Field Notes

Sodom on the Hudson, as a nineteenth-century minister called New York City, has been considerably less tolerant of public expressions of eroticism since Mayor Rudy Giuliani took office in 1994: Tourists around Times Square are more likely to be families trying to score tickets to The Lion King than johns trying to score. So it wasn’t surprising that news of a planned Museum of Sex on lower Fifth Avenue sent the New York Post into a tizzy. "sex museum might offer xxx-hibits" ran the tabloid’s headline last April, describing curator Alison Maddex’s latest venture.

The hubba-hubba contingent might well be disappointed: Maddex, who is best known for having curated a 1993 gallery show that exalted the phallus, is not booking any live sex acts for the halls of her museum. Instead, she plans to present traditional art exhibits, natural history lessons, and a series of romantic films, as well as less conventional offerings, like multimedia re-creations of historic brothels and guest lectures by sex workers. The ambience will be more Rock and Roll Hall of Fame than sex club.

An archive, to be called The Nerve Center, also figures prominently in her plans. "The line I’ve been using is that it’s for Joe Construction Worker and a Harvard emeritus professor," she says, imagining an interactive film-and-video catalog and viewing facilities, as well as a print library. All of this would be accessible to the public–within reason. Maddex’s ambitions are educational, but the museum will be "an R-rated situation." This still presents a notable contrast with the Kinsey Institute, in Bloomington, Indiana, which restricts access to its renowned collection to credentialed researchers.

Although Maddex is loath to name specific donors, her success in finding a building to lease in Manhattan’s trendy Flatiron district indicates that she’s already enjoyed some fund-raising success. She has also lined up endorsements from prominent artists and entertainers, including Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher, politically incorrect monologist Sandra Bernhard, style guru Todd Oldham, exhibitionist performance artist Annie Sprinkle, and right-wing diva Arianna Huffington. But celebrity cachet only gets you so far. In an understandable bid for respectability (and, one assumes, in anticipation of attracting cautious corporate sponsors), Maddex is trolling for support among scholars of sex as well.

Her letter to potential donors indicates that a "Museum of Sex task force of distinguished scientists, sex historians, doctors, anthropologists, psychologists," as well as members of the entertainment community, is busy honing the institution’s mission, but this seems something of an exaggeration: At this early stage, Maddex has only been asking academics to write "letters of support." Her list of academic endorsers includes Valerie Steele, chief curator of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum and author of Fetish; Robert Francoeur, professor of human sexuality and embryology at Fairleigh Dickinson University; Betty Dodson, author of Sex for One; and the well-known Rutgers anthropologists Helen Fisher and Lionel Tiger.


It’s unclear, however, what part anyone other than the museum’s cheeky director will play in shaping its identity. Even Fisher, possibly the project’s most enthusiastic endorser, says, "I certainly will go to it when it opens, but right now I don’t know what my role will be." Others are more reserved. John Bancroft, director of the Kinsey Institute, says that Maddex has written to him but that it’s "not clear that this is an academic exercise. We have to be quite careful to maintain our academic respectability, and the field of sex studies is full of enterprises that don’t fall under that heading." Nonetheless, he says he would be glad to meet with Maddex to learn more about her ideas for the museum.

While the Museum of Sex hasn’t started purchasing anything yet, Maddex is eager to assume responsibility for the holdings of the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, a graduate school in San Francisco. The institute is currently home to what its co-founder and president, Ted McIlvenna, says is the world’s largest collection of pornographic and erotic artifacts–about three million items stored in nine warehouses throughout the city.

A retired minister for the United Methodist Church, "Dr. Ted" has been collecting everything from first-edition erotic literature to strip-club matchbooks since 1966. About a year ago he began looking for a professional archivist "to start taking care of our erotic heritage." (His collection costs the institute $100,000 a year to maintain, is mostly uncataloged, and is not on public display.) For the most part, reactions at

university libraries and cultural institutions have ranged from perplexed to spooked. Although he thinks the Library of Congress might have some interest in his collection of vintage X-rated-movie posters, he acknowledges that "they get their money from the government and Congress isn’t going to put much money into sex, unless it’s connected to President Clinton."

McIlvenna has agreed to donate movies and posters to a film festival/fund-raiser that Maddex is organizing for the fall. But he isn’t sure that the Museum of Sex would be a suitable home for his life’s work: He would like the collection’s custodian to be an expert in sexology. "The people in New York don’t seem to know much [about it]," he chuckles. "But they’re smart, they’re going to learn, and they mean well."

Maddex admits that she has a lot to brush up on. "I haven’t read it all," she says. She may be helped by academic gadfly Camille Paglia, her romantic interest of the past few years, who also serves on the museum’s board of advisers. For her part, Paglia is uncharacteristically modest about her contributions to the project. "I’ve really just given her the courage of her convictions," she says. Since Maddex, as a curator, is admittedly unfamiliar with some recent scholarship, says Paglia, "I’m able to pick up a book and say whether this person is a total lemming.... I’m there for Alison to assess what should go in the archive."

Maddex does share her significant other’s pride in being politically incorrect: If she anticipates any controversy about the museum, she thinks it’s less likely to come from conservative culture warriors than from left-wing academics she is sure will object to her enshrining evolutionary psychology and instinctual behavior alongside cultural and historical representations of sex. "I want to stay grounded in the nature of sex," she says. She freely derides feminists "who get on this ‘gender’ path"; postmodernists whose work is "cut off at the neck"; and queer theorists, whose language she finds "demeaning to heterosexuality."

She may eschew what she considers the "avant-garde" for "normal" sex, but the sheer breadth of her subject matter underscores both the extent of her ambition and how far she has to go. Of course, if recent events in New York are any indication, the Museum of Sex might well be the wave of the future: How can sex get any safer than when it’s encased in a vitrine?


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