A historical peep, um, perspective

As I arrive at the two-story building a few blocks west of the Vegas Strip, I spot a sign on the front door telling visitors that the building no long houses an adult bookstore. Those who came for that may be disappointed to discover that eroticism is viewed in a different light by the building's new tenants, who about a year ago opened the Erotic Heritage Museum.

In typically atypical Vegas style, the museum is next to a strip club and just a G-string's throw from Donald Trump's glittering five-star hotel. Although porn is playing on several of the 45 flat-screen TVs, it's not being shown lasciviously in some darkened room. It's part of the museum's educational displays.

"It showcases the American sexual revolution," says Laura Henkel, the resident curator. The facility displays a diverse collection, from rare books to antique sex toys. Most are from a huge collection of artifacts amassed by the Exodus Trust, a Bay Area nonprofit that studies human sexuality.

"They're the Getty of erotica," Henkel says of the trust, which has, in the past 50 years, collected enough stuff to fill 27 warehouses.

"Basically it's a history of our culture as it relates to human sexuality," she adds.

In reality, that history dates back thousands of years, as demonstrated by the museum's display of several sexually suggestive prints from the Shang Dynasty. But most items are from the 20th century and highlight the American conflict over public displays of what many still consider a very private subject. Even the extremely open-minded are bound to learn something new.

Many visitors are surprised to learn that the porn film industry was flourishing long before X-rated "skin flicks" were available on cable and in adult theaters.

In 1915 -- the same year D.W. Griffith directed the legendary "Birth of a Nation" -- an anonymous filmmaker produced "A Free Ride," thought to be the oldest commercially made porn movie. The short is screened on a continuous loop in the museum's film gallery.

With the typical, jerky motion of early silent movies, a man in a Model T is seen driving along a rural road where -- as a title card suggests -- "the hills are full of romance and adventure."

As the driver pulls up alongside two women walking home, he tells them, "I'm going your way, and I'll be nice." They hop in the car. The ride isn't free.

Such films, Henkel tells me, were shown in the back rooms of barber shops and gentlemen's clubs. These days, it's hard to imagine anyone being aroused by nearly 100-year-old, black-and-white porn. But then I remember that beauty -- even the sexual kind -- is certainly in the eye of the beholder.

Just a few feet away, museum visitors witness what passed for a peep show centuries before celluloid.

Inside a large box fitted with eight windows sits a female mannequin in Middle Eastern garb. According to the attached sign, men would pay to peer through the openings at "scantily clad slave girls."

Next to several sculptures and paintings, a new display features original poster art culled from the hundreds in the Exodus collection. Even someone with absolutely no interest in watching a porn film has to laugh at the one that hypes a takeoff on "M*A*S*H," called "N*U*R*S*E*S."

In the unisex restroom, there are Sharpies, with which people are encouraged to write a dirty joke on the wall. Some are oldies-but-goodies that I remember from the locker room at my junior high.

Although the 17,000-square-foot museum can be visited in an hour or so, some folks may wish to linger over one or more of the films and documentaries, or in the reading room where no one minds if you pick up and leaf through an old book, such as the 1920s handbook "How to Be a Good Wife."

Despite the emphasis on education, not titillation, Henkel -- who has a PhD in the study of eroticism -- acknowledges that guests are occasionally repulsed.

"What some people may find to be pleasing or offensive is a very fine line," she says.



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