50 burning a hole in your pocket and you’re looking for T-shirts featuring the word “fuck” in bold letters, head on down to the Museum of Sex. It’s one big cock tease.