How would your parents react if you told them that sex is essential for washing away your sins? I can’t even imagine what mine would say, and I think most other parents would not take that statement very seriously either. Yet in many primitive civilizations, sex was an integral rite of passage that was prevalent in religious beliefs and ceremonies. Sexuality represented the effort to achieve equilibrium between the body and soul. In contrast, many modern day religious associate sex with guilt and sin in multiple circumstances. These vast differences between the role of sexuality in religion and everyday life throughout history were very evident in the displays at the Erotic Museum that I visited this week. As you can probably guess, the museum was located in the red light district among the numerous sex shops lining the street.
My visit at the museum began with displays of erotic objects from ancient cultures. One object that really stood out to me was a wooden creature from Africa. It was painted red with thin white lines outlining its huge ears and two columns of horizontal lines from the neck to the bottom of its stomach. It was making an angry grimace and sticking out its tongue. African erotic objects such as these were used to stimulate the females during ceremonies while they danced and sang. Sex had multiple functions- to satisfy instincts, protect against demons, and honor the gods to name a few. Next to the African objects, there were three enormous, abstract and slightly grotesque masks from Mexico. Two of the masks contained small naked figures in various sexual positions. In Mexico, males and females were considered enemies, and men would often assault women in the streets while women targeted younger males. The relationship between the two sexes was the opposite in China, where females were actually superior to males due to their ability to bring new life into the world. Men and women aimed to achieve complete harmony and transcendence through sex. They were complementary parts, Yin and Yang, which needed to merge in order to complete each other. I was surprised to see small sculptures of Buddhas that were making love to humans. Similarly, I saw figures of Hindu Gods who were occupied with not only just one mortal, but sometimes multiple people simultaneously. However, I learned after reading about these cultures that sexual pleasure symbolized holiness and the effort to reach enlightenment, so these artifacts depict that element of sexuality in these civilizations.
In the ancient Greek and Roman cultures, sex was an “unrestrained and rejoicing freedom.” This liberal attitude seemed to be conveyed by the black ceramic plates that showed people facing each other in the act with their legs hanging freely in front of them as if they were on swing sets in a playground. Sexuality in Japan was explained in manuals that contained instructions on how women should submit to the desire of their lords or masters. These widely used “pillow books” were designed specifically for teaching adolescents. So we weren’t the only ones who have found a little book on our beds from our parents as teenagers.
The second floor of the museum contained photographs from France in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There were descriptions that explained the development of French brothels, which were established in the early 1800s. They were very controversial in the 1920s, when moralists conducted investigations and wrote articles in an effort to imprison the brothel members. One artist who became famous for sketching brothel scenes was Marcel Vertes. He depicted customers in bars and dance halls as well as the women who were working there. Degas also drew pictures of women in brothels that were pretty disturbing and emotional. The women in his pieces had solemn facial expressions and fatigued bodies that were slumped over as they sat in large groups on the beds after their nights had ended.
The next three floors had temporary modern exhibitions by Joel Simpson, Jean Demelier, and Laurent Benaim. Joel Simpson’s photographs had slightly abstract images of nude female bodies superimposed onto buildings or other natural backgrounds. There was a cave filled with stalagtites and stalagmites, a huge leaf with all the veins, and even one of the White House that had a small picture of George W. Bush. The partly translucent female body that was placed on top of both natural and manmade objects provided an interesting contrast between the two environments. Jean Demelier's works consisted of drawings, paintings and collages, many of which employed young boys as the subject. These colored drawings showed relatively realistic images of nude boys that seemed to be on the brink of puberty. One piece that really intrigued me was a framed painting of the French flag with a view of somebody from behind on the white stripe who wasn't wearing paints. Laurent Benaim created mostly black and white drawings showing very thought provoking scenes. For example, there was a profile of a woman who was praying with a penis resting on her forehead. There was another woman who was being suspended from the ground in an uncomfortable upright position, her nude body both supported and bound by ropes.
The sous-sol, or basement, had other contemporary pieces by various artists. The one that interested me the most was a large painting of two naked women who were kissing with their bodies wrapped around each other. In the background, it looked like there were other females who were also engaging in sexual activities on the floor of a large, elegantly decorated room. Along the wall next to the staircase, there was a series of fascinating sketches of attractive young females in which the male artist's hands were visible. In one drawing, the artist's left hand was holding the woman's breast and the right hand was drawing the curve in her back.
If I had not taken this class during my quarter in Paris, I am pretty sure that I would not have visited the erotic museum. However, I am actually very glad that I went and it was interesting to see different representations of sex and eroticism in many different countries and time periods. Some of the object and images really stuck in my mind and made me think about how sexuality is perceived by religion and the differences in how it is experienced between men and women.