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