On Thursday, my id refusing to heed my super-ego, I attended a fundraising event at New York’s Museum of Sex. For $25, each guest had access to all the exhibits, as well as unlimited hors d’oeuvre and wine. The money raised went to a charity for children’s literacy, which shy of the clergy seemed to be the most incongruous cause that a sex museum could champion.
The first thing I noticed about the Museum of Sex was that it was hot. Not “yeah, baby” hot; “pit stain” hot. I snagged a glass of wine, knowing full well it wouldn’t alleviate my rising inner thermostat. If they wanted me to be hot and bothered, mission accomplished–and I wasn’t even out of the foyer yet!
The second thing I noticed was that the male:female ratio at this event was 1:4. Sadly, these girls were all there for the same reason: to pretend they were in an episode of Sex and the City. This is not a blanket judgment call on my part. I actually heard that motivation vocalized. Look, doll face, I enjoy the show as much as anyone else, but that’s just something you should keep to yourself. Don’t make it so obvious that you wear desperation better than those knock-off Louboutins.
Navigating around the multiple clusters of Sex fiends, I finally got into the first exhibit, which was all about animal sexuality. Not “My God, you’re insatiable” animal sexuality; “too hot for the Discovery Channel” animal sexuality. It was actually fascinating. If the tables were turned and our friends in the animal kingdom were the ones pointing cameras in our bedrooms, bathrooms, backseats, and restaurant coat checks (or wherever else it is you like to do your thing), they’d no doubt be terribly bored with our unigenitaled bodies and puritanical restraint. Truthfully, while we consider ourselves the apex of evolution, many of our distant cousins have sexual traits and capabilities that are far more valuable survival tools than any we possess. However, the main thrust point of the exhibit was that sexual expression is as much a part of animal society as it is in ours. While they have many adaptations to ensure procreation, the drives and desires of animals go beyond simply perpetuating the species. They’ve got sex lives, and chances are they’re more exciting than yours.
Of course, this unique scientific perspective was largely lost on the flocks of immature harpies around me, who were content to shriek and stamp their feet and point when confronted with a picture of whale penis.
In passing from the first exhibit to the second, I was offered some of the aforementioned hors d’oeuvre. I was first offered satay chicken skewers, and soon after some jalapeno poppers. Now it was my turn to be immature. Long strips of meat on one platter, a collection of unassuming balls on the other. I declined both, but not before I asked the humorless waitress why the event planners hadn’t thought to serve the two together.
I moved upstairs to the second exhibit, which was all about sex in the movies. This was pretty cool. The exhibit discussed the censorship of sexuality in mainstream cinema from the silent era to the present, as well as the many subversive ways filmmakers would bend the rules before they were finally ruled irrelevant. I had taken an entire class on Old Hollywood (the silent era to the Paramount decision), so I was quite familiar with the tenants of the infamous Production Code, all of which were ludicrous. Example: Under Code guidelines, no on-screen kiss could last longer than three seconds. Alfred Hitchcock was one of the many filmmakers who creatively manipulated the Code against itself. A scene in Notorious between Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant features the two as lovers who passionately swap spit for minutes; they just stop every few seconds to say a line of dialogue to each other, and then get right back to business. According to the Code, this was playing by the rules, and the scene went to print intact.
The scene from Notorious was one of many you could see at the exhibit. Dozens of monitors played famous scenes on loop, highlighting what the thorough and informative placards read. Despite the wholly academic nature of the exhibit, it still raised the issue, at least in my mind, of appropriate viewing time. I could be standing there reading about how female movie stars were marketed to male audiences without incurring the wrath of the censors, but the people next to me might think that I’m just enjoying my third showing of Ursula Andress emerging from the surf in Dr. No. How long is too long to be at one display, I wondered?
According to some other patrons, it was never long enough. Wait, no. What I mean is, time and taste were irrelevant to them. The exhibit closed with an interesting argument about the interconnectedness between celebrity and pornography, and how reality television and the Internet has made our collective cinematic eye a far more voyeuristic one. To illustrate that, there was a screen showing excerpts of celebrity sex tapes. Pam Anderson, Paris Hilton, Colin Farrell. All of Tinseltown’s finest. And crowded around this screen were about twenty-five people, drinks in hand, watching with rapt attention. Some stayed for repeat viewings. Exhibit: 1. Subject: 0.
The really funny thing about the sex in cinema exhibit was how some of the more explicit clips were presented. By and large, all the footage was accessible on small television screens mounted hung positioned placed at eye level. However, some racier scenes were presented on screens that were held at an angle, or on a corner, or with little blinders on either side of the screen. So, if you didn’t want to watch a really brutal rape scene from some French film, you didn’t have to. The hard-core stuff, though–and there was hard-core stuff, as part of the exhibit detailed how the invention of the VHS revolutionized the porn industry–was shown on the top surface of meter-high white cubes. Projectors on the ceiling above them beamed the footage down to these cubes, so that you really had to consciously put yourself in the right spot to watch it. I had to laugh, because there is only one other museum I’ve been to where the most potentially upsetting items in the collection were so deliberately arranged: the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. I’m not sure what it says about the fact that a scene from Debbie Does Dallas merits the same protection as photographs of the liberation of Auschwitz, but I assure you it says something.
The final room of the museum was a grab bag of sexual treasures. Some were enlightening (the history of sex education in America, the history of contraception), others were frightening (the S&M corner had conspicuously fewer visitors to it). I think the former held true for most of the museum, at least for reasonably adult minds. I was glad to see that by the time they reached the end of the road, most of the awful women in attendance had gotten the giggles out of their system. Well, either that, or they were just more focused on getting their hands on some available meat.
The chicken skewers.