Jennifer Tyburczy

Jennifer Tyburczy discusses Sex Museums

Left: Cover of Jennifer Tyburczy’s Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Right: A view of the Leather Archives and Museum, Chicago.

Jennifer Tyburczy’s book Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display (University of Chicago Press, January 2016) proposes that all museums have the potential to be sex museums—if a visitor approaches them right. An assistant professor of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Tyburczy was also the curator of “Irreverent: A Celebration of Censorship,” which was on view last year at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. Here, she discusses the genesis of her research and some of the unexpected surprises that come with doing work in sex museums.

ONE OF THE MAJOR THINGS that queer theory has done for my personal and political life, as well as my intellectual life, is to make that which is background, foreground. All museums are already sex museums in the sense that if you walk in with a queer theoretical perspective, you will take note of all of the hidden-in-plain-sight messages. You can create a queer choreography in relationship to both the space and the objects the space holds. I’m interested in what happens when this constrained genre of experience we call a museum communicates a sexual experience beyond the visual. Sex happens to all of our senses.

While I was in graduate school in Chicago, I wanted to think about the relationship between objects, spaces, and people coming into their sexual identities and sexual repertoires. And so I started to think about sex museums, which gave me a way to be in the archives and deal with boxes of treasures and dust, and also granted me the opportunity to connect with museum staff and archivists. Someone said to me as I began this project, “Do you know we have a sex museum in Rogers Park?” They were talking about the Leather Archives and Museum (LA&M), which is dedicated to sadomasochism, fetish, and leather culture. So I went one day with my very vanilla-looking self, and showed up at the door of Rick and Jeffrey Storer—the museum’s executive director and director of operations. Over the course of six years I worked with them, first as a volunteer and then as director of programming, immersing myself in all of the fabulous and initially incomprehensible artifacts. I didn’t understand at first all the codes and symbols that gay leather culture is so rich with. As I became really involved with the LA&M and saw all the things that go into making a sex museum, that, more than anything, opened up the space for the book. At the LA&M I eventually settled on dealing with a particular kind of material that we call realia, which I like to think of as the grit of a culture, the everyday, banal things that usually don’t get saved. I focused on realia because it was kind of a metaphor for what the museum itself is—an archive for so many things that were thrown away, especially during the ’80s and ’90s as AIDS was ravaging our communities.

The big surprise, though, was that as soon as I started to write about sex museums, they started to close. The latter part of my book is dedicated to an ethnography of these spaces. It was disconcerting when I would plan out a visit to Los Angeles to see an erotic museum that then closed mere months before I could make the trip. Part of the book became about the failure of these ventures, and I don’t mean in a Jack Halberstam, Queer Art of Failure kind of way. Ultimately, many of these museums could not provide what visitors wanted, which was a really raw experience with sex drawn from the archive and arranged in displays. A lot of the museums I discuss—whether in New York, Denmark, or Spain—had an ingrained idea of who their normative visitor was and where their threshold of shock was located. Without fail, they always set the bar too low. People wanted more! The demands of being a twenty-first-century museum taking on the onus to display sex overwhelmed a lot of the museum planners. Typically they censored themselves in some way that visitors noted. The heartening message here is that we shouldn’t assume that people will be shocked and turned off by displays of diverse sexual cultures and people. Museum visitors are smart and savvy, and ready and willing to have that experience. My work makes an argument for the emotional and sexual intelligence of a viewer.