Public Displays of Affection

Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on August 27, 2009

The Lurker

The place: New York City’s Museum of Sex, located in a small nondescript mid-century commercial building in the middle of what used to be called the Tenderloin District.

The shtick: Put it out there. Display it frankly, the way other museums display paintings, or dinosaur bones, or decorative arts objects, or artifacts of war.

1:25 Just inside the front door, a sign says: “LINE FORMS HERE,” but, on a Tuesday afternoon, there is no line. A sign behind the ticket counter: “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH, LICK, STROKE, OR MOUNT THE EXHIBITS.” People wishing to display this directive in their kitchens are in luck, as the sign has been reproduced on refrigerator magnets for sale in the gift shop.

1:29 The gift shop is cheerfully smutty. Corkscrews shaped like naked women; coasters printed with photos of naked men; an orange juicer resembling a pair of breasts (“Squeeze two halves at the same time”); books about bras and Japanese bondage; The Illustrated Book of Orgies; fur-covered handcuffs; anatomically explicit pasta, origami, balloons, and blown-glass swizzle sticks; and various small vibrating objects including a yellow rubber bathtub duck. A couple is giggling quietly at the back of the shop. “We should get this for Arnie and Sarah,” she says, but his reply is inaudible and they leave without buying anything.

Photo by Joan Wickersham.

Photo by Joan Wickersham.

1:34 Gallery 1, a bright, open space with windows looking onto Fifth Avenue, is displaying a show called “The Sex Lives of Animals.” Visitors are welcomed by a large white plasticine sculpture of an excited ape. The aesthetics of the show are upbeat and scientific: graph-paperpatterned walls featuring headlines like “Parthenogenesis: Living Without Sex” and “Sexual Cannibalism.” A man and woman in their 60s — tall, both with short silver hair, wearing fanny packs — peer at an exhibit comparing the genitalia of various species. “I’m not certain here which is the male and which the female,” she says, of a large photo showing two barnacles. “Dissection would tell more of the story,” he says.

1:38 Another man — nearby but not too nearby; in this museum, few people gather in groups — whispers to the woman he’s with: “You saw the collection of penis bones?” “Yes, but I didn’t think they had bones.” “Well, I guess maybe in some species they need them,” he answers earnestly.

1:44 Two women in their 20s pause beside a plasticine statue of an orgy involving three white-tailed deer. “Is this for real?” one woman whispers to the other.

1:52 At the back of the gallery, a number of people stand around watching a video about bonobos, Congo apes who, according to the chirpy audio narration, have “a rich and varied sexual repertoire.” The film continues for several minutes — lots of frantic, happy-looking primate action — while the people stand around and watch in solemn silence. The narrator explains that there is often same-sex activity between male bonobos, and even more between females. “The bonobo, our closest relative, lives in a society in which the goals of the human feminist movement have been achieved!”

2:05 Upstairs, Gallery 2 displays an exhibit called “Sex and the Moving Image” — museum-speak for movie sex. In contrast to the white laboratory vernacular of the downstairs gallery, this long narrow room is designed as pure peep show. It’s dark. To the side are a number of little open booths with screens on the walls. The main space is divided into two corridors by a long half-wall suspended from the ceiling and ending several feet above the floor, so that the people standing on either side are hidden from each other except for their feet and a little bit of leg. This suspended partition is studded with screens, each of which runs movie scenes in a constant repeating loop. Loud music pulses through the space, providing an audio cover under which conversation can take place — except that there isn’t a lot of conversation. People stand before the screens, silent, watching the butter scene from Last Tango, the rape scene from Deliverance. Each screen is capped by a blue-lit sign assigning some academic-sounding category: “Mainstream: Same Sex,” “Youth and Virginity,” “Sexploitation,” “Nudist Films.”

2:09 An anguished cry from one of the booths: Greta Garbo as Anna Christie confessing harshly, “Yes, it’s that kind of house. I hate men!”

2:14 Beneath a sign that says “First Experiments,” Hedy Lamarr swims in Ecstasy, Greta Garbo smolders in Mata Hari, Mae West vamps in I’m No Angel.

2:22 “Metaphorical Sex,” says a prissier sign nearby, above a screen running Hollywood clips from the late ’30s through the ’50s, when nothing could be shown but a lot was implied: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Gone With the Wind, Notorious, A Streetcar Named Desire.

2:31 And just beyond that, from the same era but apparently belonging to a different world, a stag film gallops cheerfully along: woman shows up at man’s door, peels down, does stuff, then prances naked to the phone, dials a girlfriend, and presto! the friend rings the doorbell, eager to join the party. “Yes, it’s that kind of house,” Greta Garbo moans again through the darkness, her film loop having run full circle. “I hate men!”

2:35 Off to the side, along the wall of smaller peep show booths, is one large booth fitted out with several benches. The graphic on the screen says “Volume I: Advanced Sexual Techniques and Positions,” produced by the Sinclair Intimacy Institute. “Play video” is invitingly lit on the menu, but no one does.

It’s incredibly explicit and mesmerizingly boring.

2:37 Only one screen attracts a big group. “Celebrity Sex,” where the loop includes the infamous Paris Hilton video. A crowd of people stands around watching the tape. It’s incredibly explicit and mesmerizingly boring. She seems as intent upon displaying her manicure as her prowess, and the only visible part of her boyfriend is a little short on personality. But the audience stays with them, gaping, through the whole dull marathon. Then the tape switches over to a re-enactment of the John Wayne Bobbitt incident — and the crowd instantly scatters and vanishes like a school of fish dispersing at the arrival of a Great White Shark.

2:42 An unusual occurrence in the museum: an animated conversation between a man and a woman. They are standing in one of the little peep show booths, watching films of the faces of people having orgasms. These visitors are speaking loudly and unselfconsciously! They’re not afraid of being overheard! And, when overheard at closer range, they turn out to be speaking in Swedish.

2:46 Suddenly an audio track comes piping through the gallery. Some intrepid couple has pressed the “play video” button to start the instructional technique film. A recorded man’s voice confesses, with the kind of earnest faux-candor common in infomercials: “It seems that every time we make love, I’m still fumbling around in the dark.” And, not to be outdone, a woman’s voice announces “I know I could enjoy sex more if I just felt better about my body.” Several booths away, Greta Garbo moans out her disillusionment yet again.

2:50 Walking down the hall to Gallery 3, the soundtrack from the instructional video is still, plaintively, audible: “We’re here to take away the mystery and expose the beauty and depth of our organs.”

2:51 Gallery 3 isn’t a lab or a peep show; it looks like a museum. Glass display cases, labeled exhibits, overhead track lighting. The exhibit is called “Spotlight on the Permanent Collection.” Essentially, it’s an attic — a jumble of racy odds and ends. Scary-looking old gynecological instruments. Quaint sex-education pamphlets, for both schoolchildren and adults. Erotic Japanese and Indian prints, old French postcards, nude male bodybuilding shots, cells from animé movies, Picasso lithographs, burlesque and pinup photos. A baldacchino-like structure in the middle of the room: a bondage frame. Most people give it a wide berth, but the Swedish couple walks right in, talking and gesturing, gazing curiously up at the various joints and pulleys.

2:53 As with the bonobo soundtrack in Gallery 1 and the music in Gallery 2, this gallery is also filled with sound to create an audio privacy zone so people can speak softly to each other without being overheard. Here it’s the soundtrack of a documentary film about an artist who makes pornographic dioramas and movies using robots made from Barbies and GI Joes. “Most Barbies are resculpted. You sand ’em down, add a cranium,” he explains. “This is Madam Robot’s artificial insemination machine.”

2:55 A display of life-size dolls, including one called “Virtual Girl: The Ultimate in Sexual Reality.” Displayed along with her are various interchangeable accommodating attachments. “Ewwww,” says a female viewer, one of the few really audible exclamations of the entire afternoon.

2:56 In a nearby case, a model of a female torso made out of foam, shielded by a sheet of Lucite with holes cut out over the figure’s breasts. “PLEASE TOUCH GENTLY,” the sign says; but the breasts are cracked, gouged, nearly ripped off.

3:00 Gallery 3 is not a room people linger in. Mixed in with the jauntily kinky and the quaintly coy is an undertone of misogyny. Or maybe there’s just so much of this stuff you can look at in an afternoon. Or maybe people are tired of being so unnaturally quiet and polite.

3:02 A man and a woman hurry down the stairs, back to the lobby. At the bottom of the staircase is a security guard. “Did you see everything?” he asks seriously, as if a negative answer would require that he send the couple back upstairs to inspect whatever they might have missed. “Yes,” the woman says firmly. “We saw it all.”

One Response

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  1. consulting4architects said, on September 2, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    I work directly across the street and the place is a tourist trap with infrequent theme changes. Nothing worthwhile here.

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