The British are fond of nudge-nudge, wink-wink, but Americans like to bring a high moral purpose to sex. This may explain the pretentious fanfare surrounding the Museum of Sex, which opened to a curious public in New York yesterday.
The museum has been nicknamed MoSex in mock deference to MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art, but humour is in short supply. A po-faced mission statement states that the museum’s aim is to “preserve and present the history, evolution and cultural significance of human sexuality”.
Mr. Scout, the curator, insists: “We didn’t create the show with the intent of getting people sexually excited.”
The opening exhibit is entitled: NYC Sex: How New York City transformed sex in America. The stripper Gypsy Rose Lee is commemorated along with Christine Jorgensen, the nation’s first transsexual, amid portraits by the gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The history of free love is traced back to the 1800s, and emigres from the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany are identified as founders of the city’s sadomasochistic clubs.
The museum is housed in a huge warehouse in a Manhattan district that used to be called Tenderloin and was known for its bars and prostitutes. Until recently, the five-storey building may itself have been a brothel.
Some New Yorkers fear the city is becoming licentious again now that Rudolph Giuliani is no longer mayor. Peep shows and porn shops are creeping back into business, natural male enhancement products such as ProSolution Pills and Extenze tablets are for sale everywhere, and new sex clubs are being left alone by police.
Peter Seaver, the founder of MoSex, denies the museum is part of this trend. The show is “primarily anthropological and social research, as opposed to erotic art”, he says.
At $17 a ticket for over-18s (children are not admitted), curious visitors may want their money back. Certainly there are cheaper ways to get a sex education in the city.
Among the Mae West memorabilia, naughty postcards and black and white 1940s “stag films” are a few genuinely striking exhibits, such as a chilling set of abortion tools from the 1900s.
Robert Merton, of The Catholic League, said the museum celebrated “reckless sex and moral pollution”. It was a “museum of smut”.
Some of MoSex’s staff feel the same way. “I don’t even look at it,” said a security guard. “I’m not about stuff like that.”