Author Sarah Forbes was just 22 when she landed a job as the curator of the Museum of Sex. As she wrote in her memoir, Sex in the Museum , her life was about to change: “At age 22, having never watched porn, visited a strip club, or owned a vibrator, I had an interview at the at the Museum of Sex." This isn’t to suggest that she was completely devoid of experiencing anything sexual, it was simply that she didn’t seek out things like porn and sex toys. It wasn’t until she got her job at the museum that she experienced her “first moment of consenting to be exposed to porn,” Forbes tells Bustle.
Forbes’ memoir spans the 12 years that she worked as the curator at the Museum of Sex in New York City. If you’re unfamiliar with the museum, it’s just as provocative as it sounds. With past exhibits like “Kink: Geography of the Erotic Imagination,” and “Peeping, Probing and Porn: Four Centuries of Graphic Sex in Japan,” or like one of the current exhibits, “The Sex Lives of Animals,” the Museum of Sex has covered sex as art, on both ends of the spectrum, and everywhere in between.
But because Forbes was such a newbie to the world of sex, at least from the prospective of art, she immediately had a lot of learning to do in regards to getting genuinely at ease with the topic. I talked Sarah about her journey and asked her to impart some of what she learned on how we can all get more comfortable with our own sexuality.
1. Being Sex-Positive Can Help You Get Over Any Hang-Ups You Might Have
"In some ways having this space [the time between when vibrators were gag gifts before being taken seriously] to figure out what I liked and wanted sexually, separate from porn and vibrators, in hindsight, was probably very freeing. At the time feeling very in control of my own sexuality and desires, likely those sex-positive feelings made me feel comfortable and open enough to visit and eventually work at the Museum of Sex. I was very fortunate to have grown up with a positive relationship to sexuality and my body, rather than it being a taboo."
2. When Buying A Vibrator, Go To A Place Where You Feel Comfortable To Ask Questions
"Whether you are buying online or going to a store, I think finding a place that makes you feel comfortable is so important. This way you will feel empowered to ask questions and likely learn things you didn’t even know to ask. Some great retailers like Babeland as specifically geared toward providing a female-friendly environment. And remember there is no right way to experience pleasure, everyone’s body is different. The vibrator your best friend loves might not be the one that works best for you."
3. Just Because You’re Into Hardcore Porn Doesn’t Mean You’re Not a Feminist
"Porn is very wide category. There is porn that aims to be derogatory, there is porn that aims to be empowering. Both of these can fall into the definition of ‘hardcore.’ And a woman can find and decide that she is aroused by both or none of these categories. That is part of feminism for me."
4. It’s Important To Remember That Porn Is About Fantasy
"For some, porn is about fantasy and representing the kind of sex you are interested in, but maybe not interested in having yourself. For me, all are OK, if they are OK for the viewer and the person participating in the industry. I know many women who define themselves as feminist who enjoy porn where the woman is the subordinate, in the same way that high-powered men are often the biggest patrons of a dominatrix.
Sometimes it is sexually exciting to inhabit a role that is so totally different than the one they normally live or desire to live. Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission that erotic fantasy and ideology don’t always need to overlap."
5. Ethical Porn Might Be A Better Fit For Feminists Struggling To Make Peace With Porn And Their Personal Ethics
"The category of ethical porn is one that might appeal to a Millennial feminist interested in porn. It acknowledges a desire not to water down the 'hardcore' themes of mainstream pornography, balanced with a philosophical desire to also feel those participating in its construction are willing participants. It might even have a depth of plot. It’s not always as easy to find on the main tube sites, but there are many female filmmakers out there trying to get their work seen."
6. When It Comes To Double Standards, You Need To Educate People Otherwise
"Working in the field of sex from 22-34 years of age has been full of societies sexual assumptions about me as an individual. My role of ‘curator’ or the word ‘museum’ in the institution’s title was often ignored for a focus solely on the sex, as if my body rather than my brain defined my work. I am confident being a woman exacerbated this assumption. For some, my expertise was thought to come from lived experiences rather than academic training. My student loans certainly beg to differ! But it is telling that one of the first questions people ask, with a wink, is ‘how did you get that job?’
In both overt and subtle ways, I’ve experienced a form of slut-shaming (from both men and women) for just having the career that I do. My approach to this has been to be completely unapologetic about sex, my subject matter, and inundate people with information. So few people have actually thought about the facts and information that make sex the most fascinating field of inquiry. If I confidently take pride in what I do, and rely on education, I can be a constant on-the-ground educator working against that double standard. It also doesn’t mean my desire to educate has to come at the expense of my own sexuality, but I’ve definitely had to work to synthesis a professional balance between the two."
7. Open Your Mind To Just How Diverse Sexuality Is — In Yourself And Your Partner
"Working on the exhibition ‘Kink: Geography of the Erotic Imagination’ was the defining exhibition that make it impossible for me to shocked by the depths and diversity of sex. It was this exhibition that really taught me that everything and anything can be a turn on for someone. Once you internalize this, you can’t help but see the world differently and be a little less surprised by the diversity of what is considered ‘erotic’ or ‘sexy.’"
8. It’s Important To Realize There’s More To Sex Than The Physical Aspect
"Sex is so much more than porn and penetration! Some of the most potent aspects of our sexuality are our thoughts and ideas. With the more than 20 exhibitions I’ve worked on, I’ve tried to show the diversity of a topic — show how by history, culture, science, art, technology can intersect and inform. Taking this multiplicity of perspectives can give one such a better understanding of the topic and that the topic of sex, and a genuine understanding of it, actually informs every other aspect of our lives."
9. Try Exposing Yourself To Sex On A Cultural Level
"The Museum of Sex is one of the rare places in America where adults can get an education about sex, past, present, and future and from the fields of art, history, anthropology, science, design and more. It’s a place that is welcoming, rather than off-putting, and as a cultural institution really takes its mission seriously of creating content that leads to discourse. Giving museum patrons the tools to understand the subject matter, at wherever level they may be accessing the information has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the job. I hope I’ve helped create a place everyone feels comfortable to learn."
Images: Andrew Zaeh for Bustle; Giphy (9)