Inside the Sex Museum Using Erotica to Push Activism

Vegas's Erotic Heritage Museum has always had a progressive agenda, but in the Trump era, it's finding a reinvigorated sense of purpose.

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Mar 23 2017, 9:28pm

A few blocks off Vegas Strip, in the shadow of the giant gold phallus that is the Trump Hotel, sits the Erotic Heritage Museum. Once a simple tourist trap for visitors looking to be titillated with a Puppetry of the Penis performance and some risqué exhibits, the museum is trying out a new, more activism-heavy approach as the country enters the Trump age. 

Opened in 2008 and primarily bankrolled by Harry Mohney, the founder of the Déjà Vu chain of strip clubs, the Erotic Heritage Museum was already a more progressive sex museum than some of its contemporaries due to its treatment of pornography as a legitimate art. While other institutions shy away from all but the artsiest of adult films, the EHM was setting up to host the unabashedly porny Adult Film Festival of Las Vegas when I arrived to tour the collection. 

I met with Dr. Victoria Hartmann, the museum's director and a sex scholar, for a tour of the property. Drawing from her own 20 years of experience producing in the adult-film industry, Hartman has played an active role in the museum taking on an increasingly accepting and progressive stance over the years. 

We began in a mockup of a red-light district, meant to convey the museum's staunch support of legal sex work. Elsewhere in the museum is a lineup-room tableau, also meant to help normalize the scenario of working girls meeting prospective clients for non-Nevadans passing through. 

"If someone's going to choose to do sex work, whatever the reasons are, we believe they should be as safe as possible," said Hartmann.

Inside the main entrance of the museum's exhibits, guests are greeted by a talking Trump statue. This spotlighting of Trump, Hartmann said, plays into the museum's dedication to calling out the sexual hypocrisy of political leaders who would seek to legislatively restrict women's reproductive rights while simultaneously philandering or engaging in deviant acts. A wall of political sex scandals and cardboard cutouts of Monica Lewinski and be-dildoed Bill Clinton have long been popular attractions. 

But with the current administration so hell-bent on silencing journalists and obfuscating truth, the museum has doubled down on championing of freedom of speech and political parody as a cornerstone of it. 

"We even plastered the First Amendment right up on the roof, facing Trump Tower, on Martin Luther King Day," said Hartmann. "Just as a permanent reminder that the First Amendment, not him, rules here." 

She pointed across the room to a wall full of posters from the January 21st Women's March that the museum was in the process of turning into a permanent exhibit. 

"Vegas is a playground," said Hartmann. "We don't worry too much about protesting. But this march drew about 15,000 people, which is unheard of for us."

Next, the tour took us to displays on sex research done by the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, a sexology research center operating from 1919–1933 in the Weimar Republic before the Nazis burned its books and documents. Hartmann made it clear that this section being in such close proximity to the Trump content was no accident, noting that "something like this can happen anywhere." 

As Hartmann whisked me from one display to the next, the latent themes of progressivism further crystalized. Despite its owner being a man who made his fortune trading in seductive women, this museum was hardly a man's lurid collection of ancient erotica  à la The Handmaiden that one might expect. 

Tracy Sydor's 100 Women and the Survivors' Wall

More than a repository of artifacts, the EHM is positioning itself as a space primarily seeking to empower women, LGBTQ people, and other traditionally marginalized segments of the sexual spectrum. As part of this empowerment push, the museum has recently opened a Survivors' Wall plastered with blank notebook pages as a cathartic way for victims of sexual violence to share their stories.

"The fun stuff is great," said Hartmann, "but we also need to look at the more challenging things, so we're aware of all aspects of sexuality."

When asked about what initially attracted her to the position, Hartmann told me that "sexuality doesn't have outliers, and this museum is meant to be all inclusive. We want to celebrate everyone's erotic history in a non-judgmental space of acceptance. There's no real way to box anybody in. Sex and gender are so diverse. And as long as there's consent and people are enjoying themselves, I personally have a hard time understanding why anyone would be judged."

This inclusion extends beyond the exhibits. Hartmann told me there are three gender diverse and a few openly non-monogamous people on staff. She also said that, as the facility has slowly emerged as a beacon of resistance in the desert landscape, the museum has been getting a surge of requests from people seeking to work or volunteer there, some simply wishing to "exist within the activist space" the place has created.

"We want to be the antithesis to the pointlessly malicious and cruel movement we see popping up," said Hartmann. "Las Vegas took us pretty casually all these years, but after the election, people started seeing us as activists. But I think we're just doing what we've always been doing, and everyone else is finally starting to catch up."

Follow Justin Caffier on Twitter.

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