The first thing I saw at the Museum of Sex was the The Safe, Effective Way to Lose Your Virginity Kit. Then I walked upstairs to the exhibition and found a man and woman making out — rather ferociously — in the middle of a dark room. Were they part of the exhibition? (Turned out, no.)
People began filing in. When I spotted Jace Reading and Danielle West, I assumed they were a young couple on a first date. I watched them ponder the enormous images of fake breasts, erect penises, and children’s faces accompanying the Universe of Desire exhibit. It looked so awkward that I couldn’t help but ask them, “Are you two on a first date?”
Again, no. They were best friends from Salt Lake City. They had $200 and a deal to see one show and visit one museum before taking the bus back the next day. They chose the Broadway musical The Lion King and the Museum of Sex.
“When will a place like this open in Salt Lake City?” I asked.
“I would say… never. Never in Salt Lake City,” Jace said. “Unfortunately, religion takes over there. But I feel there needs to be a place like this everywhere.”
It makes sense Jace feels that way. His parents kicked him out of the house at age 18 for being gay. Danielle was kicked out at 17 for telling her parents, “I love everybody — men and women equally.”
“I went through hell,” Danielle told me. “But you know what? This is who I am, and I’m not going to hide who I am. God made me this way for a reason.”
There was something inherently bittersweet about this encounter. When the Museum of Sex opened in 2002, there was nothing like it in the United States. Now, a decade later, not much has changed.
I sat down with the founder and executive director of the museum, Daniel Gluck, to talk about the past 10 years, the politics of sex, and his newest venture, a bar called Play.
Why the Museum of Sex?
The idea came to me in a bar in the Lower East Side. I was in a career transition. A friend told me they’d been to a tacky erotic museum in Amsterdam and I thought, “Why isn’t there a world-class Museum of Sex?”
I was a big fan of [the social critic and self-described dissident feminist] Camille Paglia at the time. So I reached out to Camille and all of a sudden there were a bunch of notable people willing to lend their names to the project.
This was in the late 1990s, when Rudy Giuliani was “cleaning up the city.” So we became an interesting story for the press even before there was a story. We had no money. We had nothing.
Having a West Village brownstone was a dream of mine — like everyone else — and I had saved enough money to buy one. When the stock market crashed, this place opened up on Fifth Avenue. Suddenly, it wasn’t just a story. It was a story with a place.
You’re now coming up to your 10-year anniversary. What insights have you gained? What’s changed in the last decade?
The goals and vision for this thing have not changed at all. But we didn’t go into this with an endowment or giant amount of venture capital. There’s this energy we have for what this place is — what it should be, versus what it should not be. We just didn’t have the resources to execute.
What should the place be and what should it not be?
It’s hard for people to believe that you can build a cultural institution that might be a product brand without selling your soul, especially in the case of sexuality. People assume you’re either tacky or tawdry. Who owns the word sex? Is it Larry Flynt, or Playboy? It’s more them than the Kinseys.
What do you mean when you say, “Who owns sex?”
What do people think of when they think about sex as an institution? Not the act itself, but which brands and places are associated with sexuality. As a place, people might think the Museum of Sex is a porn theater.
Is that perception still there?
Going into this, people thought they were going to see live sex acts. I think we definitely changed people’s perceptions.
I’ve had to fight against that perception not only with the public, but also the people I’ve worked with. There are people who have helped us do marketing over the years and the work is totally off-brand. Some people get it right away. But when I have someone who has built a few major brands and they don’t get it? I really need to craft this vision into words so that people understand it.
In an ideological sense, what is the vision and what are people not getting?
If I had a one-line answer, I’d tell it to you!
Well that’s really interesting! Because it’s 10 years later and…
Well, we’re figuring it out. The way I typically tell people what we are is by showing people what we do. We’re this interception between two concepts — the high and the low. The “museum” and “sex.” That’s where our energy is generated.
When I was walking around the exhibition before this interview I began chatting with two other visitors from Salt Lake City. I asked if anything like this existed there and they balked. Have people contacted you to talk about how they could start something in their own city? You opened in Manhattan. If anything, this was the easiest sell.
Except for the real-estate prices.
Right. Have you ever thought about opening a site in a more unexpected place?
Of course. It’s a question of finance and ability. People in [Las] Vegas have approached us a couple of times. That is a natural next location. But with our limited resources we can either invest in a venture ‘out there,’ or do something like make a lube line or open Play.
I’d love to do something overseas, like in Tokyo. But we’re really three to four years away from that. Would Salt Lake City be my next move? Probably not. But I’d definitely be interested in looking at places people wouldn’t expect. Houston might be a great place.
I’m interested in what just happened in the election on the gay marriage front. I’m wondering if you guys are thinking about doing something special around that.
We generally try to avoid political positions. I personally am not a Republican and not a Democrat. I’m a free market person. I believe in free ideas. People might consider me a Tea Party person, but I’m not.
But… are you?
No. I’m not! I’m a Libertarian. More important than [U.S. president Barack] Obama’s election was the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington.
But it’s absurd! Of course gay marriage. Why shouldn’t gay people have the same rights as everyone else? My problem with marriage in general is that the state is too involved. So it’s sort of like, “Yes! You should be equally abused as me — who’s been divorced twice.”
So the Museum of Sex does not get involved politically?
We celebrate gay pride and we’re very gay-centric. Over half of our staff is gay. About 80 percent of the men who work here are gay. But we don’t really get into politics. I think we do more by opening our doors to anybody and not taking a stand. There are a lot of ways you can do things without being overtly political.
One of our historian advisors once said, “Mainstream society continually mines its fringes to revitalize itself.” Sexuality often lies in the fringe. Our exhibitions director Mark Snyder uses the example of people who walk into Barnes & Noble and don’t want to be seen in the adult books section. Then they walk into our store and openly flip through our books. Or they go upstairs and watch a ridiculous fisting video. So here they are given permission. And it’s not just permission to party and be decadent. It’s permission to explore something they never knew about. It’s a form of liberation.
Tell me about the vision for the new bar, Play.
We started working with Roman and Williams, who designed The Ace Hotel and The Standard. Our concern with the bar was that people would think, ‘whips and chains.’
What’s wrong with whips and chains?
Nothing! But it’s too narrow an audience. If we want to engage people as a business, we can’t just serve this five percent. Not that we don’t want them to come. We want them! But I want your grandmother to come, too.
We initially started with a very aphrodisiac-centric model, but it was too limiting and expected. So now we’re focusing on sex and food. It’s about taste — about how you eat, how you suck, and how you interact with the people you’re with.
There are a lot of people doing interesting things with food and art. Who the hell knows what they’ll create? It might cost $30 for a drink, but you might wear a helmet and stick something up your who-knows-what as part of that drink — that’s the experience! That’s part of Play.
When will the bar open?
We want to make sure we’re open before our highest of all holidays — Valentine’s Day. We’re aiming for mid-January so that we can work out all the kinks, so to speak.
Photo: Randy Harris