New Museum Celebrates NYC as Sex Capital

Porno movies. Risqué comics and books. Tabloid-style sex scandals. Openly gay culture. Mae West.

You have New York to thank for all of them — and probably for your perceptions of sex — say officials of the Museum of Sex.

The brand-new museum, located at Fifth Avenue and 27th Street in Manhattan, is set to open Saturday with its inaugural exhibit, "NYC Sex: How New York City Transformed Sex in America."

"It was called 'Sodom on the Hudson'; that was the name for New York City," says Daniel Gluck, the museum's director and founder. "The idea, 'Only in New York,' is not a recent term or cliché. It is a fairly old one. And that is because it seemed that almost anything was possible in New York — good and bad, vice and achievement."

Gluck openly aspires for the Museum of Sex to be considered among the top ranks of serious, world-class museums. Just as New York's Museum of Modern Art is known as MoMa, Gluck and colleagues refer to their institution as MoSex.

The museum's official mission "is to preserve and present the history, evolution, and cultural significance of human sexuality," and those connected to it boast the museum fills a niche as the only one of its type in America.

"This is a serious endeavor, in the sense that it wants to inform and educate as well as to entertain," says June M. Reinisch, a historian adviser to the museum and director emeritus of The Kinsey Institute, a beneficiary of the exhibit's proceeds.

"Sexuality is a very important part of individual human life and to culture," she adds. "To not understand it is to be handicapped in your understanding of human relations and culture."

Porn, Bondage, Transsexuals

And where else to depict the sexual aspects of America's culture besides New York? Museum officials say that as America's pre-eminent commercial, cultural and media hub since the early 1800s, New York, more than any other place, historically has pushed America's sexual envelope.

The exhibit makes its case with artifacts connected to New York — including the explicit pornographic film, A Free Ride (aka A Grass Sandwich), made between 1915 and 1919 and purportedly the earliest surviving "stag film."

One museum panel displays early homemade bondage implements. Another shows news clippings and video footage of Christine Jorgensen, a World War II veteran who became a sensation when she addressed the New York media as a transsexual woman in the early 1950s.

There are erotic paintings and drawings, suggestive (but clothed) depictions of 19th-century contortionists, male beefcake photos and Fighting on the Grass, a black-and-white movie by Irving Claw showing silk-shredding women ripping off each other's clothes in a passionate catfight. It's said Claw stymied the censors by leaving the women's private parts strategically covered.

Lesbian pulp novels with titles like Trap of Lesbos and Warped Women are displayed on a panel next to an array of comics featuring Wonder Woman, who the exhibit notes wore spiked heels and a cinched waist as she tied up her enemies.

"All of this stuff comes from New York, was made in New York, was influenced by New Yorkers, and that sort of theme carries through the entire exhibition," Gluck says of the show, which is restricted to adults 18 or older and costs $17 for admission.

MoSex or MoSmut?

There have been signs of discontent over the museum, which withdrew its application before the New York State Board of Regents to be recognized as a nonprofit institution. A spokesman for the Board of Regents did not know the reason for the withdrawal.

Even before it opened, MoSex drew fire from William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. In a Sept. 16 statement, he denounced the museum as "MoSmut" for celebrating "smut as sex." He accused the museum of championing or associating with racists, pornographers and individuals who "exhibit pathological characteristics."

Museum officials say they expected some negative reaction, but so far have only heard of scattered opposition. They add that although some displays show explicit pornography, others feature photos of fully clothed subjects and point out the cultural significance of historical events or figures such as birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger or Mae West, who was a sexy stage star in New York before her movie fame.

"Calling it a Museum of Sex of course is wonderful, because it gives it that punch," says Luc Sante, a historian adviser to the museum and author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. "But to be really accurate would probably mean to call it the Museum of Sexual Culture."

Not all sexual culture in New York involves "the greasy raincoat brigade" that might be found lurking in dark corners of seedy strip clubs, Sante says, though the size of the city allowed such niche sexual groups to avoid eradication by anti-vice crusaders.

New York's cultural influence also has been spread subtly, he adds, such as through whispers about sexual subcultures and practices following the highly publicized murders of prostitute Helen Jewett, in 1836, and sexually adventurous architect Stanford White, in 1906.

The crimes and subsequent trials were heavily covered by the media, and rumors about White's bachelor-party-style escapades had "a major influence on bourgeois men across the country," Sante says.

Pornography for the Masses

But, of course, New Yorkers also used plenty of explicit matter to trumpet sex, such as New York-published "Tijuana Bibles," illegal comic books sold on the black market during the first half of the 20th century. Reinisch calls them "the first … pornography for the masses."

The comics relied on familiar names as much as on pornography, and visitors to the museum can punch an interactive display to view featured titles such as Laurel and Hardy in "Doing Things", and other unauthorized strips featuring Joan Crawford, Joe Louis, Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers and Wonder Woman.

"Before this, erotica was made for emperors and kings and for the nobility and the aristocracy by great artists and fine craftsmen," Reinisch says. "It wasn't until [the first Tijuana Bibles] in America … that there was erotica available for the everyday man, John Q. Public."