By Heidi Stevens
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Sarah Forbes has collected her findings from her 12 years as a curator at New York’s Museum of Sex and put pen to paper. Her new book, “Sex in the Museum: My Unlikely Career at New York’s Most Provocative Museum” (St. Martin’s Press) walks readers through more than a decade of exhibits, some highly scientific, some heavy on pornography, others with an eye cast mostly toward history, and explains some of the larger curiosities, including the fact that such museums exist in the first place.
Twelve years as a curator at New York’s Museum of Sex placed Sarah Forbes somewhere on the spectrum, she says, between Dr. Ruth and a porn star.
“It allowed me to understand our human species more than any other fieldwork I’ve ever done,” Forbes, who holds a master’s degree in anthropology, told me.
She collected her findings in a new book, “Sex in the Museum: My Unlikely Career at New York’s Most Provocative Museum” (St. Martin’s Press).
In the book, she walks readers through more than a decade of exhibits, some highly scientific, some heavy on pornography, others with an eye cast mostly toward history, and explains some of the larger curiosities, including the fact that such museums exist in the first place.
“Most of us don’t have a frame of reference for something like this,” she writes. “Museums are highbrow; sex is base. Museums are public; sex is private. The two just don’t go together.”
Oh, but they do.
“The Museum of Sex is just like any other cultural institution,” she writes. “A haven for art, artifacts and ephemera. It’s just that, in our case, we are dedicated to the history, evolution and cultural significance of human sexuality. In other words, sex.”
Also, the celebrity encounters are a tad more tantalizing than those at, say, the Shedd Aquarium.
Actor Jared Leto came in for a tour after the museum elected to show the video for his band’s song “Hurricane,” which MTV banned for being too explicit. Leto ended up hosting a party there.
Musician Tommy Lee, famous for his recorded relations with ex-wife Pamela Anderson, stopped by one day with a film crew, figuring a tour would make a good tie-in for a new album he was releasing.
“I got the feeling that the guy who has seen and done it all (and much of it on film) was learning something new,” Forbes writes.
I asked her what sort of effect the work had on her own sex life. Was it a bit like working at a pizza parlor and losing your appetite for the thing you’re surrounded by all day? Or the opposite?
“It broadened my horizons tremendously,” she said. “Not only was I exposed to the tremendous diversity of what exists on the sexual landscape, but I came to understand that everything can be a turn-on for somebody.”
Her mission, she said, was to put that in historical and cultural context, so that visitors could broaden their own horizons. Sex, she says, doesn’t need to be classified as good or bad, deviant or normal.
“My goal was to take all the information at my disposal and present it in an unbiased way,” she said. “Whatever exhibit, whatever artifact, these are the facts. This is what this object is. This is the significance, culturally and historically. You give people that information, and they can make their own decisions.”
Because, while we rely on sex to sell everything from hamburgers to perfume, we don’t necessarily understand it all that well.
“Though we consistently overdose on sexual images,” Forbes writes, “it is still very difficult to find accurate information about sexuality and sexual function or how to properly engage in safe sex.”
A trip to the museum can help.