Dispassionate peek at passion

Everything you always wanted to know about sex, but were afraid to ask, is now on public display in New York.

Observations

October 06, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro | By Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

This country is weird about sex.

By delicately detouring around this most fundamental and intimate of topics during discussions of culture, history and daily life, it seems we miss the point of so much of human endeavor. It's as if society is too embarrassed to directly address the very impulse behind so much of what transpires in life -- good, bad and, of course, mediocre.

Sure, virtually every commercial pitches sex, and Sex and the City, not to mention Bill Clin-ton, have made it acceptable to talk about a variety of sexual activities over the dinner table.

Our fears and taboos, though, prevent us from recognizing sex's transformative energy, not just in bed, but in every realm of endeavor. We lose by feeling threatened by sex and its power. We lose insight, humor and the complete sense of what it means to be human.

A number of illuminating -- and liberating -- thoughts like these come to mind after visiting the new Museum of Sex in New York City and speaking with its executive curator, Grady T. Turner.

The museum's first exhibition, NYC Sex: How New York City Transformed Sex in America (scheduled, after several delays, to open yesterday), by no means sugarcoats the dangerous and exploitative side of sex. But its comprehensive and nonjudgmental examination of New York as a magnet for sexual pioneers, reformers and anti-vice zealots is a safe way to recognize sex's role, both subliminal and conscious, in every realm of our lives.

A visit to the museum at Fifth Avenue and 27th Street constitutes a confrontation with this country's conflicted attitudes regarding sex; anyone shy about the topic will have to check their shame at the door if they want to see it all. Intended or not, part of the museum experience is responding to the extremes of human sexuality in a public space.

The exhibition, as it explores sexual subcultures, sexual commerce, the ravages of sexually transmitted disease and the role of the press in hyping sex crimes, features progressively more graphic photographs, illustrations, films and text. Acoustic guides offer the unvarnished memories and reflections of those such as the "Happy Hooker" Xaviera Hollander, porn star Vanessa del Rio and other participants in the sex trade.

The great equalizer

It may be disconcerting to discover that the exhibit can, at times, be as titillating as it is informative. It's a challenge to keep an equilibrium between mind and body. But it is also enlightening to know that one effect doesn't necessarily cancel out the other; that, in fact, the two can go hand in hand without too much extraneous guilt. Anyway, after a while, the sexual depictions become almost mechanical in the manner of a clunky how-to manual.

The Museum of Sex, in a sense, serves as a mediator; not only between visitors and the material, but between the academic and the personal. Curator Turner, formerly director of exhibitions at the New York Historical Society, has relied on a long list of researchers, but has also included first-person accounts from New York's sexual frontiers. The exhibit is "informed by scholarship" but also includes such things as messages left on the answering machine of a close friend of his who died of AIDS.

An interactive map of the city allows visitors to the museum (and to its Web site) to contribute their own detailed accounts of sex in the city. In the same spirit of inquiry, Turner and others take pains to illuminate how sexual trends and fetishes, such as bondage, can move almost seamlessly from the street to illustrations in slick fashion magazines.

In the NYC Sex exhibition, the theme of sex as a great equalizer surfaces obliquely, as it becomes clear that people from all ranks and classes came together in communities formed around any number of sexual subcultures.

As visitors explore the cycles of sexual freedom and crackdowns that generate New York City's pivotal place in the history of human sexuality, it is hard not to marvel -- and to admire, to a certain extent -- those who flocked to New York to devote their lives entirely to sexual pleasure, and to proclaiming their right to do so.

An imperfect science

As visitors learn how each cycle gave way to the next, they'll absorb what Turner calls "a big part of what the show is about: how each generation identifies vice and pornography."

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, Anthony Comstock, and his organization, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, defined obscenity "so that it included erotic images, literature and performances; information about methods of birth control; and anything which might be considered blasphemous," according to Turner. A pretty wide net.

Reading of these crusades may prompt museum visitors to question the relative notion of "normal" and perhaps to see that arbitrating sexual morality is and always will be an imperfect science.

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