SHE’S BEEN CALLED “THE CURATOR OF SEX.”
As the former curator of the Museum of Sex, Sarah Forbes '04 has seen it all. But one peculiarity stands out: a large group of senior citizens—all women—showed up in the lobby of the Museum of Sex, located a few blocks from the Empire State Building, for a guided tour.
This will be interesting, Forbes thought to herself.
The gray-haired women viewed one-of-a-kind sex toys, antique pornography, explicit videos and lifesized dolls. They passed a room full of trampoline-size inflatable breasts, arranged for patrons to bounce on. Along the way there were signs instructing guests to keep their hands, tongues and, well, “other” body parts off of the exhibits.
And the group of elderly women loved every second of it, Forbes recalled.
“It was the best tour I ever gave, and definitely the most rambunctious. These women were so excited to finally have the opportunity to talk and learn about this topic that had been so taboo in their lives.”
At 22, the job seemed surreal—a recent Conn graduate on her way to The New School to earn a master’s in anthropology. But an unexpected visit to “MoSex” led to more than a decade as the museum’s curator—and a whole lot of stories to tell.
Forbes compiled these stories into a memoir, Sex in the Museum: My Unlikely Career at New York’s Most Provocative Museum. The book is a deeply personal look at not just Forbes’ career but her life, friendships, romantic relationships and her own ideas on sex and sexuality. Within these stories, she interweaves memories from the museum, at once informative, entertaining and assured, to push readers out of their comfort zone.
“I had all of these memories and experiences that I wanted to share beyond my circle of friends. I started writing everything down before I forgot them,” Forbes said of her writing process. “It shocks me that I’ve written a memoir. It wasn’t my first intention.”
Just as “The Met wasn’t always The Met,” Forbes said, MoSex was still a fledgling establishment when she began in 2004. Today, however, it’s one of the largest cultural institutions in New York with more than 200,000 visitors every year. That growth can be traced back to Forbes’ vision, which started with scouring abandoned apartments for books and artifacts in the early days, to hosting large galas with celebrity attendees at the end of her tenure.
But it wasn’t the potential shock value of the exhibits or the extravagant parties that fascinated Forbes; like a true anthropologist, it was the human connection and the opportunity to educate people that drove her. “Sex is a topic that defines our humanity, our species, that moves across generations. But because it’s such a taboo topic, people don’t feel comfortable asking questions,” Forbes said.
“Not many people have the foundational information on sex and sexuality, and it’s dangerous when people don’t understand it.”
Forbes’ efforts to dispel misconceptions that exist around sex and sexuality are evident when you walk into the museum. You aren’t bombarded with simple facts and history; the exhibits are interactive and relatable. And “Sex in the Museum” follows the same path, attempting to normalize the topic—even though it may be a little jarring to some.
Being “The Curator of Sex” also led to plenty of misconceptions in Forbes’ personal life, which she chronicles in her memoir. She admits to always being “open ideologically,” but uses her website to tell you what she’s not: “I am not a porn star and I’m not Dr. Ruth.” There was never a shortage, however, of awkward dating stories or failed pickup attempts from men titillated by her professional title.
The misconceptions can be a bit frustrating.
“Nobody would ever meet me and guess what my job was,” she said. “Who is a ‘curator of sex’? What is that even supposed to look like? Am I supposed to walk around in leather outfits?”
“I look like a girl from Connecticut College. I have a husband, a son, a daughter, a dog—a traditional life. I just had an unbelievably unusual job. That’s what’s different.”