Book review: what you learn from working 12 years at New York’s Museum of Sex

From animal masturbation to celebrity encounters to an examination of societal sexual expectations, anthropologist Sarah Forbes’ book is a juicy read from cover to cover

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 April, 2016, 12:15am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 April, 2016, 12:15am

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

by Sarah Forbes

St Martin’s Press

4 stars

New York’s outrageous Museum of Sex has an unlikely creation story. Rewind to a random night when entrepreneur Dan Gluck, who had just sold his software firm, was out on the town. When a stranger wearing a Museum of UFOs shirt waltzed by, Gluck and his friends pondered what other offbeat museum themes would work.

“As bar conversations with friends often go, the chatter ultimately circled back to sex,” writes erotica expert Sarah Forbes in her amusing account of her involvement in the result of the brainstorm. Gluck reckoned that the best add-on to New York’s stuffy museum scene would be a smart exploration of sex.

MoSex”, as it is called, opened in 2002. Forbes was inspired to apply for a job by an exhibit titled “Sex Among the Lotus: 3,000 Years of Chinese Erotic Obsession”.

“That was all it took,” writes the charmingly frank, self-mocking social scientist, adding that she lacked practical heft.

“Although I knew the theory behind gender politics, hierarchical structures, and all of that academic jargon that makes people’s eyes glaze over, I was in no way prepared for the realities of the Museum of Sex: the nitty-gritty of what people are thinking, doing, creating, and fantasising about on a minute-by-minute basis. All the theory in the world couldn’t prepare me for sex machines, invitations to sex clubs, or visits to dungeons,” she writes.

Despite her naivety, the zany part-time MoSex job she scored blossomed into her career as the organisation’s curator. She goes on to help organise about 20 MoSex shows covering areas ranging from condoms to burlesque.

Meanwhile, she embarks on some sticky dating adventures. Because of her job, some players treat her like a blow-up doll, but her romantic efforts eventually led to marriage, which sounds tricky.

Her self-styled sex work role sometimes upsets her management consultant husband. In one episode, he snaps after seeing her grab the penis belonging to a life-like doll.

Cue an absorbing meditation on manhood that reflects the hot girl’s mental prowess. While visitors keenly squeeze the breasts and stick their fingers into the vagina of the doll’s female version, few grab the male’s penis, she notes. She asks whether the reason is that, even in a museum, society sees women’s bodies as fair game.

Perhaps, the curatorial consultant continues, taboo stops patrons publicly touching a symbolic penis. Women fret about being “slut shamed”, according to Forbes. By contrast, heterosexual men are worried about deviating from standard straight masculinity, her theory goes.

“After more than a decade working at the Museum of Sex, it’s questions like these that keep me fascinated,” writes Forbes, who holds a master’s degree in anthropology, which appealed because of her mixed cultural background.

The diversity of the erotic imagination is truly infinite
Sarah Forbes

The Mexican-American’s account of her shift from scholar to go-to erotica guide, who shows porn god Tommy Lee around, oozes humour that can seem like a defence. You wonder whether the intensity of her wacky job ever gets too much. All the raw sensuality might drive some round the bend. Through the aptly named evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden, Forbes learns that even animals are incredibly kinky.

“We were keen to dispel the monumental misconception that animal sexuality is tied solely to reproduction, and to make the point that masturbation in the animal kingdom is far from rare,” Forbes then documents what orangutans, bonobos and giant tortoises do. That superficially saintly dirty rascal, the prairie mole, and a gay necrophiliac duck also play starring roles.

Some readers, or voyeurs if you will, may find Forbes’ private homely commitment to marriage a bit of a turn-off. The mother-of-two blames her fetish for white-picket-fence safety on her wobbly upbringing – because of her father’s drinking, her mother petitioned for divorce when Sarah was three-years-old.

Like her work, the survivor’s story is rarely dull. “The diversity of the erotic imagination is truly infinite,” she writes.

Her stab at illuminating “the world’s most fascinating topic” through her hands-on experience is an education: you learn about quirks that must rival any logged by the Museum of UFOs. Forbes’ vision embraces everything from catsuits and panda porn to an icky niche involving cake that may spark revulsion rather than arousal. You have been warned.