Wednesday 25 April 2018

Peep show: Sex and the Museum

As curator of New York's Museum of Sex, Sarah Forbes had a hugely anecdote-rich job, as her new book reveals, but her Irish husband didn't always approve.

Curator of the Museum of Sex Sarah Forbes
Curator of the Museum of Sex Sarah Forbes
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

For a foreigner, meeting the Irish in-laws can be nerve-wracking at the best of times. For Sarah Forbes, an elegant New Yorker and the sometime curator of Manhattan's sex museum (also known as MoSex), her journey to meet the family of her husband-to-be Jason in Dublin proved especially memorable, and that was before the introductions were even made.

"I'll never forget it," she recalls. "The museum had just had its first gala (featuring burlesque artiste Dita Von Teese). We were stuffing everything into the bag, in a big rush, to make the flight on time. And as we were going through the airport security, the bag spilled open."

A colourful assortment of sex toys, including a vibrator and a dildo, tumbled onto the floor for everyone to see. Forbes showed up to meet Jason's family in Dublin still in her red evening gown and five-inch heels. "I learned a lot about Irish banter that day," she recalls, laughing. "I'm having my very first breakfast with the family of the guy I'm going to spend the rest of my life with and they're hearing all my sex stories!"

Jason Forbes, a 42-year-old management consultant who recently sold his media start-up, went to school at Gonzaga College in Ranelagh and studied at Trinity. It was work that first brought him to the US and, according to 34-year-old Sarah, he was unusual in that unlike most Manhattanites, he wasn't thrilled about her job heading up the museum - a vast downtown space that devotes itself to the history and anthropology of erotica and porn.

"He was like 'oh I really like this girl, I wish she didn't have that job.' It was a couple of weeks into us dating and he came from a tour to the exhibition," she recalls. "There was a survey about sex in film, some pornographic and some mainstream. It was very overwhelming for him that I had been the one who spent six months watching and picking out the different snippets, saying 'no, that blowjob scene is perfect … or we need to include this fetish.' I think the whole thing was a little bit intimidating."

It's easy to see why. In her new book, Sex and the Museum, Forbes offers a behind-the-scenes look at the Manhattan attraction where guests are primly warned against touching, licking or stroking the exhibits. The exhibits document the bizarre excesses of the erotic imagination.

"Everything and anything can be a fetish," Sarah explains. "People have become more comfortable with the idea of BDSM, but other things still confuse people. So, for instance, some people are into pony play - it's very popular. There's no actually pony involved - people dress up like ponies. They have the bridles and stirrups."

Everything in the museum is consensual, she explains - so no children, animals or necrophilia. Even so she found some of the work difficult. "I couldn't watch vomit porn, for instance. There are people who are called crush freaks. They are into women wearing high heels who step on insects - it can also be mice that they step on. Everything in human sexuality is about pressure and release.

"I would be sitting on the subway and I might be absently swinging my shoe a little back and forth as my leg is crossed. For some people this is the most erotic thing they can imagine. It's called 'sho e dangle'. They ask themselves 'will the shoe fall off? Will I see her foot?'"

Sarah is an adopted New Yorker, having moved there as an only child from Arizona with her mother after her parents split.

Having been born Sarah Escobedo, she became Sarah Jacobs after their divorce, and then took Jason's surname after they married.

"You definitely grow up fast in New York. You have kids going out to nightclubs at fourteen-years-old," she explains. "This was the late 1980s. The city was more dangerous. There was the Aids epidemic then too."

She studied anthropology at the New School in lower Manhattan and its location proved serendipitous. Her first post-college apartment happened to be four blocks from the Museum of Sex, which had been set up by tech entrepreneur Dan Gluck in 2002.

Already it had weathered the storm of protests from religious groups when it opened and the slump that all businesses in lower Manhattan endured in the period following 9/11. Both the Museum and Sarah were ready for a new start.

"I had a broker (a property agent), who was being a little bit flirtatious with me," Sarah recalls. "And he was waiting for me to sign the lease. I asked him to walk around the neighbourhood while I signed it. And he went for a stroll to the Museum of Sex. I had never heard of it. When I got there I saw that it was taking itself very seriously. The first exhibit I saw was Sex among the Lotus: 3,000 years of Chinese Erotic Obsession. I just fell in love with the whole place. So I dropped off my resume.

"As luck had it, an anthropologist on their staff was leaving. Before I stumbled into the Museum of Sex, I thought I'd finish my studies, get my Ph.D, and live with an indigenous tribe and become a professor and have that kind of lifestyle. Then I'd get married and have babies."

The babies would have to wait. Forbes was soon throwing herself into the work. She and a canny co-worker created brown paper book covers so Forbes could carry books with titles like The Multi-Orgasmic Man on the subway without leering.

She was sent to Maryland for a meeting at the home of Ralph Whittington, a Library of Congress retiree with a 900-box porn collection. Whittington, being a librarian as well as an enthusiastic consumer of erotica, prominently labelled each box with graphic descriptions. His enormous stash shared the residence with his 90-year-old mother.

"I did another exhibition on condoms, which was a really special one for me," she recalls. "It was about this one object and all the different ways it has been used. I was able to talk about safe sex and contraception and material innovations. It mixed in elements of history and fine art and a social conscience."

There was always a steady trickle of celebrities to the museum and Sarah gave personal tours to the likes of Jared Leto and Tyra Banks. Motley Crue's Tommy Lee fondled and posed with the huge steel X-shaped St. Andrew's Cross that came from the dungeon of a dominatrix.

But the really memorable moment came when they moved into the 'Sex and the Moving Image' room. One wall featured a giant poster of Pamela Anderson naked with Lee, along with a clip from their notorious sex tape. Little did people know, Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee had started a trend. "People who are porn stars are actually not a part of the industry. Celebrities are the new porn stars," Sarah explains.

In her dating life her job was an instant conversation starter, but many people assumed that curator of Museum of Sex was code for 'sex worker' - she had to educate them. "In heels I'm nearly six feet tall," she laughs. "I don't get intimidated by people."

In her mid twenties she went out with a man named Nick and felt sure he was about to propose, but the relationship ended - she writes that at one point she was so heartbroken she forgot to eat - and she was single again. She had a chance meeting with Jason at a bar and though he wished she "had literally any other job in the world", they became serious about each other and he proposed to her at the top of Runyon Canyon in Los Angeles in November 2008.

They were married in Marrakesh, Morocco, surrounded by 100 of their closest friends and family. They adopted a puppy named She-Ra (after the 1980s cartoon princess) and that, Sarah wrote, "helped soften the blow each month I saw a negative pregnancy test". After a year of trying to get pregnant she "was starting to question my womanhood and my brand-new marriage." After a weekend in LA with her friends she felt like something was not right and returned to Manhattan on Valentine's Day 2011 to the news she had been dying for: a positive pregnancy test.

Later that same year, their son Kai (a Hawaiian name meaning 'ocean') was born, and his sister, Zia ("when you have the last name Forbes you can be funkier with the first name"), joined them two years ago. She says they will grow up broad-minded and unembarrassed about sex. "I have two small children and I think that's important to have open conversations that are age appropriate," she says of the onset of motherhood. "They can name their anatomy. I don't laugh when I say the word elbow, so I don't laugh when I say words for more private parts of the body."

Jason always remained uncomfortable with aspects of her professional persona, however, at one point urging her not to wear a dress made out of condoms because "you're a married woman!"

"He thought it was so abhorrent," she recalls - although you do slightly get the feeling that she relished a little bit of pushback. "In the end I didn't wear it, the PR person wore it."

In recent months she has pulled back from the museum. She and Jason have relocated to London for his work, with their two children in tow. She is in Dublin this weekend and Jason's family also have a house in Kilkenny, which she and the children will visit.

The couple have kept their place in Tribeca, one of the most exclusive parts of Manhattan, which he bought many years ago, when it was less known as a celebrity haunt. "There are a lot of famous people living there now," Sarah sighs. "Kim and Kanye did some deal with Air BnB where the company gave them a $25m penthouse near us. My friends are telling me it's been crazy with all the paparazzi."

She's been in London now a little over a month and is hoping to have a book launch here too. "I'm reaching out to a lot of different artists and creative people to be a part of that."

Could she see herself setting up an exhibition here in Ireland - she is travelling here this weekend? "Right now I'm eager to get the temperature of this artistic community and from there it is definitely a possibility of setting up something similar (to the Museum of Sex) here. Ireland and Britain are very distinct cultures. Both have their prudish overtones at times, as does the US. I think that is very generational too."

Is Jason relieved she's stopped? "He wasn't thrilled with the subject matter, that's true, but he's very supportive of my passions generally and always wants everything good for me. He knows the coast isn't quite clear. The next thing is going to be even bigger and bolder."

Sex and the Museum: My Unlikely Career at New York's Most Provocative Museum by Sarah Forbes is published by St Martin's Press and is available from Amazon UK. Also see

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