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Our first indication that all was not going to be raunchy at the Museum of Sex was the white-washed reception area for the press preview last week: a small, drab table covered in a white paper tablecloth held three urns of coffee and a plate of whole-wheat muffins. What, no oysters, no chocolate-covered strawberries, no champagne? No red velvet curtain or six-foot gold-plated dildo in the lobby? We picked up our press kits and were told to look for the two guys in black suits if we wanted to interview the director, Daniel Gluck, or the head curator, Grady Turner. It suddenly felt more like a fifth-grade field trip than an afternoon of debauchery. Got your clipboards? Let’s go, kids!
     Museum of Sex: the name itself is an oxymoron, and finding a balance between “museum” and “sex” was always going to be a problem. Too much sex and no one but dirty old men would visit; too much museum and only gender studies professors would stop by. Turner (clad, as promised, in a chic black suit) readily admitted that they erred on the side of too much museum: “This first exhibit [a history of sex in New York] is meant to show that we’re serious, that this is a worthwhile thing.” Not quite serious enough to garner non-profit status, however: the state Board of Regents refused its application as a cultural non-profit organization, and thus MoSex (as it’s known in the biz) is forced to charge a whopping $17 admission fee.
     So what you get is a museum that feels like a small, cramped gallery and sex that’s slightly sterile. Granted, on the day of our visit, we saw only two thirds of the venue — the rest is still under construction, and the planned public launch date of September 28th has been pushed back a week to let the dust settle. (And yes, the press is having a field day with “what a tease” headlines and “delayed gratification” leads.) So there is a chance that a last-minute interactive spanking machine will be installed on the top floor.
     Of course, there’s no rule that says that a museum of sex should feel like an afternoon of debauchery. In fact, in a city where real-live orgies happen in dimly-lit hotel suites on a weekly basis, there’s something refreshing about a clean, white, well-lit space devoted to sex. And for a couple of New York sex writers who think they’ve been around the block, we learned a lot. The exhibit begins on the Bowery in the 1800s — home to homelessness, prostitution and all-around “entertainment” — and details the last 170 years of sin and the city, from birth control to BDSM, from Anthony Comstock’s 1870s anti-vice crusade to Linda Lovelace’s 1970s Deep Throat (and yes, they show clips). According to Turner, the exhibit is laid out chronologically to convey how various sexual communities overlapped and co-existed. It also consciously avoids a pick-your-fetish poo-poo-platter style of organization to keep visitors from automatically self-segregating — to prevent straight Bettie Page fans from heading directly to the pin-up section and Chelsea boys from hanging out in the “homosexual corner.” “People have to get past the blinders of their own sexuality,” said Turner. “We have to show young heterosexuals why Stonewall matters to them.” And thus, a visitor will learn that SM has a very heterosexual history in this city; until the ’70s, it was completely separate from the gay leather scene. “It’s like two communities rounding a corner at the same time and saying, ‘I didn’t know you were into leather, too!'” Turner quipped.
     Anyone with a passing knowledge of New York history (or even anyone who’s read Caleb Carr’s The Alienist) will experience something similar at this museum — at every corner, you bump into another piece of the story, and every dirty letter dated more than a century ago on display reminds you that our grandparents were just as smutty as we are. Burlesque? It’s not just a naked version of the goth-dork Renaissance Fair — it’s an integral part of the history of adult entertainment in this city. Anal retentive, sexually repressed mayors? Older than the Brooklyn Bridge. Your fantasy about getting tied up by Xena? Uh, hello, Wonder Woman? “She was always tying people up and spanking someone,” said Turner. So she gets her own panel on the second floor. And if you think that the “women” at Lucky Cheng’s are unparalleled achievements of modern medicine, check out the footage of Christine Jorgensen: she departed for Denmark in the ’50s as a very male GI from the Bronx and made a triumphant return as a balls-out-hot lady.


You think those chicks who sell their used underwear on eBay embody the spirit of sexual entrepreneurship? Wait till you read about Julius Schmid, a broke immigrant from Germany who made his living as a sausage stuffer and earned a little extra on the side by turning those casings into reusable condoms.
     Unfortunately, by the time we learned all that from reading poorly placed plaques, our eyes ached. So we asked Turner if he was worried about the entertainment factor. “Please,” he said. “I’m not worried about it not being fun. It’s sex!” But what about the other, more saucy exhibits this city has been witness to, like the live sex show featuring two porn stars that was held at a posh Soho art gallery a few years back? “That’s not art,” he said, mentioning his art history background. “And no amount of money’s gonna make it so.”
     So far, people do seem to be having fun. Katie Couric, on assignment for The Today Show, wanted to know all about the SM fetish scene in New York. (“Only later did I find out she is fond of wearing stiletto heels,” Turner said). At MoSex’s opening party, a “pony” whinnied through the exhibit and Turner’s dad — up from Alabama for the big day — had to admit, “All this stuff about control is pretty exciting.” And we let out a little cry of glee when we rounded a corner on the second floor and found ourselves facing an entire wall of photographs of naked men. (Suddenly, finally, the eighteen-and-older-only policy made sense.) Naked men sitting down, naked men bent over, naked men (who looked devastatingly straight) getting it on with each other!
     Despite the good time we had in that particular wing, the Museum of Sex didn’t mean to turn us on. So don’t get too excited. But don’t be too quick to pass judgement, either. Their story shares much in common with the early days of Nerve: an over-educated, earnest staff with lofty goals, good intentions, and no advertising to support the cause. (Turns out, the corporate sponsors weren’t exactly knocking down their door, either.) Like Nerve, MoSex is destined to be misunderstood. The Catholic League has already denounced it as too hot, calling it the Museum of Smut (would that be MoSmut, your Holiness?). And pervs like us are bound to say it’s too cold. But if you’re home bored on a rainy Sunday afternoon and Puppetry of the Penis is all sold out, then the Museum of Sex may be just right.

Visit the Museum of Sex online at MuseumofSex.com

© 2002 Emma Taylor,