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Sex in the Museum: Building Relationships and Pushing Boundaries

Lisa Junkin on a successful outreach plan: Bringing pornography into the 19th Century historic house museum.

We’ve really done it this time. We brought pornography into the 19th Century historic house museum. And not 19th Century pornography, though of course, we’re fans of that as well. No, this time we brought the real thing, hardcore: dildos, whips, vulvas, cocks of every shape, size, and color, and put it all up on the big screen for the public to view. Call it the dream of a mischievous museum worker. Or, call it a successful outreach plan.

Since 2009, the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum (JAHHM), a National Historic Landmark, has hosted the Sex Positive Documentary Film Series (referred to as SEX+++). There we screen documentaries, often graphic and sometimes pornographic, followed by discussions. The series strives to be radically inclusive, incorporating pro-sex, pro-queer, and pro-kink films and highlighting communities that are often marginalized. This program has become one of the most popular series in the museum’s history and has encouraged the JAHHM staff to reframe our understanding of the relationship between historic house museums and the public. While the content of the film series has at times felt very radical for the museum, the community collaboration has become a best practice.

The film series derives from the sex positive movement; a liberation movement rooted in pro-sex feminism, queer theory, and the work of other pro-sex activists such as BDSM1 practitioners and polyamorous groups. On the whole, the sex positive community seeks to discourage harmful stigmas and stereotypes around sexual behavior and identity including bisexuality, sex work, masturbation, transsexuality, BDSM, etc. Activist, writer, and SEX+++ founder Clarisse Thorn describes mantra of the movement as, “among consenting adults, there is no ‘should.’”i The movement aims brings diverse communities into conversation and collective action to ensure that all people have “the freedom and resources to pursue a fulfilling and empowering sex life.”ii When Thorn and I developed the film series, we at first did not consider asking my employer, JAHHM, to host the program but as it turned out, it was the right fit for many reasons.

Out of the closet and into the public sphere
While known for its progressive work around immigration, education, labor, peace, and women’s rights, the Hull-House Settlement is less identified with issues of sexuality(2). Jane Addams, who is best known as America’s first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, realized that in order to create the conditions for peace to flourish; one must begin at home in one’s own community. Addams had come to live among Chicago’s working-class immigrant population on the city’s Near West Side, and her direct experience revealed the links between peace and education, nutritious food, sanitary streets, fair labor practices, the arts, and a healthy democracy. The Hull-House Museum, located on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago, preserves and interprets the history of a community that helped expand the meaning and benefits of democracy to include immigrants, women, and people of color.

In 2007, the then director Lisa Lee asked the public to consider Jane Addams’ closest relationship, with a reformer named Mary Rozet Smith. Lee and the Hull-House staff created three labels for a portrait of Addams’ long-term partner, each highlighting a different aspect of the history, and asked visitors to respond to the labels by choosing the one they preferred. This Alternative Labeling Project pushed visitors to consider how historical narratives are produced and proliferated. What do we gain when private (and non-heteronormative) aspects of our national heroes’ lives are revealed? What is lost when they are obscured? The museum’s spotlight on sexuality and the effective outing of Addams’ same sex partnership led Therese Quinn, a queer educator and activist, to call Hull-House “one of Chicago’s queerest sites,” opening the door for SEX+++ and the continued exploration of sexuality at Hull-House.

When we began hosting SEX+++, the museum staff continued to research sexuality at Hull-House, excavating an impressive but largely untold history. One of the residents at Hull-House, Ukrainian immigrant Rachelle Slobodinsky Yarros, M.D., was a pioneering sex educator who fought to make contraception more widely available, to eliminate sexually transmitted disease, and for the acceptance of female sexual pleasure. With the support of birth control activist Margaret Sanger, Yarros helped to found Chicago’s first family limitation center, or birth control clinic, in 1922. Soon after, Hull-House’s Mary Crane Nursery became the site of another clinic. Yarros argued that women were “unwilling to be subjected to involuntary motherhood” and felt they ought to have “the power of choice.”iii She advocated for immigrant women to have better access to sex education and health care while staunchly rejecting the eugenics movement, which sought to limit the reproductive rights of immigrants and people of color. Yarros helped to found the American Social Hygiene Association and titled a book published in 1933, Modern Woman and Sex: A Feminist Physician Speaks.

At SEX+++ screenings I share bits of this history with our audience, a truly diverse group of LGBTQ advocates, students, sex workers, feminists, transgender and kinky folks, and other curious attendees(3). At its height over 140 people have attended the series each month and at least 95% of this audience had not visited the museum prior to the screenings. Many people have told me not only how surprised they were to learn about Hull-House’s history around sex education, but also how they were impressed to see a museum become an ally for the sex positive community. With film titles like When Two Won’t Do (on polyamory), The Sacred Prostitute, and Private Dicks: Men Exposed, everyone expected some amount of resistance, either from the university or the public. It hasn’t come. By using its institutional privilege and cultural capital, the Hull-House Museum is able to support the sex positive movement, providing resources, public attention, and a space for dialogue.

Counterpublics and museum audiences
Due to changing values within museums, museum professionals no longer talk of the public, as if there is only one. We now recognize multiple publics—diverse audiences with different needs, interests, and stakes in the museum. In Publics and Counterpublics, Michael Warner expands this understanding to include counterpublics, or groups that have been excluded from the public sphere and are left to create their own spaces, norms, and realities, largely within the private sphereiv. Examples of counterpublics could include but are not limited to: documented and undocumented immigrants, the incarcerated, youth, the differently-abled, and those with divergent sexual identities or practices such as transgendered or polyamorous people. Counterpublics are rarely considered to be legitimate audiences by museums and other institutions, and so their needs largely go ignoredv. This means that museums, as so-called “neutral” institutions and agents of “truth” are often complicit in marginalizing the very publics they should be serving.(4)

In Making Museums Matter, Steven Weil writes, “In a dozen different contexts, identity and interest groups of every kind insist that the mainstream museum is neither empowered nor qualified to speak on their behalf.”vi Though some of these groups have rightly formed their own museums and institutions, there is yet opportunity for mainstream museums to stop ignoring marginalized counterpublics. Museums can and should open their doors to new voices and commit to examine and rethink dominant narratives in history, science, civics, and the arts. As institutions of authority, museums offer needed amplification to these stories. Including counterpublics is not the same thing as efforts to transform counterpublics into normative audiences, but allows and encourages these groups to maintain politics and identities that resist and oppose normativity. Significantly, Jane Addams was never afraid of working with stigmatized publics and communities deemed threatening. In addition to organizing unions, negotiating labor strikes, and encouraging debates, Addams encouraged communists, socialists, and anarchists to use Hull-House for meetings, though she identified with none of them. This decision contributed to her becoming a target of the FBI in the 1920s, when she became known as the most dangerous woman in America. As Addams never backed down from her commitment to free speech, dialogue, and allowing dissenting voices to be heard, so too the Hull-House Museum seeks to cultivate this sort of dangerousness.vii

Queer theorists Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner specifically address the oppression created by heteronormativity, demanding for queer counterpublics to be given space and legitimacy. In their essay, “Sex in Public,” they call for society to “support forms of affective, erotic, and personal living that are public in the sense of accessible, available to memory, and sustained through collective activity.”viii I argue that museums, particularly historic house museums, are an ideal place for this to happen. Where better to explore topics of sexuality than spaces that are already adept at negotiating the boundaries between public and private life? The SEX+++ audience must agree, for it has chosen to remain at JAHHM even after other venues have become available. We received offers to move the program to locations like the Center on Halsted, Chicago’s community center for LGBT persons, and received support from and created satellite programming at the Leather Archives and Museum, both of which have superior auditoriums to JAHHM. Resoundingly, the SEX+++ audience said they were thrilled to locate the film series at the Hull-House Museum. They wanted the series to remain at a mainstream location, which would better allow them to challenge heteronormative and sex negative discourses.

Negotiating boundaries
As a pro-peace, -immigration, and -women’s rights museum, JAHHM often centers its values within the legacy of our site. With SEX+++, however, this is not entirely the case. Although Rachelle Yarros took a decidedly progressive stance on sexuality, Addams herself did not. This is especially clear in regard to Addams’ view of prostitution, which stands in direct conflict with the sex positive movement’s general acceptance of sex work as a valid option for both work and the fulfillment of desire. In A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil, Addams rails against sex trafficking and prostitution, positioning women as moral guardians of sexual purity and sexuality as proper only within a traditional marital structure5, ix. SEX+++ therefore offers us an opportunity to use our site’s history as a counterpoint and opportunity for dialogue, rather than automatically accepting all of Addams’ values as our own. This may encourage museums and historic sites that would like to offer progressive programming but do not have a progressive legacy. A former plantation would be an intriguing site for a conference on modern day slavery.

As with any new relationship, JAHHM’s work with the sex positive community has raised unexpected challenges; for example, should the museum allow the SEX+++ community curators to have full control over the series, even when their choice of the film Graphic Sexual Horror, about a highly problematic bondage pornography website, comes into conflict with the museum’s feminist principles? Can or should we seek funding from Playboy when doing so may be unacceptable to the museum’s advisory board? And how, exactly, should the museum respond when two audience members take the call for sexual freedom literally… in the darkened theater during one of our screenings?

In my search for answers, I take direction from what is perhaps the most poetic tenet of the sex positive movement: that the negotiation of boundaries is a constant process. Consent is never a one-time decision, but must occur actively and enthusiastically as individuals explore their desires and limitations together over time. Museums and other institutions often seek to avoid conflict, dissent, and differences, but great strength can be found within those tensions and the ability of institutions to be responsive to them. For JAHHM, that means choosing to engage and grapple with the sex positive community rather than the wholesale adherence to identity politics. As many social activists say, the struggle is eternal. The Hull-House Museum definitely struggles with sex positivity as we move toward it.

Midwifery and the business of museums
Of course, museums must think carefully about social engagement, activism, and how to better serve their constituents. These are questions about the role of the museum, to which I would like offer a story from the early days of the Settlement, before residents were clear on the limits of their own business. Addams writes that she and fellow resident Julia Lathrop were brought to a nearby tenement house where a young woman was beginning to go into labor. The young woman could not afford a doctor and her neighbors would not help deliver the baby because it would be born out of wedlock. Addams and Lathrop successfully delivered the baby, but on their return to Hull-House, Addams began to question their decision, saying, “This doing things that we don’t know how to do is going too far. Why did we let ourselves be rushed into midwifery?” Lathrop replied, “If we have to begin to hew down the line of our ignorance, for goodness’ sake don’t let us begin at the humanitarian end. To refuse to respond to a poor girl in the throes of childbirth would be a disgrace to us forever more. If Hull-House does not have its roots in human kindness, it is no good at all.”x

Thankfully there are now a number of support systems in place for laboring mothers, so museums need not rush into midwifery themselves. More to the point, the story represents an important lesson learned by the Hull-House residents, that the services of the institution should be shaped by needs of the communities surrounding it and not by an abstract vision of the role of institutions in society. Elaine Heumann Gurian has recently written on the role of museums in piece titled, “Museum or Soup Kitchen.” She argues that museums can better serve the needs of the public, particularly in economically unstable times:

“What I am proposing is not ‘‘business as usual’’—museums cloaked in the name of social good, justifying their pent-up need—but rather transforming currently less-than-useful local institutions into dynamic and community-focused ‘‘clubhouses’’ for building social cohesion, and incorporating social services usually delivered elsewhere, such as job retraining, educational enhancements, and public discourse—in addition to their classic role of collections care, interpretation, and exhibitions.” xi

I believe this vision for a more accessible and service-oriented museum will also transform museums’ traditional business of collections care, interpretations, and exhibitions. Typically, museums maintain control of their content by creating exhibits to their own standards first, and inviting the public to participate via public programming second. By engaging in an authentic partnership with the sex positive community, JAHHM has reversed this model by developing museum content in response to these programs and publics. Once again, it is a lesson Addams learned herself: as she devoted herself to the work of the settlement, she fully expected the upper-middle-class residents of Hull-House, such as herself, to be as transformed by the experience as their immigrant neighbors would be.

Thanks to our continued work with the sex positive movement, the new permanent exhibition at the Hull-House Museum embraces topics of sexuality that have previously been overlooked or considered marginal to the museum’s mission. In the new museum, Rachelle Yarros is highlighted and her groundbreaking work in sex education is told for the first time alongside other reformers who worked for labor and immigrant rights, public health, and the arts. The museum also brings Addams’ sexuality from margin to center by highlighting Smith in Addams’ recreated bedroom. Never before shown love poems and letters, photographs of the two sharing their lives, and the material residue of their deep commitment are displayed alongside Addams’ most intimate possessions, honoring this relationship as central to Addams’ life and a critical part of what sustained and motivated her work.

Because the sex positive community has become entrenched in the work of the museum, there is great potential for expanding the program. SEX+++ audience members have suggested that JAHHM could become the hub location for satellite activities, including book clubs, demonstrations, advocacy work, meet-ups, HIV-prevention, and workshops at multiple locations around the city. Our work continues beyond the sex positive community too, as JAHHM has begun to collaborate similarly with other publics, including immigration activists, incarcerated youth, and gang members.

In her defense of settlement work, Addams wrote, “the only thing to be dreaded in the Settlement is that it loses its flexibility, its power of quick adaptation, its readiness to change its methods as its environment may demand. It must be open to conviction and must have a deep and abiding sense of tolerance. It must be hospitable and ready for experiment.”xii What an appropriate call for institutions today. According to this mischievous museum worker, the Hull-House Museum’s collaboration and willingness to engage with the sex positive community has resulted in a more inclusive, more relevant and just museum. It is an institution of which, I believe, Addams would be proud.

Lisa Junkin
Associate Director, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum

Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank Lisa Yun Lee, PhD. and Rachel Rabbit White for their valuable comments and suggestions.

Notes | References | Bibliography

1. BDSM is the practice of consensual role-play using power and pain for erotic tension and fulfillment. The acronym is overlapping abbreviation of Bondage and Discipline (BD), Dominance and Submission (DS), Sadism and Masochism (SM).

2. Hull-House, Chicago’s first social settlement, was not only the private home of Jane Addams and other Hull-House residents, but also a place where immigrants of diverse communities gathered to learn, to eat, to debate, and to acquire the tools necessary to put down roots in their new country. When Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr first opened Hull-House in 1889, they had very modest goals. They imagined a place to offer art and literary education to their less fortunate neighbors. The role of Hull-House, however, quickly grew beyond what either Gates or Addams could have imagined and continuously evolved to meet the needs of their neighbors. The residents of Hull-House, at the request of the surrounding community, began to offer practical classes that might help the new immigrants become more integrated into American society, such as English language, cooking, sewing and technical skills, and American government. The residents were the women and men who chose to live at Hull-House; they paid rent and contributed to the activities and services that the Settlement was committed to providing to their neighbors. These services included, but were not limited to, a nursery and a kindergarten, a public kitchen, and access to public baths and a playground. Hull-House became not only a cultural center with music, art, and theater offerings, but also a safe haven and a place where the immigrants living on Chicago’s Near West Side could find companionship and support and the assistance they needed for coping with the modern city.

3. LGBTQ refers collectively to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer or Questioning people.

4. I would argue that this is also true of the State, which does not meet the needs of many counterpublics regarding social services, accessibility, and in certain cases, civil rights.

5. In Addams’ personal life, scholars have noted her admiration of platonic love over physical intimacy and belief in the selfish nature of sexual desire. (See essays by Victoria Bissel Brown and Louise Knight in Hamington, Maurice, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Jane Addams. Penn State Press, 2010.) Addams thought the “sex impulse” should be controlled and, when redirected toward nobler pursuits, could offer “an inspiration to the loftiest devotions and sacrifices” and become “a fundamental factor in social progress.” (A New Conscience) Though she often shared a bed with Smith (and previously shared hers with Hull-House cofounder Ellen Gates Starr), there is no indication of physical intimacy between them.

i. Thorn writes on this definition and more at http//

ii. Center for Sex Positive Culture, Seattle Washington.

iii. “Some Practical Aspects of Birth Control,” Surgery, Gynecology, and Obstetrics, August 1916, p. 189.

iv. Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books, 2002. Although there is currently no body of research on the topic of counterpublics and museums, much of today’s discourse on museums includes discussions on how non-normative histories and narratives have been ignored or obscured. In popular discourse, see for example Chapin, D. and Klein, S. 1992. “The epistemic museum.” Museum News, July/August, pp. 60-61, 76 and Stein, Judith E. “Sins of Omission,” Art in America, October 1993, p. 110-114.

vi. Weil, Stephen. “The Museum and the Public.” In Museum Management and Curatorship, 1872-1985, Volume 16, Issue 3, 1997, pp. 257 – 271.

vii. Lee, Lisa Yun. “Museums as ‘Dangerous’ Sites.” In Handbook of Public Pedagogy: Education and Learning Beyond Schooling. Sandlin, Jennifer A.; Schultz, Brian D.; Burdick, Jake, Eds. New York: Routledge 2009, pp. 291-8.

viii. Berlant, Lauren and Warner, Michael. “Sex in Public.” Critical Inquiry, Volume 24, No. 2, Intimacy. Winter, 1998, pp. 547-566.

ix. Addams, Jane. A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil. New York: Macmillan, 1912.

x. Addams, Jane. My Friend Julia Lathrop. New York: Macmillan, 1935, pp. 53.

xi. Gurian, Elaine Heumann. “Museum as Soup Kitchen.” Curator: The Museum Journal. Wiley-Blackwell. Volume 53, Issue 1, January 2010, p. 75.

xii. Jane Addams, “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements,” Philanthropy and Social Progress. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1893, p. 1-26.

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