Most workplaces don’t require signs saying “Please don’t touch, lick, stroke, or mount the exhibits,” but Sarah Forbes’s did.
For over ten years, Forbes was the curator for the Museum of Sex, an experience she describes in a new memoir, Sex in the Museum: My Unlikely Career at New York’s Most Provocative Museum, out today from St. Martin’s Press. When Forbes dropped off her résumé at the museum in 2002, she was an anthropology grad student who’d “never watched porn, visited a strip club, or owned a vibrator.” But she accepted a position as a researcher anyway, immediately immersing herself in piles of vintage pornography for an exhibition on the evolution of the pin-up. Two years later Forbes became the museum’s first curator, and she is still a curatorial consultant (she stepped down last year to focus on her writing).
In her tenure, Forbes molded the museum into a place where sex wasn’t taboo, but a topic for discussion and celebration. Her work led to some surreal experiences, including giving Tommy Lee a private tour of the museum while hoping he wouldn’t notice that a clip from his own sex tape appeared in an installation. In her memoir, Forbes contrasts the unusual nature of her job with her life at home, particularly her “banal and tragically heteronormative” desire for a husband and children. To hear more about her story, the Voice gave Forbes a call.
Village Voice: You curated a lot of intriguing exhibits, including one on the history of the condom and another on animals’ sex lives. Did you have a personal favorite?
Sarah Forbes: It’s like choosing between your children. “The Sex Lives of Animals” was most interesting, because it’s information the majority of our patrons had never encountered before, and that opportunity to open people’s eyes was very unique. A lot of visitors were shocked that animals engage in non-reproductive sex and in every possible sex act that people do — and beyond.
Some of the material you worked with — kink, porn, fetishes — is associated with shame and secrecy. Did you hope to de-stigmatize content that’s considered dark or disturbing?
A lot of times, things are dark and disturbing because people don’t understand them. And so an exhibition like “Kink” was a wonderful opportunity: Even if it wasn’t your particular thing, you understood why it was for somebody else. I was able, in working on that project, to have a lot of those experiences myself — at the beginning of the process to [admit], “I don’t understand this,” and at the end to have much greater perspective on why things are turn-ons for other people.
You learned from vintage porn that sex in earlier centuries wasn’t so different from today. Why does every generation seem to believe its sex is more cutting-edge than that of previous generations?
It’s not [a] cultural history that we pass along. There are very few places that we can learn about the past of sex and sexuality. Grandma’s not usually saying, “I did this” and “I did that.”
The Museum of Sex is this rare place where that intimate history, probably the most interesting history of our species, can be highlighted. I’m fascinated by the fact that the city I live in has this wealth of sexual history. I live in Tribeca, and so many things happened [on] the streets that I walk down daily. A brothel guide from 1855 lists a place a couple blocks away from mine as a residence and talks about the women that lived and worked there. It’s a history that we’re all part of on a daily basis but maybe aren’t aware of.
You were single for several of the years you worked at the museum. Did your job ultimately make dating in New York easier or harder?
It cut to the chase of people’s open-mindedness and perceptions; negotiating topics of sex and sexuality with a partner is very important. In some ways, dating with my profession was the best form of anthropology I ever could have done. It was constantly fascinating how people would respond. It’s funny that I ended up marrying the one person who wished I had any other job in New York City. But he took the time to get to know me as a person separate from the sensational job title.
We’re increasingly surrounded by sexual images, and they’re so easy to access online, but you note that there’s still so much misinformation out there. How do you account for that disconnect?
The proliferation of internet pornography allows people to be more aware of different aspects of sexuality, but there’s no curation [of] it. There’s an image, and the viewer has no idea how that image was constructed, or the significance and meaning behind the construction of that image. The whole point of it is escapism, [so] a lot of these images can create an unrealistic expectation of what sex is.
Do you worry about how your kids will manage the internet in that way?
I really hope that I’ll have prepared them to feel comfortable talking to me and my husband about their bodies and about their developing sexuality, and that if they encountered images and had a question, that they would feel comfortable enough to see us as a resource. There won’t be the same level of taboo in our household.
How has working at the Museum of Sex changed the way you see the world?
Sex is a really fascinating topic. So much diversity exists, [but] there are a lot of things that unite us as well. If more social scientists studied sex, I think we’d have a much greater understanding of who people are, what people are, how they think, why they do things. I’ve been party to this most informative part of what it means to be human.