Manhattan museum takes sex seriously

A couture cocktail dress at the Museum of Sex is made out of 1,200 dyed condoms. A couture cocktail dress at the Museum of Sex is made out of 1,200 dyed condoms. (Julie Glassberg/The New York Times)
By Bella English
Globe Staff / April 25, 2010

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NEW YORK — There are museums devoted to Pez dispensers, barbed wire, bad art, UFOs, circuses, Jell-O, tow trucks, and even, in Philadelphia, a museum for preserved corpses and anatomical oddities. So why not a museum of sex, a primal human behavior without which none of us would exist?

“The feeling was, there should be one that seriously and openly discusses the subject,’’ says curator Sarah Forbes, as she leads the way through the two-story Museum of Sex. This seven-year-old museum takes itself seriously despite the fact that many of its patrons giggle their way through the exhibits.

“We work with artists and activists. We’re not just about titillation and being salacious,’’ Forbes says. “We’re trying to do something revolutionary as a cultural institution.’’

The museum, on Fifth Avenue in Lower Manhattan, has a permanent collection of more than 15,000 artifacts (and a killer gift shop with both artsy and whimsical items). Most of the artifacts are donated and they include antique vibrators and condom tins, Victorian photos of couples in sexual poses (“Some of the first photos of nude men,’’ says Forbes). The Victorian poses, Forbes says, include some made with a special ink that you could scratch off, revealing the flesh.

To avoid censorship, the museum takes no federal or state money; it relies solely on admission fees and donations.

The ground floor is home to “Sex and the Moving Image,’’ which traces the history of cinematic sex, with clips from the first kiss shown on film in the 1890s to the hard-core porn popularized by “Deep Throat’’ in the 1970s. Until the ’60s, pornography was illegal, though the movies were still made. “They were called stag films and they were shown in all-male venues,’’ says Forbes. The first one was “A Free Ride,’’ made in 1915.

Here, several films play continually, including “naturalist films,’’ or those involving nudists, first made in 1957. There they are, in all their naked glory: couples, singles, families with children. “These were staged as an excuse to show skin,’’ in an era that otherwise prohibited it, Forbes says. “They show how people were pushing the legal boundaries.’’

That same year, “Island in the Sun’’ was made with Harry Belafonte and Joan Fontaine, the first film to feature a mixed-race romance. “But they never kissed,’’ says Forbes. “They weren’t allowed.’’ Nearby, “Deep Throat’’ is playing. A couple stops and stares.

Upstairs in the Spotlight Gallery, recent exhibits include sex education, photography, “kinks,’’ the sex lives of animals, and gender and identity. In a Sex Machines section, artifacts range from homemade sex devices to commercial devices with patents that “prevent, improve or enhance sexual function.’’

For the exhibit, San Francisco photographer Timothy Archibald produced images and interviews of contemporary sex machine inventors. One man, to salvage his marriage, fashioned something called a monkey rocker, but it needs to be seen to be believed.

The museum’s newest exhibit is called “Rubbers: The Life, History & Struggle of the Condom.’’ It’s sponsored in part by Trojan condoms and is meant to be a historical survey of how the condom has been a part of society, from the time it was fashioned from animal membranes to the modern latex. There’s a section on condoms and the arts, including sculptures and paintings by the late artist Keith Haring. There’s even a dress made out of 1,200 dyed condoms.

But there’s a darker side, too, and the show catalogs the awful effects of sexually transmitted diseases. It takes the opportunity to address the issue of safe sex with a decided point of view. “Not only is the exhibit extremely educational, it’s promoting a safer sex message, which I feel we really haven’t been discussing,’’ says Forbes.

Bella English can be reached at

If You Go

Museum of Sex

233 Fifth Ave. (at 27th St.)