Outside New York’s new Museum of Sex—aka MoSex!—you’ll find smooth white windows and a nifty, subtle logo. But really, they might as well scrawl “kick me” on the door in lipstick. Talk about an easy target! So, before I get to the center of this piece—where I start singing the museum’s praises—let’s trot out the usual criticisms. “It’s not sexy.” “It’s too sleazy.” “It’s boring.” “It’s pretentious.” “It focuses too much on kink.” “It leaves out the dark side of sex!” “It’s too gay.” “It’s too straight.” “It’s too expensive.”
And the truth is, there’s something to all these accusations, even (especially?) the contradictory ones. It’s certainly way too expensive: Getting in costs $17, because the New York State Board of Regents denied the organization the nonprofit status less racy museums get as a matter of course. And there’s a taint of flakiness about the whole project, too: It’s taken years for director Daniel Gluck to get it off the ground, and the opening was pushed forward a week with no notice at all.
But if there’s something slapdash about the project—if it’s got way too many moving parts, if it’s a bit too eager to please—that’s also part of its charm. Trying to be all things to all people gets a bad rap. And with subject matter so wonderful, so rich and strange, good intentions matter too. Certainly, the patrons (it was surprisingly full for a weekday afternoon) were having a good time. There were the usual downtown art mavens—a butch professor type, hipster-nerd boys in leather jackets, everyone in chic-librarian glasses—plus several folks apparently on dates. We all kept bumping into one another and smiling shyly, because the museum is neither large nor well-laid-out. At first, I couldn’t even figure out how to get from the ticket desk to the first exhibit.
Once I found my way upstairs, I entered a maze divided vaguely by chronology, vaguely by subject matter. The inaugural exhibit was titled “NYC Sex: How New York City Transformed Sex in America,” but intellectually speaking, the exhibit kept coloring out of the lines. A few elements had to do with the city, but most dealt with the sex industry in general—or vaudeville, or smut, or orgies, or the gay rights movement, or erotic photography, or camp presentations of sadomasochism, or “white slavery.” Or a million other topics. There were 1930s Tijuana Bibles: hilariously raunchy cartoons (precursors to fan fiction, really) focused on the erotic exploits of celebrities like Laurel and Hardy and Mae West. There were ancient condom tins and medical models of genitalia. There were Comstock censorship decrees laid out under glass; a darkly condescending letter from one of Alfred Kinsey’s “researchers”; blueprints for a spanking machine. Downstairs: earnest display of postcards to a lesbian couple. Upstairs: deep-throat videos.
Even without such subject matter, museums are already weird, sexual places. They’re full of nudity. They’re intimidating. People murmur a lot. And the Museum of Sex was no different, really: toggling back and forth between bravado and earnest objectivity, appealing to the senses and then going all cool and arid and then, without warning, sentimentally political. One minute, I was gazing at prolix labels describing prostitutes and pornographers as “entrepreneurs who trafficked in desire” (language that reminded me of the Saturday Night Live skit “Tales of Ribaldry”); then suddenly there would be an exhibit that was mystifyingly info-free. A few displays seemed distinctly homeworklike. But there were oddball multimedia touches splashed in as well. In the stark stairwell, a loudspeaker projected raw sexual confessions compiled by a San Francisco artist. Standing there listening felt lurid, unsettling, kind of a turn-on, kind of creepy, and pretty much the exact opposite of postcards under glass. Unfortunately, several of these multimedia elements don’t work—sometimes literally, as with a buggy computer kiosk I tried. The audio guide got downright silly: heavy breathing during the intro, for instance.
Upstairs, I stood dutifully taking notes on a smart little history of the gay rights movement, including a “Gay Weekend” board game from 1980. One card read “Look! He was very interested until you started arguing about Watergate. Lose trick.” I giggled out loud, turned around, and found myself facing the lurid close-up genital pistons of a Vanessa Del Rio porn film. The footage had transformed my fellow hipster museum patrons into zombies, stopped dead in the aisle and blocking the route. According to the guards, this happens all the time: They have to shoo people away. It’s one of the tricks the museum hasn’t quite (and probably can’t) solve: How do you include the graphic stuff without it turning into a black hole? Analyze porn, you sound silly. Leave it out, you’re a prude. Include too much of it, the place turns greasy.
The museum hasn’t quite struck a balance yet, but there’s something terrifically effective about the fact that Dolores Del Rio is plopped out there in the open—set alongside cheerful 50-year-old stag films, with their giggling, fleshy quasi-amateurs; and the 1898 hoochie-coochie dancer “Little Egypt” twirling like a sugar-shocked 5-year-old at a bar mitzvah.
And up front there was one exhibit that offered some vision of what the museum might be if it managed to solve its mind-body problem. On a low platform lay a bright white statue of a naked woman, her arms thrown over her head. She seemed totally anonymous: not that different, really, than any other museum exhibit of a naked woman. A video monitor cascaded mysterious black noodles of words over her body: “Keep quiet until I come on Saturday night … and then we can see if we cannot be better friends hereafter.” Panels explained that this was Helen Jewett, a New York prostitute who was murdered in 1836, and that the local press juiced her story into a sensational sex scandal. As I circled around her body reading the news clips, the color of the light overhead gradually began changing color, mixing dabs of red into the white, until the statue appeared to be soaking in blood.
It was the kind of trick that could easily have seemed bathetic or phony. But it worked. It took me by surprise, neatly capturing the historical moment and its tabloidy thrill. It was an impressive combination of titillating and educational. And the museum will be too, once it gets its act together. Until then, it’s still a fun date, even for those not wearing librarian glasses.