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.

Friday, January 6, 2006

Marlboro Men, and Much More

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #277, January 6, 2006)

Brokeback Mountain, the film by Ang Lee based on the short story by Annie Proulx (screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana), is rapidly becoming the cultural landmark it deserves to be. When I first heard the film was being made, I knew I would be writing a column about it. (A love affair between two gay cowboys in lush Western settings? Yee-hah!)

But Brokeback is not the film I thought I’d be seeing. And this column is not exactly the one I thought I’d be writing. Brokeback Mountain is more perfect and more profound, more touching and ultimately gut-wrenching, and more simultaneously tragic and uplifting, than I could have imagined it would be.

Let’s get the superficialities out of the way first: Cowboy aficionados will love the look of this movie. At first glance the two main characters, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), seem to be two prototypically hunky, macho Marlboro Men—but without the theme from “The Magnificent Seven” playing in the background the way it used to in Marlboro commercials.

(Actually, there are a lot of good-looking men in this film—many of the extras in the rodeo scenes are members of the Calgary Gay Rodeo Association.)

The cinematography for the first part of the movie captures lush, wild, expansive, breathtaking vistas of Brokeback Mountain. Herds of sheep move like ocean waves, and two beautiful men live under the stars, cook over a campfire, bathe in a mountain stream, caress and roughhouse and fall in love.

Then the action moves down from Brokeback Mountain to the more pedestrian world below, and both scenery and cinematography become plainer, sparer, and harsher. (Remember The Wizard of Oz? The Land of Oz was filmed in color, while Kansas was in black-and-white.)

Based on the buzz surrounding the film, I thought there’d be more on-screen sex. (Silly me—the “R” rating should have tipped me off.) There’s sex—and rough sex, at that—but the sex scenes are shot obliquely and discreetly. The film contains a few nude shots but no male frontals—the audience might have the illusion of seeing more than is actually on the film. (I’m sure, even as I write this, many people are busy filming the several inevitable porn rip-offs.)

Brokeback Mountain is not a sex story. It’s a love story. It just happens to be a love story between two guys. They spend one summer together tending sheep on Brokeback Mountain, during which time they fall in love. They spend the rest of the film, and their lives, trying to figure out what to do with their feelings.

The end of the film is tragic in one sense. There are no winners—every character has lost. Ennis and Jack’s situation leads to heartbreak, not only for them but also for their wives and children as well—just as, unfortunately, so often happens in real life and in places other than the West.

Yet, paradoxically, the end of the film is uplifting as well. It shows graphically, touchingly, and heartbreakingly that Ennis’ love for Jack has survived in spite of all the pain, sorrow and loss.

As I watched Brokeback Mountain, I couldn’t help thinking of West Side Story. Ennis and Jack are just as much star-crossed lovers as Tony and Maria—characters created by five gay men in the mid-1950s (Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Harold Prince, Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins). At that time the story had to be couched in heterosexual terms. But the stories are the same—two people who are not allowed to fall in love but who fall in love anyway, and with tragic consequences. It’s a story as old, sadly, as Romeo and Juliet, on which West Side Story is based.

Many gay men will recognize and resonate with Ennis and Jack’s situation—some because they are currently in a similar situation, and some because they were once in such a situation and have since made the changes that Ennis and Jack were not able to make.

The genius of Brokeback Mountain, though, is that it is not only a film for gay men. The story is told in such a way that anyone can sympathize with the characters and understand and identify with their emotions. Love is love, the makers of the film seem to be saying, and this is what happens when it isn’t given its due.

You might find it interesting and enriching to read the short story on which the film is based. Although the film includes scenes and situations not in the short story, the short story includes a few details that were not incorporated into the film. “Brokeback Mountain,” the short story, was first published in The New Yorker in 1997; author Proulx subsequently included it in her 1999 book Close Range: Wyoming Stories (published by Scribner).