Monday, November 10, 2014

The Sex Machines Museum (Prague, Czech Republic)

We often enjoy quirky, off-beat museums, so we made time to visit two museums listed as part of "Eccentric Prague" in one of our guide books: The Museum of Torture Instruments and the Sex Machine Museum. I didn't take pictures at the torture museum -- not only was the content disturbing, but I wasn't sure about the historical accuracy of the signage or the provenance of the actual implements being shown.

But I did take photos at the Sex Machines Museum -- after all, being a sex educator, this is work related for me. (Does this make my whole trip a tax write-off?) This is the third sex-related museum we've been to -- we've seen the Museum of Sex in NYC and the Erotic Museum of Barcelona. The Sex Machine Museum in Prague was good, although I would have liked more detailed signage to provide context for the items shown. The museum exhibits included a variety of sex aids, including some elaborate mechanical sexual furniture, as well as anti-masturbation machines and clothing, chastity belts, and BDSM equipment and accessories.

[Note:  If you are offended by frank discussions or depictions of sexuality, you may not wish to read further.]

electric anti-masturbation device (a bell rings when there is a nocturnal erection)

The signage didn't indicate the specific origin of this electric anti-masturbation device, but during repressive sexual eras, there have often been efforts to stop masturbation, particularly among children.  The Victorians believed that masturbation was harmful to a person's health, causing, among other things:  
Disturbances of the stomach and digestion, loss of appetite or ravenous hunger, vomiting, nausea, weakening of the organs of breathing, coughing, hoarseness, paralysis, weakening of the organ of generation to the point of impotence, lack of libido, back pain, disorders of the eye and ear, total diminution of bodily powers, paleness, thinness, pimples on the face, decline of intellectual powers, loss of memory, attacks of rage, madness, idiocy, epilepsy, fever and finally suicide. (Dr. Balthazar Bekker, from the 1716 pamphlet, "Onania, or the Heinous Sin of self-Pollution, And All Its Frightful Consequences, In Both Sexes, Considered: With Spiritual and Physical Advice To Those Who Have Already Injured Themselves By This Abominable Practice.")

Anti-masturbation belt (ouch!)

Given the potentially dire consequences of masturbation (in the minds of the Victorians), there were any number of anti-masturbation devices, including restrictive clothing and belts such as the one above, with spikes that would prick the erect penis.  There were even more extreme practices, too:  Some doctors applied electric shock to the genitals of children to deter masturbation, and sometimes genital surgeries were performed.

This photo is of phallocrypts (not the term used in the signage, but I love this word), or coverings worn over a man's penis (also known as a "penis sheath"). The ones on the left are koteka from New Guinea and are probably made from gourds. I suspect the one on the right is also from New Guinea, because of the use of fiber and natural dyes, but it doesn't look like any koteka I have seen from that area. The display also included two metal codpieces from Italy (16th century).

Photo by TribalBodMod

I was intrigued enough by the phallocrypts that I added a koteka to my (small, but growing) collection of sexual art when we got back from our trip.  This koteka is from the Kamanabit area of New Guinea, and is made from a gourd painted with clan motifs.  (I would love to purchase one of Holly Stewart's beaded phalluses to add to my collection, but I haven't been able to find contact information for her or a gallery representing her work.)

A manual, hand-crank vibrator with interchangeable heads

You should feel lucky that batteries were invented, so you don't have to hand-crank your way to orgasm anymore. (Here's a tip: If you are going to hand-crank your way to orgasm, I'm not sure you really need a machine. Maybe more effective manual technique would be sufficient. Just a thought.)

By the way, do you know the history of the vibrator?   It was originally invented as a medical device.  In the 19th century, women who were tired or depressed or anxious (or experienced any number of other physical or psychological symptoms) might be diagnosed with hysteria.  It was believed that this disorder resulted from an imbalance in the woman's reproductive system, and it was often treated with pelvic massage.  The doctor would massage the woman's pelvis (typically under her clothing) until she went into paroxysms of contractions, which would make her feel better.  Ahem.  

Yes, doctors were giving women orgasms as a medical treatment.  But remember, at this time in Western culture, women were not believed to have sexual desire -- they were seen as asexual.  So this treatment was presumably not viewed as sexual by physicians or their patients.  What physicians mainly thought was that it was physically tiring to do this pelvic massage.  So they invented a variety of mechanical devices to make the process less exhausting (as well as more profitable, since they could do the treatment more quickly and efficiently) -- and voila, vibrators were invented (along with other devices, such as water jets).  These were even sold to the general public, advertised openly in women's magazines as medical aids (until the 1920s, when vibrators started showing up in pornography and thus became more sexualized).  This is where historian Rachel Maines came across these ads while researching women's needlework.  Her book, The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,"” The Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction, is a fun read.  Or watch the documentary based on her work, Passion & Power:  The Technology of Orgasm or find a performance of the play, In the Next Room (or the vibrator play).

The museum included a number of dildos, which can often be quite artistic. The one on the left reminds me of the spaceships from the early science-fiction era (1950s). 

Textures and colors and little accessories aplenty. 

I am honestly not sure what is meant to be achieved by the tiny hand condom (which looks poised to grab at the cervix), although it was visually arresting.  

Some imaginative and playful dildos -- for those who have gotten attached to vegetables and fruit, I guess.

In case you thought there were only dildos, the museum also had a variety of artificial orifices, as well.

Erotic netsuke

This is a netsuke, a carved and painted Japanese miniature sculpture. These were used as amulets or part of clothing (e.g., as a button or toggle to close pouches/pockets), starting in 17th century Japan. Netsuke depict a variety of subjects, including erotic netsuke, such as this one. 

There were quite a few BDSM displays in the museum, including an elaborate bondage wheel and a variety of fetish garments, such as the mask shown above and those below.

(Just as a side note, I did wonder about what counts as a "sex machine" for the purposes of the museum.  The displays included quite a few mechanical devices that are easily defined as sex machines, such as the vibrators and a number of elaborate penetration devices, including one for women prisoners.  But are the netsuke machines?  Only in the sense that any button could be classified as a machine, which seems a bit of a stretch.  And the phallocrypts are more like garments than machines, and, indeed, are only sexual in the sense that they cover the genitals.  Were I a curator at the museum, I'd have to think about what counts as sexual and what counts as a machine in order to identify appropriate display items.)

The most interesting exhibit at the museum was a showing of two early pornographic films from Spain. The films were made in 1925, apparently on the personal order of King Alfonso XIII. One featured a corrupt priest who has sex with female parishioners as part of the confessional ("The confessor or the friar's blessing"). The second one ("Ladies' Cabinet") showed a doctor who had sex with his female patients (and his female servant), while his wife had sex with the servants (both male and female).

The films were funny (as pornography often is, unintentionally), but surprisingly explicit and extensive in the sex acts they showed, given their early date. "The Ladies' Cabinet" might be the first depiction of a threesome in pornographic films, if you don't count "A Free Ride" (also known as "A Grass Sandwich"), an American stag film from 1915 that depicts a man having sex with two female hitchhikers (but they don't seem to be engaged in sexual activities simultaneously, so it might not count as a threesome).

I have to say that, while I enjoyed the museum and I'm glad we went, I would have liked more context for the sex machines on display.  To my mind, the machines themselves aren't that interesting -- once you have seen a few of them, the rest are often merely variations on a theme.  But sex machines seem to fascinate many people.  I just came across Timothy Archibald's book, Sex Machines: Photographs and Interviews, which details the homegrown sex machine inventor.  You can read some of the stories of sex machine inventors and see photos here (note that some photos involve nudity and there are frank discussions of sexuality).  I wonder if there is something uniquely modern (and maybe particularly American) about the idea of enhancing sexuality through mechanization.  You have a sexual problem?  I bet I can invent a machine to solve it!  Let me tinker with some circuits and motors and . . . here you are!  A dildo on an electric mixer.  All your sexual problems solved!  Don't get me wrong, I know that many people enjoy sex toys, and vibrators can be a helpful tool for women who have difficulty reaching orgasm.  And perhaps the intersection of sex and machine is inevitable, as machines are entwined in all parts of our lives -- what we eat, how we sleep, our connections with others -- all have specialized machines.

So while it isn't surprising that there are a plethora of sex machines, they are highly revealing.  When you look at a sex machine, ask yourself: Who made it and for what purpose?  How did it affect people's lives and their experience of their sexuality?  The answers to those questions aren't found in the mechanics of a wiring diagram -- they emerge from an understanding of the history, psychology, sociology, and anthropology of sexuality.  From the anti-masturbation belts of the Victorians to the mechanized phalluses of the homegrown inventor, sex machines tell us a lot about our attitudes and beliefs about sexuality.  That's the story I want to know.   

Next up:  Wenceslas Square

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