A Serious Museum Examining Sex and Sexuality

Paris is bursting at the seams with museums and galleries. And among the City of Light’s 175 public and private museums are several unconventional collections, such as Musee des Arts Forains (The Fairground Art Museum), Musee de la Prefecture de Police that traces the city’s police work over the past two centuries, and the Musee de la Magie (Museum of Magic).

One of the most offbeat of these unique destinations is the Musee de l’Erotisme (Museum of Eroticism).

And let’s immediately start by setting the record straight on this unusual exhibition space in Paris’s Pigalle district: There’s an erotic/sex museum in just about every major European city, and most are designed to simply part tourists from their euros by showing a handful of naughty paintings, erotic sculptures and suggestive photography. In some cases, the “historic” art is created specifically for the “museum.”

But Paris’s seven-level Musee de l’Erotisme is unique in that it is a serious museum. The artifacts on display, amassed by cultural anthropologists Alain Plumey and Joseph Khalifa, date back to the 1st century A.D. The curators began assembling their massive collection in the 1960s and opened the museum in 1997 in a former cabaret building when their holdings grew large enough to warrant public and academic scrutiny.

And while the content certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea—and is definitely not family-friendly—it is fascinating examination of the roles that sex and sexuality have played in numerous cultures and civilizations during the past two millennia. In fact, cultural anthropology students from around the world make the Musee de l’Erotisme a must-see sight while visiting France, and many rely on the curators and the collection for their academic research.

Musee d'Eroticisme 14The lowest floors of the museum hold its oldest pieces, including 1st-century Peruvian pottery, Nepalese temple carvings, Japanese garments, Aztec fertility symbols, Chinese ceramics and much, much more.

The third and fourth floors of the museum are devoted to temporary exhibitions, including occasional pieces of homoerotic art. Among the recent shows hosted at the museum are: “Barbe, Salut L’Artiste,” a tribute to cartoonist Andre-Francois Barbe, which is currently on display; “Janine Mossuz-Lavau: Prostitution,” which examines the role of prostitution in various cultures with an eye at addressing the issue of whether prostitution should be banned or regulated by the state; and “Exposition Kama-Sutra a la Pinacotheque de Paris,” a collection of nearly 350 works related to the ancient Indian text that was written sometime between 400 and 200 B.C.Additional gems at the museum include an entire floor devoted to photos, drawings and historical documents chronicling the infamous Parisian brothels of the early 1900s—and their role in permanently linking the city’s Pigalle area with the sex trade. There are quite a few surprises here, including documents showing that brothel patrons of the day included Cary Grant, Charlie Chaplin and a pre-coronation King George VI of England.

To be sure, much of the art and documents displayed at the Musee de l’Erotisme are perhaps a bit too prurient for the casual museum-goer. And the facility does draw in tourists visiting the bawdy Pigalle district who are hoping to get a cheap thrill (but who typically are quite disappointed at the serious nature of the museum). But the majority of the crowds are men and women of all ages, including many locals, who are simply eager to expand their knowledge and to experience more of the off-the-beaten-path destinations in the City of Light.

The Musee de l’Erotisme is located at 72 Boulevard de Clichy (Metro: Blanche).