Watching others watch pornography is a peculiar experience. A rotating cast of New York City strangers comes through the doors of the Museum of Sex, each unknowingly being dissected by a passerby (me), prepared to attribute meaning to relatively meaningless behaviors. Randomly similar actions quickly develop a pattern in this public shrine to sex—an act that is inherently intimate.
But that's exactly why the Museum of Sex exists, isn't it? The establishment is founded on the historically taboo activity that most everyone takes part in. At this museum, we remember that sex is unavoidable and so are our very natural reactions when we become the voyeur. And that brings us to the very point of this experiment: In our highly sexualized world, where we're told repeatedly that sex sells, does sex and everything that comes with it still make us uncomfortable?
“Many of my clients are extremely uncomfortable discussing sex, specifically with their partners,” reveals Rachel Hoffman, a couples and sex therapist at Union Square Practice in New York. “There is certainly more openness in the portrayal of sexuality in the media (i.e: social media, movies and television shows), especially in the last few years. However, there continues to be a disconnect between watching sex or sexuality issues unfold and disclosing one’s personal opinions, feelings or problems.”
Observations stemming from six hours spent at the Museum of Sex echo Hoffman’s thoughts. Bombarded with sex-related images across three rather large floors, visitors seemed completely at ease gazing at the various displays but avoided discussing their reactions. Take the various groups of younger teens that likely played hooky from school: more concerned with sharing their latest discovery on their iPhones, they wandered through the museum as a way to escape the mugginess of the day outside.
Young couples, on the other hand (most of them tourists), were more amusing to dissect: they focused on the works by taking close looks at the artistic methods employed to produce them. Bringing up the kind of camera used to shot a series of photos, the noticeable pops of colors in certain paintings and the selection of specific mediums (videos) to depict a woman giving oral sex to a faceless man, most couples dealt with all the stuff surrounding the subject rather than discussing the subject itself.
There were, however, two men in their 60s wearing identical T-shirts and sneakers nonchalantly (as they should) picking up a variety of sex toys at the store on premise. Not ashamed of the fact that onlookers likely took a second to picture the two of them in the throes of using said sex toys, the men were the antithesis of discomfort, embracing sex in public.
New York City sex therapist Stephen Snyder MD, author of Love Worth Making, doesn’t seem surprised: “I think people outside the conventional heterosexual community are much more comfortable expressing themselves—especially since, due to the internet, they now have more like-minded others to share with.”
The men’s lax attitude was replicated in a single other section of the museum—the only one dealing with non-human sex. Walking around the exhibit about the animal kingdom, you’d almost hear the sigh of relief: step away from human relations and people’s dispositions evidently become more blasée. While looking at giraffes (did you know they determine fertility through their urine?), dolphins (to study mating techniques, scientists actually inflate penises) and chimpanzees (like us, they have sex all year round) breeding, patrons suddenly acknowledged the risqué nature of the subject at hand by talking out loud about the sex lives of birds and fish, not concerning themselves with the ways in which photographers were able to capture the acts.
“We continue to be uncomfortable discussing our own issues,” explains Hoffman. “It's always easier talking about someone else's sex life because it externalizes the problem. There is still that voice saying 'It's okay as long as it's not me.'" Watching giraffes getting it on while surrounded by a bunch of strangers? Sign us up. Step in front of a painting depicting a man masturbating with a sex toy that you might consider using? We’re going to look away.
Snyder takes that logic to the next level: “Things that are only peripherally related to sex, like sex toys, kinky props, role play and porn—the stuff you see exhibited at the Museum of Sex—have, of course, become much less taboo. But the inward experience of sex—the part that really matters—is still unexpressed because people lack a vocabulary for it and because it’s very private.”
Could the emotional portion of sex be the thing we’re most uncomfortable with, then? Do we bow in silence when looking at photos of folks getting intimate because if we were to look more deeply we’d be forced to reckon with questions (is this love? Are sex and love related? How did these people meet each other? Will I ever meet someone?) that might lead to the uncomfortable confession that we’re simply confused about what sex really means? Snyder thinks so: “Orson Welles was quoted as saying there were two things that absolutely could not be carried to the screen: sex and prayer. [They] are both deeply private, inward experiences. If you try to represent them in a commercial fashion, you’ll always miss their essence: you’ll end up with some kind of marketable commodity, but that commodity won’t be sex. It will just be some kind of cheap knock-off.”
According to Sari Cooper, an AASECT certified sex therapist and founder of the Center for Love and Sex in New York City, agrees: “That is why much of the boundary-pushing discussion of sexuality is embraced in comedy stand-up routines in my opinion (Louis C.K. discussion of masturbation notwithstanding),” she writes in an email. “This forum opens up the topic of sex, helps audiences think about it in a more expansive way while offering a forum to release their anxiety and fears around the topic through laughter.”
So, we digress and look away. We find ways to discuss what it is that makes us uncomfortable without actually getting to the essence of it. We go to museums and watch movies and attend talks hoping that someone, somewhere, might have an answer for us. But will we ever really be as avant-garde about sex as we hope people think we are when we're caught visiting the Museum of Sex?