Sarah Forbes on the Steamy Business of Running NYC’s Museum of Sex
For 12 years, Sarah Forbes curated the exhibits at New York’s Museum of Sex—a day job full of porn-watching and sex toys.
On my desk I have a stack of books, a laptop a phone charger and an assortment of pens. I also have a butt plug, a masturbation sleeve, a mysterious menstruation tonic, and, of course, a pile of porn.
Not only does the above opener to Sarah Forbes upcoming memoir, Sex In The Museum, beat the hell out of “Call me Ishmael”—but it readies readers as they dive head- (or ass-) first into the life of a 34-year-old curator at Manhattan’s most imprudent institute.
“As someone in grad school getting my degree in anthropology, their exhibit on 3,000 years of Chinese erotic obsession appealed to me more than the urination videos and an anthropomorphic vagina smoking a cigarette,” recalled the half-Mexican, half-Jewish anthropologist of her initial visit to the Museum Of Sex. The Arizona native and (then) nookie neophyte submitted her résumé shortly thereafter.
Twelve years, a single fuck bike, some TSA-related dildo mishaps, bunches of balloon boobs, and one Irish husband—resulting in two babies—later, Forbes is ready to reveal all on running one of New York’s most notorious museums.
“It was the best adventure of my life and it came about by complete chance,” the indecent docent said. “Take every adventure that comes your way, it could be the thing your proudest of.”
Full disclosure: Forbes and I previously collaborated in my recent attempt to get a 19th-century sex toy emblazoned upon The New York Times.
DAILY BEAST: In the book you state that before getting the gig you’d never used a vibrator, watched porn, nor gone to a strip club. How quickly did each category get crossed off your life list?
FORBES: Strip club was probably first. I figured in my line of work it was a good place to give some [exotic dancers] my business card. With porn I’d, of course, seen images and stumbled upon things when I was younger--but I’d never proactively searched for it. With this job? I was all of a sudden just poring over hours and hours of footage. With vibrators? The museum just taught me that it really is a wonder age for sex toys.
What’s your least-to-most favorite of the three?
My favorite? Vibrators. The materials being used now, and their overall design, make for some very beautiful objects. Strip clubs are fine. Porn was such a part of my professional life that it really figured less into my private life.
What are the downsides of you working there for over a decade? Have you become desensitized to vanilla sex?
That could’ve been a possibility if I had to research porn constantly. But those kinds of projects are sporadic. I’d go through periods where I wouldn’t watch [adult films] for six months or something. But, no. It’s not like I’m no longer interested in sex. I will say this: Nothing shocks me anymore.
You write that you have no problem being called a “sex worker”—explain…
I think when you work in field of sexuality there are many assumptions. I’ve developed a kinship with those who work in a more formalized aspect of the profession. Seeing how people treated me, when they first found out where I work, lead me to have no problem considering myself a sex worker. Because there’s nothing wrong with that.
That reminds me of when you write of being solicited by a guy hanging around the entrance of MoSex, thinking that it was a brothel, and then haggling with you on what he “could get.”
I think he just saw SEX on the sign and ignored the MUSEUM OF part. Back in the day people would also just call our office number and start trying to have phone sex. Look, inappropriate things are gonna happen on the phone, or in person, at this place. There’s always a middle-ground-convo that I try to stay in. You can ask me about sex if we’re talking about an overall idea the museum is presenting—but when it becomes personal? That’s a line that’s crossed and it obviously it becomes uncomfortable.
Any big-time security infractions come to mind?
I think for the most part patrons have been pretty respectful. People may have preconceived notions beforehand, but when they arrive they realize it’s a cultural institution. That limits rambunctious behavior. But it’s not like there are people in Furry costumes engaged in who-knows-what in every corner. We take it seriously, but you should have fun while there. We did have a journalist come by and engage in illicit experiences.
Erm…sorry about that. I hope I didn’t get anyone in trouble. [Another disclosure: I’d written one other, more pseudonymy piece about actually having sex in said museum.]
I think it was probably not as bad as you thought. It’s not like it was some big assault on the institution. The [security guard] who was your point person feels responsible. She felt terribly responsible, actually.
I’m the worst. Have YOU ever had sex at the Museum of Sex?
Here’s the thing: If I vaguely allude to the possibility that I might have, or say that I just haven’t—you’re not going to believe me, either way. To be honest, I never did. At the museum? I’m professional Sarah. Outside of it? Less so. I tried to maintain a balance.
On that note, what is the sexual harassment conversation/legalities you guys have to deal with regarding new employees?
It’s an important question and probably one better suited for the HR department. From my end, I think it’s always good to give any new employee a tour. The language used, what is it they’re doing in a particular display… they appreciate that. There’s a strength of discourse, for sure, but if you’re applying for a job at MoSex? You’re probably already open-minded.
Unlike most museums, you guys allow photography. Are there any downsides to that?
It’s the opposite of a downside. When it comes to sexuality, the Internet offers a huge amount of content but very little context. We provide that and get the conversation going in a social atmosphere.
Gimme your thoughts on the following items, within the memoir, that cannot be un-seen. First one: That film featuring Deep Throat’s Linda Lovelace having sex with a dog.
We’ll never feature an item that showcases something nonconsensual, but yes I did watch it while doing research on Linda. You try to have an unbiased approach and these things exist in the universe. You know, in some states bestiality porn is not illegal! Linda is a complicated story. She talks about loving the industry, then as time progressed and more books came out, she disavowed her whole career and claims she was forcibly coerced into everything.
How about your gag-refluxing time watching vomit porn? I’ve always known I wasn’t into people getting sick. I had as hard a time with that as my coworker did watching human furniture clips. One really extreme example was where this person was locked in a box and buried alive. It’s part of the whole person-as-inanimate-object fetish of the whole scene, I guess. He couldn’t handle watching that.
In going through images for the Virgins and Vamps: The Evolution Of Pin-Up exhibit, you claimed you saw an image that resembled your grandma…
It was one photo of a woman, topless, sitting on a pier. My grandmother was very bohemian, living-in-Greenwich-Village-type person at the time the photo took place. And she did do some modeling. It REALLY looks like my grandmother when she was younger and here’s the thing: When I asked her about it she told me that I was crazy, but she also never said “no.”
Your husband was adamant that you not wear a condom dress to the opening of an exhibit. Have their been similar, prophylactic instances since that chapter?
John is very socially and politically liberal, but he’s also from Ireland. He grew up there. I mean, condoms weren’t legal in that country until 1980!
In your single days, you went on a letchy date with Paul Janka, not knowing he was a pretty well known professional pickup artist. Do you think he followed his own advice of secretly drinking club soda while the girl has vodka tonics with you?
In hindsight, I’d be surprised if he didn’t deviate from his own advice.
You gave Tommy Lee a tour and claim he actually did NOT notice the fact that a giant image of Pamela Anderson giving him a blow job was in the exhibit he was viewing…
Nope. He totally missed it. I was a little nervous about that. And after meeting him? I got the whole “Tommy Lee thing.” In person he is very charming.
Educate readers on the intricacies of the Torpedo Tit Cat Suit.
There is a photo of when it was sent to the museum, and of me trying it on. It’s on my Instagram account, and it’s how I announced that I was ending my tenure. It’s a skin-tight latex catsuit with an inflatable area where the breasts would be. I once wore a body suit covered in painted-on vaginas as well.
Sarah Forbes is looking into “consulting with any organization, institution or brand that is interested in sexuality, gender and identity.” Her memoir Sex In The Museum: My Unlikely Career At New York’s Most Provocative Museum is available for pre-order at Amazon and hits bookstores on April 5.