New Museum Celebrates NYC as Sex Capital

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."

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