BY LYNSEY G
Sarah Forbes was the curator of the Museum of Sex in New York City for twelve years, from shortly after its inception until the beginning of 2016. In her new book, Sex in the Museum: My Unlikely Career at New York’s Most Provocative Museum, Forbes chronicles the growth of what is now a major cultural landmark in New York and recalls how she and the museum grew up together, from her background in anthropology through her first fumbling introductions to curatorial work, through her fascination with collectors of sex memorabilia, the difficulties of being a sex curator in the NYC dating scene, exploring the vast world of kink, love and marriage, condom dresses, motherhood, and much more. The book is a fun but informative read that will entertain readers while also teaching them volumes about the world of sex through the eyes of one of its most dedicated students.
Sarah, your book really straddles the line between an informative text and a memoir. How did you find the right balance between talking about yourself and telling your readers about what you learned at the Museum of Sex?
It was the hardest kind of back and forth for me. I write curatorially, which is like the absence of voice. It’s all about writing in the most unbiased way possible. Here I was trying to maintain that, but also give you a little peek into, like, this is a real person going through this process.
I can’t believe, after all this time, it’s out there in the world! I’m getting text messages from friends who pre-ordered books and they’re getting their copies.
Are you scared?
I’m not scared, but that’s kind of the beauty of memoirs. When you read somebody’s memoir, you get to know them in a way that you wouldn’t just from lived experience. And it covers such a span of time. I’m writing about twelve years that were unbelievably formative to who I am. Who I was at twenty-four when I started working at the museum, and now I just turned thirty-four, and I’m totally different.
The book-writing took almost three years. I feel like it was three years of therapy! Trying to understand myself, being very introspective, thinking to myself, “Why did I respond that way? Why did I think that way?” It’s intense.
I know that you’re not curating anymore, but if you had unlimited resources and help, what would be your dream exhibition at the Museum of Sex?
I guess in my fantasy curator world, I would love to be able to raid the collections of major institutions, like the Met for example, and look at their collections through the lens of sex, sexuality, and gender. Because you have African art, and you have modern art, and you have the Impressionists. And to have a curatorial lens that looks at it as its totality, but with this idea of sexuality—I think there would be so many great exhibitions that could be created. That’s my dream of dreams.
Especially when it comes to art, it seems like vaunted institutions deal with art that has sex in it, but they’re always downplaying the sex.
You know, artists are people who are exploring human experience. So most artists, at some point, have created pieces that deal with the subject matter [of sex]. I would go to art fairs and I would find artists that I liked—I liked the way they were thinking, I liked the way they were constructing things. And I would ask them, “Do you have anything that would apply to these topics?” Because it’s not the stuff that they’re showing at art fairs. It’s not the stuff that’s appearing on gallery walls. But nine out of ten times, there’d be a “yes.” And they’d be so excited to show those pieces.
Since you were at the Museum of Sex for twelve years, and you changed so much in that time… What would you say have been the changes in the way you’ve seen in the way the public responds to the museum?
I think the institution itself is not this question mark for people anymore. When I first started working there, no one had heard of it. And now I very rarely come across that. Now the Museum of Sex is able to have advertisements in the subway. Finally. And there are billboards—there’s a huge billboard for the museum right next to the Highline [Park].
So its presence as a cultural institution in a major city has evolved. More than two hundred thousand visitors a year come to the Museum of Sex. It’s positioned as one of the largest attractions in the city. It’s been amazing to see that process and be a part of that process.
It’s such a rare opportunity to be a part of something when it’s so little…and then to grow and struggle alongside it. I’m really proud of what it’s grown and developed into.
And you were really instrumental in that growth. I was just thinking about the fact that you are a sex-positive feminist, and what might the museum have ended up looking like if someone with a different mindset had been in your position.
Absolutely. I think a curator’s perspective unbelievably shapes the direction of an institution. The kinds of exhibitions that they make, the point of view that’s held within the exhibition.
It’s the same way with the exhibition The Sex Lives of Animals. And one of the huge takeaways is that even though science is meant to be unbiased, of course biases are going to creep in. We’re human beings doing science and art and the construction of ideas.
I always was very mindful and trying to think of the multiplicity of perspectives in everything I was doing. I really feel that [my degree in] anthropology was a guiding lens.
Is there an area that you would like to see researched more, with regards to sex?
With time, I’ve tried to figure out what is it exactly that I do, and that I want to be doing, particularly now beyond the museum walls. I’ve come up with this idea that I view myself as a sexual culturalist. I guess what that implies for me is the multiplicity of perspectives. I think the field of gender and sexuality studies, women’s studies, whatever bucket it’s in at various institutions of learning, if we remember that we can access these conversations from science, from art, from activism, all of these different spaces, that only makes the discourse richer. And so, as opposed to these ghettos of thought, if we collaborated and synthesized, it’d be really potent.
I really thought, when I’d just graduated college and was starting grad school, that I would go straight through to my PhD. I really wanted to be a professor. I genuinely wanted to teach Anthropology 101. I thought that was where you capture young minds to think about the world.
But when I realized the realities of academia, and the pressures to publish, the pressures to do all these different aspects of it, the difficulty in getting tenured positions…I realized the culture of academia wasn’t a good match for my personality. Even though I love, and am obsessed with, the process of learning and sharing that learning.
In your role as curator, you probably have taught more people more things than you could have ever done as a professor.
Yeah! I agree. It was this unexpected blessing. I got to do what I wanted to do, but just through a different avenue that I didn’t even know was possible.
Out of the following three categories, which is your favorite? Victorian erotic photography, golden age bodybuilding photos, or modern pornography?
I’d say number one would be the Victorian photos, but number two—a close two—would be the bodybuilding photos. And the bodybuilding photography because it has sort of a sweet, sentimental place in my heart for all of the amazing collectors I’ve met over the years, and how passionate they’ve been about this content.
I could spend the rest of my life just dealing with sex collectors. That is by far the best part of the work that I’ve done. And gaining people’s trust, and being able to pull out information from them that they don’t even realize how amazing their information is…I’m getting to be like this archaeologist in people’s attics and garages.
I would love to read full-length profiles of all the people in the book. If the book was just those, I’d still be into it.
I would have been very happy to write just that.
This could be an idea!
Sometimes what happens is you spend all this time, like for an exhibition, doing this research, trying desperately to find these artifacts. And then the exhibition opens, and it gets some publicity, and then suddenly all these people start reaching out to me, saying “I have this” and “I have that.” So part of me is really hoping that with this book coming out, more of these collections and collectors are going to look to me and know that I’m a respectful, informed individual who can maybe help them with these collections they have, and give them their due respect.
Do you have a favorite stag film?
The first one that comes to mind is always “A Free Ride” from 1915. It’s cute and it’s silly, and the whole premise is two women being turned on by seeing a man urinate.
But I’ve seen so many stag films over the years, they kind of blend together. I think one of the things I like about them is that they’re sometimes just straight-up silly. And it makes them endearing. And it doesn’t mean that the sex is less hardcore, but sex can be fun, and there can be a bit of a joke between two people.
I think that some of the really old stag films look like they’re slightly sped up, so it gives it all this sort of comedic touch. I imagine them all taking place to some kind of funny carnival music.
Yeah! When they would have the stag parties, they would have some kind of music in the background. And I totally am with you. I don’t think it was what we think of like porn music today. It was like, “This is kind of ridiculous. There’s fifty of us, smashed together in a room, watching this film. This is a little bit funny, and erotic at the same time.”
“But we have to pretend that we don’t find it erotic….”
…which is funny in itself, to pretend it’s not erotic.
This one might be too personal, but I’m going to ask anyway. When you were researching kink and BDSM for your exhibition Kink: The Geography of Erotic Imagination, did you discover any latent kinks?
You know, working on that, I was kind of sad that I didn’t find or discover my thing.
It was only very, very recently that I figured out what my thing was. It’s in a totally asexual but sexual space. I saw this article recently, about the movie The Martian. The title of it called the film “competence porn,” which is how this article came up in my Google alerts. And I was like, “Oh my god! That is my thing!” The whole premise of The Martian is that he’s caught there, and he has to use all of his knowledge to figure out how to survive. And it’s like, being really competent, and using all of your different skills and knowledge? I was like, “That’s my thing! That’s my kink!”
I think that’s an excellent kink to have. Because you will always end up with the right people.
I feel like I have a bit of a survivalist in me.
Lynsey G is a blogger, poet, and renaissance woman in general. She’s written for xoJane, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Corset Magazine, TOSKA, Luna Luna Mag, MadisonBound.com, and WHACK! Magazine. She’s still on a high after winning a 2013 Feminist Porn Award for her short film, “Consent: Society,” and is now at work blogging at her own website and working on a few books of various types, some of which might involve talking raccoons and porn star armies.