Friday, January 20, 2006

A Visit to the Museum of Sex

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #278, January 20, 2006)

There are a lot of museums in New York City devoted to a wide range of topics. Since 2002, one of them has been the Museum of Sex, devoted to preserving and presenting “the history, evolution, and cultural significance of human sexuality.”

Readers of this column know that any visit to Chicago is enhanced by a visit to the Leather Archives & Museum. New York’s Museum of Sex (or “MoSex,” in the same way that “MoMA” stands for New Yorks’ Museum of Modern Art) likewise would be a worthwhile, fascinating and educational addition to any reader’s New York itinerary.

Located at 233 Fifth Ave. (at 27th St.), the outside of the museum consists of display windows that highlight current exhibits. On the inside, just past the lobby and reception area, is a museum shop fully stocked with, in the museum’s words, “an eclectic assortment of publications, home accents, clothing, and, of course, the best selection of sex toys available.”

The museum currently has three galleries. When I visited recently, Gallery 1 was devoted to “Men Without Suits: Objectifying the Male Body” (running through Jan. 29). A timeline wrapping around two walls of the gallery gives a history of how the male body has been portrayed from ancient through modern times.

The rest of the gallery is concerned primarily with the history of male nude photography. The walls are hung with examples showing how photographic depiction of the male body changed from the advent of photography (naive and starkly honest), through the romantic/macho portrayals of early bodybuilders, to the closeted homoeroticism of the middle 20th century and the let-it-all-hang-out abandon of the sexual revolution.

“Stags, Smokers & Blue Movies: The Origins of American Pornographic Film” is currently on display in Gallery 2. Before DVDs, before Betamax, before sex could legally be shown on screens in theaters, these were the forbidden films viewed in smoke-filled rooms (hence “smokers”) at clandestine male gatherings called stag parties (hence “stags”).

The gallery walls are dark. The tops of large black boxes on the floor are actually screens, on which are projected 20 films made between 1915 and 1960. TV screens in booths along one wall show interviews with men who used to watch these films (and, in one instance, run the film projector). Since the films themselves are silent, the gallery is filled instead with a soundtrack composed of whoops, cheers and raucous comments that would have been made by groups of men watching the films.

Gallery 3 held several exhibits. “Spotlight on the Permanent Collection” includes a history of sex-education materials, a collection of antique condom packets, a male chastity appliance for use in asylums and institutions, and other assorted sex-related paraphernalia.

Another exhibit in Gallery 3 when I visited was “Sex Machines: Photographs and Interviews by Timothy Archibald.” (The exhibit closed Jan. 10.) I’ll tell you more about that exhibit, and the recently-published book on which it was based—and the local celebrity featured in both book and exhibit—in a future column.

The Museum of Sex currently has two fascinating online exhibits that are as near as your web browser. “U.S. Patent Office Sex Inventions,” dovetailing nicely with the “Sex Machines” exhibit, is a history and compendium of actual patents for various sexual appliances. One of the most diabolical devices, an “Electric Spermatorrhea Shield,” is intended to prevent masturbation and is to be used “until the . . . habit is mastered or overcome.”

Many of the devices were intended to prevent erections, masturbation and even nocturnal emissions, while some conversely were pre-Viagra attempts to induce erections. There are also various “marital aids” in the form of couches and slings. Two anti-rape devices, both worn in the vagina, promise to give any would-be rapist an unpleasant surprise.

The Museum’s other online exhibit (also an on-site installation in Gallery 3) is “Mapping Sex in America.” According to the Museum, the aim of this interactive exhibit is to create an “ongoing archive chronicling American’s stories of sexual practice and the evolution of America’s sexual customs.” Click on a map of the United States and post your personal sexual history, or read what other people have posted.

You can view the Museum’s online exhibits, as well as details about their current gallery installations, upcoming special events and other museum information, at <>.

PHOTO: “Stags, Smokers and Blue Movies,” one of several exhibits now on view at The Museum of Sex in New York City.

PHOTO CREDIT: The Museum of Sex

PHOTO: From the “Men Without Suits” exhibit at The Museum of Sex in New York City.

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