This week’s adventure: The Flatiron District.
Let’s forgo a discussion of the Freudian implications of eating a hot dog before going to the Museum of Sex. I wanted something cheap, I haven’t had a hot dog since July, and the restaurant is called Dogmatic, the best name ever for a hot dog joint.
Dogmatic, on 17th Street right off Union Square, is a gourmet hot dog joint that started as a gourmet hot dog truck. Gotta love New York. You can get any kind of hot dog imaginable: beef, pork, turkey, chicken, lamb, all organic and grass-fed, and for veggies they grill asparagus. The sausages come with a variety of fancy sauces, and are sheathed in artisan buns. I had a beef frank, with horseradish mustard, and a side of macaroni and cheese with truffle gruyere. Oh yes, it was delicious. I will one day eat them all.
I headed up Fifth Avenue to the Museum of Sex, which I didn’t even know existed until about a year ago when a friend stayed at a hotel next door. I was intrigued – is sex so dead we need to memorialize and study it like archaeologists and historians?
The lobby is a high-end sex shop, selling toys, accessories, books, and kinky kitsch. I wondered if the whole place was a glorified peep show, swept indoors after Times Square was cleaned up. Maybe it would all be a gaudy tourist trap of sexual consumerism, like Amsterdam’s Red Light District, cheaply titillating, pushing goofy smut to a giggling, prudishly embarrassed crowd. I mean, there’s a bar in the basement. The OralFix Aphrodisiac Café offers overpriced cocktails like “New Orleans Brothel” and “The Queen’s Knickers.” How classy a place is this?
Then again, who doesn’t like getting drunk at 2pm?
Once inside the actual museum, I was surprised by its studiousness. The first floor is dedicated to the history of sex on film, from the comic innuendo of silent films through celebrity sex tapes. It’s difficult to stand around watching porn intellectually. It’s so meta to contemplate the human inclination for voyeurism while actually being a voyeur. You fear standing at any screen for too long: you don’t want to look…pervy. That’s probably the point. Why are we so uncomfortable with frank displays of human sexuality? The museum forces you to face your own inhibitions and why they exist.
The second floor delves into the history of societal taboos, featuring nineteenth century erotic photography and BDSM. There is a fascinating display on the nineteenth century medical phenomenon “female hysteria.” (the word hysteria has its Greek roots in the same word as “uterus” – down, feminist rage, down.) The doctor’s cure for an overly nervous woman? Manual stimulation of the genitals until hysterical paroxysm was achieved. That means orgasm. And all this massaging was too much work for doctors, so ta-da! Vibrators were invented. This is stuff everyone needs to know.
The third floor features animals. It points out that any claims that “natural” sex in the “natural” world is solely procreative between males and females are entirely incorrect. Many species of animals engage in same-sex intercourse, group sex, and genital stimulation, just because, you know, it feels good. There is no single, correct way to enjoy sex, for animals, as well as people.
The entire mission of the Museum of Sex is to demonstrate that sex, in all its forms, is natural and beautiful, and not something we should feel ashamed of. It’s a sex-positive message, and presented with academic rigor and compassion. There is nothing tawdry or scandalous. The museum isn’t merely hawking whips and lubricant. They want you to feel good about sex, not just in that climatic moment you’re having it, but all the time. It’s a normal, ordinary part of life that shouldn’t be viewed with an eye toward forgiveness.
It made me think about an Etruscan town in Italy called Tarquinia. Established long before the Roman empire, Tarquinia is famous for its necropolis, a series of tombs decorated as houses for the dead. These people built homes to keep their loved ones comfortable in the afterlife, and some of the aesthetics are surprising choices for eternal company-keeping. For example, the Tomba delle Fustigazione features a man whipping a woman in erotic S&M play. The Tomb of the Bulls is decorated with all kinds of sex, hetero and homosexual.
So somebody died, and somebody close to them decided that the best way to please them in the afterlife was to paint their chambers with salacious pictures. This was perfectly acceptable to everyone. The Museo Nationale Tarquiniese displays ancient Etruscan plates and bowls and vases decorated with couples having sex in a variety of positions. It’s like a Pottery Barn sex manual. For the Etruscans sex was just a part of daily life in those pre-Christ days.
I wish the Museum of Sex dug deeper into historical attitudes toward sex. The Etruscans were clearly cool with it, as I’m sure many ancient cultures were. When exactly did it become sinful? And why? And in the year 2012, why do we need a museum to tell us it’s okay to use our bodies as they were intended?
Let’s not kid around, I was hot and bothered when I left the museum, but rather than let myself decompress I headed directly to another Flatiron destination that would leave me with an itch I couldn’t scratch: Idlewild Bookshop on 19th Street. Yes, I have a deep passion for books, but this particular bookshop is dedicated to something that turns me on as much as sex: travel. A whole store filled with travel guides, globes, and international fiction and memoirs. It’s so chock full of global intrigue it’s cramped and creaky, and I loved every inch of it. Though I can’t afford books right now, I wandered lustfully, reading jackets and making a list of twenty-three books to read.
Oh, the smell of paper, the allure of fingering spines and flipping pages.
A day of overstimulation in the Flatiron District. Joyful and melancholy, thought-provoking and sexy. I recommend it all to you.