You may be relieved to know that according to the Museum of Sex, sex in New York has been tremendously liberated, intriguingly kinky, and happily promiscuous. As the museum tells it, if any harm has been done in the past one-hundred-and-fifty years, it's been done to sex rather than by it. What's more, sex, like Wonder Woman, the museum's favorite comic book character, has been unfailingly on the side of right, and always wins in the end. It's comforting to hear. One wouldn't have it any other way.
If this all sounds a little too conveniently sanitized, that's because it is. Wandering through the museum's meager inaugural exhibition, "NYC Sex: How New York City Transformed Sex in America," one learns that New York's battles over the "boundaries of the permissible" have been conveniently divided into two identifiable camps: the oppressors and the oppressed. On the one side are the conservative mayors, protectors of Public Decency, and clergy, and on the other are the pansexualists, freethinkers, and champions of hygienic awareness. As you might expect, the good guys emerge from every moral scrap triumphant, and consequently, sexual history is nothing but an inexorable march toward freedom and openness. It all has never looked so politically correct. It also has never looked so unlike the history of sex.
In more ways than the Museum of Sex intends, the sanitizing of sex, and the reactions against it, are the subjects of the Museum's inaugural show. At first it seems like it's all there: Stonewall, Mapplethorpe, Mae West, Margaret Sanger, Rudi Giuliani, and of course, that dizzying epicenter of all things smutty, Times Square. If you live in New York, and happen to have an interest in sex, you may know a little about all of these subjects. Chances are you may know quite a bit more than is presented in the paragraph-long blurbs that the museum provides. The problem is not that the museum has taken on too much, but that it has thought far too little about its unavoidably interesting, and messy, subject.
You wouldn't know it from the exhibition, but religious fundamentalism aside, there is much to be critical and pessimistic about when it comes to the history of sex in New York. There is little said in the museum's several dozen panels about misogynistic pornography, opportunistic sex gurus, pedophilia, rape, cultists, the abuse of modern-day sex workers, teen sexuality, incest, the contemporary sex slave trade, and that most frightening of subjects: banal, Middle-American, heterosexual intercourse. Sex as represented here is safely lesbian and gay, harmlessly sadomasochistic, libertine, occasionally safe, and political in the most obviously liberal way. Unless you are a religious conservative, you won't find any of this offensive, and unless you've taken a several-decade sabbatical from sex, you won't find the exhibition more than mildly interesting or educational. The hetero porn in the show that I saw was pretty tame and pretty dated; the gay fare was somewhat graphic and a little grittier; and the S&M for the most part was downright laughably cute. The museum is taking few risks, and not unlike its villains Comstock and Giuliani, it seems to wish that sex would clean up its act, get its politics right, and be a little less, well, dirty.
In what seems to be a cheap publicity stunt, the museum's organizers are claiming that their building used to house a brothel that functioned (gasp!) until the 1990s. The proof? Well, there were some cubicles discovered on the top floor that looked slightly brothel-like. To say the least, it wasn't a good introduction to the museum's scholarly standards. In fact, most of what is passed off as historical research here never depart from the most obvious and well-worn clichés. For example, Wonder Woman enjoys her own panel upstairs, and although it's always nice to see the sexed-up superhero, one has to speculate whether the resident sexologists could have done a little more in explicating her implicit sexuality. In fact, not much is said about her except for the obvious interpretations that she is a vaguely feminist figure, fairly lesbian, and more than somewhat of a dominatrix. But that's innuendo and interpretation, not scholarship; and unfortunately it represents one of the museum's more sophisticated cultural investigations.
In one of my favorite instances of the Museum of Sex's historical whitewashing and general intellectual sloppiness, the organizers describe the Harmony Theater, a defunct Times Square strip club, as "an establishment ... that paid tribute to the art of striptease and popularized such innovations as lap dancing." Ah yes, Times Square: capitol of artistic innovation. The "artifacts" acquired from the Harmony Theater (where "on any given night customers could interact with more than one hundred dancers") are now part of the museum's collection of "contemporary and experimental art for the permanent collection." The catalog also describes the art of stripping, somewhat contradictorily, as firmly belonging among the "low arts." The language comes off as pretty condescending, although it certainly was intended to do the opposite. One wonders why it all has to be done up in patronizing cultural terms -- why can't stripping just be stripping? It certainly doesn't help stripping any, and it doesn't do much for art either.
At the museum, sex is Sex, vice is "vice," and everything is fair game, as long as nobody gets hurt and it's not middle-of-the-road. Sex is nothing but pleasure, and will always deliver on its promises. It is never a dead end. Like so much of what is fashionable in sex currently, the museum's attitude is embarrassing, not for its open values -- there are few of those really -- but for its unabashed fascination with another era of supposedly unrestrained sexual liberation: the '60s and '70s. It's tedious to have to reiterate that a lot has changed since then, and that simply evoking the eviscerated ideal of free and open sexuality won't contribute in the least to a critical understanding of New York sexuality.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, executive curator Grady Turner explained how his generation is trying to bring back the swinging fun of yesteryear:
In New York City, there are now frequent sex parties for young upscale women, 30-something orgies for couples, a surge in light S & M and bondage venues. Would you say there's another sexual revolution going on?
It's the underground coming back up after years of suppression. What's interesting to me is that a lot of the people at the forefront of these events come to them from academic backgrounds, with interests in gender studies. They're taking away the seediness and creating smart, comfortable, sex-positive environments where people can explore not just sexual pleasure, but sexuality in general.
Actually the thing that killed anonymous sex parties was AIDS, not political suppression. Turner (or, as the catalog happily calls him, Grady) avoids any tough questions concerning what the liberation of the '60s really left us with, and how we can further the political motives behind such a movement without lapsing into an embarrassingly naive nostalgia. More importantly, the museum cannot address how the sex industry has migrated from the margins of American culture into the center of global capitalism. No sexual fantasy, no matter how "perverse" and edgy, is being left out of even the most visible manifestations of an urban pleasure industry -- even high-end department stores and corporate bookstore chains try their best to get, or at least sell, a piece of the action.
In the glossy, utopian confines of the museum catalog, things are not much better. In place of in-depth scholarly articles, we get four excruciatingly long conversations with various porn stars, sexologists, historians, and cultural professionals. Again the tone is anecdotal and misty-eyed, and as always, impressively middlebrow. ACT UP, Gloria Steinem, and militant transsexuals are given a little token space; but they are all just brief interruptions in Grady's fascination with the gyrating grooviness of his parents' generation. The catalog dismisses poor Gloria in a couple of sentences, explaining that the feminist protests against the inchoate porn industry in the 1970s were just another instance of "women of another race and class" telling the mostly non-white sex workers "what to do with their bodies." There you go, Gloria Steinem: racist, class oppressor. One only hopes that it couldn't get any more cynical.
Certainly, any liberal New Yorker will come to the exhibition understanding that sex needed to get out of the closet, and out of the monogamous straightjacket. But it's been out, in New York at least, for some time. What to do now? If the museum can't undertake a radical critique of the sex industry, then at least it could stand to be a little more pessimistic, and a great deal more wised-up. It could maybe try and tackle some hard questions about its own cultural backdrop. For example, why are some club owners, middle-of-the-road feminists, and the museum questionably asserting that '70s porn represents a more egalitarian era in sex for women? Linda Lovelace might have disagreed. On an uglier note, what about hetero porn's recent fascination with brutal sodomy and violent sex? And why the recent fascination among upper-class professionals for anonymous group sex in an age when the end of the AIDS epidemic is as illusory as the assertion that a bowl full of condoms at a sex party is all that is needed to keep it all safe? Cultural studies has been brave enough to tackle these issues for some time now. Maybe it's time for the Museum of Sex to try and catch up.
To be fair, the museum was not totally finished when I saw it. Then again, you probably won't see it finished either. About one-third of the material was on the wall, and a surprising amount of the electrical wiring, wasn't installed for the press preview. It seems that I'm partially to blame too -- according to Jim O'Shea, the museum's director of visitor services, "We were overwhelmed by the media last week and we couldn't get the work done." Yes, they seemed overwhelmed, and under-prepared. I for one, won't be back to fork over the $17 entrance fee -- a cost that is presumably meant to be prohibitive to those seeking a cheap thrill, but will most likely turn away everyone else as well.
Despite itself, the Museum of Sex does open some new territory. It has -- for example with gay liberation and some aspects of feminism -- made some laudable steps toward documenting histories in New York that have been ignored by most historical institutions. And this is only the museum's first exhibition; the institution has a long time to flesh out its voluptuous subject. One can only hope for an improvement. It's a lukewarm start.