Everything you wanted to know about condoms*

NYC condoms. (victoriapeckham via flickr.com)
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“Oh, please tell me those aren’t used,” said a frumpy little woman who declined to be named for fear of association with something she considered so unseemly.

She gazed at a shovel full of blacked condoms, most likely used, collected from the trash cans and floors of London’s notorious gay and fetish club, FIST, and encased in resin by Franko B. B’s found-artifact sculpture is one of the first works visible upon stepping through the door to the Museum of Sex’s recent and self-explanatory exhibit, “Rubbers: The Life, History and Struggle of the Condom.”

The exhibit, occupying half of the museum’s second floor, is composed chiefly of curios—half-century-old condom tins and prophylactic propaganda through the ages—and a handful of artistic pieces. Progressing along the wall, the artifacts trace the historical and social evolution of the condom from a Papua New Guinean penis sheath mounted on the wall, through the linen condoms of the 1500s (after the 1493 syphilis outbreak, graphically depicted) and animal intestine wrappers of the 1700s, and straight to the Obama/McCain/Palin novelties of today.

Fittingly, the exhibit features, although not prominently, artifacts that reveal the special resonance of the condom’s history with New York City. A 2006 replica of a brittle pre-rubber sheep-intestine condom is modeled on the process used by Julius Schmid, 46th Street’s late-19th-early-20th-century condom innovator and later father of the Fourex, Ramses and Sheik brands, among others. The display of a frayed copy of Margaret Sanger’s 1915 What Every Girl Should Know recalls her 1916 founding of a Brooklyn family planning clinic, the forerunner to Planned Parenthood.

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To reach “Rubbers,” patrons must first walk through “Action: Sex and the Moving Image,” a ground- floor installation with wall- and floor-mounted screens looping clips of mainstream sex scenes and pornographic film stretching back nearly a century. Many patrons do not make it past, their eyes glued to Chloe Sevigney’s non-simulated oral sex scene from “The Brown Bunny,” a couple demonstrating positions from the Kama Sutra narrated by what sounds like a telemarketer, or midcentury “Jungle Quest” films of nude African women suckling small animals.

Patrons must then pass a line of BDSM artifacts, real dolls with their erogenous bits hanging out to be fondled by visitors, and a sketch by Wally Wood of various Disney standards engaged in non-Disney behavior, among other sexual miscellanea.

Past the gamut, last night, 10 or fewer patrons milled around the “Rubbers” exhibit, a third of those in “Action,” and few stayed very long. This is perhaps a reflection of the fact that he exhibit is ... challenging. “Rubbers” is a text-heavy exhibit, with most of the artifacts serving to frame or illuminate a P.S.A.-style narrative. It even includes a P.S.A., one of the only audio-visual components, although it is a unique one. Corners of the exhibit meander into tangential territory, abandoning condoms to discuss H.I.V., S.T.I.s, and sex education.

The dispassionate academic voice of the exhibit fits with the sociological mission of MoSex, scrawled across the second floor wall: "The Museum of Sex is dedicated to the preservation of an ever growing collection of sexually related objects, which support its mission to present the history, evolution and cultural significance of human sexuality." But many patrons come for eroticism as much as edification, even if that is not MoSex’s intent. It is easier to get hot and bothered to “Action” than “Rubbers,” as a forty-something whitebread couple groping in front of a video display of transsexual/transvestite porn demonstrated.

Blatant product placement for the exhibits' sponsor, Trojan, also detracts from the total effect.

“How far is a Trojan required to stretch before breaking? More than seven-and-a-half times its original size!” boasts the narrator on a looping behind-the-scenes Trojan promotional visual. The audio fills at least half of the room.

Among the historical trinkets there lurk a few attempts at fun.

One wall is covered in 60 contemporary euphemisms for the condom. Though many are familiar, favorites include: bishop, blast shield, DNA lounge, English riding coat, French tickler, hazmat suit, Manhattan eel, and zucchini beanie.

Across the room, a series of paintings by Masami Teraoka, especially “Kanzashi Pond,” embody the spirit of the exhibit, designed in the classical ukiyo-e style while encoded with references to AIDS, cultural condom controversy, women’s liberation, and a slew of other themes. Nearby hover mechanical contraptions flapping their inflated condom appendages. A glass case sits at the end of the toy array containing a purple dress meticulously crafted of condoms.

Even the often-dry textual narration has its moments.

“The female condom is longer and wider than a male condom,” explains Douglas Blair Turnbaugh in a quote posted next to his photograph of a man, face down, with a condom protruding from his rear. “Once the condom is inserted, the anus will close over it leaving the outer ring looking rather like the bulls eye of a target. As the entering virile member, or whatever, does its business, in out in out in out, the condom stays in place.”

A footnote of explication reveals that the quote relates to a little-known use for the female condom in gay culture. The condom may be applied at any time, allowing for easy sex without the mood-killing reminder of the AIDS epidemic’s toll on the gay population that so many men feel when applying a male condom.

This is the first sign of nuance to the otherwise peppy pro-condom note of the exhibit. A plaque offers observations from the Kinsey Institute. Many men experience allergic irritation to latex; 37 percent of men lose erections when psychologically fazed by putting on a condom; massive variations in penis girth mean that discomfort can come from a tight fit; and many condoms lose their efficiency when ripped while being unwrapped using a nail or tooth.

One note of caution about this exhibit: whereas viewing erotic objects is often thought of as a solo activity, viewing them as sociological artifacts appears to be a couples’ activity. Patrons move in twos and, although viewing the objects in a sterile museum setting, if you go, either get comfortable with the idea of circulating among pairs of silent, eyes-forward spectators, or bring a partner.