The Erotic Heritage Museum of Las Vegas: A Misadventure in Mainstream Pornography

Las Vegas' Erotic Heritage Museum

Las Vegas’ Erotic Heritage Museum

Ok!! I finally stole some free time to finish up my review of the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas. Thank you readers for being so patient! :D Oh and, before I begin, let me just say that as a person who studies sex and gender is multicultural contexts, I am very sensitive to human sexuality and to the controversy of sex work and its hotly debated legitimacy. My intention with this post is the critical analysis of the Erotic Heritage Museum and its themes -which deserves it- not about the legitimacy of sex work or the porn industry.

Recently, I went with my husband and a friend (Northy) to the Erotic Heritage Museum here in Las Vegas (check out his article here!!). Yeah, I know…the last place you may expect to find a museum about sex, right? Well, that’s one part of the joke; it was actually located directly next to a sex shop and a strip club. The building was even decked out in pink with garish neon signage to match the décor of the sex shop and club. From the onset, the museum made no mystery of its intimate connection (pun intended) to the sex industry, particularly with the porn industry. Unfortunately, this was the primary focus of the museum concerning the complex subject of human sexuality.

I really had no idea what to expect when we arrived and I was only slightly chagrinned at the location of the place and its conspicuous proximity to the shop and the club. I mean, I’m pretty desensitized to the Vegas way of self-promotion and exploitation. My husband Al and I went inside and were quickly greeted by a fellow who described the museum as “sociological” in terms of its theoretical underpinnings (I assume)…after my friend was told to stay out of the “library” section he wandered into, which was not open to the public. This was only the beginning of the museum’s internal irony.

We paid the price of admission and entered the experience though a “Red Light District” prop exhibit, which was a hallway filled with neon lit advertisements for sex and titillation that reminded me of several scenes from the films “Taxi Driver”. Since the three of us were the only ones there (we were told it was a quiet afternoon), we spent little time in the echoing, dark, neon-buzzing area in search of the sociology of sex.

In exiting our sample area of a red light district, the hall opened up to a floor riddled with shelves and displays in the center, and lined along the outside with the many manifestations of the mainstream porn industry, including their founders such as Larry Flynt, the creator of Hustler magazine in 1974. Much of the displays were either prints, like movie prints and film posters of sexual films (think Deepthroat) as well as artifacts in glass cases such as carvings and sculptures of people engaging in sexual activity, models of penises, and “deflowering” tools from all around the world. Each of us agreed that the artifacts might have been engaging if they had any cultural context; instead each item had a small card associated with it with a title for the object (i.e. Japanese deflowering tool) along with the collection or donor name (several actually listed “the Japanese Government”) or where it was found (i.e. a Shinto temple). Nearly always, the artifacts had no date or description of how or why the object was used socially, politically or culturally. It was as if we were to accept that these items were simply sex toys to be appreciated on our own culturally-centric and contemporary terms. Maybe I am the only one that encounters a difference between a “deflowering tool” of unknown temporal context and a contemporary personal dildo, but hey, who am I?

As I stated above, the outside perimeter of the first floor of the museum was comprised of the pornography industry, including a display of life-size standups of several female porn stars among some stripper pole props, a sado-masochistic display using life-size dolls, and lots of wall-mounted televisions showing people having sex or doing sexual things. There was even a small section of a collection of the penis bones of different animals, including a whale. Finally, tucked away near a small display of sexual health information apparently set up by Planned Parenthood were a few images of some transsexual folks, boldly baring it all for the viewer.

The second floor was full of sculptural, photographic and painted sexual art of various styles and times and also had a section on the concept of peep shows in America. This area had some amateur, non-mainstream sex media (video) and was the only place I saw older adults depicted in engaging in sexual activity. This floor was also the only place I saw sexual behavior as it related to younger, adolescent people (it was one, small cartoon). The mainstream pornography industry was present on the second floor as well, with many Playboy covers and biographies of duck-lipped porn stars.

The museum also had a wedding area which consisted of a main aisle with two, ruby-red velvet beds flanking it…presumably where guests would sit.

OK, now…I kind of flew through that physical description of the museum so I could get to my critique. All and all, I was very disappointed at the lack of unifying narrative organizing the props, displays and artifacts and even more disappointed in the lack  of  theory to guide the concept of human sexuality. To provide the context for the concept of human sexuality, the museum relied almost completely on western, contemporary pornography. And mainstream porn at that, despite there being a wealth of sex work and pornography in other cultures and among amateur groups.

Also, I was really confused and put off by the “Wall of Shame” that Northy discussed and provided pictures for in his discussion of the museum. While this intensely political segment was already abrasive, it was also oddly contradictory. One news article that was hung in this section involved a singer who attempted to solicit sex from another man –I believe it was a police officer- which forced him to have to come out publically as a gay man. With the huge wall covered in (what I assume was) the museum’s statement of basic human sexual rights (see Northy’s images for this set of would-be legalistic statements) why did this unsuccessful sexual attempt result in a declaration of shame from the museum? Additionally, the Wall threw critical light on some politicians and preachers who were publicly against certain types of sexual activity who were caught doing exactly what they discriminated against, but neglected to view this as a type of sexual behavior in of itself. What these people were doing were “crimes”, while sex work, especially work in dancing and pornography, was the only legitimate form of sexuality being oppressed. Sure, it’s frustrating and unfair when people act hypocritical and discriminatory, but aren’t their acts involving sex also part of the story of human sexuality? I mean, under the “About Us” section of the museum’s website, they claim to be, “…dedicated to the belief that sexual pleasure and fun are natural aspects of the human experience, that such pleasure must be made available to all, and that our individual sexuality belongs to each of us.” This cherry-picking use of a critical lens was disappointing and appeared shallow.

With a stronger presence of scholarly and multicultural work, the museum could really shine as a resource for human sexuality- one of the most ancient and fascinating aspects of human life. Hell, not even just human life. All life. However in its ultimately political, agenda-driven and mainstream sex work perspective, the museum cannot be what it claims to be. Without a unified theory and organization to the art and artifacts, and a broader context involving both multicultural research from experts as well as laypeople and artists, the museum ends up a parade of western sex work at the expense of a host of other important facets of human sexuality. Sex trafficking, sex work in other countries, sex throughout the human life course, transgender and transsexuality in a multicultural context, the meanings of sex within different groups…all of this was sorely lacking or missing altogether. It was even difficult to find a person of color in the images and art and the portrayed lesbian activity all reeked of mainstream pornography’s narrowly-defined, heterosexual male interest.

I think my disappointment is pretty clear, but if any of my readers come on down to Vegas and visit the museum, I’d be interested in hearing what you think! And, if you just have a thought, feel free to share away!

7 thoughts on “The Erotic Heritage Museum of Las Vegas: A Misadventure in Mainstream Pornography

  1. I think the celebrity that you were talking about was George Michael, as I recall. It did seem very strange that he was put in the hall of shame. I think he was already out, but it did seem strange that he would earn a neg from these guys as he isn’t involved in pushing legal or social restrictions on sexual content. There doesn’t seem to be a reason these guys would want to call him out.

    It’s funny too, I was just looking at my own comments on the deflowering devices last night and trying to make that point more clearly. You nailed it perfectly with your own comments. I really do think the average customer is going to think it’s just another sex toy, but it isn’t. And that’s one respect in which this museum does a genuine disservice to its chosen subject.

    It’s a damned shame!

    • Yes it was; it was George Michael! That was kind of wacko, pinning him up like he did something illegal. I’m glad my thoughts on the deflowering tools were helpful, they were among my biggest disappointments in the museum. They, and the other historical artifacts in the museum, implied deep, complex meanings in human sexuality among societies (unlike how the museum states in the website “About Us” section, “The Museum is dedicated to the preservation of great erotic heritage that is typically undervalued, yet is of tremendous importance.”). The very fact that artifacts such as the beautiful and carefully constructed “deflowering” tools exist implies that human sexuality is not only extremely important and valued, but real time and effort are spent in societies to establish meaning and roles within sexuality. This just further underlines how the museum focuses “human” sexuality under the limited, narrow scope of mainstream, western pornography. Sexuality is of immense importance even in western society; this is the very reason that there is such controversy to sex work and sexual identities. :)

  2. Well that’s disappointing. Almost sounds like just another way to cheapen and demean sex (at least the larger, more realistic vision of sex) rather than an educational tool at all.

    • The saddest part is that I believe that the staff and people currently involved have great intentions, I just think it may be impossible to realize because in order to “subscribe” to the museum’s image, you must first be uncritical towards mainstream pornography. I am very critical of the mainstream sex industry. In the same way that more women need to be present in high positions of government and big business, pornography as an industry is incredibly masculinized and lacking in differing viewpoints and perspectives -especially female and sexual/gender spectrum viewpoints. Its embarrassing that many younger people grow up with ridiculous notions about sex, thanks to the way mainstream pornography frames it. Big surprise; women cannot and do not have an orgasm while simply giving oral sex to a man. Since this seems to be a main preoccupation with the museum -to legitimize and uphold mainstream pornography- I think its mission is ultimately fleeting.

  3. I had thought of visiting the museum the next time in Las Vegas … not after reading your intelligent, reflective and succinct review. (I always learn something reading your posts.)

    • :) Thank you as always Karen! I do encourage others to visit the museum though, if you find the admission prices reasonable enough, just to form your own opinion. Honestly, in the sociology department at UNLV, most researchers and grad students who study sex and gender just love the place, and go there often for events they offer (like nude yoga, no joke.). So really, my opinion actually isn’t widely shared, and if there are more opinions like mine, they don’t seem make it out of their own head. Anyway, I’d love to hear what you think about the place if you ever consider going. :D

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