Monthly Archives: June 2012

Why the United States Needs More Sex Museums

Picture of the Museum of Sex in New York City

Image by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

Working at the Smithsonian this summer has led me to wonder why there aren’t more museums in the U.S. devoted to the history of sex. We have only one; it’s in New York City, and it’s for-profit, not by choice, but because the New York State Board of Regents said  “that the word museum could not be used in a way that would make fun of the term.”  And that’s the first barrier to sex museums in the U.S.: the fact that they’re placed in a museum ghetto, with even less prestige than the National Mustard Museum, which, unlike the Museum of Sex, has been granted non-profit status.

I visited the Museum of Sex last weekend with my old college roommate Shoshanna, a great person to tour it with considering that we spent our time at Bennington College penning songs about genital warts and fraternizing with our Aspen Slopes blow-up doll. Since the founder refers to it as “the Smithsonian of sex,” I wanted to like the museum. Unfortunately, it bears no comparison. In theory, I support all sex museums because the more legitimacy given to the study of sexual artifacts, the better the chance that my work will be taken seriously, and more important, that America’s sexual heritage won’t be lost. But the museum, try as it might, just didn’t work. It was simultaneously too serious and too whimsical.

A case in point is their exhibit titled “Sex and the Moving Image” which features film clips playing on a variety of screens, some mounted against the wall, others embedded into the floor. The haphazard locations of the screens mirrored the jumbled nature of what was being shown on them. A few displayed porn, while others showed a grab bag of sexual films including mainstream Hollywood movies, nudist films, and films depicting oral sex. The whole exhibit seemed incoherent, as if the curator didn’t know what story to tell. One of the themes was about sexuality leading to technological innovation, but the exhibit never explored the deeper implications of this. It wasn’t clear whether they were arguing that technologies simply made sexual films more widely available or if technologies led to societal acceptance of depictions of sexuality. They also stuck to the conventional repression-to-liberation narrative, that in the early 1900s, even though there were stag films, they were somehow quaint, that because fellatio was being performed in a Model T, it was charming.  This makes for a simple story, but a boring one. And in their vibrator history section, they re-told Maines’ vibrator story, without questioning it, even though a quick glance at scholarly literature would’ve showed them that the story shouldn’t be wholly accepted. Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Why Technological Innovation Always Leads to Masturbation

Young's dilators

Young’s Rectal Dilators from the late 1800s. These rubber butt plugs were made possible through the vulcanization of rubber.

One of the questions that my dissertation aims to answer is why technological innovations are nearly always followed by sexual innovations. The discovery of the rubber vulcanization process in the mid-1800s led to the production of dildos. Electrification in the late 1800s was quickly followed by the invention of the electromechanical vibrator.  The invention of Bakelite plastic led to innovative vibrator casings.

If technology is an extension of human faculties, as Marshall McLuhan argued, if it is driven not by an autonomous force but by very human desires for love and sex, community and connection, then it would make sense that new innovations in materials are followed by new sexual products. What drew me to the topic of sex toys in the first place was a naive hope, shared by inventors, that someday the inexplicable mysteries of the universe could be solved through human ingenuity, that sexual intercourse and masturbation, two of the most enjoyable activities that a human being can engage in, could be improved if only we spent some time designing the perfect sex machine.  And it is this same sort of optimism that I’ve seen in early 1930s brochures for Bakelite plastic, touted as the material of a thousand uses, one of which was to enclose our vibrators in beautiful, yet durable cases. There is a downside to this optimism; it burdens our technologies with expectations that they can never live up to. But what interests me is not the fact that our expectations always fail, but that our expectations never change.

When a new technology is developed, we always think that it will elevate us above our animal nature, yet we end up burrowing deeper into its recesses.  Inventors claim that their new technologies will create world peace. Yet, in reality, something very predictable happens. Instead of using technology to better humanity, we use it to improve our sex lives. For example, the internet was supposed to revolutionize education, but instead it improved masturbation. Few celebrate this. But the glut of pornography on the internet should not be ignored. It shouldn’t necessarily be championed either. It’s not a black-and-white issue. As Richard Randall argues, the pornographic imagination has always and will always exist. The human erotic imagination is messy and beautiful, revolting and sublime, but we shouldn’t be ashamed of it. It should be treated as a uniquely human trait and not dismissed as an aberration. It is our job to understand it, to study it, and to acknowledge it as one of the defining features of our existence. Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

It’s Now OK to Whip Your Husband: 50 Shades of Grey and the Sex Toy Revolution

50 Shades of Grey E.L. James

The erotic best-seller that’s spurring sex toy sales throughout the land.

The recent popularity of 50 Shades of Grey has led nearly every literate woman (and a few illiterate ones) to traipse down to the local sex toy emporium to start her own dungeon or to fantasize about doing so. For those not familiar with the book, 50 Shades of Grey is an erotic trilogy by E.L James that began its life as Twilight fan fiction. It  is steeped in age-old erotic tropes, telling a story of an innocent virgin corrupted by a sexy, domineering older man who trains her in a life of ever-more-depraved sexual acts that she learns to enjoy and begins to crave. It’s full of bondage and whipping and spanking. Although I enjoyed the book, it wasn’t debauched enough for me, but that’s because the first erotic books I read as a teenager were Story of the Eye, a novel by Georges Bataille that includes priest sex, necrophilia and bull testicles used as sex toys, and 120 Days of Sodom, which contains a ton of violent gay sex,as well the classic line:” “Fart, fart: as hard as you can, as loud as you like.”

However, 50 Shades of Grey is great fun, and it is full of scenes starring sex toys, which has led to a boom in sex-toy sales across the nation. According to an article in Bloomberg Businessweek, “sales of bondage gear jumped 375 percent in April” at famed women’s-owned sex-toy boutique Babeland. That an erotic book is at the top of The New York Times best seller list renews my belief in the wisdom of the American people, a belief that was tested during the recent failed recall of Scott Walker, a man who, incidentally, needs a good flogging.

But this blog post isn’t going to devolve into a paean about the recent acceptance of sex-toys  in America culture. What’s more interesting to me is the media coverage about 50 Shades of Grey and its connection to an increase in sex-toy sales. The phrase that’s been bandied about is that 50 Shades of Grey has “given women permission” to indulge their wild, sadomasochistic side. The gist of the coverage is that every woman has been secretly wanting to transform their basement into a hardcore S&M dungeon, but they have hesitated because of social stigma. Once they read the E.L. James trilogy and discussed how sexy it was with their friends, that stigma begin to dissolve. Overnight, the nation’s women became BDSM aficionados. I would love to believe that every woman has been fantasizing about tying her husband up in luxurious metal chains, sticking a rubber ball gag in his mouth, and fellating him while Asian incest game show porn plays in the background. And maybe they have. Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , ,