May 4, 2015

Talking Shop: The Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas

On the corner of Industrial Road and West Desert Inn Road in Las Vegas, behind the Trump International Towers, is the Harry Mohney's Erotic Heritage Museum.

The joint venture of a preacher and a pornographer, the museum is home to a variety of exhibits exploring the intricacies of sexuality in history, culture, and the individual. Inside, visitors find multiple galleries of erotic information: a portion of the upstairs dedicated to erotic artwork; a "Wall of Shame" outlining the history of attacks on the first-amendment rights in relation to "obscenity"; infographics on different facets of contemporary sexual issues like sexting and long-distance relationships; and even a screening of what is believed to be the oldest pornographic film on record: A Free Ride, 1915.

This isn't the first time I've been to the EHM, but things have changed since I first dropped by. I suppose that's to be expected, with museums always looking for fresh and interesting exhibits to share, but the EHM has been doing more than re-decorating. Like its subjects of interest, the museum has been evolving, exploring even more areas of contemporary sexuality.

It goes without saying what my interest in erotic heritage and history is: to me, every exhibit within the museum is a resource for writing about sexuality. The whole building is one big research facility for me (and, not gonna lie, it's a damn fun way to spend the day in the name of research). What I love most about the museum, though, is that its very existence validates one of my deeper motivations in writing erotic fiction: sexuality is more than a sex scene between two heterosexual white partners in the bedroom.

Now admittedly, that stereotype has been getting its ass kicked soundly by erotic artists for many years now, but the whole point in debunking it is in no way obsolete. First of all, there are lots of individuals out there—writers or otherwise—who still need to be led away from the old archetype to begin with. Secondly, though, breaking that mold is only the first step in appreciating a very multi-faceted issue. Writing good erotica—or maintaining a dynamic awareness of sexuality in general—means recognizing that sex is about more than sex.

Air Sex. It's like Air Guitar. Seriously!
On my first trip to the museum I was particularly interested in some of the historical exhibits on sexuality and prostitution, specifically in Japan, since it plays such a large role in Lotus Petals. Among their historical displays, the EHM shows off hundreds of examples of erotic art, sculpture, and even ancient sex toys from various countries and cultures of origin. This time around, the historical exhibit also shared space with some more contemporary artifacts and—even better—stories, facts and statistics about modern-day sexual subjects which are becoming far more prevalent than they were five years ago. I particularly enjoyed the many infographics displayed throughout the lower level of the museum, covering subjects like sexting, the evolution of long-distance relationships, sex myths, and facts about sexual health. It seems to me these are subjects we aren't thinking about as often as we should, but the prevalence and significance of them are definitely on the rise. For authors, I think this presents a really terrific set of new avenues for erotic storytelling. Sexting for example, and its consequences in a contemporary digitally-connected culture, is a fairly fresh conflict to explore in our fiction. The face of long-distance relationships has also changed, adapting as our connectivity adapts, and I know for a fact this very issue is discussed. So let's talk about it more, and examine—as the EHM has—how these relationships have changed as a result of our changing culture.

I don't want to give you the idea that the EHM is full of stuffy facts, though. A good deal of the space is devoted to erotic art of all kinds. From sculpture to scrimshaw to photography to painting, and even interactive exhibits like one current project, Flesh. Flesh is a series of artworks designed to explore the journeys and emotions of abuse survivors; the images are graphic and emotional, and the exhibit even comes with a "trigger warning" to viewers. Additionally, though, all the pieces have been hung on a wall specifically designed for them: sheets of "notebook paper" are left open for viewers to add their own stories of survival. I very specifically opted not to photograph one of these additions, in hopes of preserving the integrity and safety of the art and the contributor. 

Flesh is an exhibit I think erotic authors can really learn from, for one very important reason: we seem to think we understand sexual and physical abuse to a point we feel free to write about it in an almost flippant manner. I find far too many romance plotlines include some element of sexual "threat" in the past, as if it's a foregone conclusion that any woman who spends any sort of time outside her house has at one point been dangerously threatened, if not outright assaulted. While the prevalence of sexual assault is much higher, I think, than most naturally assume, the way in which romance authors depict it is often (in my experience), blatantly uninformed. Projects like Flesh shed light on a more realistic vision of this very real problem, and to learn from the words of real survivors may (hopefully) change perceptions of abuse enough that writers in all forms of media begin to represent the struggle more honestly, and not as the "token trauma" in their character's backstory.

Personally, though, my favorite exhibit is the art gallery. A stroll through this section provides me with loads of inspiration and desire to create. There's a complex importance to it as well, in that a piece of erotic art can touch on so many complex issues relevant to today: issues of women's beauty and sexuality; issues of men's beauty and sexuality; cultural values; social values; fashion; religion; and of course lots, lots more. My favorite pieces—some of which were featured at my first visit, and some of which remain even today—are these simple ink drawings presenting lush, curvy women, in varying implications of bondage, dominance, or submission. The picture of the nun, in particular, evokes hugely erotic, sensual emotion in me, such that I wrote one of my few erotic poems entirely based on this image.

Weren't we just talking about tentacles?

 During my visit, I was also informed of an upcoming feature to the museum's central exhibit space: another contemporary community issue, a look at costuming, cosplay, body image and sexuality. I can't wait for pictures.

Ladies and gentlemen...
I give you a real "dickhead"
Outside the exhibit hall, the museum also hosts workshops, lectures, shows, special events, and community gatherings (like naked yoga). One day, I swear, I'm going to attend the Marquis de Sade's birthday celebration. But you'll see here how the subject of erotic heritage is not just contained in display cases full of ancient sex toys, historic re-creations of peep-shows, or even the detailed infographic timelines on first amendment issues, reproductive rights or obscenity law. Erotic heritage is now also contained in the community, and in the discussion and sharing of experience—if there was ever a time it wasn't.

Chastity Belt
For me as a writer, a visit to the EHM provides a fresh set of issues, images, and discussion points to consider when I sit down to write something new. It's always a pleasure to me, to explore a different angle or subject in my erotica, and so I love to spend an afternoon looking over the exhibits, artworks, and displays at the EHM. But erotic heritage is a part of our national and international culture, as well, and has been for millennia. EHM captures this history and invites discussion. I expect for many visitors, it opens up new avenues of discovery and interest.

If you're in Las Vegas, don't miss the chance to visit the EHM. Take a couple of hours to walk around the exhibits or take in a class. Chat with the staff, too: they're exceptionally informative, and enjoy a good dialogue. If you're a writer of erotica, a reader, or in any way interested in the sexual identity and journey of our society, I think you'll really enjoy what the EHM has to share.

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