Sex in the Museum: My Unlikely Career at New York's Most Provocative Museum

Sex in the Museum: My Unlikely Career at New York's Most Provocative Museum

by Sarah Forbes

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466838574
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 567 KB

About the Author

SARAH FORBES has been the curator of the Museum of Sex for the past twelve years. She also holds a masters degree in Anthropology from the New School and has been featured in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Reuters, Time Out, and on the Today Show, Discovery, MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan, Bravo's Ironic Iconic America, and HBO's Katie Morgan Showamong many others. Sarah was recently a guest speaker and consultant for the hit Showtime series, "Masters of Sex." She lives in NYC with her family.
Curator of the Museum of Sex for over a decade, Sarah Forbes currently serves as the museum’s curatorial consultant. She holds a master’s degree in Anthropology from the New School, and has been featured in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Reuters, Time Out, and on the Today Show, Discovery, MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan, Bravo's Ironic Iconic America, and HBO's Katie Morgan Show among many others. Sarah lives in NYC with her family.

Read an Excerpt

Sex in the Museum

My Unlikely Career at New York's Most Provocative Museum

By Sarah Forbes

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Sarah Forbes
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-3857-4


Please Don't Touch, Lick, Stroke, or Mount the Exhibits

On my desk I have a stack of books, a laptop, a phone charger, and an assortment of pens. I also have a butt plug, a masturbation sleeve, a mysterious menstruation tonic, and, of course, a pile of porn.

Welcome to the Museum of Sex.

People always ask me what a typical day at the office is like. It's hard to say because, really, no day is typical. I do, however, spend a lot of time on research, trying to keep ahead of all the sex-related stories that are constantly breaking. And every day I find something that makes me shout out to my coworkers, "Did you know ...?"

For example:

Did you know that people have inserted into their rectums items as diverse as lightbulbs, curling irons, ax handles, and seventy-two individual half-inch jeweler's saws?

Did you know that the word vanilla comes from the Latin word for vagina ("sheath") because at some point in history someone saw a resemblance to the vanilla bean?

Did you know that koala bears as a species have rampant chlamydia?

Did you know that according to some folk-medicine love charms, the best way to keep a man faithful is to urinate in his morning coffee?

As curator of the Museum of Sex, I know something is exhibition-worthy when it makes me stop and wonder. For most people, the simple fact that the museum exists gives them pause.

I get it. There was a time, though it's getting hard to remember, when I had my own what the? moment. Most of us are lucky if we grow up with an art gallery, a science museum, maybe a natural history museum. But a sex museum?

Institutions like MoSex (the museum's pet name) aren't the stuff of elementary school field trips. Most of us don't have a frame of reference for something like this, and our long-standing assumptions confuse us. Museums are highbrow; sex is base. Museums are public; sex is private. The two just don't go together. No wonder people are wary when they walk through our doors. Will they see live girls? Will there be rooms to have sex? Can they masturbate while they watch the films? Come naked?

The answer, disappointing to some, is a categorical "no." The Museum of Sex is just like any other cultural institution: a haven for art, artifacts, and ephemera. After all, the word museum is in our title for a reason. It's just that, in our case, we are dedicated to the "history, evolution, and cultural significance of human sexuality." In other words — sex.

Yes, we have a sign that says, "Please don't touch, lick, stroke, or mount the exhibits." And, yes, our guards often have to remind patrons, "That sex machine on display is not for you to use, ma'am." Or, "Sir, please get off the St. Andrew's Cross" (a seven-foot brushed-steel X, once the main restriction apparatus in Domina M's dungeon). But that's just the price of doing business when you feature the world's most fascinating topic.

Unlike many museums, we do allow photography. Our guards watch as thousands photo bomb themselves with the installations, in many cases trying to make it look as if they are engaged in the sexual act on display. I can't count the number of times our life-size sculpture of pandas coupling has been taken from behind for an interspecies Instagram. And for every penis that has graced our galleries, I'm confident a photo of someone pretending to fellate it exists on the Internet.

To more constructively channel this energy, we provide opportunities throughout the museum where people are encouraged to touch the exhibits. The torsos of a male and female RealDoll are long-standing interactives that give visitors a chance to experience the incredibly high-grade silicone of these exceptionally expensive, fully customizable sex dolls. Patrons viewing this installation can stick their hands into Plexiglas openings and feel the breasts, vulva, and penis of the dolls. Freedom does have its limits, though. During one of our exhibition parties someone bit the nipple off the female RealDoll. We learned our lesson. Now, anything fragile is dutifully kept under glass.

Here's an observation: although people eagerly squeeze the breasts and stick their fingers into the vagina of the female doll, fewer confidently grab the shaft of the male's penis. Could it be that, even in a museum, our society thinks women's bodies are fair game? Are there social taboos that prevent patrons from touching a male penis — women who worry they might be "slut shamed" for a public demonstration of sexuality; heterosexual men concerned with doing anything that would deviate from ideas of "straight" masculinity? After more than a decade working at the Museum of Sex, it's questions like these that keep me fascinated.

But we do like to keep our visitors engaged, which is why we offer a wide array of inviting displays. Like the Fuck Bike #001, created by Andrew H. Shirley and William Thomas Porter, which we had once positioned in our shop window to entice both exhibitionists and voyeurs alike. Created from multiple spokes, wheels, rods, and bike parts, this eleven-foot-long sculptural piece can be mounted like any normal bike. Yet in this case, the act of peddling causes a flesh-colored, veiny dildo to flop back and forth horizontally, transforming it — quite literally — into a bike that can fuck. And yes, it's a highly popular interactive.

Jump for Joy is also a favorite. A bouncy castle made of gigantic breasts, this immersive installation encourages people to leap into the air and throw themselves off enormous inflated latex mammaries (designed to reflect the diversity of shape, color, and size that exists in reality). And they do. With big smiles on their faces, patrons will quite literally jump for joy — a once-in-a-lifetime experience that overcomes any initial embarrassment. It's fun to watch people enjoying themselves and being carefree, not exactly what we tend to associate with most museum experiences. And as the Huffington Post says, "If This Boob Bounce House Doesn't Turn You On to Art, We Don't Know What Will."

Most people come to MoSex looking for something to shock them. This was an easier feat when the museum opened a decade ago. Now, in the age of the Internet, it's becoming increasingly difficult to curate an entirely unique experience. What was once considered fringe is now considered (almost) mainstream. Depending on the audience, that is. Ten years ago, for example, few people knew the meaning of the term bukkake. Today I'm confident the average eighteen-year-old would be able to provide a succinct definition: an act that involves multiple men ejaculating on an individual, typically on the face. (Also, a type of udon noodle.)

As curator, it's my job to create exhibitions, turning shocking concepts and images into something that leaves people with a greater understanding — or at least broader thinking — of sexuality. That potential shift in the way people view the vast, amazing, and often unbelievable arena of sexuality is what makes me love my job. Before working at the Museum of Sex I would never have known that early condoms or "rubbers" were reused multiple times, were as thick as bicycle tires, and smelled of sulfur. Nor would I be able to quote "grannies," "upskirt," "nip slip," and "facesitting" as the twentieth, forty-sixth, sixty-fifth, and eighty-third most popular Internet porn searches. What a difference a decade makes.

* * *

It was my summer of fun before diving into real life. I would soon be starting grad school at the New School for Social Research — advanced courses in anthropology with a focus on gender. The plan was to become a super anthropology nerd, do the academia thing, live with an indigenous tribe somewhere to earn my Ph.D. and become a professor, fully qualified to teach those fresh faces in Anthropology 101. In the meantime, I was working as a promotional model in the mornings and a nanny in the afternoons. At night, I was a highly proficient party girl and could usually be found downtown at Le Souk at three a.m.

But every anthropology nerd needs a home base, so I teamed up with a college friend to find an apartment. Nora enlisted a broker named Avi, a tall, dark, and handsome Israeli who seemed more interested in flirting than finding us a place to live. It would have been harmless fun if it weren't for the fact that my mother, who joined us for some of the apartment hunting, was ready to do some serious matchmaking. But despite his good looks and my mother's not-so-subtle seal of approval, it just wasn't going to happen. I had a boyfriend. A long-distance boyfriend, but a boyfriend nonetheless.

A week into our apartment hunt, after Nora and I viewed a string of nearly uninhabitable places (the type so small you'd have to choose between peeing sitting down and closing the bathroom door), Avi found us a loft. It was on the corner of Twenty-sixth and Lexington, right near the line between Gramercy and Little India. Turn north, you'd come across small Indian restaurants and sari shops. East, and you'd find the frat boy bars on Third Avenue. For a budding anthropologist, it was the perfect observation ground. The apartment really was something special. It had tremendous windows that framed the gold-roofed New York Life Building by day and the lights of the Empire State Building by night. But how could it be in our price range?

"I really negotiated this down for you," Avi told me.

I believed him. And I wasn't entirely surprised when he asked me out to lunch. Maybe it was naive of me, but I like to believe that, sometimes, lunch means just lunch. Or so I thought until he said he'd like me to meet his mother. I put down my sandwich, half-eaten.

"You want to introduce me to your mother?"

"Yes. She's coming from Israel next week. You should meet her."

"You want me to meet your mother?" I repeated.

"Yes," he said, with intensity. "I do."

I knew that was my cue to tell him about my boyfriend, Nick — but would it also mean the end of the apartment? I didn't agree to meet his mother — I'm not totally unscrupulous — but Manhattan real estate is a tough nut to crack, so I decided not to volunteer any more information than was absolutely necessary.

This proved tricky when the loft came through and Nick happened to be visiting the weekend I had to sign the lease.

"I can go with you," he said.

I hesitated. The deal wasn't solid until the rental papers were signed.

"It's probably best if you don't come," I said.

"You don't want me to?"

"It's not that I don't want you to, it's just that the broker is getting us a crazy good deal on this place and I feel like...." I stammered.

"What, like he's doing it because he's interested in you?"

I nodded.

"Sarah," Nick said, shaking his head.

"What? I didn't encourage him. I just didn't —" The whole incident had become a case study in third-wave feminism.

Nick laughed and threw up his hands in resignation. "Fine. I'll find some way to occupy myself while you lock in your shady rent deal."

So while I signed the paperwork with Avi and Nora, Nick killed time walking around the neighborhood.

I called him when the deal was sealed. "It's all signed!" I said, barely able to contain my excitement. "I officially have my own apartment! Let's celebrate. Where are you?"

"Some place called the Museum of Sex."

"The Museum of what?"

"You heard me," he said. "The Museum of Sex."

"Um ... do you want me to come meet you?" I asked. "And will I be cool with this place?"

"It's just a room full of weird art. Girls peeing. Photos of sex parties. Nothing that interesting." I could hear his sneakers squeaking against the steps as he explored. "Actually you might like this. It's called Sex Among the Lotus: 3,000 Years of Chinese Erotic Obsession."

That was all it took. Within five minutes I had arrived at a nondescript building on Twenty-seventh Street, just off Fifth Avenue. I paid for my little red ticket, not realizing it would be the ticket to the next ten years of my life.

Inside the entranceway, the walls were painted red, with chipping paint and neon-red lights. Directly in front of me were heavy steel doors, and beyond that a gift shop filled with sex-related souvenirs. I took a left through a small passageway to the first floor and an exhibition called Get Off. It featured ads, cartoons, and drawings by Lynda Benglis, AA Bronson, Tee Corinne, and Jeff Koons, postwar artists who use sexual titillation to provoke responses from their viewers.

I spotted Nick at the end of the gallery. "I'm glad you've spent your afternoon watching porn. Is this to get back at me for not telling the broker about you?" I teased.

He smiled and shrugged his shoulders. "It's not my fault you decided to get an apartment around the corner from the Museum of Sex."

With his arm around the small of my back, Nick and I explored the beautiful, dimly lit exhibition Sex Among the Lotus. We saw ancient erotic ceramics, actual preserved bound feet on loan from the Mütter Museum, and contemporary Chinese porn, all set in spotlit red lacquered alcoves.

I was surprised at how much the exhibition drew me in. I'd never been to a museum that discussed sexual positions or showed illustrated sex guides used to educate Chinese brides for their wedding nights. I certainly had never seen objects used to decorate and penetrate genitalia.

It was safe to say I'd never think of the word museum in the same way again.

"Why don't you see if they're hiring," Nick suggested. "Talk to the guy at the front desk."

"Very funny," I said.

Despite my fascination with anthropology, I had no desire to work in a museum. I guess I've always considered museums — traditional museums, that is — to be somewhat disingenuous. Of course they can serve as institutions of education and research, but they're still influenced by an unfortunate legacy, one that often presents itself as an authority on a particular people (indigenous groups, let's say), yet are not inclusive of those communities. For instance, several years into the twenty-first century, the American Museum of Natural History featured a diorama of a Middle Eastern souk (bazaar) with a figure on a magic carpet flying proudly over the marketplace. Not exactly accurate academia in a post-9/11 world.

And then there are the many Native American tribes actively fighting to have their ancestors' bodies repatriated. It's shameful, really, that in 2016 people and their cultures are still treated as specimens to be displayed in glass cases, often without proper context and appreciation. Old habits really do die hard, I suppose. The legacy of today's museums can be traced back to the Renaissance, when the world's artifacts and treasures were amassed by wealthy collectors — often by ill-begotten means. Traveling the world and collecting treasures was today's equivalent of having a black American Express card or a rare sports car. Through purchase and theft, the artifacts of other lands became the booty that fill many museum's collections. This dirty little secret of the museum world is the reason why I never thought I'd be working in one. But then, I'd never imagined a museum of sex.


Museum of Sex Normal

I blew off Nick's suggestion to apply for a job at the Museum of Sex. Growing up in a family where spending money had to be earned, babysitting had been my go-to profession since I was a teenager. Now, in the financially unpredictable postcollege period, I was grateful that I could support myself this way. I had been hired by a music-industry power couple who lived on Gramercy Park (with keys to the exclusive secret garden), and who were excited that they found a young educated woman who could also teach their little one some Spanish. Instead of the experience being a chapter out of The Nanny Diaries, the family was tremendously laid back. I really enjoyed the little girl I was looking after. Nevertheless, I couldn't help thinking that I should get a job that would make use of my degree. I mean, if I was going to spend the next twenty years paying off student loans, it made sense to be doing something in the field, something that would actually fulfill my fascination with anthropology.

I came by it honestly, this captivation with anthropology. As a multiethnic child, raised between the hippie Four Corners of the Southwest and the affluence of Manhattan, it was my diverse background that fueled my interest in a discipline that would encourage me to explore the world. As my freshman-year anthropology professor, Professor Burton, liked to say, "People are drawn to anthropology because they feel some sort of dissatisfaction with their own society." For me, it wasn't dissatisfaction as much as I so often felt betwixt and between two worlds — in the "liminal stage" of multiple identities, an anthropologist might say.

I grew up in a nontraditional family structure. My parents divorced when I was three. My mother's fear of my father's drinking prompted her to petition the courts, at which point my father's parental rights were terminated.


Excerpted from Sex in the Museum by Sarah Forbes. Copyright © 2016 Sarah Forbes. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. Please Don't Touch, Lick, Stroke, or Mount the Exhibits,
2. Museum of Sex Normal,
3. Vamps and Virgins,
4. The Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution,
5. A Sex Education,
6. Men Without Suits,
7. Quarter Life Crisis,
8. The Power of the Erotic Imagination,
9. Sarah Sex,
10. Sex by Design,
11. Down the Rabbit Hole,
12. Mating in the Wild,
13. The Girl in the Red Dress,
14. F*cking Like Animals,
15. Beyoncé Said It Best,
16. Romance with an Edge,
17. Two Funerals and a Wedding,
18. Put It On, Before You Put It In,
19. Operation Baby Bump,
20. The Power of the Yoni,
21. Mama Works in Sex,
About the Author,

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