Having Sex, Museum-Style

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Academics ruin sex. They analyze it, explain it, deconstruct it, and by the time they're done, you wish they had stuck to talking about Kant's Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. So when the Museum of Sex opened in Manhattan, I shouldn't have been surprised that it was heavy on the museum and light on the sex. Maybe if it were called the Museum of Erotic History, I wouldn't have been as disappointed. But when I heard about the Museum of Sex, my mind shot right past museum and straight to the sex part. I think my past experiences at the end of the Hershey and Guinness factory tours had built unreasonable expectations.

In fact, the most shocking thing about the museum, besides the $17 admission, is that it exists at all: a Fifth Avenue building completely devoted to the history of sex. Patrons will be impressed by the snazzy multimedia presentations, such as an interactive computer map of early 20th century cathouses, with nice little Zagat-style reviews (the "nice but pushy" madam's "notion of submission is to keep you waiting for an hour"). And visitors will find the stories of Manhattan sex scandals good reading in a tabloidy, microfiche kind of way, but the exhibit can get awfully soporific, considering that it's about sex in New York City. There's a cover from a sixth edition of Margaret Sanger's Family Limitation and a display of Wonder Woman comic books under the rubric of lesbian pornography, which is particularly lame when you consider that someone could have gone to Times Square and got some better examples of girl-on-girl action. Curators can be so lazy.

The Museum of Sex undermines the real purpose of museums -- which is to pick up women

Even the good stuff is shown in that museum way that kills the fun. The items are presented in such a detached fashion, they lose all sense of purpose: a glass-encased exhibit of S&M paraphernalia looks more like a human-rights group presentation of Syrian secret-police torture instruments from the '70s. The porn they do show — stag films from 1915 projected on a wall, videos of '70s and '80s porn stars — are recontextualized into some strange National Geographic special. Even the sober-looking museum guards aren't impressed. "It's calmer here," says Jasmine Pallet, 22, comparing MoSex with her previous workplace. "Yankee Stadium is wild."

The collection is the result of nearly five years of effort by Daniel Gluck, who sold his software company in 1996 and used part of his money to start this project. Gluck is very eager to make sure everyone knows he has a degree in art history and is not just some smut-happy computer geek. "I was aware of this material because of my interest in the arts," he says. "The standard computer dotcom guy would know porn sites, but that's not where I'm coming from. I know about it from the arts."

Gluck amassed a body of historians, including museum advisory-board member Luc Sante, to assist in putting the collection together, along with help from the Kinsey Institute and the Lesbian Herstory Archives. Gluck also bought the "Ralph Whittington Collection," a U-Haul of porn previously owned by Ralph Whittington, 57, a retired Library of Congress curator who lives with his mother near Washington and who kept the world's largest professionally catalogued collection of pornography, carefully labeled in bingo-card boxes that his mother brought home from church. His approach to collecting is far more passionate than that of his new museum friends. "Some Ph.D. will read nine books on brothels and write the 10th one and never go to a brothel. I'm a hands-on archivist," Whittington says. Retired porn star Vanessa Del Rio, 50, star of Deep Inside Vanessa Del Rio and Naughty Nurses, gave the museum much of her memorabilia to display, and says she has been impressed by how thorough and serious the curators have been. "But I know they have lewd interests," she says. "It's just hidden. You can tell when you talk to them. They like to keep a stiff upper lip because otherwise they'll stutter."

And that's the problem: no matter what they do, academics always ruin sex by refusing to stutter. They intellectualize it until you realize why they spend so much time alone "writing dissertations." Museums are designed to illuminate the inanimate: mummies, Renaissance paintings, Richard Nixon. Flash-freezing the ephemeral is too difficult. If you think too long about kissing, it starts to seem like a ridiculous impossibility. (It also means you're very, very lonely.) And, honestly, that's the problem: the Museum of Sex undermines the real purpose of museums — which is to pick up women. Coming up with a line while you're staring at a Picasso is a lot easier than when you're looking at a statue of a murdered 19th century prostitute.